THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“We Planted All These Terrific Seeds That Are Now Blossoming”
Interviewed by Penny Stoil, VFA Board, September 2018.
Videographer: Dave Sperling
PS: Lynn Sherr, 50 years ago you helped create a new career path for women. Journalist, feminist author, truth teller and pioneer TV broadcaster. Quoting you about growing up in Philadelphia you said – “I’ve always felt like an outlier in the City of Brotherly Love.” So when did you start to identify yourself as a feminist?
LS: My introduction to feminism didn’t come until I was in my late 20s when I was already in New York and working. And I sort of use that line about Philadelphia. Let me make it clear – I loved my parents. I loved growing up in Philadelphia. I had a great education and a great set of experiences. I’m still very close with a lot of my high school friends. But it was the City of Brotherly Love. It was also a different era. This was an era when – this was a time when moms mostly stayed home.
This was a time when television was black and white.
This was a time when little girls let little boys beat them on the tennis court. Because you didn’t dare show that you were stronger or a better athlete or better at almost anything. I was very lucky in that both my parents and also my schools essentially said to me that I could do anything I wanted to do. And I was allowed to be smart in school. And I was allowed to express an interest in things off the beaten path at home. So I never knew the word feminism as a little girl. But surely I was on that path all along.
PS: And you went to Wellesley, which was a hub of feminism at that time and still. And I know that you love literature and you have a passion for the Greek language and mythology. How did that play into your thinking?
LS: I want to correct one thing. I don’t believe Wellesley at the time when I went – I graduated from high school in 1959 and I entered in the fall of 59 – I don’t think Wellesley was a hub of feminism. I think there certainly was that direction. And the reason that there were women’s colleges was because the playing field was not level at all. And this was a place where women could excel without having to pretend we were not as smart as the boys.
It turns out now – I’ve learned some things about our then president – a woman named Margaret Clapp – which makes me realize she really was a feminist, but that was not what I felt so much at the school at the time. We were really at the time directed into one of three things. You were supposed to either go into academics and get a higher degree, or you’re supposed to actually two things – you’re supposed to get married – or teaching. Actually, there were three and none of those three was what I wanted to do.
I loved Wellesley and I remain very active in the college now.
But there was a period after I graduated when I felt they were not doing enough to foster the dreams and the desires and the goals of women like me. And I think it just took a while for them to figure it out and for me to realize that it was buried there all along. It is certainly now [the] number one A prime place for strong women to go, but at the time I’m not sure it was.
I will say, though, that going to an all women’s college was clearly something of a statement that I was making. I went to coed private and public schools all of my life and then to choose to go to a women’s college was a way of saying – I’m going to be something in this world.
PS: That’s true. And at college you did win a very important contest. What was that?
LS: It was probably the thing that changed my life in the best way for forever. I entered a competition. There used to be a magazine called Mademoiselle magazine. It was part of the Condé Nast group of publications. It was a publication for young women who were career women and smart and interested in fashion, but interested in their brains as well.
And they had a terrific competition, which was called the College Board Competition, and they would solicit applications from women all over the country. At the time it was just women. They later expanded it to let some men apply as well. But you entered by doing the thing you wanted to do if you worked at that magazine. So if you were interested in fashion – you did a fashion thing – you drew. If you were interested in marketing you did a marketing plan.
I was interested in being a journalist and so I wrote.
And the winners, and they selected 20 winners every year – were brought to New York. We were essentially paid interns. That’s what it was. It was a different time. It was an era when they had to pay you to get you to come and work there. Now of course interns have to work for free at a lot of places, but it was essentially a paid internship. But it was a contest. And for the month of June you worked at the magazine. I was the guest fiction editor – worked for an extraordinarily talented woman who immediately took care of me and introduced me to everybody.
And as part of our prize we got to interview people in our field. So I wanted to be a journalist. I got to interview a wonderful reporter here in New York – a columnist named Murray Kempton who worked then for the New York Post, which was at that time a very liberal Democratic newspaper and a great place for journalism. It’s funny, because you’re interviewing me on this day which I think is a day or two after the anniversary of the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama when those little girls were killed – that horrible thing during the civil rights movement.
I remember interviewing Murray Kempton.
And we talked about that because he had covered it. He had done a lot of civil rights work. And he talked about those little girls with such eloquence that it made me understand the civil rights movement in a way I had not before. So this was just a great opportunity to live in New York – to learn about the city – to learn about journalism in the city – to learn about the magazine world. And as part of my year – which was 1962 – it was in between my junior and senior years in college – they took us to Rome for five days.
I’m the only person you’ve ever met who actually won a trip to Rome as a prize. And this was five days in Rome at which we were wined and dined all over the city. They even got 20 or 25 Roman guys who came and picked us up on their Vespas – their motor scooters – and squired us around town. It was a very heady and exciting time, particularly for someone like me who had never been to Europe before.
So the Mademoiselle experience was wonderful, because I learned what it was to be a working person in the world – in the world of then fashion and all that, but still there was – it was a way of understanding publishing in this city and it was very exciting.
PS: Well talk about publishing [at] the New York Post. The Post was published at that time by Dorothy Schiff.
LS: Right. A woman.
PS: And Murray Kempton was right in keeping with her philosophy.
LS: It was a great time to be in New York and to be a young reporter. Although – and I’m going to anticipate what I know you want to hear about. So then I went back to college and then I graduate from college a year later. And of course like everybody else I came running to New York to look for a job. And I had been a Mademoiselle guest editor, which was as high on the poll as it comes.
