In Memory: Eileen Shanahan


Eileen’s death Thursday, Nov. 2, 2001, resonated with many people who she helped over the years. Her obituaries in the New York Times and in the Washington Post tell part of her story; the Maynard Institute tells another; the Washington Press Club another; a site tells more. Here are some of our JAWS’ members thoughts:


Eileen Shanahan, a world-class journalist, champion of social justice and founding director of the Journalism & Women Symposium, died at her Washington home Nov. 2. She was 77. The cause of death is undetermined, but Eileen, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, had been in failing health.

Eileen was a legendary figure as a reporter and mentor for other women and people of color long before she came to her first JAWS in 1988. She served on the first JAWS board of directors in 1990, bringing wide experience in organizational management to the job of transforming a women’s network into an educational and cultural organization. Eileen never missed a subsequent fall JAWS camp.

Obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post chronicled her achievements as a reporter and editor, bulldozing past the obstacles of gender with relentless, creative career management. But there are many stories behind the stories that survive in a standard obit. Eileen’s accomplishments are more fully documented in at least three must-read (or see and hear) accounts:

“The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and the New York Times,” Nan Robertson’s book that documents the stubbornness of sexism and what Eileen and the other named plaintiffs (including JAWS sisters Betsy Wade and the late Joan Cook) in the watershed lawsuit against the Times did to make the future better for the women of the next generation in newsrooms. Nan’s book is dedicated to brave women.

“A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Page,” Kay Mills’ classic history, which gives a full view of Eileen’s career, including how she assigned herself to cover the developing women’s movement in the 1970s.

The Washington Press Club Foundation’s Women in Journalism oral history project, spearheaded by JAWS sisters Peggy Simpson and Betty Anne Williams.

In an industry that has been more talk than walk on recruiting, training and advancing journalists of color, Eileen was a long distance runner. In positions with hiring authority, she made sure the pool was diverse. She spread the word about jobs and helped match candidates with employers, she taught for many years at the Minorty Editing Program at the University of Arizona. She was a long-time supporter of the National Association of Black Journalists and in recent years of Unity. Eileen joined the journalism standards and research work of the Committee of Concerned Journalists at its inception.

The iconic Ms. Shanahan, formidable and wise in politics of all sorts, animated JAWS camps with behavior that surprised many a pedestal-builder. It is true that she was intellectually gifted, dogged enough to bite many an officious ankle, opinionated and blunt. She was also constituted of a crystal honesty, wicked wit and loyalty to family and friends.

Eileen and friends at Jenny Lake

Eileen was the first to instigate an adventure trip before JAWS camp started. Her last such pre-party was to Vancouver, B.C., in 2000. The road trippers, Eileen, Betty Anne and Glenda Holste, were cramming so much into that diversion that they pulled into camp at Port Ludlow, Wash., with just time to wolf down dinner and hear a not-to-be-missed speech by Claudia Kennedy.

Eileen greeted new campers, pushed the importance of mentoring on the JAWS members who had the experience and connections to help advance careers, sang and laughed and drank cold beer out of the bottle. She saved up jokes her grandkids had told her to share with other mothers and grandmothers to augment their repertoires. She was a model of how to pose tough questions and prod at weak spots, accent wisdom and carry a thesis forward during JAWS programs.? She taught us how to keep learning. Eileen welcomed us into the Washington home she shared with husband John Waits. John died in 1995.

One of Eileen’s trademark exortations among JAWS friends was, “Let’s cause trouble!”

She was the maven of the nominating committee, time and again finding just the right person for a JAWS job. Eileen spotted now-President Jodi Enda at her first camp in Montana, pronouncing Ms. Enda “dazzling” and definite JAWS leadership material.

Eileen liked to wear bandanas with her camp T-shirts, including a favorite purchased in Jackson Hole, Wyo.–the motif was animal scat. Whether one enountered Eileen in her camp clothes or the tasteful, stylish duds of mean-business Washington, she filled up a room with fresh air.

Eileen leaves two daughters, Mary Beth Waits of Silver Spring, Md., and Kathleen “Kate” Waits of Tulsa, Okla.;? two sons-in-law,? Wayne Whigham and Martin H. Belsky; three grandchildren, Christopher Whigham and Allen and Marcia Belsky; a biological sister, Dr. Kathleen Shanahan Cohen of Teaneck, N.J., and hundreds of sisters in the love of journalism done with a stout and proper heart.

Eileen’s daughters request memorials to JAWS, c/o Becky Day, 10 Brainerd Road, Summit, NJ 07901. Note on the memo line that your contribution is in Eileen’s memory. Or to UNITY: Journalist of Color, Inc., 1601 N. Kent St., Suite 1003, Arlington, VA 22209.
–Glenda Holste


Eileen Shanahan, as both friend and foe will tell you, was strong, tenacious and smart. A couple of us saw a pyrotechnic display of these qualities at the time the women’s class action suit against the New York Times wound up.

