Aside from Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s frighteningly extreme position on Medicare, the top news this week has been all women all the time.
On Monday, August 13, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that for the first time since Carole Simpson in 1992, a woman—CNN’s “State of the Union” host and chief political correspondent Candy Crowley—will moderate a presidential debate.
Crowley, 61, has won many awards for political reporting during her stellar career. She graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College—my friend Amy Litzenberger is sure that women find their voices in all-female college settings—and rose from a Washington DC radio newsroom assistant through the Associated Press and NBC ranks before joining CNN news in 1987. Along the way, she covered every presidential campaign and convention since Jimmy Carter.
On the same day Crowley’s selection was announced, Cosmopolitan Magazine’s iconic former editor-in-chief and the author of the 1962 game-changing best seller Sex and the Single Girl, Helen Gurley Brown, died in Manhattan at age 90.
Brown’s New York Times front page obituary is in itself a statement of her significance in changing America’s sexual mores. She counseled women (and demonstrated herself) that they were entitled to enjoy sex with or without marriage, and she encouraged the use of feminine wiles in the service of one’s ambitions. Her signature tagline was “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” The Times obit describes her controversial posture:
Ms. Brown routinely described herself as a feminist, but whether her work helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation has been publicly debated for decades. It will doubtless be debated long after her death. What is safe to say is that she was a Janus-headed figure in women’s history, simultaneously progressive and retrogressive in her approach to women’s social roles.
When I heard the news about Gurley Brown, I thought: “If Margaret Sanger freed women from unintended pregnancy and Betty Friedan freed us from girdles, then Helen Gurley Brown freed women to enjoy orgasms as men had always done. RIP and thanks, Helen.”
And when I heard the news about Crowley, I cheered with a different kind of satisfaction. Not just because her appointment along with that of ABC’s Martha Raddatz, who will moderate the vice-presidential debate, marks the first time equal numbers of men and women will appear in these lead roles.
What thrilled me most about Crowley was that three 16-year-old New Jersey high school girls—Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis—started the petition that led to public debate about the lack of equal gender representation.
And that in turn forced the Debate Commission’s hand, despite their protests to the contrary. (Excuse my eye-roll, but those in power always have to say pressure played no part in their decisions, especially when it comes to gender.)
On a surface look at their lives and what they are known for, Crowley and Gurley Brown couldn’t be more different.
But there are five similarities that can teach leadership lessons to all of us:
- Both women demonstrate courage in their pursuit of what they think is right. For Crowley, this is the best of journalistic tradition—to seek the facts and report them objectively, to ask the hard questions and not flinch from probing more deeply if a politician tries to obfuscate the answer. I call her an expert crap detector. Gurley similarly Brown had the courage to remodel her magazine as she thought would appeal to modern women. And she stuck by her controversial convictions about women’s right to sexual pleasure despite much pushback from feminists and conservatives alike.
- Both women apply No Excuses Power Tool #3: Use what you’ve got. Both were denigrated early in their careers for not looking like the Barbie Princess model of female physical pulchritude. And both used their smarts and skills to parlay themselves to success. Gurley Brown invented the term “Mouseburger” to describe her own nondescript appearance, whereas Crowley has acknowledged that her weight has been an impediment. She overcame it, partially by losing some, but primarily by being so darn good at her job that others had to look beyond appearances.
- Both women are groundbreakers in their fields. Gurley Brown led a moribund Cosmopolitan to resurgence, for good or ill, as the archetype modern women’s magazine that became a model for others to this day. Crowley’s groundbreaking first will happen when she moderates the presidential town hall October 16 at Hofstra University.
- Both women are hard workers, giving long hours with laser focus on what they want to achieve. In neither case was fame or fortune handed to them on silver platters. They earned it the old fashioned way.
- Both women demonstrate persistence. They never gave up in the face of criticism, whether of their physical appearance or their capabilities to handle the job. Gurley Brown held 17 different jobs before she got her dream job of editor-in-chief. Crowley’s career trajectory similarly shows a path of constant learning and moving up through the ranks to her current role.
Still, there is one distinct difference between Crowley and Gurley Brown. It is their generational context.
Gurley Brown’s focus on ownership of the body, including embracing one’s sexuality and sexual enjoyment, is an essential step along the path to full empowerment. By the time Crowley entered college, the birth control pill was readily available and no one questioned that a “single girl” could have both good sex and a good life.
The other essential step to power is financial independence—the ability to earn enough money to support oneself and one’s family.
By the time Crowley entered the journalism profession, women were still far from parity (even as we remain today), but the professional doors had been opened and ceilings were being shattered all around her, thanks to second wave feminist pioneers like Gloria Steinem, Florynce Kennedy, Bella Abzug, and Betty Friedan who broke ceilings and smashed discriminatory policies across all sectors.
I doubt that Helen Gurley Brown in her early years could have imagined Candy Crowley, a journalist seasoned by a lifetime of serous political reporting and analysis, a journalist and, yes, a woman whose qualifying credentials for moderating a presidential debate can’t be questioned.
Marvelously, because of what both Gurley Brown and Crowley have achieved, the next generation has a completely different context. Those three 16-year old girls know gender equality is simple justice and figured out how to break ground for women in political media, not for Candy Crowley’s sake but for all the little girls who will be watching her.