July 20th in (Feminist) History

Helen Thomas with Pad and PencilOn this day in 2013 was the death of Helen Thomas, an American journalist and member of the White House press corp, who covered 11 U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. She was born in Kentucky in 1920, to parents who were immigrants from Tripoli (which at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire and later became Lebanon); they had nine children total, and she was the seventh. Helen was raised mostly in Detroit, where she faced racism from a young age, by fellow students who teased her for her heritage. As a result, she became a believer in the idea of everyone in the U.S. as “Americans”, believing that hyphenated ethnicities (like “Arab-American”, in her case) were only “trends that ever try to divide us as a people”, and that “assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either”.

It was in high school that she decided she wanted to be a journalist, and she pursued that goal with a bachelor’s degree from Wayne University, in Detroit. After college she moved to Washington D.C., and began her career in journalism as a copy girl for the former Washington Daily News, only to be fired after joining her colleagues on a strike. Her career progressed as she began working with the United Press, first on their radio wire service, then to cover their Names in the News column in Washington, and then on to cover the U.S. Dept. of Justice before she was eventually being assigned other agencies, including Capitol Hill and the U.S. Dept. of Health. She came up against the National Press Club several times, pushing at their ban against women members; in time, she would become their first female officer ever.

It was in 1960 that she began covering President-elect John F. Kennedy and the end of the Eisenhower administration, and she officially became the UPI’s White House correspondent in January of 1961. In time she became known as the “Sitting Buddha” and the “First Lady of the Press”, known for her blunt, forceful questions and her stubbornness in getting a response. Fidel Castro was once said to have responded to a tough question from a reporter by saying “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas”, a response Helen thought was “the height of flattery”. It was Helen who convinced President Kennedy to combined the annual correspondence dinners so that men and women could attend; previously they were separated, and at Helen’s request JFK refused to attend if they weren’t merged.

Her accomplishments included being UPI’s first female chief White House correspondent, a post she held for 25 years. She was also the only female print journalist to travel with Nixon to China, the first female member (and president) of the White House Correspondents’ Association, and the first female member of the Gridiron Club. She was the only member of the White House Press Corps to ever have her own seat in the Briefing Room; all others are assigned to media outlets. After leaving her job at the UPI for Hearst Newspapers she became much more outspoken, which got her into a bit of trouble at times. She once remarked on that in a speech, “I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?'” Regardless, she went on to cover eleven presidential administrations in total, ending with Barack Obama’s second year in office. During his first news conference ever, he called on Helen and said, “”Helen. I’m excited, this is my inaugural moment,” and he once brought her cupcakes in the press room for her 89th birthday, despite the fact that Helen frequently complained about his administration’s control over the press. 

After controversy towards the end of her career regarding her outspoken personal opinions towards Israel and Palestine, she resigned from covering the White House. The controversy included accusations of antisemitism, though she was really more anti-Zionist; Helen did not necessarily say anything offensive about Jewish people, but she was a supporter of Palestine and Palestinians. Despite the controversy, she went on to continue both speaking and writing a column. Helen died at the age of 92 at her home, and upon her death, President Obama remarked, “she never failed to keep presidents—myself included—on their toes.” 

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