On Thursday, Oct. 5, 1978, Shany, one of the seven named plaintiffs in our sex-discrimination case, flew to New York from Washington, where she was working in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. We were due in Foley Square at 10 a.m. the next day, to appear before Federal Magistrate Sol Schreiber, with our lawyers, for approval of an agreement to settle our case in behalf of almost 600 women. Eileen came up a day ahead to serve as the principal author of our announcement of the settlement. Who better: she had been writing press releases for HEW.

Well, them’s the facts, but you have to conjure with reality. This was the end of a four-year struggle for all of us, and no one was ready to fold. At one point, Linda Lavin, the Broadway star, optioned Nan Robertson’s book about the case, “Girls in the Balcony,” for a movie, and this scene would have been a hummer. We were crammed into the offices of our lawyer, Harriet Rabb, assistant dean of the Columbia Law School. Despite her work for the Newsweek women, the heroes at the Reader’s Digest, and legions of others, Harriet had still not persuaded the Law School to put a woman’s room on every floor — only every other floor.

The seven named plaintiffs in Boylan v. Times, the women’s class action suit charging the New York Times with sex discrimination. Left to right, front row: Nancy Davis, classified; Andrea Skinner, children’s fashion editor; Grace Glueck, art editor; back row: Betsy Wade (Boylan), national desk; Eileen Shanahan, Washington correspondent; Louise Carini, accounting; Joan Cook, Metro desk. Photo by John Sotomayor, March 15, 1986, in New York Times cafeteria.

The law perfessers’ work day was over, and now the real work began. Eileen began to flail a Selectric, while I tugged takes out of the roller to mark them up as an editor must. Joan Cook was retyping, to incorporate my changes; Harriet Rabb, who had long ago announced that she avoided learning how to type, was also retyping. Howard Rubin, Harriet’s assistant, who had been declared an honorary woman by the Times Women’s Caucus, was making little scratchy marks on the manuscript. Then the whole boiling assembly line would halt while someone took an elevator to another floor for a pit stop. As the hours were chewed up, Eileen became cross as a bear. She was not a deadline fighter, but she was not a fan of editing, even dedicated, affectionate volunteer editing. By God, if it was good enough for Califano, it ought to be good enough for this rabble in arms. Harriet may have been anxious, but she was totally cool. Joan kept her head down and typed. The war between reporters and editors was reignited many times that night in a corner office overlooking Morningside Heights.

As each take was ground out — slow going — Eileen and Harriet approved it and Joan hastened across the campus and Broadway to the midnight copy shop, returning the long block to the Law School with another wad of paper. Then, like the poorest freshmen, this all-star team, with the weight of hubris upon it, collated copies, stapled them and shoved them into paper shopping bags.

We took the subway home. It was close to 1 a.m., and there was no way of knowing if we would end up going to trial the next day anyway. Joan had voted in the caucus against the settlement, fearing that our work would never benefit any other women if we did not have a court record. I was terrified of a trial, and Shany was a little nervous too, since we both had tempers that had been criticized in deposition by A.M. Rosenthal, that Attila-like model of calm, rationality and deportment.

The magistrate approved, and there was no trial.

The next morning, after the Times, in the mouth of James C. Goodale, a member of the New York bar, announced that it had triumphed in this unquestionably trivial event, Shany arose from her seat to denounce those who were incapable of ever speaking the truth, in any forum, under any oath. The back side of her tongue was hard to take, and those of us who had lived through the night before were glad that Goodale was on the receiving end this time. We ate lunch at a restaurant in Chinatown and Shany, as the wonderful biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine put it, led us up the steps to take our place — our little place — in history.

Lord, how we will miss that clear head, that sharp tongue, that fierce attack.
— Betsy Wade


— Eileen Shanahan was my mentor. The shoulders on which I stand. She was my baseball-game-going pal. Most of all, she was my friend of more than 25 years.

Never did Eileen betray the slightest hint of the Queen Bee Syndrome. That is, she never felt she made it on her own and therefore so should you. She went out of her way to help younger journalists. Once I was once of those. She shared ideas with me as we covered stories together. She helped me see with clarity my choices about a key journalism fellowship. And she was the person who recommended me for the best job that I ever had, that is, writing editorials for the Los Angeles Times. She was a one-woman network. Time and again in later years I saw her at JAWS doing the same thing for others that she had done for me: listening earnestly to a young and perhaps frustrated journalist, sharing the outrage, encouraging toward new opportunities.

The lawsuit that Betsy Wade, Joan Cook, Eileen and other women at the New York Times filed charging sex discrimination at the Times made other newspapers blink. If the Times and the Associated Press could be sued, so could anyone, and the journalism world started to clean up its act. in journalism today owes these women an enormous debt.