And by the way Sylvia Plath in her book The Bell Jar writes about her experience as a guest editor. Sylvia Plath was exactly the same thing. Ali McGraw, the actor, was also a guest editor so it’s a wonderful – and lots and lots of fabulous women after me. So I came back to New York ready for my job in publishing.
I was going to set the world on fire.
And every single white male newspaper editor that I approached said the exact same thing to me and all of my female pals, which was – I’m sorry we don’t hire girls. It was that simple. And people have heard this story. And young women particularly say – well why didn’t you fight? Why didn’t you say something? Who was I going to fight with? There was no equal employment opportunity commission. There was no movement. There was no way of saying – this isn’t fair.
So what I did was sort of went around, went back to Condé Nast, even though I didn’t want that part of the business. They were wonderful about hiring young women who they knew were very smart. They also could pay very low wages to us but it was a job and it covered my rent, which was all that I needed.
And so I went back and worked at the magazines for about another year and a half. I worked a little bit more at Mademoiselle. I worked at Glamour. I worked for the former editor of Vogue magazine at the time – a woman named Jessica Daves who was a hoot, and then I wound up at part of the division of House and Garden. So I was at least doing some sort of design stuff, but it wasn’t what I wanted and I knew I had to move on from there.
PS: Well you were definitely going to be the next Brenda Starr. Despite the prejudice against women – which news service gave you a very first break?
LS: When I won the Mademoiselle magazine competition I had already lined up a job in the news library at the Associated Press in New York. I had come to New York and made the rounds and they had offered me a job. I had taken the test. It was a complete low-level job but it was an entry-level job. It would have been the summer of my junior year in college.
And then when I won the Mademoiselle contest I called up the guy who had offered me the job and I said – I’m very embarrassed but I won this thing and I’m thinking maybe I should do – I was really – I didn’t know what to do. And he said are you kidding – you won the Mademoiselle contest? You must do that. Call us when you’re done.
So now I’ve gone back to Condé Nast and I went back to the AP and nothing – nothing – nothing and finally they got back to me and said – OK we’re forming a new thing. They did not want to hire me as a reporter. I had no experience as a reporter except for college and high school where I thought I was quite terrific. But it was not exactly what New York was looking for.
The Associated Press was forming what they called a Book Division.
And they were essentially taking the year’s news that was then getting rewritten and put into kind of a News Annual. And would I like to work in the book division? And I saw this as my open door and I said absolutely. And I went there which was a lot of fun because I got to meet the real reporters. I got to rewrite their stuff for this book.
So you would take a story that someone had spent six weeks covering … and I would boil it down to a couple of paragraphs and that would be – as what happened in January – one of the things that happened in January or February of that year. So it was a terrific opportunity.
Ultimately after a little while there they came to me and said we’re creating yet another new division. We want to do educational sound filmstrips for high school students. And these were like mini documentaries on news subjects and they wanted me to run it. Would I be interested? And I said sure that sounds like fun.
Sound filmstrips were a bunch of slides put onto a single 35-millimeter strip and there was a record that went with it and there was a narration on the record. I wasn’t narrating – I was asked to write – to put them together – to write the narration and then these went to schools – high schools all over the country. It was a way for local newspapers and the AP to get a presence in the classroom and also a way to teach kids what was going on in the world.
So we tackled giant subjects. I did something on urban problems, the space program, civil rights and of course we wanted to do politics. So I did both political conventions in 1968 – so I was at the Chicago convention. The Democratic convention and then the Republican convention. At first was the Republicans in Miami. So these were wonderful and a great way to get my toe in the water and to be part of an organization for which I still have enormous respect – The Associated Press.
PS: I understand you became known as the translator of women’s issues to the public. What issues did you cover that earned you that title?
LS: Well I didn’t really start to flex my wings until finally the AP said to me – OK we think you’re ready to be a real reporter. We’d like to offer you a job in what was then the news features department. And I was thrilled.
Among my earliest assignments were to cover this burgeoning just starting thing, which was then called the Women’s Liberation Front.
This was of course after the Vietnam War – the National Liberation Front and it was very militaristic and very hostile. And why did they ask me to cover this? Because at the time the women in some of these meetings did not let men in. So the AP figured they needed some women – particularly young women to go do this. So I was sent out to cover a few of these things. And it was amazing. And I started writing about the women’s movement and explaining it to our bosses.
And one day I came home from one of the meetings and I started to write my piece and I was writing – they say this – they say that – and suddenly the famous Jane O’Reilly click of recognition went off in my brain. I realized they were I. I was writing about myself. I never knew the word feminism. I never thought about discrimination but I realized they were talking to me. And that was a great eye opener – mind opener.
And then at around that same period the AP came to me – after a few pieces I’d written and said – the women’s editor was leaving. They then had a women’s editor and they said – I was quite young – and they said they’d like me to be the women’s editor.
And I don’t have a clue where I got the chutzpah.
But I said to them – a women’s editor – what’s the point of a women’s editor? You don’t have a men’s editor. I was 20 something years old. How did I dare to say that? But I did. What that led to was a series of conversations and that led to the creation of this new department which the AP called Living Today which was meant to be a way of understanding all the movements – the women’s movement – the civil rights movement – the ecology movement – every movement – long hair – short hair you name it.
Our nickname around the office was the mod squad.
There were six of us – five women one man. And I originally was sort of the head of it but I knew I didn’t know enough to run it. I knew that I needed to get my feet wet and get out there and start reporting. And so a lot of the stories I covered were stories about women’s issues. And yes, I think they didn’t quite get it, but I took it upon myself to help them understand. Mind you – I was just learning at the same time. I sort of got it instinctively but this was all new to me as well.
