THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Never Underestimate the Power of Your Voice”
SheHeroes.org interviews Carol Jenkins
In the 1970s Carol Jenkins was one of the first black TV reporters. Today she’s a writer, producer, media expert and an Emmy award-winning television journalist.
“Never Underestimate The Power of Your Voice”
When I decided that I wanted to be a journalist – an anchor, it was the equivalent of saying that I wanted to go to the moon. There were no women, certainly no women of color who were doing the news. They were all male. But I was attracted to it and I started in the business at the time when the federal government said you have to diversify the press corps. There were no women, no people of color. We were called window dressing on the set and they mandated – you have to find women – you have to find people of color and hire them. And that’s how I and many of my colleagues who went in during that time, which was the early ‘70s, got our jobs. And it was a fight every step of the way. The people who had been doing the news we’re not happy to see us all arrive on the scene. And they did whatever they could to make our jobs as difficult as possible.
“Heels and hussies moved to the Jade room of the Waldorf for a big cocktail party and that’s where they are now and Carol Jenkins is there too. Jack did you say hussies? Anyway, I have a couple of the hunks not the hussies who are here.”
As women we were not given the tough assignments either. I can remember going to the flower shows and all of the soft stuff and I would say – “I want to cover the Mayor – I want to do the politics – I want to do the economics – I want to do the International Affairs.” So there was a lot of testing.
“No hussies here Jack – back to you. Well that’s all right Carol. Thank you very much.”
We come from a rural Alabama farming family. For the first three years of my life I lived with no indoor plumbing. This is rural Alabama in the ‘40s. I was an only child with parents who worked very hard in a business. The fact that I even knew that there was a world outside of my block was because of the books that I read. Because of all of that I wanted to go into the Foreign Service. Go around the world negotiating for the United States and so that was my dream. And then I got to college and somehow I got distracted. Suddenly I was majoring in something else altogether and then got a master’s in that and found myself saying this isn’t where I intended to be. I don’t want to do this. And so I asked my parents to get one more degree, go back to school and do journalism. My mother said to me you better make this one work. And so I did.
We had a very strong family and I must say that the women in our family were the strongest. My mentor was my Aunt Minnie. I have 45 first cousins. She helped send all 45 of us to college. And I think on the strength of her power alone we did not lose one person to drugs or to the prison industrial system. When we were getting ready to go off to college she’d say – “How many skirts do you need?” She’d get on her sewing machine and sew me up 20 of those little skirts so I had skirts. She bought books and she did that for all of my cousins. She made sure that we all made it out. So she’s my hero. And we call it an unexpected ending for a poor rural family in southern Alabama deep in the heart of segregation. That everybody would make it out alive and educated but we did.
The advice I would give to young girls – it may seem like a cliché but I’m going to tell you it’s true. Anything is possible. You cannot rule out things because you’re poor, because no one in your family has done it before, because no one else has even envisioned what you want to do before. And never underestimate the power of your voice. Women only hold three percent of the clout positions in the media. Essentially what that means that 97% of everything that you know about yourself, about your country, about your world is being told by men. So that’s why we need girls and women to step in and give their versions of what is happening in the world from their perspectives. That’s why I would say girl’s get into media – get into journalism. Tell those stories and straighten us out. Tell us what we need to know.
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