National Press Club

NPC in History: How Khrushchev brought the girls down from the balcony

March 12, 2019 | By Gil Klein |

Helen Thomas was president of the Women's National Press Club in 1959, when she became the first female journalist to sit at a National Press Club luncheon head table.

Helen Thomas was president of the Women's National Press Club in 1959, when she became the first female journalist to sit at a National Press Club luncheon head table.

Photo/Image: National Press Club archives

In the half-century fight of women journalists to gain entry to the National Press Club as equals, perhaps little irked them more than the condescension of the men to allow women to attend the Newsmaker Luncheons, but only if they sat in the balcony.

They were not allowed to send questions to the Club president to ask the speakers, and they were not invited to the reception for the speaker before the luncheon. All they could do was sit in the often overly heated balcony next to the TV lights and try to see and hear what was happening.

And that was considered a magnanimous gesture on the part of the men. Before 1955, women were not allowed to attend the luncheons at all, even though they often were major news events that received international attention.

It came about after the Women’s National Press Club had filed protests at the State Department and embassies, and created their own luncheon series open to all reporters. The new policy was announced in the Washington Post on Feb. 23, 1955, under the headline, “Newsmen Admit Girls – to Balcony.”

“The all-male National Press Club has lowered its guard against the invasion by women of the working press – but only part way,” the story read. “It has decided to admit newspaper women to its balcony if not its membership rolls.”

The women were met at the front desk at 1 p.m. on the days of the luncheons. They would be escorted to the balcony. And when the luncheon was over, they were escorted out of the Club.

“It was so hot in that balcony,” recalled Bonnie Angelo, a Newsday reporter who was the 1961 WNPC president. “All those bodies jammed up there under the eaves. There were camera crews up there. Television equipment was much bulkier then, and the TV lights were hotter than they are now. It was hard to hear. It was hard to see … it was like a cattle car. And all the time you were really boiling inside.”

Only one speaker refused to talk at the Club unless women were admitted to the luncheon as equals, and it was the most important speaker of 1959 – Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the first time a Soviet leader had come to the United States. If women journalists were not allowed to attend as equals, he wasn’t coming.

Club President William Lawrence of the New York Times worked out an arrangement with the WNPC. With 220 seats available for members, the Club would allow 1.4 women for every 10 men. That meant 33 women could attend, if they could prove they needed to be there for journalistic reasons.

And in perhaps the greatest breakthrough, the WNPC president would be seated at the head table. That made Helen Thomas of UPI the first woman journalist to land one of the coveted spots.

Khrushchev’s remarks were significant in the history of the Cold War, and that story will be told in future history columns. You can .

But while this was a major breakthrough, it was not the end of the story. When Khrushchev left, the women were escorted out. For more than another decade, the fight continued as the WNPC kept up the pressure. In 1964, the Club voted to allow women to sit with the men while covering luncheons. But they had to leave within 30 minutes of the end of the event. Women journalists knew they would never be considered equals until they were full Club members.

And that’s what happened on Jan. 15, 1971, when the Club members voted, 227 to 56, at a special meeting to admit women as members. Thomas was elected membership secretary, making her the Club's first female officer. Vivian Vahlberg of the Daily Oklahoman was elected as the first woman president in 1982. This year Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak of NPR became the 13th woman president, following on the heels of Bloomberg’s Andrea Edney.

But the time relegated to the balcony remained bitter for some longtime women Washington correspondents. When Nan Robertson wrote a history in 2001 of the struggles of women for equality in journalism, she entitled it: “The Girls in the Balcony.”

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, society, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.