Journalist Marlene Sanders Passes Away, Leaving a Groundbreaking Legacy for Women on TV

by Alexa Salvato

Trailblazing broadcast journalist, news writer, producer, professor, and documentarian Marlene Sanders passed away in hospice at the age of 84 on Tuesday. Even as a journalism major, I was shocked to find I didn’t know how groundbreaking her work was.

Sanders was one of the first women in TV journalism, working her way up from an assistant to an exec, to an assistant producer, then a writer and producer, then a correspondent, eventually becoming an executive in addition to an anchor. 

Sanders was in fact the first woman to anchor the evening news—for one night, in 1964, when the normal anchor was out. “It was a first, but it didn’t make any difference,” she said. (She added in an interview with Emmy TV Legends that she was pleased by her identification as “no nonsense” in a review in The New York Times next day.) The next time she anchored in the evening was in 1971—7 years later—and “no woman had done it in between.” This time the span was for three months, as the old correspondent had been dispatched to report in Vietnam. In 1966, Sanders was also a Vietnam correspondent, one of the first women sent there.

But Sanders wasn’t only a pioneering woman in the media; she was completely conscious of her role as a professional, and made it her job to advocate for women in TV, journalism, and beyond. 

In the Emmy interview, Sanders explained the difference between afternoon and evening reporting, detailing the increased responsibilities for evening anchors. And even more creativity and responsibility were required for those who created network documentaries, a position that Sanders took on at ABC when she was named Vice President and Director of TV Documentaries for ABC News. 


A CBS Newsbreak with Marlene Sanders, 1980

“In the early 1970s,” wrote The New York Times in their obituary on Wednesday, “Ms. Sanders produced documentaries for ABC on issues related to the women’s movement, among them The Hand That Rocks the Ballot Box, about the formation of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Three of her documentaries dealt with women and religion, notably her profile of Sally Jane Priesand, the first woman in America to be ordained a rabbi.”

In the late ‘80s, Sanders wrote a book with journalism professor Marcia Rock about women in journalism, Waiting for Primetime. At CBS, where she worked in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, she said she “realized that the women’s movement was history, realized that the women coming into television news didn’t realize what had been done for them, and I wanted to write a book for them to document the history of the way it was, and how it changed, and I thought, it’s not going to be a big seller, but it’ll be there.” While at CBS, she also won three Emmys as a correspondent and producer. And “after nearly 10 years at CBS,” wrote William Grimes, “she was the host of several public affairs programs on WNET, the public television station in New York.”


Sanders discusses her experience as the first woman evening news anchor

Sanders also graciously stated how she wished to be remembered: “I would like to be remembered as somebody pioneered in certain respects,” she said, “but continued to work for women, and to promote women not only in this industry, but for equality for women in the country in general.” She knew that after the Second Wave, her work wasn’t done.

Women in the news media today are still often discriminated against, with criticisms of their appearances (weight and pregnancy come to mind), voices, and opinions often prominent among viewers. But it’s thanks to Sanders’ trailblazing that they’re up there in the first place.

“Marlene Sanders got there first,” Bill Moyers, journalist, told The Associated Press. “That women are finally recognized as first-rate professionals is due in no small part to the pathbreaking courage of Marlene Sanders.”

Image via ABC News

Videos via The Museum of Classic Chicago Television and TV Legends  

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