During his December 2014 White House press conference, President Obama called exclusively on female reporters. His illustration to male reporters of an experience commonplace for women led to some media attention and a little backlash. But his pointed action has implications beyond gender inequality. Who gets to ask the question determines the kind of question that is asked. No one made this clearer than Washington reporter Vera Glaser in 1969.
Wire service reporter Vera Glaser was covering President Richard Nixon’s televised press conference. It was the president’s second press conference and Glaser felt the journalists were asking softball questions. Glaser, representing the North American Newspaper Alliance, was lucky enough to be in the third row – reporters further back were rarely called upon. One of the only women in the room, Glaser wanted to ask a tougher question than her colleagues.
When it was Glaser’s turn, she asked: “Mr. President, since you’ve been inaugurated, you have made approximately 200 presidential appointments, and only three of them have gone to women. Can we expect some more equitable recognition of women’s abilities, or are we going to remain the lost sex?” She later recalled that she had a list of questions and it was not until the moment he called on her that she decided to ask the question about gender discrimination.
Glaser’s question led to audible chuckles from the many male reporters in the room. The president also responded as if the question were a joke before seeming to remember he was on television. Nixon recovered his composure and said he would look into the issue. The ensuing media coverage momentarily pushed Glaser into the spotlight as it prompted other news organizations to call officials in the Nixon administration and then to print follow-up stories across the country about women’s limited roles in the leadership of the federal government. Ultimately, Nixon assigned a task force and then hired Barbara Hackman Franklin in 1971 to increase the involvement of women in the cabinet. By 1972, Anne Armstrong was named a counselor to the president with cabinet rank.
Who gets called on at a presidential press conference and what they ask matters. When more female voices are included, different questions are asked. Those questions can lead to change. While the male reporters at the final Obama press conference of 2014 may have bristled at their exclusion on one occasion, the President made a broader point about the importance of female voices in politics and press. Ultimately, Obama’s move is not only a reminder of the progress since Glaser’s question, but also the significant hurtles that women in the press continue to face.