I went to high school and I distinctly remember – some sentence in my American history book that said something like – and then a bunch of crazy ladies in bloomers ran around to get the right to vote. And like everybody else I thought they were crazy ladies in bloomers and suddenly thanks to the women who were – I was not a founder of the women’s movement at all – but the women who were – made us go back and look in history.
And I learned about Susan B. Anthony and I learned about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and I learned about Sojourner Truth.
And I learned that these were truly brave – smart – funny and extraordinary women without whom we would have nothing or wouldn’t have had it nearly as early as we did – even though it was way too late. So lots of scales fell from my eyes and I learned lots of things.
PS: And you also learned that feminism equates chutzpah.
LS: Feminism it turns out tapped on a lot of things I didn’t know were in me. Anger, brassiness – brains. All sorts of stuff that just came out when I realized what was going on.
PS: When you were at the Associated Press, you also developed a lifelong friendship and a literary partner with a co-worker – Jurate Kazickas. Who was she?
LS: I actually hired Jurate to be part of the mod squad and she’ll never let me forget that. As I say when they thought I was the leader of it and I couldn’t be – I didn’t know what I was doing. But one day one of the bosses came to me and said – there’s this woman we’ve been using in Vietnam – she’s a freelancer and she’s applying for a job. See if she’ll work out for this new department we’re starting.
So I interviewed her. I thought she was fabulous and I said absolutely. So technically I hired her. The AP was set on hiring her I think anyway. And Jurate and I, along with the other members of our group, we formed a great bond. She and I in particular, because we were the house feminists at the AP. We were the ones maning – womaning the barricades on a regular basis, not technically – not really – but demanding rights and we should cover this we should do that.
PS: Did you have the freedom to do all that?
LS: Oh they didn’t stop us. It was a wonderful place to work. I mean they wouldn’t publish everything we wrote, but they would publish a lot of it. And they wanted – the whole point of our being there was to help the AP understand what was going on and to explain it – as well as to local newspapers who of course are all members of the AP and to get it out there. So they were doing a service to their papers and that’s what we were trying to do.
And one day – Jurate and I – our desks were right next to each other and it was a miserable cold January – a horrible day and one of us said to the other – something like – oh you know we get off on Monday – it’s Martin Luther King’s birthday – that’s when they had just established Martin Luther King’s birthday and isn’t that nice we get the day off and grumble, grumble and one of us said – might have been her – I think it was – one of us said – too bad they don’t give us days off for women’s birthdays. And I said but we should put them all together and put them in a book and it should be a calendar and like that – just like that –
The Woman’s Calendar was born.
PS: That was a great thing and it lasted for how many years?
LS: Ten years.
PS: Ten years.
LS: We did ten editions of the woman’s calendar. It started out the very first one, which came out in 1971 was called the “The Liberated Woman’s Appointment Calendar and Survival Guide.” “The Liberated Woman’s Appointment Calendar and Survival Guide.” We were very – I’m telling you we were still in this militant mode. First of all we couldn’t get it published. We did a mock up – we came up with all – we found all these birthdays, you know – Susan B. Anthony born February 15th 1820 – Calamity Jane died on this date, on this date the Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed to Congress.
We had all these things a week at a glance – spiral bound – what was a five by eight or six by nine. With a theme page opposite each week. And we had funny things, we had serious things – we did a mock up. We went around – we had friends in publishing by then; we had been in New York now for a couple of years we’d made some contacts – nobody would publish it.
Everyone said who cares. It’s a fad. The women’s movement is a fad.
It’s going to go away – nobody cares. We had no luck. My ex roommate worked at a publishing house and she said – Oh I bet he would like that – Gill Park would like that – at Universe Publishers – he did calendars. We took it in – they immediately liked it. Ten editions of the woman’s calendar. We were written up that first year in Time magazine. The wonderful Lynn Young – Lynn Povich -Lynn Young who was then at Newsweek did a whole column on us.
And Lynn is the one who wrote Nice Girls Don’t [The Good Girls Revolt] – it was a book that became a TV show about women at Newsweek magazine. And she was great – she wrote us up. Time magazine had a piece about us. We were on the Today show. Barbara Walters interviewed us. It was – it was great.
We had great success and it got to the point where people anticipated this calendar and if we didn’t do the calendar every year they got very angry. And I must tell you my greatest moment with the calendar – which was just a way of commemorating what women have done in the past, celebrating what women were doing now, pleading for what women should do in the future, and it was funny at the same time.
I was in Florida, in Miami in 1972 for what must have been the Democratic convention and I was going from one event to another. And I needed to get there by taxi and I ran into Betty Friedan, then the president of the National Organization for Women who I had interviewed 100 times. I ran into her on the street and she said are you going to X and I said yes. She said let’s share a cab. I said great.
We get in the cab and I said to Betty in the cab – by the way – she carried a big bag – Betty had always carried a huge bag. I said – Are you going to such and such a thing later she said – Let me check. She reaches into her bag pulls out our calendar to look up – and she used our calendar for all of her dates. So I figured I had died and gone to heaven at that moment in terms of the women’s movement and that was terrific.
PS: But the other book – The American Women’s Gazeteer. That took an amazing amount of research.
LS: Well we did the calendar in such a way that we were very organized. We had great researchers like my mother who would send – and my father who would send me articles. This is long before the internet of course and long before anything [was] digitized. They would send me clip articles from the Philadelphia newspapers about things that women had done that just got commemorated and send them. I had piles of little clips and we would separate them.
And then we thought – actually I thought of the idea that I always wanted to do some kind of travel book and then I thought why do a women’s travel book. Wait a minute – why not do where women made history. It was another way of arranging some of the same information but with new information. So yeah we decided to do – we sold very quickly because of the success of our calendar – the idea of doing a travel guide based on places where women made history.
