Henneberger was hired by AOL in 2009 to launch a website, Politics Daily, and she put together a predominantly female staff (my husband, Walter Shapiro, was one of the exceptions). “I wasn’t trying to even the score,” insists Henneberger. “But I saw great women writers all around. I think these male-created and male-run outfits tend to come up with a product that is a lot like them. I did the same thing.”
Her tactic did seem to open up the political conversation: Politics Daily’s readership skewed more than 50 percent female. The site closed last year as part of the AOL-HuffPost merger, and Henneberger recently launched a blog, “She The People,” staffed by twenty female contributors, for The Washington Post. “We were the best-read blog on the Post in the first three days right after the Iowa caucus.” says Henneberger. She argues that women writers add something unique to the dialogue. “It’s a different angle of entry. It’s not that the subject matter is any different. We’re not writing about makeup tips; we’re writing the same thing but with a different pair of eyes. It’s not even story choice, it’s just what we bring to it.”
But it’s not easy. Covering a presidential campaign has always been a prestigious and career-making assignment, but the lifestyle has never been for the faint of heart. Think of it as a sleep-deprivation experiment, amplified by bad road food and weeks away from home. Maggie Haberman, of Politico, was spending the last few minutes before the New Hampshire debate calling her husband, New York Post reporter Dareh Gregorian. “He’s been home taking care of our two kids,” she noted. For working women, these situations always involve delicate negotiations. Alice Stewart, the press secretary for Michelle Bachmann and a former local TV anchor, says that she wasn’t surprised to see fewer women in the press corps. “The reality is that many of the women can’t afford to take the time away from their families,” she says. “The men are in a position where they can do that a little easier.”
Do some women opt out of this grueling assignment and is that why news organizations have such lopsided campaign teams? Just ask the question and you get heated answers. “I don’t believe that for a second,” says Henneberger. “When I was at the Times, people were killing each other to get on the road. It’s not reporters self-selecting out. People love it. It’s a great job.” Yet Seema Mehta, of the Los Angeles Times, says she and her friends do worry about their futures. “We talk about it all the time,” she says. “We’re married and we don’t have children yet. We can do it now. But once you reach a certain age and have kids, it’s hard to travel.”
Watching the press corps cover Michelle Bachmann, Alice Stewart says she didn’t think there was any difference between how men and women reporters wrote about the candidate—on substantive issues. “Not if we were covering the news of the day, issues and Michelle’s values, it didn’t matter,” she says. “But when there were stories being done about her as a person or a mother, you could sense the connection in a different way if it was a female reporter than with a man.” Bachmann was comfortable and opened up a little more.
For Bachmann, and Hillary Clinton before her, the quest to become the first female president leads to a level of personal scrutiny that bordered on sexist. Stewart says that she was infuriated by the questions that both male and female reporters asked after the presidential debates. “I’d get calls from reporters wanting to know the maker of her suit, what style or brand. I asked whether they were doing the same with the other candidates and they said no,” Stewart says. “She delivered knock-out performances and they’re talking about the makeup and the clothes she’s wearing. It’s insulting.” With Bachmann out of the race, those kinds of questions are off the table for this presidential cycle.
On the night of the New Hampshire debate, there was one hopeful sign that the future may not resemble the past. In one row in the midst of the press room, a cluster of young women were busily blogging away. Dotty Lynch, formerly political director for CBS, and now a professor of political communication at American University, had brought up a group of her students. “This is a field that women are intrigued by and seem to want to be involved with,” she says, although she cautions, “The people at the top doing the hiring are still mostly white men.“