On Monday, November 14, renowned journalist Gwen Ifill passed away at the age of 61. Ifill, who was the first black woman to host a national television public affairs news show, Washington Week in Review, undoubtedly broke barriers for black women in political journalism. She was known by colleagues as a warm yet authoritative presence in the newsroom, which is a testament to many black women professionals who are held under the stigma of having to act a particular way in professional settings.
Ifill never dimmed her light to make others comfortable in a professional setting, whether as a woman or black person in America. This was exemplified in February of 2016 when she moderated a Democratic debate between then-opponents Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and turned the debate “on its head” by essentially asking about the meaning of being white in America as white Americans are getting closer and closer to being the minority. She also made headlines by calling out journalists entirely after many failed to discuss Don Imus’s racist comments about Rutgers’ women’s basketball team.
Ifill, again, showed that regardless of white comfortability, she had an obligation to report on the most pressing issues to the American people. She didn’t simply report basic information, rather she continued to keep digging for the truth. She was unafraid of pushing for a better America whether that be through politics or her colleagues. She was not only an impressive journalist, but she set a high bar for professional women of color.
For young women of color looking for a role model, she was it.Judy Woodruff
Gwen Ifill disregarded what was going on in the mainstream of her profession and focused on telling the truth through her reporting: “The real bias is the news we don’t cover the stories we don’t see if people deciding what is news all come from the same place.” In a commencement speech to 2014 Public Affairs graduates at American University, Ifill stated that she “was drawn to journalism because of the need to be the necessary voice—not to force my opinion onto others but to broaden the stage for the debate.”
Ifill is an icon for black professional women in that she never settled or became comfortable in her accomplishments, from starting out as a black female journalists in the 1970s, to transitioning from print journalism to television, to hosting the first all-female TV segment with co-host Judy Woodruff, Ifill stated that:
“It’s important to be reminded how easily we can be denied simple obvious opportunity, how low the ceilings can get, and how much fortitude it takes to refuse to accept the limits that others place on you…”
Ifill continued, “Personally, I have a flat spot right in the front of my head from trying to break down walls my entire career, forcing diversity of thought and opinion into newsrooms and onto the air.”
A few years earlier, Ifill spoke to 2009 Howard University graduates, acknowledging her “responsibility to excel” and told graduates to “be a breakthrough…be big.” Ifill was also notable for her emphasis on mentoring younger women in the journalism field. In a roundtable conversation about Ifill’s legacy, Yamiche Alcindor recalled meeting Ifill through the New York Times and a mutual hairdresser as well as Ifill’s reassuring exchanges: “We’re not just losing a journalist, but we’re losing someone who has really believed in mentoring journalists coming behind her.”
Ifill’s passing is shattering at this particular point in time in political culture, but her legacy is exemplary for black women and women of color not only in the journalism field but as successful and groundbreaking professionals.