Opening the door for women journalists at the White House

Lorena Hickok (far right) and Eleanor Roosevelt (second from left). Public domain image from the National Archives and Records Administration.

In the 1930’s, White House correspondents were almost entirely male, with only men allowed into President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s office for press conferences.  That all began to change, however, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt began holding her own press conferences, where only women were allowed.

As Betty Houchin Winfield notes in “FDR and the News Media,” this opened up the world of covering the White House to women. More female reporters were hired to write about politics and cover her, not just work for the society pages.

“The dynamic first lady was so newsworthy that the journalists wanted access to her. Since she limited the meetings to women only, such all-male Washington press bureaus as the Associated Press were forced to hire women to cover her,” Winfield writes (81).

It was at the suggestion of Lorena Hickok, a journalist from Wisconsin, that these all-female press conferences began to be held. Hickok was a pioneering journalist who opened the door for other females at the time and in the future to begin careers covering the White House.

Hickok first joined the staff of the Milwaukee Sentinel as a society editor and went on to work as a reporter throughout the country. Eventually, after working at The Battle Creek Evening News, the Minneapolis Tribune and the New York Daily Mirror, she ended up covering Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1932 presidential campaign for the Associated Press. The two struck up a quick friendship, according to The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, and would remain close until Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962.

Hickok’s coverage of the future First Lady would go on to shape how other reporters and readers thought of Eleanor Roosevelt. In “Franklin and Eleanor,” Joseph P. Lash writes that Hickok had begun to cover Eleanor’s reluctance to become a First Lady. Other reporters began to pick up on this and look for those cues as well, according to Lash.

Assignments like covering the candidate’s wives were common for female reporters of that era. According to the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, society reporting and editing was “the only position available to most women on newspapers.” Covering the president and policies enacted by the White House were exclusively covered by male reporters until several years later. Hickock, however, began to break away from this tradition while working at the Associated Press.

Later on, Hickock traveled around the country with the Roosevelts and reported on the New Deal, breaking the mold of what was typical for a female journalist. “Quickly making a name for herself by covering politics and dramatic stories like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Hickok surpassed her male colleagues and won the coveted right to have her name appear as a by-line atop her articles,” the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project reports. This was unusual at the time. Bylines were dominated by men, but Hickok began making a name for herself as a female reporter.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Hickok had a close relationship, and it is often rumored that their relationship went beyond friends and was more romantic in nature. An article in Time titled “The Journalist Who Lived at the White House,” describes their relationship as an “intimate, not-quite-definable friendship.”

It was Hickok who suggested that Eleanor hold her own press conferences, for females only, according to “FDR and the News Media.”

“One of her [Eleanor Roosevelt’s] most innovative steps was to hold her own weekly press meetings. When her traveling companion and White House guest, Lorena Hickok of the Associated Press, originated the idea of regular press conferences that would be limited to women reporters, Louis Howe was delighted…” Winfield writes (81).

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok’s relationship was so close that Hickok lived in the White House during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term as president, according to the White House Historical Association.  Hickok continued reporting for the Associated Press while living in the White House for about 6 months, according to Susan Quinn, but resigned in 1933 because she felt it was a conflict of interest. 

According to “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Close Relationship With the Journalist Lorena Hickok,” from the New York Times, their relationship was romantic, at least for some period of time.

“…Hick, as she was called, fell in love with her subject, and at least for a time Eleanor reciprocated. Realizing she couldn’t cover someone she had feelings for, Hick resigned from the A.P…”

Female journalists had been around Washington since 1850, but were not in high demand to cover politics or the White House. Winfield notes: “Although women has been in the press galleries since 1850, only a small number were political writers and Washington correspondents.” (56).

After resigning from the Associated Press, Hickok took on a role investigating conditions around the country with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. According to “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Close Relationship With the Journalist Lorena Hickok” and several other sources, this is a job that Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Hickok. However, that article also notes that by stepping away from journalism to be closer to Eleanor Roosevelt, Hickok effectively ended her career in journalism. “…In choosing Eleanor, she had stepped off the ladder of her career, and she never regained her professional footing,” Amanda Vaill writes in the New York Times article.

Nevertheless, Hickok’s history as a journalist was revolutionary, especially in a time where female political journalists were rare.

Without Hickok, the expanded role for female reporters in the White House would have likely been delayed. Although Hickok is not without scrutiny as a journalist, especially when considering her closeness with the Roosevelts while still covering the White House, her importance is not dimmed. Her push for female journalists to begin coverage of politics in Washington D.C. opened up doors for not only herself and other female journalists at the time, for for all of the female journalists covering the White House who have come since.

Monica is a senior journalism major and business administration minor from Louisville. She has worked for WKU’s campus newspaper, The College Heights Herald, for three years, covering the administration and working as the news editor. This year, she was also a fellow at the Lexington Herald-Leader. For her project, Monica is looking into the evolution of female reporters covering the White House.

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