Eileen also spotted early on the changes women were making collectively in their lives–what we call the modern-day feminist movement. She knew in her bones it was important and she risked some professional capital to cover it. And because the New York Times was covering it, so could the rest of us. And did we have fun! Imagine Eileen and Bella Abzug in dialog!

But most of all I will remember the wonderfully digressive conversations that she and I would have. Eileen’s curiosity was deep and wide. Geology. The tax structure. Dams. Animal scat. Geysers. Recipes for dill sauce. Women in politics. The future of the Baltimore Orioles. The civil rights movement.

From left, Joan Cook, Betsy Wade and Eileen Shanahan, at JAWS in Jackson Hole, upon receiving a special award from the president of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

There are 10,001 Eileen stories. But here’s one to close on: a few years ago, I asked Eileen whether she ever found herself jealous of some of the younger women who got assignments and jobs that she might have liked to have had. “Well,” she replied, “I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that yes, sometimes I am a little jealous.” She paused. “But not really. You know, I wouldn’t have missed the fight!”
— Kay Mills


I first met Eileen Shanahan when she was one of the instructors at the Summer Program for Minority Journalists, run by the Institute for Journalism Education. We were just learning what it was to be journalists and she was a demanding but encouraging taskmistress for many of us. I never forgot how she devoted her summer to our preparation for the news business.
— L.A. Chung


Long before the popularity of job coaches, Eileen Shanahan, mentor extraordinaire, learned and passed along the secret handshakes.

I met Eileen through JAWS, remember when she organized the JAWS mentoring committee, and felt gifted each time in her presence.

Once, at camp, when she knew that I was looking for work after moving to Seattle where my husband landed a job, Eileen asked me simply, “Have you used your women’s network?” Then she commanded me sharply, “Use your women’s network.” I did. It worked. I think of her words all the time.

Of her many contributions to the silent auction, at least two underscored her status as a veteran observer of the women’s rights movement. One, a sky blue T-shirt, reads “1977 National Women’s Conference” and “Women on the Move.” The other, a pendant, shows four women hoisting the female gender symbol, Iwo-Jima style, with “Never another season of silence” and “1966” on one side, and “Failure Is Impossible” on the other.

It was impossible not to gain wisdom and inspiration from Eileen.

Thank you thank you thank you Eileen.
— Lorraine Iannello


I’m one of the many who drew from Eileen’s well of courage and wisdom.

Her intelligence, enthusiasm and generosity were inspiring. She was at once rigorous and passionate, demanding and understanding, always realistic and ever hopeful about the state of the world and journalism. These paradoxical attributes might have diminished a lesser person. In Eileen, they forged a strength of character and spirit that never wavered.

A highlight of JAWS each year was the chance to check in with Eileen, who guided me over many a rough spot. In these conversations, Eileen invariably avoided prescribing a solution. Instead, she’d ask tough questions — Have you thought about this? Have you tried that? Who can you recruit as an ally? Soon, I’d be viewing the problem in a new light, considering options I hadn’t thought of.

Trailblazer only begins to describe the way Eileen paved the way for the rest of us. She’ll continue to set the standard in our hearts.
–Margie Frievogel

From left, Connie Koennen, Gina Setser, Eileen Shanahan and Betty Anne Williams

For years I’d been inspired by Eileen’s work before I was lucky enough to meet her at JAWS camp in Sundance. I’m so glad that I was able to spend time with her there as she organized the panel “Why Be an Editor?” in which I participated.

Eileen was everything I hope I’d be as a retired journalist: witty, opinionated, smart, good hearted and one who made us all feel special and confident — truly an inspiration.

While I didn’t know her for years as many of you did, I was lucky enough to have her touch my life that one weekend — and I toast her memory. I’ll bet there are many more women in journalism whose lives she touched like mine.
— Dawn E. Garcia


We’ve lost one wonderful, fun-loving and powerful friend, mentor and colleague.

I recall one bumpy ride in a hotel shuttle bus in the Rockies when Eileen told me of her father’s work with Eugene Debs. We talked about the Debs museum in Terre Haute, and mourned the passing of the glory days of U.S. rail travel.

Let’s hope that the young women Eileen helped bring together in the Journalism and Women’s Symposium will find her story and the stories of others we’ve lost in recent years (add Donna Allen to the list) worthy of retelling.
–Sue Kaufman, Ph.D.


