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Silver Threads: Have we really come a long way, babies?

I got to thinking the other day about what I perceived to be a shortage of well-aged women on television. Not older actors such as the wonderful Betty White or the indomitable dowagers on sitcoms and soaps, but female seniors on news channels.

Let me explain that I’m aware of the occasional presence of Barbara Walters, whom I’ve always regarded as more performer than reporter, but it wasn’t until I got to pondering at length this perceived paucity of female pundits that it clicked that Diane Sawyer is no juvenile; neither is New Orleans anchorwoman Angela Hill. And probably many of the other pretty faces I see on newscasts are more mature than they seem. I read the other day that Meredith Viera may be leaving the “Today” show and that she’s 57. Never would have thought it.

We seniors have a tendency to think of folks in their 50s as mere babes — and, indeed, some of them are contemporaries of our own children (or grandchildren if we started early enough; it‘s a daunting thought). So when I’m watching a Jennifer Anniston or Reese Witherspoon lookalike deliver the evening news or comment on our nation’s fiscal crisis, I can’t help but wonder how a sprig like her got on camera.

The sprigs I’m seeing are in reality probably at least 10 or 15 years past their 20s, but they look good — trim and toned and polished and painted — and so do the women who are occasional commentators on foreign affairs and domestic fiscal politics. Still, they look a lot younger than many of their male counterparts and there’s a reason for that.

Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s not many of us aspired to careers in politics, economics, foreign affairs, law, medicine (I had a close friend whose affluent father declined to pay her way to medical school) or even journalism. Oh to be sure, there were exceptions. In New Orleans Dr. Rowena Spencer successfully surgically separated Siamese twins; budding sculptor Angela Gregory went to Paris to study; Lindy Boggs was repeatedly reelected to her late husband’s seat in Congress, and Dr. Ruth Murphy was pastor of Unity Temple.

On The States-Item and The Times Picayune, there were political reporter Iris Kelso, fashion writer Rose Kahn, medical reporter Podine Schoenberger, book editor Mabel Simmons, and food and garden editor Rachel Daniel. On TV there were Terry Flettrich and Jan Carr. But until the ‘60s, these women worked in a man’s world.

Then came the Baby Boomers, and today you are as likely to have a female physician or lawyer, city editor or anchorwoman, as you are a male one.

I looked up the slogan “You’ve come a long way, Baby” on the internet (don’t you love this instant access to information you want?) and found it was coined by advertisers for Virginia Slims cigarettes. The Huffington Post was sarcastic: If women have really come a long way, we doubt they would be called “baby,” it opined. I don’t know about that. I somehow think we will never be entirely politically correct when it comes to gender.

And there may be a disheartening other reason there are so many really young women on the cable news channels — and I’m making an educated guess here; the sprigs’ salaries probably aren’t as high as those of their male counterparts. Until the early ‘70s, when lawsuits were filed and some companies decided to make things right without being forced to, we working females earned about half of what men did for doing the same jobs. And believe it or not, 40 years after Friedan and Steinem “burned their bras” we still haven’t completely achieved wage equality. But I hope these sprigs’ ubiquitous presence on television isn’t because they are cheap hires. I did think we had put that unfairness behind us. I hope they’re making a ton of money.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at

Bettye Anding


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