PS: Some of these were tiny little towns.
LS: Tiny. No one had ever done this before. And so one of the things we did to do our research – once again – no internet – no computers. We sent postcards – penny postcards, although they were probably three penny or ten penny by then, to every Historical Society around the country that we could find. And we would say – hello for a research project on women in history – can you tell us if you have any sites in your locale relating to women in history.
We wanted so-and-so lived here, etc. And the answers we got were just a riot. Sometimes we got great stuff but sometimes we get answers like – why would anyone care? Why would anybody want to know where women made history?
PS: And I don’t know when you found the time. You were broadcasting at the time?
LS: No wait.
PS: You were at the AP?
LS: I was at the AP then – no by then I was in television I guess. So where did I find the time? Who knows. Because you know – the great line if you want something done ask a busy woman.
And the truth is that you make time for the things you want to do.
These were labors of love. I will tell you we made money – neither one of us got rich off of the calendar or the Gazetteer or it’s later version – Susan B. Anthony Slept Here. But we did fine and it was so much fun and it was so enlightening.
PS: And you’ve also written many books. Which are your favorites among the ones you’ve written?
LS: Oh come on asking me which is my favorite is like asking which is your favorite child. That’s not fair.
PS: Tell me about all your favorites.
LS: I’ll tell you all my favorites. I’m very partial to the calendars and to Susan B. Slept Here because those were the first. I love my book Failure is Impossible, which is a kind of a biography of Susan B. Anthony. Susan B. Anthony in her own words – it was a way to get to know her – she has never let me down. She was smart and funny and prescient and a great leader of women and men and I turn to her on a regular basis for wisdom to get me through all sorts of things. She was great.
I wrote my book about giraffes – Tall Blondes – a book about giraffes because I love giraffes and because they make me happy. And I tapped into apparently the giraffe lovers of the world because I constantly run into people who love that book as well. I love my book – America the Beautiful – the stirring true story about America – our nation’s favorite song.
Because I think “America the Beautiful” should be our national anthem.
It’s got the most wonderful democratic lowercase D story behind it. It was chosen by people for the purpose of being the people’s song. It’s not militaristic. It’s about beauty. It’s about a land. It’s about history and it’s about a nation that is still in formation. It’s about making mistakes and fixing them and making it better. And I love that song. I just love the song and it makes me cry every time I hear it. So I’m happy that I wrote that book.
PS: And another inspiration for you – Sally Ride.
LS: Well all of the books I’ve written up until that point have been books about things that are passions of mine including doing the introduction for the Peter Jennings book – the book about Peter Jennings and a number of other things. The Sally Ride book was not one that I at the time suggested, although all during her life I had wanted to do a book about Sally. She wouldn’t let me do it.
ABC News was wonderful about dropping the space program into my lap.
I went to ABC News in 1977 and I was a general assignment reporter and I covered everything. I covered women’s issues. I covered investigative things. And at one point when the space shuttle was just revving up in 1981 – they came to me and asked me to be part of our space team. And we already had a terrific space team – Frank Reynolds was the anchor who knew everything about space and had done a marvelous job with all the space stuff up to then.
Jules Bergman was our science reporter and Jules had done an extraordinary job. They wanted to add a third person to the team and I had done a lot of science stories and they liked the way I explain things.
I’m a good explainer and I was also – you know how in Monday Night Football there’s always the color guy? The color guy is the person who sort of does the feature things and tells the little jokes and all. I was meant to be the color guy in the space team. I was thrilled. I was delighted.
Sally Ride was one of the first people I met. And we hit it off immediately. She was then a new astronaut with this new astronaut class who were no longer just military pilots but scientists and women and men of color and of different backgrounds.
Sally and I hit it off and we became very close friends. And when she died in 2012, her partner was the one who wanted a book done about her and went to our mutual literary agent who I had gotten for Sally and said we need an adult biography of Sally. And it immediately came to me, so that one sort of fell in my lap and I didn’t – but it was one of my passions. It wasn’t my idea originally but I’m thrilled that I did it and I’m thrilled that it’s done so well and that people are still talking about it.
PS: Well you left AP and you joined WCBSTV replacing Pia Lindstrom.
The Blonde Seat at Channel 2 News.
LS: Yeah I left the AP to go into television. And I must say it wasn’t on my mind to go into television. I was very happy doing what I was doing. And WCBS TV Channel 2 in New York the flagship station of CBS – first they called me – I had done a piece for the AP that was kind of a scoop. There was a Soviet poet – still alive named Yevgeny Yevtysgenko and he was very much a bad boy and he was very liberal and somehow the Soviets tolerated him and he wrote a lot of stuff that made him a real darling in the West.
And he was coming to the states to do a reading at a college in New Jersey and I was assigned. And I wound up getting a little scoop on him because I rode with him in the limo and he confessed that he had a hangover and blah blah blah and I wrote an article and I filed my piece before any other reporter – [before] the thing had even begun and it made a lot of front pages. Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtysgenko recovering from a hangover… And it was, oh my God, the great Soviet poet.
So Channel 2 had seen this and their headhunter called me up and invited me in for a conversation and would I like a job as a writer at Channel 2 and I said it was very flattering. And as much as I admire Jim Jensen the anchor I didn’t like the idea of writing words that came out of somebody else’s mouth, because I like my own byline and they should call me if they ever had an opening for a correspondent. So they did.
