Q & A with… Marlene Sanders
Award-winning woman pioneer in broadcasting in Sherman, Aug. 29
By Cindy Mindell
SHERMAN – Aug. 26 is Women’s Equality Day, 80 years to the day when American women were granted the vote. To mark the occasion, and as part of its “World We Live in” series, the Jewish Community Center in Sherman will present “The Hand that Rocks the Ballot Box,” a 1972 documentary produced by pioneer American journalist Marlene Sanders.
The three-time Emmy Award-winning correspondent will be introduced by her son, Jeffrey Toobin, a CNN senior analyst, New Yorker staff writer, and the author of “The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court.” The two will lead a discussion on the emergence of women in politics.
Sanders began her broadcasting career in 1955 and has broken barriers for women ever since. In 1964, she joined ABC News as a correspondent, and was the first woman to report from Viet Nam and the first anchorwoman of a prime-time network newscast. She also worked as a producer and news executive at the network before moving to CBS News in 1978. While there, she became the first woman news vice president at a network, as vice president and director of documentaries.
From 1997 to 2000, Sanders was in residence at the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Center, organizing and moderating panels on media issues. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Sanders was a judge for the Dupont Awards, and in 1999 became a judge for the Peabody Awards. She has narrated documentaries for HBO and public television, and currently teaches advanced TV reporting at New York University. She is co-author of “Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News.
Sanders spoke with the Ledger about her journey from a small Jewish community to the anchor desk and beyond.
Q: What was your Jewish upbringing like?
A: I grew up in Shaker Heights outside Cleveland, Ohio, where we were a definite minority, particularly in my high school. There, sororities were religiously segregated, as was most of the socializing. However, I participated in many groups that were definitely mixed: theatre, where I starred in many productions, and on the synchronized swimming team – and yes, I can still do all those stunts! My family only occasionally attended a Reform temple, but we were acutely aware of issues like the Holocaust and remnants of discrimination in this country. My sorority sent packages of clothing to Jewish families in Paris who had been on the run during the war and who came back to nothing afterward. We sent them clothing for years after the war. Much later, when I went to Paris, I looked up one of the families and we stayed in touch.
Q: What from your early life influenced your professional path?
A: When I was younger, there were no options for women beyond nurse, teacher, social worker. To be ambitious for some major kind of profession was considered foolhardy. I was involved in the theater, which was more dramatic than these other things. And I had fallen under the influence of a history teacher and became political and interested in social issues. But you don’t know what you’ll do when you’re young, so I didn’t know how this would lead to a profession. Awareness of the Holocaust through my sorority’s involvement all fit into my thinking about historical issues and current events, so I was extremely interested in all those things – but nothing was expected of women. I couldn’t figure out what to do with these interests until many years later, after I moved to New York, and segued from my failed efforts in the theater to getting my first low-level job in television news, working on “Mike Wallace and the News” on a local station.
Q: How did you become involved in producing “The Hand that Rocks the Ballot Box?”
A: By 1970 I was involved, discreetly, in the women’s movement and also had moved into ABC’s documentary department. I had the wonderful opportunity to report on the movement by way of seven documentaries explaining what women were up to. “The Hand that Rocks the Ballot Box” was the second one I did. Three of the films were involved with women in religion, including a profile I did of Sally Preisand, who became the first female rabbi. Others involved Catholic women who wanted more of a role in their church, and the efforts of Protestant women as well. The other documentaries had to do with women’s health, reproductive issues, the women’s movement itself, etc. During this same period I did stories for the evening news on some of the colorful events involved in the movement, as well as my regular reporting on disasters, politics, you name it. I continued general-assignment reporting at CBS News after I left ABC.
I worked full time in broadcasting for 35 years, during which time I married Jerry Toobin and we had our son Jeffrey. I always worked, had good household help, a cooperative husband, etc. I think one reason I could handle it all is that I have high energy, was ambitious, and loved my work. The family seemed to thrive as well.
I spent 35 years slogging around the world and being at the mercy of management. Now I’m very happy when the phone rings and they’re not sending me on a plane somewhere. I traveled every week for a day or two, so you burn out. I look at some of these stories and think I don’t want to do this any more.
“The Hand that Rocks the Ballot Box” was produced in 1972. It’s a lot of fun and has a lot of history. It’s about women’s political involvement and the formation of the National Women’s Political Caucus. All the leading figures of the period are in it: Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan.
Q: In your experience, what discrimination and barriers do women face today, both in the developed world and in the developing world? What has improved for women? What has declined?
A: Women have made a great deal of progress on air as you can see from TV news. But they are not well represented in management, and the glass ceiling is still there. The biggest hurdle is childcare. I wrote a lot about that issue in my book. Women need to focus on making it much more available so they can continue to work.
In the developing world, particularly in the Muslim world, with the stonings and attacks on women for “adultery,” and with the veil, challenges for women are still out there. I’m very interested in all of this; I’m just not engaging in these issues professionally now.
“World We Live in” with Marlene Sanders and “The Hand that Rocks the Ballot Box,” with an introduction by Jeffrey Toobin: Sunday, Aug. 29, 11 a.m., JCC in Sherman, 9 Route 39 South, Sherman, Conn. For more information: www.jccinsherman.org / (860) 355-8050 / firstname.lastname@example.org