National Press Club

NPC in History: The first woman president

June 16, 2019 | By Gilbert Klein | gilbert.klein@me.com

Vivian Vahlberg with former President Ronald Reagan at her inauguration as the National Press Club's first female president on Feb. 10, 1982.

Vivian Vahlberg with former President Ronald Reagan at her inauguration as the National Press Club's first female president on Feb. 10, 1982.

Vivian Vahlberg became a Washington correspondent at the unusually young age of 22. Growing up in Oklahoma City, she was bitten by the journalism bug in junior high school. While she went to Rice University to study sociology, every summer she came home to work at the Daily Oklahoman. She to graduate school at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism,and in the fall of 1970 she was reporting in Washington as part of Medill’s D.C. program.

In an oral history with Maurine Beasley in 2008, Vahlberg said as she was walking through the Senate Press Gallery one day, a man stopped her to talk about the beaded Indian necklace she was wearing. It turned out he was the reporter for the Tulsa Tribune, and he mentioned that the Oklahoman had a Washington bureau job open.

She knew Oklahoma and the people at the Oklahoman. And she had three whole months experience as a student Washington correspondent. So, confidently, “I walked in and said, ‘you should hire me.’ And they did.”

Most institutional barriers against women journalists in Washington had fallen by then, but she still faced “subtle attitudinal barriers.” She always had the feeling people thought, “Well look at her, a girl being Washington correspondent … how unusual.”

She began as a Washington correspondent the same year the National Press Club admitted women as full members. She covered the Club meeting where women were admitted – from the balcony, the only place a woman journalist could sit for the vote. “It was a pretty raucous debate.” One man said, “If we admit women, we’ll be subjected to female chatter morning to night.” Her bureau chief, Al Cromley, who had been Club president in 1968, reluctantly voted to admit women, but voted “no” on an unsuccessful second vote to restrict women members from the card room and members’ bar.

Those two votes ended 50 years of struggle for women journalists. Vahlberg joined the National Press Club and the Women’s National Press Club, which that year changed its name to the Washington Press Club.

Because the Club had suffered by excluding women for so long, Club leaders encouraged Vivian and other women to get involved in Club leadership. Some did: Helen Thomas of UPI was the first woman to be elected to the Club board in 1972, and Sarah McClendon got to be vice president. But many women journalists, who had hard feelings from the long fight, stayed away, choosing to remain active in the Washington Press Club, which had admitted men, and was well respected.

“I think the younger women, who had not been there during the bad old days, were willing and able to do things that the women who came before us weren’t because we hadn’t personally experienced the worst of it,” Vahlberg said. Quickly becoming chair of Young Members Committee and then the Freedom of the Press Committee, she was elected to the board. Yet, she said it still took a while for the men to take what she said seriously. Slowly that changed.

Vahlberg had gotten married and had a child, Brady, who was one and a half years old when she ran for Club president. Her election was uncontested. As she came into office, the Club faced large deficits, even as it was beginning a huge renovation of the National Press Building.

Her inaugural party on Feb. 10, 1982, was emceed by Helen Thomas and President Reagan appeared to swear her in with his wife, Nancy. Much of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation and the Oklahoma governor showed up, and, of course, the entertainment highlighted the Broadway musical, Oklahoma!.

Oddly enough, the inauguration of the first woman president was picketed by the National Organization for Women, who congratulated her but protested because of Reagan’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA died later that year, having failed to get approval from enough states. Said Vahlberg, “They wanted to say, ‘Hey, the Reagan administration hasn’t been great on women, so he shouldn’t get a lot of benefits for coming to swear in a woman.’ And I understood.”

As he stood with Vivian for the official swearing in, Reagan adopted the tone of a country preacher: “Dearly beloved,” he began, “we are gathered together this evening under the slightly bleary eyes of the membership to join together this, shall we say, newsperson, in unholy matrimony with the office of president of the National Press Club.”

By this time the room was filled with laughter.

“If anyone knows any reason why this ceremony should not take place, forget it. You’ve already voted and it was unanimous….

“Do you Vivian, promise to love, honor and obey the constitution of the National Press Club, to cherish it always, in sickness and in health, through deficits and remodeling, ‘til politics do you part? Do you promise to uphold the sacred traditions of the card room, the billiard room, and the tap room and to brave the slings and arrows of outrageous board and membership meetings? Most of all, do you promise to keep the National Press Club a warm and vital place where writers, reporters, newsmakers and other questionable types meet to formally and informally exchange views, ideas and plain good fellowship, to maintain what is finest in its past and work to build its future as a major world news center? If so, please signify by saying, ‘I do.’”

“I do,” Vahlberg said.

“All right then, Vivian. As a retired journalist, as a proud member of the National Press Club, and as the chief executive of another Washington concern with deficit problems, I now pronounce you president of the National Press Club.”

Vahlberg’s presidency helped ease the way for the merger of the National Press Club and the Washington Press Club three years later that would form one stronger organization and finally lay to rest – mostly -- the decades of animosity.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.