So a couple of months later Pia Lindstrom who was one of the first women in television news was leaving – she was pregnant. And they wanted another woman, which is the way of course they thought. So I auditioned – several people auditioned for the job. It turns out we were all blonde. I got the job – I referred to it as the blonde seat at Channel 2 News. But yeah that’s where I was for two years.
PS: But as I understand you eventually were unhappy with that and really wanted to leave. But the next move you made was one that would change your life for the next 31 years.
LS: Let me tell you why I was unhappy. I think a lot of the people at Channel 2 news were wonderful – a lot of the reporters were terrific. What was happening was that television news was going from being pretty serious reporting as CBS Local at that time was – to happy talk news – where the anchors and reporters all sat around on the set and chatted with each other. And once again where did I come up with this – but I thought this was wrong.
I thought that if you delivered the news you were supposed to deliver the news.
And not talk about what you had for dinner last night. Turns out I misread the Zeit Geist and this is where it was going. And so I got snarky and I got nasty and I didn’t like my assignments and I hated being on the set and having to go – chatter chatter not about my story but about me. You know I was wrong. I just I just didn’t see the direction.
So I basically got fired. Which is to say my contract didn’t get picked up. By the way I got fired by reading about it in the New York Post in the television column. I was out to lunch one day and someone said – Have you seen the post. I said No – I read it said Lynn Sherr won’t be returning at the end of her contract.
PS: So that was a shocking dessert.
LS: Well, yeah. So I then got a phone call officially telling me that and telling me that I could pick up my stuff but I would not be on the air anymore. These are really charming folks – some of them – really charming folks. So I freelanced for a while. I did some stuff – a lot of stuff. I did some local stuff and then I wound up at public television and I belonged to Channel 13 in New York and half to WTA in Washington and I worked with a show called USA People in Politics that Bill Moyers had started and I wound up anchoring that show when Bill left. And it was politics in the 76 campaign so that was great fun and I really enjoyed doing that.
PS: Did you work on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report?
LS: I would fill in a lot at the time for MacNeil/Lehrer when it was MacNeil/Lehrer. I filled in for Robin or Jim whoever was – I forget which – and that was also terrific. And then Roone Arledge came in as the new president of ABC News in 1977 and I got a call. And that was my next job. And yes that’s where I remained for the next 30 plus years.
PS: What was it like to be a woman on national TV network working with Peter Jennings who was then the anchor of World News Tonight?
LS: Well Frank Reynolds was the original anchor when I got there along with – first was Harry and Barbara – then it was Frank and it was basically terrific. I mean I was not the first woman on the air in network news. There were women who had come before me. The real wave of women into television news of my generation was 1972 and that’s when I got to Channel 2.
I was at Channel 2 from 72 to 74 and this was not out of the goodness of anybody’s heart. This is because there were a bunch of lawsuits that were going on. This is because they were terrified – they really had to do something. So my being hired to replace Pia was part of that. Other women got in at the same time. So by the time I got to ABC in 1977 there were other women on the air in other networks so I was not the only one.
And honestly it was terrific. It was wonderful. And you know I got there and I still was promoting some feminist stuff. But of course I did everything. I was the first network reporter at any network to do a story about sexual harassment. And I did it in 1978.
PS: And that was early.
LS: That was really early. I did a two part series with a male producer. I proposed it – ABC loved it. It was such an unusual, such an unheard of thing that I had to spell it out in letters on the screen. I spelled out – sexual harassment – so that people would know what I was talking about. And we gave examples of what was going on. This was not new to me but I put it on the air. I did a number of stories like that. And it was a wonderful place to work.
I don’t believe there were any major barriers set up at the time. No – a woman was not going to be anchoring the evening news. And – No – a woman was not going to be anchoring lots of things. Those are areas we still had ways to go. But in terms of general assignment – women were doing basically what men were doing.
PS: But didn’t you cover five presidential elections?
LS: At least. I covered more than five presidential elections but probably five for ABC. And I was the person who on the set – on election night and on all the primary nights did all the poll analysis. And I was on the road 24/7 and it was exhilarating. It was wonderful. It was great fun and it was a great way to inform the world.
You know one of the things you didn’t ask me was why I wanted to become a reporter earlier. And I kid around and say it was Brenda Starr – which is true. She always got her story – she always got her man. I thought those – and was gorgeous. I mean what was not to like. But there was something in me always of I loved being the first person to tell you something. I love that I know something you don’t know and I’m going to tell it to you first.
And I’m going to tell it to you accurately.
And this was I think something that got implanted early in my brain or I was born with it. I kid around and say that my parents gave me the wonder gene because we were always asking questions and finding out answers. And when I was about 10 years old they gave me a gift – a little printing set. It had little tiny rubber letters and a tweezer and a block. And you picked up the letters and put them in and would use the pad and you could make – it was very tedious. That’s how it was done.
So I did – I think one edition of The Sherr Family News including you know dad is back from a trip to wherever – mother did this and I just loved that feeling. So when you say it was fun – it was fun but it was also all I ever wanted to do – was to tell people stuff and to tell it accurately.
PS: Please tell some of the amazing things you covered. You did cover the Chicago Convention, which was an unforgettable convention when they nominated Hubert Humphrey. What was that like?
LS: Well that’s when – you know 68 – I was still with the A.P. I was doing my filmstrips. And the grownups – the real reporters were wonderful about giving me access. I needed to tell the story of that convention in a way that it would be for high school students. And I needed to do through pictures and a script I would write. And the photographers would shoot stuff I needed and I saw what happened in the streets. I saw what happened with this so-called – with the treatment of the so-called hippies and yippies.
I saw the horror.
