Don’t ignore the most experienced woman in the room | Women's Agenda

Don’t ignore the most experienced woman in the room

There’s one point that’s been repeatedly made about legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas following her death over the weekend: she was never intimidated by presidents.

But how could she possibly be intimidated by presidents? She’d asked questions of ten of them, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, and demanded accountability from all of them. She’d fought for answers on Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold War, Iraq 1, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq 2. And she’d not only lived through these huge events, she’d been at the political heart of them – before every other current White House reporter had even been born.

Presidents should have been intimidated be Helen Thomas, not the other way round. Seeing the ‘doyenne’ of the White House press corps in her regular chair before a press conference should have sounded an alert: this woman’s actually lived through the historical context of whatever it is that’ll be discussed, and she’s always been true to her mantra to always “make presidents accountable”. Thomas once said the media is the “Only institution in our society that has the privilege of questioning a president on a regular basis and making him accountable”. And she’s seen and heard enough over her years to know that to be true.

Thomas wrote six books, served as the first female office of the National Press Club and, in the earlier stages of her career, was frequently the only woman in the room. She was fired from her first job – as a copygirl for the Washington Daily News, and went on to cover women’s issues before taking on a column writing Washington celebrities, later covering the US Department of Justice and then paving the way for female journalists to join the National Press Club. She started covering presidents in 1960.

At 92, she was the perfect example of how you can never discount the value of the eldest woman in the room — no matter what her age, manner, appearance or background. The experience that comes with age does not always mean years of service or face time in an office. It runs deeper to lived experience: raising children, nursing the elderly, taking on caring responsibilities, volunteering on local projects, facing adversity, learning about resilience, helping out with the sport’s club, writing, campaigning, living.

Elderly women often say they feel invisible, especially in the workplace – and Age Discrimination Commission has repeatedly noted that Australian employers are too often ignoring the talent and experience of older Australians. No American president could ignore Helen Thomas. But remarkable women like Thomas exist everywhere. They’re experienced and hold vast amounts of knowledge available for unlocking. We just need to pay attention.

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