Vera Glaser: A Journalist’s Ode to Offbeat Washingtonian Politics

BY: KIMBERLY WILMOT VOSS

In 1969, President Richard Nixon made the mistake of placing a journalist on the White House’s Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities. The group issued a report that documented gender-based inequities everywhere. The Task Force made 20 recommendations – 19 of which became law. (Only the Equal Rights Amendment was overlooked.) When the White House refused to release that report to the public in 1970, the journalist secretly passed the document to her friend women’s page editor Marie Anderson who ran the report in the Miami Herald. That journalist was Vera Glaser, who died in November 2008.

Although not well known, Glaser’s Washington journalism career was long and influential. In the beginning, she had seen politics from the inside. In the 1940s she began doing public relations work for the National Republican Party and later she served as a press secretary for a senator. But it was covering politics as a journalist where Glaser made her mark. She became the first female Washington Bureau chief in the 1950s – working for the North American Newspaper Alliance. (This was well before the media started documenting female firsts.) She also appeared on Meet the Press and local Washington radio programs.

Glaser had come by her feminism awareness early. She was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. She was interested in journalism in high school and graduated first in her class. That position typically meant a scholarship to Washington University. Instead, the honor went to a male student who had only been at the school for a few months. Decades later, she credited that snub, plus some workplace discrimination, for turning her into “a fighting feminist.” This was a title she wore proudly.

Glaser was enlightened well before the second wave of the women’s movement, and her stories on inequalities pre-date any of the more visible feminist events such as marches and protests. She was covering women’s issues before Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were household names, as was noted by her good friend and feminist Catherine East who helped with stories. East was mid-level government employee beginning with the Kennedy administration. (Friedan nicknamed East the midwife of the women’s movement. East’s friends called her Deep Throat for her secretive relationship with the media.)

It was Glaser’s question to President Nixon in 1969 that led to the friendship with East. It was the President’s second press conference and it was televised. Glaser was lucky enough to be in the third row – reporters further back were unlikely to be called upon. When it was Glaser’s turn, this was her question: “Mr. President, since you’ve been inaugurated, you have made approximately 200 presidential appointments, and only three of them have gone to women. Can we expect some more equitable recognition of women’s abilities, or are we going to remain the lost sex?”

The question led to chuckles from the male reporters, and the president also initially responded as if it was a joke before seeming to realize he was on television. This was at a time when nearly every question from a female reporter led to laughter. Nixon then said he would look into the issue. This question led to stories across the country, crediting Glaser for raising the topic. Glaser was surprised to get a letter later in which East wrote, “I gather from the tone of your question, you might be interested in a few statistics.” East found a kindred spirit with Glaser and they worked together to make government more responsive for women.

The women’s partnership eventually led to Glaser’s 1969 five-part syndicated series on feminism that ran in newspapers across the country. According to Glaser, many of the facts about discrimination came from East. It was the first mainstream media explanation of women’s issues by a woman. It is difficult to overestimate how hostile journalists were to the messages of feminism. For anecdotal evidence, consider how ABC’s Evening News explained the peaceful 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality march in New York City: “Three things have been difficult to tame. The ocean, fools and women. We may soon be able to tame the ocean, but fools and women will take a little longer.”
While Glaser was an advocate, she had a whimsical spirit and added humor to the revolution. Rather than complaining that women sources were often unfairly described by their appearance in media accounts, she described male politician’s hair and fashion. At one point, she questioned whether a male official had been coloring his hair. After all, if reporters were going to describe the appearance of women, it was only fair to do the same for men.

She had a tongue-in-check approach to opening eyes to exclusion at a time when banning women in Washington was typical. This is one of her leads: “The last bulwark of congressional privacy has crumbled. A woman has invaded the secret massage parlor of the Old Senate Office Building. This reporter made the historic breakthrough. Astronauts, move over.” She went on to describe the facility in extreme, almost mocking, detail. She was a reporter with a column.

Glaser became a partner of veteran Washington journalist Malvina Stephenson on election night in 1968. They snuck into Nixon’s inner sanctum on the 35th floor of Waldorf Towers while hundreds of other reporters were stuck in the press room on the third floor of the hotel. By the time they were spotted by Nixon’s director of public relations, they already had numerous exclusive interviews and had found a copy of the campaign director’s confidential guide to election returns. They then broke the story.
Together, the two women wrote the Knight-Ridder-syndicated “Offbeat Washington” political column for five years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were billed as the female Evans-Novak. They were the kind of reporters of the old black-and-white movies. They broke numerous stories always looking for a unique angle, and their reporting led to them being described as “a couple of hustlers.”

Their exploits often allowed them to scoop the other Washington media. One time the pair booked a room at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel over the chief of the Chinese Mission to the United Nations. The group was new to the country and no reporter had gotten access. Instead, the journalists were kept behind a chain-link fence. Using the back stairs, the women visited the contingent’s quarters and gained interviews. It was the first look at the Chinese U.N. Mission by the American press.

Later, they interviewed an Army Chaplain who had just returned from Vietnam. The chaplain was candid about what he had seen – things were not going well. The resulting column led to an outcry to publisher John Knight from the Chaplain who denied making the remarks. The women were off the hook though – they had taped the conversation, hiding a tape recorder in the bowl of breadsticks at lunch. On their beat, they believed they had to tape everyone. They were a pair to be reckoned with and the politicians knew it.

They noted that CIA Director Richard Helms and a Russian newspaper correspondent, Boris Strelnikov, lived in the same Washington, D.C., apartment building. In a column beginning “Who is spying on whom,” they noted that the foes slept under the same roof and shared the same plumbing. They wrote about the Nixon administration’s use of expensively trained astronauts in non-space positions. They quoted an Ohio Representative who said of one such astronaut, “He is as qualified to hold that job as a pig is to be a figure skater.”

In 1971, Glaser was elected the president of the Washington Press Club. Women journalists created the organization in 1919 because women were not allowed to be members of the National Press Club. Ironically, she was the presiding president when men were finally allowed to become members the Washington Press Club. In her papers at the University of Wyoming is a letter from a new male member who found it discriminatory that there were so many female officers in the club. He recommended that more men should be elected. (The two clubs finally merged in 1985 allowing both men and women as members.)

In later years, Glaser wrote for the Mature News Network and the Washingtonian magazine. She was married to Herbert R. Glaser, an administrative officer with the National Labor Relations Board, and had a daughter, Carol Barriger. Glaser’s legacy for women and journalism is worthy of remembrance. She laid the groundwork for the women and investigating journalists who followed her. Glaser was featured in the book about Washington newswomen, Don’t Quote Me! The authors wrote of these Washington women correspondents, “They are keeping the watch on the Potomac, and because they have to work harder than men to keep afloat, their wits are often sharper.” That’s a fitting description of Glaser.

Presented at the American Journalism Historians Association-Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, History Division, Meeting, March 2009, New York City.

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