Eileen Wirth entered the Omaha World-Herald newsroom in 1969 and wondered, “Where are the women?” Unknowingly, she had become one of the newspaper’s first female city reporters.
Dr. Wirth broke through gender barriers again as the first female chair of the journalism department at Creighton University, where she has been a professor since 1991. Her story as a pioneer is mirrored in media throughout Omaha.
Rose Ann Shannon walked into the KMTV newsroom 40 years ago as an intern, looked around for other female reporters, and found none. Today more than half of the journalists at KETV—where she is the station’s first female TV news director—are women. Shannon was a KMTV reporter, photographer, anchor, and assignment editor before joining KETV in 1986.
In 1974, Ann Pedersen became the first full-time female reporter at WOW-TV (now WOWT). One year later, she was named the station’s first female anchor for a daily newscast. She became WOWT assignment editor and later assistant news director before leaving in 1988 for a 13-year career at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis as director of news operations.
Carol Schrader proved herself as an intern at KMTV before moving on to a full-time job as a reporter at KLNG Radio and, in 1979, at KETV. She became one of the first women to anchor a KETV evening newscast, the first female news director at KFAB Radio, and the first host of the NET program Consider This.
The time was ripe 40 years ago for women to enter what had been a mostly male environment, says Wirth. She wrote about pioneer women journalists across Nebraska in her book From Society Page to Front Page.
“Young men were being drafted into the Vietnam War, so there was a shortage of journalism graduates,” says Wirth, who had three job offers upon graduation. “It was a combination of a good economy and a massive group of young women coming of age in the civil rights environment.”
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated that employers hire without regard to gender or race. “Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan added the clause banning sex discrimination,” says Wirth. “It was seen as a joke.” Opponents in Congress allowed the clause to go through because they mistakenly thought it would kill the entire civil rights bill. Instead, for the first time in American history, working women had a legal tool.
“The public wanted to see more individuals on air who represented them,” adds Pedersen. “Blacks and women brought new ideas. That’s the great advantage of having a well-integrated newsroom. You get different points of view.”
“I knew I got my job because I was a woman, but I didn’t want to do my job as a woman,” she says. “I wanted to be a journalist.”
“We didn’t mind rattling a few cages,” says Wirth.
Schrader rattled her first cage as a KMTV intern one night in 1973 by insisting on covering the shooting of a police officer. “I asked them to send me, but they just laughed. I told them, ‘I’m off in 20 minutes, and I’m going to drive there anyway.’” They sent her to the hospital with a camera. “I got a check for $10. I’ve never cashed it.”
She challenged the status quo again when she got into a verbal battle with Mayor Bob Cunningham in 1977 at a news conference she covered for KLNG Radio. She held her own. Two days later, KETV called to ask if she wanted to be the station’s “weather girl” and a reporter.
“I think we rattled cages just by being there,” says Pedersen, who remembers insisting on receiving the same camera the male reporters got. “You did have to stand up for yourself.”
When Pedersen arrived at WCCO-TV, she learned that the general manager would not pay her more than he paid his executive assistant. “But in the end, I was paid on par with other news managers,” she says.
Discrimination came more from the audience than from her supportive male co-workers, says Shannon. “Viewers didn’t like our voices. They said, ‘You’re taking a man’s job.’ There were times when I felt I had to work harder, longer, smarter because I had something to prove.”
Women brought story ideas into the newsroom that the male reporters had ignored, Schrader notes. “[We] were raising issues that were newsworthy but were not on the radar for men.”
Pedersen is now a public relations director in Omaha. Schrader is a real estate agent. Wirth is creating a new generation of journalists at Creighton University. Still at KETV, Shannon has seen big changes during her career. “I tell people I’m as excited about doing news today as when I walked in the door 40 years ago.”
Author Judy Horan began her career at WOWT at about the same time as the women profiled here, becoming the first woman in management in Omaha television.