Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Cokie Roberts and the women who paved the way for the rest of us

From Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles to the women who reported on the Arab uprisings, we can take lessons from their mentorship and bravado

Mary "Cokie" Roberts appears at the National Press Foundation's 26th annual awards dinner in Washington, DC. AFP / GETTY IMAGES
Mary "Cokie" Roberts appears at the National Press Foundation's 26th annual awards dinner in Washington, DC. AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Mary "Cokie" Roberts, the pioneering American broadcaster, died last week aged 75. She was a trailblazer who paved the way for many reporters, for both National Public Radio and ABC News in the US.

Roberts worked at a time when reporters were not “enemies of the people”, as US President Donald Trump would have us believe, but when news really meant something. As a female journalist back when women were often missing from the upper echelons of the journalistic trade, she was revered as the “founding mother” of NPR.

But more importantly, Roberts was a grand dame of Washington politics, described by fellow NPR reporter Kitty Eisele as a “centrifugal force, pulling into her orbit Washington’s green rooms and hearing rooms, its church aisles and carpools, its unsung women and kids and elders and friendships spanning generations and party lines”.

In other words, Roberts was a doyenne, one of those characters who inspired and encouraged. She was also, most notably, a mentor to legions of women in politics and the media. She was a woman who supported other women, something that seems imperative and natural – but is not always the case, particularly in Washington. Former US secretary of state Madeline Albright, herself stung by the system, once remarked that there was a special place in hell for women who did not support other women.

Roberts’ death made me think of all the strong women over the years who have inspired me – some I have met, some I only read about, but whose lives and actions gave me the courage to work in lonely places. There was Gertrude Bell, a fierce, red-headed Arabist who, along with TE Lawrence (unfortunately he got all the credit) drew the map of modern-day Iraq. There was Martha Gellhorn, the third wife of the author Ernest Hemingway, who outflanked him both in her reporting and her bravado and was punished when editors chose his work over her own.

Gellhorn did not take Hemingway’s bullying lying down. While the rest of the press corps – including her soon-to-be divorced husband – lolled around the Dorchester Hotel in London in 1944, drinking cocktails and waiting for the D-Day invasion to start, she sneaked onto a hospital ship and documented the fear, misery and triumph of the beach landings. It made her career. Hemingway never forgave her.

Cokie Roberts has inspirated a generation of women journalists. Courtesy ABC Photo Archive
Cokie Roberts has inspirated a generation of women journalists. Courtesy ABC Photo Archive

Virginia Cowles was another Second World War reporter whose work and life inspired me. Like Gellhorn, she reported on the Spanish Civil War. Unlike Gellhorn, she refused to be partisan and reported from both sides. She interviewed Benito Mussolini and Neville Chamberlain, reported on the German invasion of Poland, and witnessed the London Blitz and the Battle of Britain, striving always to combine accuracy with humanity.

All these women paved the way for me and legions of other female reporters, simply by the fact that they bucked the system, showing us how to do something that had not really been done before.

The book Our Women on the Ground: Essays from Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World was recently released. The women featured in it, in the words of the editor Zahra Hankir, “quietly and courageously” reported the Arab uprisings and the wars that ripped through Yemen, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. It’s a groundbreaking book of women who really opened up an avenue for those who will come later.

What struck me most was how honest this book is – and how these women were true to themselves. It has not been easy. Hankir also points out how women were thought to be “soft” and inconsequential if they wrote about “women’s’ issues”.

Handout images to go with Focus story on explorer and politician Gertrude Bell, who is the subject of a documentary premiering at the Beirut film Festival. Photo courtesy "Letters From Baghdad" documentary
Handout images to go with Focus story on explorer and politician Gertrude Bell, who is the subject of a documentary premiering at the Beirut film Festival. Photo courtesy "Letters From Baghdad" documentary

It reminds me, painfully, of how when the Taliban fell in 2001, even though I had spent two months travelling with the Northern Alliance on the frontlines, the first thing my editor asked was for me to go to the “hair salons” and report back on what the women were saying. My male colleagues were given the choicer political assignments, even though I had slogged it out for months in a sleeping bag without a shower.

The book also tackles the women’s private wars, their personal battles. Working in a male-dominated newsroom in London in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was conflicted by my desire to have a life outside fieldwork. Yet when I did finally have a baby, late in life, my male colleagues mocked me for “losing my nerve”. Sent to Baghdad during the worse part of the surge by a sadistic male foreign editor (to test me, again) when my son was only four months old, I struggled to find a way to be a good mother and a good reporter. It was not easy.

There were not many role models on that front. Cowles had children but abandoned frontline reporting (and two of her sons were tragically killed in a plane crash after her own death in a car accident). Gellhorn never had children, although she adopted a son and was a stepmother.

Bell died miserably and alone in Baghdad. I often used to visit her lonely grave to clean it up or bring flowers. Her diaries reveal a complex and tormented woman, whose accomplishments were vast but whose personal miseries were even more expansive.

Roberts, however, managed to combine the life of a Washington hostess with skillful journalism and political wit as well as being a mother, grandmother, mentor, wife and friend.

With her death, we’re missing a role model and mentor, a woman who shared her secrets, a storyteller and political operator. Why do young women today need to look at women who came before them? To see our mistakes and struggles, challenges and success, to gauge how to frame their own worlds.

Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a 2019 Guggenheim fellow

Updated: September 23, 2019 07:37 PM

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