I saw Mayor Daley on the floor of that convention shouting – a catcall to get Abe Ribicoff – then the governor of Connecticut off the stage and it was riveting and it was horrifying. And I will tell you that I could not go back to what was then the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago for years afterwards without smelling the stink bombs in the lobby because then the protesters set off stink bombs – would have this awful raw egg smell just spoiled eggs – rotten eggs – terrible smell.
It was an eye opening convention and I learned a lot. I learned a lot about the world. And I learned a lot about how to tell a story without being on one side or the other.
PS: Well on a higher note you also covered the Ferraro campaign when she was chosen by Mondale for vice president. That was in 1984 I believe.
LS: I will never forget the feeling of being on the floor of the convention – the Democratic convention in 1984 in San Francisco when Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as vice president. And I will tell you with no embarrassment whatsoever that my heart was full. I was excited as a woman.
I thought it was as perfect a moment as you could get at that point.
I will also tell you that I then got the assignment to cover her and that I was able to step back and be a reporter and cover her without any feeling of – give her a break she’s a woman. She was a candidate at that point and I covered her fairly – toughly and was able to have some insights that you wouldn’t have if you weren’t female. But nonetheless it was a great moment – that moment on the floor.
PS: So you had quite a history there. But finally at ABC you joined 2020 the popular and respected TV news magazine. And it was watched by millions. And there were new anchors I believe on that show.
LS: Well Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs were the anchors when I got to 2020 and it was great. I was there for almost 20 years – more than 20 years. We covered at that time what I think were really important stories. I think we saved lives. I think we informed people. I think that we entertained them in a great way. I’m very proud of a huge number of stories I did for 2020 at that time.
Probably one of the best known was a piece – wound up being several pieces – hour long pieces – entire hours on anorexia and on a woman from Canada who was literally saving young women and young men from the scourge of that awful disease. This was at the height of the anorexia thing.
PS: You got a Peabody Award for that didn’t you?
LS: Yes. We won a Peabody for that. My producer Alan Goldberg and I, and we were a good team and it was an amazing story. I’m very proud of that. But there are lots of them. We did a lot of stories that broke new ground and that was a time when 2020 was must viewing.
PS: Well there was also the Maggie Award you received for Ireland’s battle over the abortion amendment, which was also very progressive coverage.
LS: Well you know to go to Ireland and to see what they were doing was an eye opener. We had done many stories – we did another story in France on the introduction of a new pill that was going to revolutionize reproductive rights. I also really enjoyed at 2020 doing what I would call some of the sort of softer stories about social trends. I did a story once about women who got divorced because it turned out their husbands were gay. And no one had talked about this thing before.
And this was a whole new category of trying to understand what people were going through.
And it turned out there were a lot of women who had been through the same thing. And the bond that they felt with each other and the bond they still felt with their ex husbands – and I did a lot of stories about gay rights. I saw it as a civil rights issue, which it clearly is and was and did a huge number of stories about that because I thought they were important. We did a lot of stories about women’s issues as well.
And then there were just stories that were pure fun. I went to – we went to the Arctic to do a story about some Inuit people and some work they were doing and there I am riding along a sled out on the open land in Baffin Island. There were great stories.
PS: You did one for 1990 covering the millennium from Bombay India.
LS: That was part of our ABC News millennium coverage. ABC did just a great show. 24 hours of the millennium and Peter Jennings anchored in his tuxedo of course in Times Square. And many of us were sent around the world. And my assignment was Mumbai Bombay India out in front of the Taj Hotel – the one that was later bombed alas.
PS: Had you been there before?
LS: I had never been to India before and so the beauty of this assignment was I got to go to India two weeks in advance and do some research, because they were going to come to me and then I was meant to represent all of India and say what the millennium means. And my favorite moment was – I was on the air with Peter and he said – Well Lynn there you are at the Taj – there you are in Mumbai – are they excited in India as we are in the States?
So I said to him, Peter let me tell you a story – I had interviewed a man who was in the computer business. And I said to him – Well we’re doing the millennium – isn’t this fabulous and aren’t you in India as excited as we are? And he looked at me and he said – you in America are excited he said because it’s your first – we’ve had many. So that was my way of explaining how India was dealing with the millennium – it was lots of fun.
PS: And you did things on so many other subjects. One on Cuba’s new tourism amidst grinding poverty.
LS: Well that was a scary story because we went to Cuba to do a story on – there’s an area that they were developing. I’m sure it’s all developed now – mostly Spanish and other European hotels. Beautiful beach area. And they were developing that and we were doing that story. But of course we wanted to show what was really going on and so under cover of darkness we found sources who came and talked to us and told us about the grinding poverty in that country while all this was going on.
And I remember distinctly – very dark at night interviewing a man who was terrified but wanted to tell his story. And I had my hand on his back and I could feel him quivering underneath my hand. And I thought this is what is going on in this country still. You know this was some years ago.
PS: Still tightly controlled.
LS: Still tightly controlled. Still should not be talking to Americans and they were going to get nothing out of this new development.
PS: You also got an Emmy for the coverage of the 1980 presidential election of Nixon and Kennedy. That must have been an interesting.
LS: 1980 was Reagan.
PS: I had the wrong year. But it was Nixon and –
LS: No I never got an Emmy – I shared in the Emmy for our 1980 post election special that was the Reagan victory. And what was amazing about that was that through the polling – my part of the action was – through the polling we could see the complete realignment of the political parties. And these were Republicans who are now calling themselves Reagan – these were Reagan voters who were calling themselves Reagan Democrats.
It was a total shift in what was going on in this country.
That was a terrific night – that might have been the same night – Now I’m trying to remember there was one night when we did make history. I made history because this was still Frank Reynolds [who] was anchoring we had another co-anchor called Max Robinson, [an] African-American guy anchored of Chicago. Peter Jennings was in Europe and I was on the set in New York. Ted Koppel was there.
