Barbara Walters paved the way for women on TV: 'Just work harder than anybody'

When Barbara Walters was promoted to co-anchor of TODAY in 1974, she became the first woman in the show’s history to hold this title. Some 48 years later, both of TODAY’s current co-anchors, Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb, are women as well.

The renowned interviewer, who paved the way for women in broadcast journalism, died Friday, Dec. 30 at age 93.

“Barbara Walters passed away peacefully in her home surrounded by loved ones,” her representative, Cindi Berger, confirmed to “She lived her life with no regrets. She was a trailblazer not only for female journalists, but for all women.”

The cause of death was not immediately released.

The Boston native got her start on TODAY in 1961 as a writer who initially transitioned to leading on-air segments that focused on lighter topics, like fashion and celebrities. In 1962, she famously dressed as a Playboy Bunny and worked at the Playboy Nightclub in New York City and also traveled to Paris for couture shows.

“I wasn’t a model, I wasn’t beautiful, I didn’t pronounce my Rs that well, I wasn’t an actress,” Walters recalled of starting out on camera in a 2000 interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

“I was none of the things that the ‘TODAY girl’ had been before, so it was sort of considered that I was still the TODAY reporter. And during those years, because I was able to write my own material, because I was able to go out and do interviews, there were barriers that I think I overcame.”

Golden, Downs, & Walters On 'Today' Set (Rowland Scherman / Getty Images)
Golden, Downs, & Walters On 'Today' Set (Rowland Scherman / Getty Images)

Walters executed many compelling interviews still within the realm of women’s interest — such as with Grace Kelly, after she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, and Judy Garland — and followed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to India and Pakistan in 1962. Her work, alongside then-anchor Hugh Downs, brought TODAY into its golden years.

“I did a rather touching and difficult interview with Princess Grace of Monaco,” Walters said in an interview marking TODAY’s 55th anniversary in 2007. “Difficult because it was like pulling teeth.”

Barbara Walters in Town Hall Los Angeles' Writers Bloc Q&A and Book Signing for
Barbara Walters in Town Hall Los Angeles' Writers Bloc Q&A and Book Signing for

By the 1970s, she had worked her way to reporting more serious stories. As she described it, “I did movie stars and I did the tea-pouring segments. ... Little by little, I did fewer tea-pourer and more black-coffee interviews.”

“I did political interviews, I did almost every president,” she continued. “I did quite a few interviews with President Richard Nixon. He rather favored me. I did the first interview when Jimmy Carter was announcing.”

She also covered President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 and traveled to China to report on President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972, the only woman from NBC News who was sent there at the time.

TODAY - Season 19 (NBC)
TODAY - Season 19 (NBC)

“Little by little, people could see: Here is a woman doing the same thing that the men are doing, and it’s OK,” Walters also told the foundation. “It had been the feeling of women couldn’t do the news, nobody would take them seriously.”

Asked at TODAY’s 40th anniversary celebration in 1992 how she managed the transition to hard news, she said, “In a strange way it was easier because you could see it through. ... You could write it, you could edit it and put it on the air and see it completed.”

But Walters, who worked at TODAY for 15 years before heading to ABC, wasn’t an official TODAY co-host for most of her tenure. “Women were not co-hosts then. I was the third member of the cast,” she recalled in 2007.

When she finally claimed a co-anchor title two years before leaving TODAY in 1976, she didn’t just break the morning show glass ceiling, she shattered it.

The TODAY Show (NBC)
The TODAY Show (NBC)

Jane Pauley was her successor, and Deborah Norville came along in the early ‘90s. Katie Couric then famously helmed the show from 1991 to 2006, followed by Meredith Vieira, Ann Curry and current co-anchors Savannah and Hoda — TODAY’s first all-female anchor lineup.

“I didn’t think, ‘Ah! I’m going to show everybody,’” Walters told the foundation. “I really wanted to do it. It was what interested me. ... Yes, I like to do the lighter things, but I was also interested in politics and I also read the papers and I liked to do those kinds of things. So I did.”

She went on to give advice to women interested in getting ahead in their careers.

“Just work harder than anybody,” Walters said. “You’re not going to get it by whining, and you’re not going to get it by shouting. You’re not going to get it by quitting. You’re going to get it by being there, and I think that’s what happened with me.”

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