An Appreciation of Gwen Ifill (1955-2016)

I am no journalist, but as someone passionate about government and politics, I considered Gwen Ifill, who died a week ago on Monday, a role model and inspirational figure. This reporter and anchor for the PBS NewsHour impressed upon me the seriousness of each story she told.

In 2008, Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debate between then-Senator Joe Biden and then-Governor Sarah Palin. I knew of her before then, but I don’t consciously remember any particular news stories she had reported. Perhaps that’s a testament to her ability to keep our attention on her subject, not herself. I could put a name with a face though. After that debate, her spirit of skepticism (with a healthy dose of comedy) was immortalized by Queen Latifah in an SNL sketch that is still on a repeating loop in my head.

Ifill hosted Washington Week, a Friday program that wrapped up the week in national politics. By the end of my week, when I wanted to decompress and had access to a TV, I could rely on that show to give me a dose of politics – and not the five pundits yelling at each other kind – that I wanted as a political science student.

I thought it was awesome when Ifill and fellow journalist Judy Woodruff became co-anchors of the NewsHour in 2013. Women taking over the news! Ifill and Woodruff were co-managing editors and decision makers for each night’s newscast! As a woman of color and daughter of immigrants, Ifill remains a role model who shows the importance of determination and hard work in journalism, broadcasting, and writing. This is something that Gwen Ifill took to heart. In an interview with civil rights leader Julian Bond, she said: “…and to this day, when people approach me and tell me that they’re glad to see me on television because they have daughters who see me… that makes my day. That’s what I want to know. The sense of possibility.”

In her acceptance speech for the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award in 2015, Ifill shared some of her beliefs about journalism: “At our best, we are all truth-tellers, although sometimes imperfect ones. At our best, we reject bias and understand that the most dangerous bias is found in the stories we do not tell.” Gwen Ifill helped viewers learn new things and adjust our own lenses when she selected the coverage through her own unique worldview.

In the most basic way, Ifill is important to women’s history by the fact she accomplished a “first.” More importantly, she helped change the symbols of the newscast and anchor. Ifill spoke to this in her interview with Bond. She said she saw herself as “exploding myths about who we are….My presence explodes a lot of notions… about what limitations are.”

For historians, her work matters. In a time when TV news can be loud, theatrical, ideological, and sometimes incendiary, we must be wary of our sources. When we look back on the early 21st century, I hope we’ll view Gwen Ifill’s journalism as a credible, reliable source. As scholars seeking answers, we’ll know that she wasn’t a reporter pitching softball questions to our leaders, and we’ll thank her for asking the questions she did.

Thank you, Gwen Ifill, for your service.

 

Related Links:

PBS NewsHour full episode Nov. 14, 2016

AMERICA AFTER CHARLESTON – Full Program

In WorldCat: The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama

PODCAST: Guest Lectures at Agnes Scott College: “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama”

 

A Mid-Semester Check-In

By Vanessa Osuna

How do you conduct research? More to the point, how do you feel while doing research? Is the mere idea of conducting research as daunting as cleaning out your fridge, or do you find it as exciting as finding $10 in your pocket? Perhaps you’re somewhere in between. As students, we rely heavily on the research process. As women’s history graduate students, we are (re)discovering and reconfiguring the research process to fit how we work and the research subject.

What’s the research motto? Caffeine will get you through it! Just kidding. Kind of.

One thing rings true when it comes to research: it takes many different forms and requires different levels of energy. To simplify the research process (I know what you’re thinking, how can this be done?), I’m going to split research into two categories, search and analysis. Both categories consist of a long list of must-haves and must-dos, but I won’t list them here. Simplification is as important as complexity. Personally, I love searching. I love typing keywords or phrases into Google or the library database to see what comes up, what I find. The difficult part for me is not necessarily finding material but knowing what to do with it. What about you?

I realize as I write this that it’s not a very informative piece on research, but that’s okay. Let’s consider this a mid-semester check-in. Let me provide a reminder that the research process can be outlined and listed, but at its core, it’s an individual process for all of us. It’s okay to feel any way you do, so long as you don’t let it stop you from completing your work. Also, it’s a necessary process so you might as well embrace it or only just acknowledge that it is necessary. That’s okay too. Remember that there are loads of resources to help with the searching part. Now that we’re transitioning to actually doing something with what we’ve found, the analysis part, know that you’re not alone in that either. The writing process is a whole other conversation, but I will say that a well-researched subject basically writes itself.

We’ve heard it many times before, research is a solitary process, even a lonely one. Though, I’m not so sure. I’m here anyway, and so are my cohort-mates. After all, it may be nice to grab a cup of coffee (or tea) with those $10 you found in your pocket, and it may be that much better with some company.

Black Lives Matter

On Thursday, in response to the results of the presidential election, SLC raised this banner proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” on the front of the Performing Arts Center. Students, faculty, and staff gathered outside to bear witness, to listen, and to speak their response to the monumental decision to elect Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.

