Arts & Culture

Barbara Walters: From “Today Girl” to Glass Ceiling Shatterer

In 2022, we lost some powerful, trailblazing women: Madeleine Albright, Nichelle Nichols, Christine McVie, Loretta Lynn, Irene Cara, and HRM Queen Elizabeth II to name just a few. With only a day left before the new year, we lost another, a woman who was more familiar than any entertainer, and probably had as much influence as any head of state.

Barbara Walters died on December 30, at the age of 93.

A pioneering broadcast journalist, Walters won countless awards; interviewed world leaders and superstars; and is widely credited for opening doors to women in an industry completely dominated by men.

Walters was born in 1929 Boston. Her grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants, and her father was a nightclub owner and show business producer. She had a colorful childhood that included access to celebrities and gangsters. Riding waves of her family’s economic successes and failures, Walters went to school in Brookline, MA; Miami, FL; and New York, NY. She eventually earned a Bachelor’s in English from Sarah Lawrence.

That degree was put to use at an ad agency and Redbook magazine before Walters was hired in her early 30s by NBC as a writer and producer for The Today Show. Before long, she was on camera as a weather announcer and the “Today Girl,” covering light news and topics targeted toward female viewers. (Like Gloria Steinem, another pioneering woman, Walters early on leveraged a story on Playboy bunnies, a subject that certainly appealed to men.)

After more than 10 years with The Today Show, during which Walters dealt with both  allies (Hugh Downs) and male chauvinists (Frank McGee), and became the host of a local NBC show, Not for Women Only, Walters was finally made an official Co-Host in 1974.

When she moved to the ABC Evening News in 1976, Walters became the highest paid news anchor of either gender, which demonstrates just how much the industry had evolved (and just how influential Walters had become). Three years later, she joined Downs again in the relatively early days of ABC’s 20/20 news magazine.

In the following decades, Walters was best known for high-profile special assignments, like presidential candidate debates and coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She became the world’s most famous (or, more accurately, infamous) interviewer, renowned for her insightful and relentless questions, and her ability to make her subjects cry (a skill she perfected years before Oprah Winfrey did). She once asked actor Katherine Hepburn what kind of tree she would be, and argued about freedom of the press with Fidel Castro. She conducted a joint interview with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, and sat down with every U.S. president since Richard Nixon. Her 1999 special with Monica Lewinsky attracted 74 million viewers, setting a record for any news-based program.

In 1997, Walters co-created, co-produced, and co-hosted The View, an innovative (at the time) daytime talk show featuring a diverse all-female panel of commentators. Since then, the formula, which earned the show 31 Emmy Awards, has inspired similar round-table shows The Talk and The Real. Walters officially retired nearly ten years ago, although she continued to produce The View, and conducted a few post-retirement interviews, most notably with Donald and Melania Trump.

Although a cause of death has not been made public at this time, Walters was reported to have a heart condition and dementia. By all accounts, she left peacefully, surrounded by family.

Those who have followed in Walters’s footsteps have been quick to pay tribute.

Oprah Winfrey credited her on Twitter, posting, “Without Barbara Walters there wouldn’t have been me — nor any other woman you see on evening, morning, and daily news,” and continuing, “She was indeed a Trailblazer. I did my very first television audition with her in mind the whole time. Grateful that she was such a powerful and gracious role model. Grateful to have known her. Grateful to have followed in her Light.”

On Instagram, Katie Couric, another Today Show alumna, recalled, “She was just as comfortable interviewing world leaders as she was Oscar winners, and her body of work is unparalleled. I was a lucky recipient of her kindness and encouragement. When I landed a big (impromptu) interview with President Bush, she wrote me a note that I still have framed in my office:

Dear Katie,

You were terrific with Mrs. Bush (you knew far more than she did) and nabbing the President was a real coup. You are so darn good! Bravo!

Barbara”

 And on CBS Sunday Morning, anchor Jane Pauly, who had the courage (or misfortune) to follow after Walters at the Today Show, explained, “Barbara Walters was one of a kind and a self-made woman. I inherited her place at the anchor desk on Today in 1976, but she was inspiration for an entire generation and called us her legacy. The first and very likely only newswoman whose name everyone knew. Barbara Walters was the “GOAT,” Greatest of all Time.”

Since Walters died last Friday, social media friends have posted Gilda Radner doing her brilliant “Baba Wawa,” the recurring 1970s Saturday Night Live character. The broadcaster’s distinctive speech patterns made her an easy target for the gifted comedienne. Walters herself wasn’t a fan until her young daughter told her to lighten up. “Gilda was so wonderful — the sketch immortalized me — but at the time I wasn’t so thrilled,” Walters remembered about a decade ago, then confessed, “Years later, when Gilda died, I sent her husband Gene Wilder a sympathy note, and signed it Barbara Wawa.”

Shattering glass ceilings isn’t a mission for the lazy or the faint of heart. But in addition to her decades of hard work, Walters blazed trails for future female journalists with intelligence, grace, and — sometimes — even a sense of humor.

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