Why Hasn't a Woman Moderated a General Election Presidential Debate in 20 Years?

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In 1992, the United States of America witnessed three general election presidential debates. Jim Lehrer of PBS moderated the first and third; Carole Simpson of ABC News moderated the second. My son was still in diapers then; he'll be 22 later this year. Then, my daughter was just a tween; today she's past 30, old enough to have a tween of her own. So, it's been 20 years since a woman moderated a general election presidential debate. That doesn't sound right, I thought, when a petition landed in my email generated by three female sophomores at Montclair High School in New Jersey: Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis.


Oh, these girls didn't check their facts, I thought. Didn't Gwen Ifill moderate one of the debates between the 2008 presidential hopefuls, Barack Obama and John McCain? I googled it. No, Ifill moderated the vice-presidential debate, Joe Biden vs. Sarah Palin. So I was wrong. The girls were right. It's been 20 years since a woman moderated a general election presidential debate, and they make a strong case to challenge women to take action on this issue:

"We've learned a lot about women in politics in our history class, but we were shocked to find out that it's been 20 years since the last time a woman moderated a presidential debate.

The past 20 years have been amazing for women in politics. Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice served as Secretary of State, Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House, and Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were major players in the 2008 presidential campaign.

President Obama and Mitt Romney know they have to listen to women, because women vote more than men do -- so why can't women be the ones asking questions at presidential debates?"

In addition, the young ladies provide the names of some well known female journalists who should be considered as moderators, such as Diane Sawyer, Gwen Ifill, Katie Couric, and Christiane Amanpour; the graphic on their petition page also includes Rachel Maddow. They ask that readers do more than simply get angry; they ask supporters to sign their petition that tells the Commission on Presidential Debates "to have a woman moderate one of the debates now." At the time of this writing, the petition is just shy of 99,000 out of 150,000 signatures.

I forwarded their petition on to colleagues, and shortly after that heard from bright women having the same thoughts and questions I had at first. The first question to arrive read "Am I just imagining it that Gwen Ifill moderated a debate? Wasn't it an issue because she was writing a book about Obama?" The next question from someone else was similar.

"I thought the same thing, too," I responded. "But that was a vice-presidential debate."

And then someone wrote, "Hmm -- something is going on -- Campbell Brown moderated one in 2008 and of course Diane Sawyer earlier this year with Stephanapoulos ... "

Nope. Those were not the general election presidential debates, meaning those were not debates between the final, convention-ordained, presidential candidates of opposing parties.

Campbell Brown moderated the Democratic presidential debate featuring all the hopefuls from the Democratic Party running in state primaries. Likewise, Diane Sawyer, with George Stephanopoulos, moderated one of the many Republican presidential debates we saw this year. You remember those, right? They featured all the Republican candidates running in state primaries -- from Michele Bachmann to Newt Gingrich to the last GOP man standing, Mitt Romney. Just to make sure, however, I did some research and compiled this list of general election presidential debate moderators since 1984, which includes Barbara Walters as the 1984 moderator.

But I see what's going on here. We've been overwhelmed. We've been chugging along -— we bright women -— writing our blogs, speaking at conferences, working our jobs, possibly appearing via Skype on news shows while our children play in the next room. We've been juggling trillions of bits and bytes of information daily, suffering from political news overload, including this election season's chatter about a "war on women." And we have seen women on panels, at anchor desks, at press conferences, so this eyebrow-raising fact that stares us in the face every four years has fallen through the cracks.

We've missed that part of our presidential election tradition has stagnated, perhaps even regressed. Therefore, every four years for three separate general election presidential debates we let the Commission on Presidential Debates tell our children and the world that apparently moderating the U.S. general election presidential debate is only a man's thing.

Every four years we watch two to three debates in the fall before that Big Tuesday in November. So, we've watched four presidential election years go by (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008); we've witnessed 12 general election debates in the 20 years since Carol Simpson acted as moderator, and we haven't seen a woman moderate since (I have counted the third debate that followed Carol's service, and in 1996 we only had two presidential debates).

The sophomore activists of Montclair High School are right. It appears that we've accepted that the image and role model for moderator of these historic events is preferably male. What's up with that? How did we miss this subtle message and its implications about which gender should question our final choices for potential "leader of the free world," and do we want to send a different message?

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE & you can find her other stuff through Her 411.

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