Did you attend this gathering? Do you have a response as an SLC alum? Help us put on record the history of our community here at SLC by sharing your experience. Thank you.

 

img_0185COMMENT POLICY: We at RE/VISIONIST aim to be a forum for dialogue, debate, and a genuine exchange of ideas. That said, we support the maintaining of a safer space for a discussion free of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other oppressions. We do not tolerate comments that ascribe to any of the discriminatory language or ideas that fall under this umbrella.

For Your Reading List…

If you enjoyed the last blog post on scholarly work on women leaders around the world, you may be interested in reading some of the leaders’ own work. I’ve collected a list of books by presidents and prime ministers of the past. Full disclosure: I haven’t read all the books. So I cannot pass judgment on them at this point. If you have read one of these books, maybe you’d like to share your thoughts (good, bad, or complicated) on Re/Visionist. Let us know!

 

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President

By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (President of Liberia)

 

 

My Story

By Julia Gillard (Former Prime Minister of Australia)

 

 

Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice

By Mary Robinson (Former President of Ireland)

 

 

The Path to Power

By Margaret Thatcher (Former Prime Minister of Great Britain)

 

 

My Life

By Golda Meir (Former Prime Minister of Israel)

 

 

Daughter of Destiny: An Autobiography

By Benazir Bhutto (Former Prime Minister of Pakistan)

 

 

Building Bridges: Selected Speeches and Statements

By Mary McAleese (Former Prime Minister of Ireland)

 

 

My Truth

By Indira Gandhi (Former Prime Minister of India)

 

 

On Election Day: Presidents & Prime Ministers in the Database

Today, we have a crucial U.S. presidential election, which could choose the country’s first woman president. I thought I would find out how women who are heads of government have fared—not in elections but in the databases.

Which leaders are being studied? Who has piqued the interest of scholars so far? Where are opportunities for new research? The most relevant database for this query seemed to be “Historical Abstracts,” available through EBSCOhost via our wonderful Esther Raushenbush Library at Sarah Lawrence. The database “covers the history of the world (excluding the United States and Canada), focusing on the 15th century to the present” and has “[indexed] historical articles from nearly 2,300 journals in over 40 languages.” A full list of publications can be found here.

Through online research, I selected, somewhat arbitrarily, several leaders to feature here. I wanted to get a mix that covered regions around the world (so if you don’t see your favorite leader here, it may be because I didn’t want any one region to dominate). If you do any basic research on this topic, you’ll notice a number of subtleties that affect who could be listed here. In short, although we are historians of women’s lives, let’s not overgeneralize about the pool of leaders overall. The content available on specific figures is on what we should focus.

Historical Abstracts (EBSCOhost)

  • Peer-reviewed
  • Language: English
  • String “” search*
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Australia) 23
Chancellor Angela Merkel (Germany) 15
President Michelle Bachelet (Chile) 11
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia) 11
President Park Geun-hye (South Korea) 3
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Hasina Wajed) (Bangladesh) 3
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark (New Zealand) 2
Former President Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) 2
Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Thailand) 2
Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina) 1
Former Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller (Jamaica) 1
Former President Joyce Banda (Malawi) 0
Former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (Trinidad and Tobago) 0
Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Norway) 0
Prime Minister Beata Szydło (Poland) 0

To locate documents written by academics, I specified peer-reviewed results in my search. Since we primarily access resources in English, I specified English language documents.

As you can see in the above table, the search results for well-known leaders, like Angela Merkel and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, are high on the list. Chancellor Merkel is a highly visible leader who has played a role in response to the refugee and Greek debt crises. President Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and was featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell (dir. Gini Reticker).

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia is not a household name, but she may have topped this list because she is from an English-speaking country. (Australian publications are included in the database). (However, Gillard did catch our attention with her notable “misogyny speech” in 2012.)

As scholars, we typically need grants, fellowships, or other special funding to complete research that requires travel. So, it’s not altogether surprising that some leaders are not discussed in peer-reviewed work of the database. We may only study history domestically and, therefore, have less access to relevant primary sources on certain political figures.

Countries like Malawi and Jamaica may receive less attention, compared to, say, Germany and South Korea, due to the latter’s strategic alliances with the U.S. Nevertheless, the leaders of Malawi, Jamaica, and other countries deserve our attention too. Not only does it serve us to learn the lessons and challenges of women in leadership, but the knowledge of political leaders abroad also helps us understand the context in which the civilian population lives.

So, historians: look at your options! Could the stories of one of these leaders be your research niche?

 

Thanks to Margot Note for her assistance and comments with this project!

 

*I searched each person’s name with quotes (e.g., “angela merkel”, “joyce banda”) to ensure that results would feature those documents where the first and last names are found together. Where an individual has a hyphenated name, I searched the name with quotes, with and without the hyphen (e.g., “Portia Simpson Miller” OR “Portia Simpson-Miller”). In the case of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, I searched for variations of the name using the OR boolean tool.