#ThrowbackThursday: Helen Thomas, a pioneer for women in journalism

by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant

Helen Thomas, the White House reporter who covered every president since JFK, died this past weekend at the age of 92. Though the end of her career was shadowed in controversy, there is no denying Thomas broke down barriers for many female journalists.

Helen Thomas knew she wanted to be a reporter since she worked on her high school’s newspaper.  In 1943, after graduating from college, she got a job as a “copy girl” with what is now known as United Press International (UPI).  As was happening in other industries, UPI hired a small number of women to fill the void in their staff left by men going off to fight in WWII.  When the men returned home after the war was over, UPI felt they did not need women workers anymore, so they fired all of them – except Thomas.  She was promoted to writing light pieces about women’s issues, society, and celebrities for the radio.  In 1960, she got her big break when she was sent by UPI to cover President-elect John F. Kennedy who was vacationing with his family.  From this time until 2010, she was part of the White House Press Corps.  Early in her career, she was one of about five women who covered the White House regularly.  She made a name for herself asking politicians the tough questions they did not necessarily want to answer, regardless of what party they belonged to.  In 1962, she got President Kennedy to invite women to the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the other accomplishments she racked up over her career read as a long list of “first”s and “only”s:

  • One of the first female White House reporters who covered the hard news only men were traditionally allowed to cover
  • She fought her way into the National Press Club, becoming one of its first female members and eventually its first female officer
  • First woman admitted to the Gridiron Club and its first female president
  • First woman to be UPI’s chief White House correspondent
  • First female head of UPI’s White House Bureau
  • First female member and president of the White House Correspondents Association
  • Only woman to accompany President Nixon on his historic trip to China
  • Only reporter with their own name, instead of their organization’s name, on their chair in the White House Briefing Room (front row center)

Thomas retired from the White House Press Corps in 2010 admits controversy surrounding comments she made about Israel.  In the five decades she spent grilling politicians, she was known as the “Dean of the White House Press Corps.” Check out the videos below to watch some of Thomas’ best Briefing Room moments, an interview in which she discusses her experiences being one of the few women in her field, and her opinions on the post-9/11 media.

Join in on the conversation!  Post comments below, on Facebook, or Tweet us @womenshistory using the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday.

Sources: Washington Post, The Daily Beast, ABC, Biography Channel, Politico

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