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Pioneering journalist Eileen Shanahan dies

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 3, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Eileen Shanahan, who broke barriers for female journalists during a distinguished career as a Washington reporter for the New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times and several other publications, died early Friday.

She was 77, and she had been in poor health for several months.

Among her many accomplishments, Ms. Shanahan was instrumental in the creation in 1987 of Governing magazine, owned by the St. Petersburg Times. A mother of two girls, she was the original executive editor of the magazine, which she referred to as her "third child."

Throughout her career, Ms. Shanahan, a Washington native, took time to befriend aspiring journalists and to speak out for equality of women in the newsroom. Sometimes, as when she became a named plaintiff in a wage discrimination lawsuit against the New York Times, her feminism undermined her career.

"Eileen was a wonderfully able and creative journalist who would have had a much easier time in her career if she had come along 20 years later," said Andy Barnes, chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times, which named her the newspaper's Washington bureau chief in the early 1990s. He said she once accused him of "liking pushy women."

While attending George Washington University during World War II, Ms. Shanahan got her first full-time job in journalism as a summer copy girl at the Washington Post. She recalled that reporters and editors called her "boy," the traditional title for the job.

Ms. Shanahan was one of many women who broke into journalism during those years, when male reporters were off covering the war. Her early career included a job writing radio copy for United Press. When the war ended, she was one of only three women who retained their jobs at UP.

What she described as "one of the golden periods of my life" took place a short time later when she landed a job as assistant to Walter Cronkite, who was producing regional radio reports from Washington. Her experience on the Journal of Commerce earned her a coveted position in the New York Times' Washington bureau, where she covered economics for many years.

Ms. Shanahan encountered considerable discrimination. She was barred from attending newsmaker luncheons at the National Press Club until the early 1970s. Instead, female reporters were confined to a balcony overlooking the dining room.

In an oral history recorded in the early 1990s, Ms. Shanahan recalled that even though she covered the House Ways and Means Committee, her boss assigned a male reporter to cover the story when it was disclosed that then-committee Chairman Wilbur Mills had been dating a stripper known as Fanne Foxe.

Along with a small cadre of other female journalists, Ms. Shanahan also was responsible for persuading the then-dominant wire services, Associated Press and United Press International, to amend their stylebooks in the late 1970s to take notice that some "chairmen" were actually "chairwomen."

"She was a fabulous person, sturdy and stouthearted," said Nan Robertson, a former New York Times reporter who was a close friend. "She was one of the finest reporters of her time."

After she joined the discrimination suit against the New York Times in 1973, Ms. Shanahan left the newspaper to become assistant secretary for public affairs in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Carter administration.

She returned to journalism as associate editor of the Washington Star, the afternoon daily that folded in 1981, and assistant managing editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

She maintained her home in Washington while working in Pittsburgh, and when she grew weary of commuting she returned to the nation's capital as a freelance writer in 1986. But freelancing did not agree with her, and she joined Congressional Quarterly as a tax writer.

It was at CQ that she met Peter Harkness, with whom she hatched the idea for Governing, which covers state and local government. Her last full-time job was as Washington bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times.

Ms. Shanahan is survived by her two daughters, Mary Beth and Kate.

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