Here’s what happened. You’ve been on television sets. You know what it’s like – things are going on. And when you’re not on the air you have a thing in your ear, which is called an IFB, which lets you hear the program, and let’s the producers talk to you.
So I’m hearing the program going on and I’m talking to my polling guy and we’re going over the information about what we’re going to say next. And all of a sudden – you develop a third ear. I heard that nothing was happening. There was silence in my ear. I actually had two IFB’s. I had one for the program and one for the producer. I heard nothing – nothing. I looked up at the monitor – and Frank Reynolds, our main anchor was going like this. No sound – no audio.
Next thing I saw the camera shifts and they go back to Ted Koppel – was sitting right behind him. Nothing. They go to Max Robinson – nothing. They go to Peter Jennings in London, which did no good because Peter was not on the set. The next thing I know – I hear in my ear – Lynn – from a producer – Lynn we’ve lost audio – we’re coming to you next.
PS: That’s terrifying.
LS: So I said – I went – they came to me and I said – on the air some version of – we seem to have lost audio – but because I was following I knew where we were and the producer, the executive producer Jeff Gralnick starts feeding the information – [it] was like a scene out of broadcast news. Because he was actually – I didn’t have any information. And so he’s feeding. He said now we’re going to go call the race – I’m going to make this up – call the race in Michigan.
So I said now we’re going to call the race in Michigan. And I saw the thing and I said oh and Michigan so I could pick it up from there. This went on for – felt to me like 20 minutes it was about a minute and a half. So we’re going on and on and then I kind of liked it.
And then I started talking and I talked about my polling numbers and I sort of – I was anchoring the whole show then. Then I hear from the same producer who normally would say to me – OK wrap it up Lynn – back to Peter – wrap it up – back to Frank right that same guy.
He now says to me very calmly we’ve restored audio when it’s comfortable throw it back to Frank. So I just kept going for another second or two and then I threw it back to Frank. And I’m told the entire control room stood up and applauded. It was my little moment. I consider it the moment that I saved ABC News. I saved the network. Absolutely. It was so much fun.
PS: In the midst of all this success and all this fun and all this amazing material you underwent two major crises – losing the husband you loved from cancer and then your own battle with colon cancer. How did you handle this?
LS: How does anybody handle it? I don’t feel in a position to give advice to anybody on any of these things. I think everybody handles it personally – separately.
Larry was the love of my life.
I got married late. He was a dream. And we fought it. And I say we because I firmly believe that you’re never in this alone – you do it with somebody else – but it got him. And for me part of the salvation was to keep on working. I needed to stay at the job; I needed to keep doing it. It just was important.
Obviously I took off when I needed to and when I needed to be with him I was home all the time. But it’s a terrible thing. And the only good part of it is the love that we had when he was alive. So yeah that was a terrible period.
PS: You did have one thing else – because I ask you how did your role as a stepmother to your husband’s three sons help in your recovery?
LS: Well I got these three terrific kids who have had and still have a mother with whom I get along way better than their father ever did. And that was all fine. But these three young men came into my life and I will say that during Larry’s illness and death having them around as well as the rest of my family was the only thing that made it possible. And it was a bond that will never be broken. And we all have that.
But having them there – and it happened – Larry died – I think a week before my fiftieth birthday, which is you know pretty young to lose your husband. He was 57 and also kind of a pretty lousy way to walk into your fiftieth birthday.
And I must have been – I think I had gone back – I had gone back to work briefly for something and before I went to the office a package came at the front door and it was flowers. And it was – for the sake of argument – four roses or something like that maybe it was a dozen roses. And there was a note from the boys. But I knew which one it was written by the one that was most like his dad in terms of sense of humor.
And the note said – happy birthday – we didn’t want to – oh I’ve got the story backwards a dozen roses came to the office – dozen roses came to the office. I was back at the office and the note said happy birthday – the rest of them are at home we didn’t want anyone at the office to know how old you really are.
Sorry I blew the story. But my point is simply – Larry’s sense of humor was there and that to me was like a way of saying – yeah I can get through this. I’ve got them. I can get through this.
PS: And they remain a close part of your life?
LS: Yes, very. I have five grandchildren.
PS: A question. As a lifelong feminist which you were. Who do you most admire – and are – who do you most admire among the leaders, authors, journalists and activists that you’ve known and why?
LS: Well you’re not going to like this answer because you’re going to want names and I’m going to tell you that I’m not going to give you names because I’m going to forget somebody and then I’m going to be deeply embarrassed.
I have no hesitation saying that Susan B. Anthony remains at the top of all my lists.
And I’m also going to put my mother there who was not a feminist in the real sense but the more I learned about her and the more I know about her, the more I realize how strong she was in her own way. In addition, my two grandmothers which are – to me is extraordinary because I never thought to ask them any of the questions I should have asked. I was a dope. I didn’t ask and they wouldn’t answer certain things but they were very strong women.
And getting here – I’m a second generation American. I’ve got four grandparents – only three of whom I ever knew who made their way to this country when they were teenagers and how they had the courage to do that and start over – I have absolutely no idea. So that to me is amazing.
I guess the other people that I would always want to say I admire are the people we don’t know about – the people who do their jobs every single day. We’ve all done our sexual harassment stories and we celebrate the women who were not able to make it in television news or in the corporate world.
But my heart goes out to the blue-collar people. The people who are doing the day-to-day stuff and don’t have the big platforms on which to complain. And without these women who are just there at work every single day I don’t know how this country or we would survive.
