Five decades before Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg was telling women to lean in, Barbara Walters was doing just that and more. All women in the work world owe her respect, but women in communications owe a particular debt to Walters, who will retire next year at the age of 84.
In the 1960s, those Mad Men days when women were either invisible or second class citizens in the work force, Walters, who began as a segment producer for “women’s stories”, was visibly rising to new and more authoritative positions on NBC’s Today show, chipping away at conventions that would have kept her in her place. She eventually became a co-host of the show in 1974.
But it was her ceiling-shattering move to ABC in 1976 to co-host the nightly news that really made young women sit up and take notice. Those of us aspiring to big careers in journalism were being told by mentors and mothers that we, too, could be “another Barbara Walters.” Unfortunately, her co-host Harry Reasoner was not happy about having to share desk space with a female partner and the partnership lasted only a short time. Walters, however, moved on with grace and purpose. She co-hosted 20/20, moderated presidential debates, set high standards for the emerging art of personality journalism and launched ABC’s The View, a forum for women of different backgrounds, generations and political thought.
No career of 50-plus years is without its missteps and Walters, like most of us, has had a few. But in the rear view mirror those rocky spots – often lampooned on Saturday Night Live – look pretty smooth. She is a woman who has done it all, professionally, and now she’s ready to do more, personally.
Walters says there will be no second acts or life reinventions. She just wants to leave the stage while she’s still vital. I say let’s give her a standing ovation and let her walk to the wings blowing kisses to the audience.
Photo: Donna Svennevik/ABC/Getty Images