Barbara Walters: ‘A Shining Example of Possibility’ for Women in a Man’s World
They streamed onto the set, a high-gloss, high-heeled, perfectly coifed, sheath-dressed parade of glory to honor their godmother. Oprah announced their household names: Connie Chung, Jane Pauley, Katie Couric, Savannah Guthrie, Gretchen Carlson, Gayle King, Maria Shriver, Diane Sawyer, Hoda Kotb and a dozen others, the women who had come to dominate and define television news.
It was 2014, and Barbara Walters was retiring from ABC’s “The View,” which she had created and produced as well as co-hosted, her final game-changing move in a decades-long streak as a nearly constant presence on television. Amid the air kisses and genuine hugs from her fellow broadcasters during her on-air farewell to the daytime talk show, there were words of appreciation about how much Walters had mattered to them, and their careers.
And matter she did. Not just to the women at her own rarefied tier of the television industry, but also to men and women alike across the media business — and to millions of women worldwide who saw her as an example of possibility and distinction in a man’s world.
“Barbara was the first woman I can remember who was widely respected for her career,” my friend Priscilla Eshelman, a baby boomer who works in digital advertising sales, told me in a text message Saturday morning. That made Walters a “shining example of possibility, demonstrating how a woman could self-actualize.”
It helped that Walters was famous not for beauty-pageant looks but for her talent. Eshelman would grow into the kind of 1970s teenage girl who would latch on to the fledgling Ms. magazine as a feminist lifeline, but before that, there was Walters.
She led by her mere prominence, the very fact of her existence.
Walters, who died Friday at 93, made history by being the first female anchor on a TV news show (on ABC News in 1976) and conducting some of the most watched interviews of all time. Her fame was so complete that “Saturday Night Live’s” Gilda Radner impersonated her as “Baba Wawa,” fondly mocking those blurred “r’s” of hers. (Early on, Walters had been told, by none other than Don Hewitt — who would launch CBS’s “60 Minutes” — that she would never make it as an on-air presence because of her unusual speech patterns and her relatively ordinary looks.)