Every woman making a decent living in journalism owes Eileen Shanahan and all the other indominable “Girls in the Balcony.” May she rest in well-deserved peace.
— Kathleen Shea


Eileen was a tough lady, ready to fight for facts and news stories and always willing to teach the women who were coming behind her. Women in journalism today owe her a great debt.
–Lucy Morgan


To Eileen, one of the great, early feminists and mentors. I met you after Newsweek sued for sex discrimination in 1970 and you and others at the Times were contemplating the same, and using our wonderful lawyer Harriett Rabb. You were committed, angry, loyal and inspiring, and we had many long talks about the role of women in journalism. I shall never forget your fight and generosity. Maybe Gloria Steinem was right: the older women get the more radical we become. We’ll miss you and remember you,
–Lynn Povich


Dear Eileen,
You were one of the heroes, a hero of the very best kind — irreverant, engaging, iconoclastic and unendingly generous with your gifts. May your eternal presence, watching over us, spur us all to our own acts of heroism.

With great affection and gratitude,
–Geneva Overholser


Eileen was a giant — as a journalist, as a fighter for equality for herself and for others. I met her in the early ’70’s when we both worked in Washington. She was being treated very unfairly. At the same time, she was doing extraordinary work. She loved journalism no matter how badly some of its bosses treated her. Thanks to her, more fairness exists today in some news organizations because she had the courage to fight. Thanks, Eileen (and Nan and Betsy and Joan and all those other great women at the New York Times who helped the rest of us) ??
–Betty Medsger


I read about Eileen Shanahan’s obituary with great sadness. While I was working at the New York Times, she would still make appearances at various lunches for reporters or editors. She was full of personality and left it to others to fill in the details of her legacy at the New York Times. She was an example for us all.
–Doreen Carvajal


My memories of Eileen at JAWS are of a woman laughing and always making the pithy comment at the right moment. Her well-recognized creative gifts were on display one morning during a JAWS camp when her glasses fell apart. The sidepieces came off and the little screws were nowhere to be found. Eileen wasn’t fazed. She simply taped the glasses to her head with Band-Aids and carried right on.
— Sheila Gibbons


Eileen loved to argue, and I had felt her sharp tongue when taking issue with her politically. But I was headed for Tanzania for a six-week assignment in 1998, the same country she had visited a year earlier on a similar mission. (We both led journalism seminars for the United States Information Agency). So I called Eileen to ask if she had any advice. She said, “I’m coming right over.”
She brought over several boxes of photos, maps, State Department advisories and other documents from her trip, and insisted on “walking” me through them in an evening that spanned supper and went into the early morning hours. (“This person’s kind and helpful,” she would say, pointing to a picture, “but watch out for this one, he’s a snake.” She talked to me at length about the state of journalism in East Africa, the internal political rivalries, foods to avoid, books to read, and advised me to bring lots of U.S. dollars, which she said were preferable to Tanzanian currency. She gave me an impromptu language lesson: “Karibu is welcome, Jambo is hello…” She was inexhaustible, and enormously helpful.
And, if that wasn’t enough, she handed over a wad of “leftover” Tanzanian shillings for me to “please use up over there.” I didn’t realize until I got to Dar es Salaam and checked out the exchange rates that she had given me almost (US) $200 in shillings! She seemed genuinely surprised when, on my return, I brought her a thank-you gift plus the $200 — which I had exchanged for nice, clean US bills — assuring her I hadn’t needed the money. She was not, as far as I knew, a wealthy woman, but she could astound you with her generosity. I do believe she expected me to spend all those shillings on myself!
— Carole Ashkinaze


I had the good fortune to meet Eileen through the annual fall camp of the Journalism and Women’s Symposium. She was inspirational. She was one of a cadre of women who made it in journalism when the odds were against them. She and others provided many of us with the confidence that we, too, could make it make it in journalism and — most important — make a difference. I ache over her loss, but am forever grateful to have witnessed her pioneering spirit and keen mind.
— Pam Johnson


I was one of many who met Eileen at at JAWS, Journalism and Womens Symposium. She was a friend and a mentor who loved her career and her family. So, she had good advice about both. From dust bunnies to documents, she always laid it out and told you the tough, practical stuff that moved you ahead. One particular bit of wisdom, I carry with me always. In 1995, after a difficult meeting in New York, she came up to me and said: “You remind me of me when I was young. But let me give you one piece of advice, you gotta know when to shut-up.”
–Susy Schultz


When I once told Eileen that I didn’t want to be an editor, she scolded me to keep that thought to myself because I might change my mind — or someone might not give me a chance to try it later. She insisted that numbers are not mysterious or that there is any such thing as a “math gene.” She offered excellent advice when I called her about how to create a budget when I did become an editor … and she checked to make sure I was taking care of myself financially by investing for retirement.
And even in her eighth decade, she remained engaged with the world around her, whether by hiking mountain trails, walking Austin’s streets to see the bats flock at sunset, probing the life story of a mutual friend who turned to journalism after years of labor union activism, or quizzing me in-depth about the Internet’s structure, future and foibles. I’ll miss her terribly.
— Patricia Sullivan


Eileen was a friend, mentor and inspiration. Wherever she is, you just know she’s raising hell.
— Sharon Rosenhause