PS: They are the strugglers.
LS: They are the strugglers – they are and they’re also the strong ones. They’re just out there doing it. And I my heart goes to them.
PS: Your opinion. How would you rate the current climate for women in media? Thinking about the MeToo movement the sexual harassment at the networks, the kind of political coverage which is going on now. How do women especially fit in and what are their roles there today?
LS: I think the paths are endless and I think the doors are wide open. And I think it’s a question of how you choose to use it. I’m very troubled when I see on Fox News that everybody has to essentially look the same. Yes there are some outliers but – the big lips – long hair – cocktail dresses to read the news – I find it atrocious.
And I think having to be a sexy broad – I use that term advisedly – is not what we’ve been fighting for. If that’s what you want – fine. I’m troubled that that’s the standard at one level.
I think there are a lot of glass ceilings we still have to crash through.
I think there are a lot of areas we still need work on. And I spend a fair amount of my time looking around – reading the news – seeing the news and saying – didn’t we do that already. I thought we were done. I thought we were done. We were sure – even though we didn’t have the equal rights amendment that all these barriers were ended.
We were sure that – sure there were too few women in any number of professions but we were going to get there. Just keep that pipeline filled – keep it going. I was sure we’d have a female president by now. Susan B. Anthony said – in 1905 – I firmly believe that one day a woman will be President the United States – 1905.
PS: Wow that’s quite a while back.
LS: That is quite a while back. She died in 1906 and hasn’t seen that yet. I sure hope it happens before I’m gone but I was sure that we would have had one by now. I always believed we would have an African-American president before we had a female president – the same way the civil rights movement preceded the women’s movement – the abolition movement preceded the second wave of suffrage. I knew that was going to happen. But do I think it’s time? Yeah. I sure think it’s time.
PS: And we’re going to be refighting a lot of the old fights.
LS: Well again – you know I thought we were done. I thought we were done.
PS: That was my next question. I was going to ask you what you consider the most pressing issues challenging today’s young feminists?
LS: Keep going. Don’t give up.
Don’t assume that because there’s one woman that’s enough.
I once did a live interview in front of a legal group with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which was heavenly as you can imagine.
PS: The notorious.
LS: The notorious. And she told me a great story that when she got to the bench – and of course Sandra Day O’Connor was also there – people still confused them believe it or not. And so she and Sandra O’Connor both had t-shirts and Ginsburg said I’m Ruth Not Sandra – and Sandra said I’m Sandra Not Ruth. I mean can you imagine. But Ginsburg – Ruth Bader Ginsburg who’s always been one of my heroes also said to me – I said to her that day and this must have been 15 or so years ago – I said – when will it end?
When will we finally have equality?
She said nothing will change until the issue of childcare is taken care of. That as long as women are seen as not only the primary but the sole caregivers then workplace equity will never happen. And I see huge differences with my kids and grandkids. There’s a huge difference already in terms of my stepsons do not say I’m babysitting when they’re home with the kids.
They say, I’m home with the kids. In the past men have always said I’m babysitting whereas when the woman is there they’re taking care of the kids. So I see big differences. It’s not there yet though.
PS: And paternity leaves would play into that as well.
LS: Absolutely right – paternity. Same sex marriage, the ability to adopt children – having two mommies, having two daddies. My grandkids think that having three grandmothers is perfectly normal so how nice is that?
PS: And looking ahead what are you and Jurate working on now to redress past injustices to the brave women of our history?
LS: Well Jurate and I have discussed redoing the calendar – redoing the Susan B. Slept Here and I think we’re going to leave that to other people to do. We stopped doing the calendar in 1980 because Ms. Magazine had been started. When we did our calendar nothing existed like it – nothing. So if we were not going to commemorate Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, the ERA – the day Bernice Gera became the first female baseball umpire – of all that – nobody was. So that was our way of doing it.
When Ms. came along and took a lot of our sort of the stuff we’d been doing and put it into a magazine form – that was fine; let them do it. You know we moved on then. We did the Gazetteer, which became Susan B. Slept Here. And now there are many websites that use our information from Susan B. Anthony Slept Here.
And there are women’s heritage trails all over the country and that all came from the books that we did and I’m thrilled about that. And I like the fact that we planted all these terrific seeds that are now blossoming into other things.
PS: And now tell us about this new one which has to do with public monuments to women.
LS: Well I’m on the board of the statue that’s going up in Central Park. We finally have real women coming to Central Park. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and they’ll be tributes as well to plenty of other women who worked with the suffrage movement and there were lots of women and men. But Anthony and Stanton were the leaders and they were the leaders for all of their grown up lifetimes. And it’s appropriate that statue is to them in that park.
And I think monuments are a great way to honor our foremothers.
We need more of them – more monuments. We need more recognition. I personally got immensely tired of seeing pigeons roosting on every Civil War general or his horse that you can imagine. I love the idea of real women out there – not just Liberty or Mother Goose or a fictional character – but real women who did real things.
I love the fact that a lot of these women’s homes are now being turned into museums. One of my favorite places is the Susan B. Anthony home and museum in Rochester, New York where they’re not only commemorating Anthony’s life but it’s a gathering place – it’s where people can come together and discuss all kinds of issues.
So we need to – I want not to forget history. I want young women to understand this is part of our heritage. I want young men to believe its part of our heritage. I think the MeToo movement ought to have as many men involved as it has women involved. I would like it to be a time when we talk about a female president when we don’t just interview women about why it’s important to have a female president. I would like us all to be connected in the movement to get equal recognition across the board.
PS: Thank you so much Lynn Sherr for giving so much of yourself to this conversation.
LS: My pleasure.