In the summer of 2012, three high school students from New Jersey – Emma Axelrod, Elena Tsemberis and Sammi Siegel – launched a Change.org petition to demand a female moderator for at least one of that year’s presidential debates. They were successful. Of the four debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates in 2012, two were moderated by women; Candy Crowley moderated the second presidential debate at Hofstra University and Martha Raddatz moderated the vice presidential debate at Centre College. In only one other presidential election year had more than one woman sat in the moderator’s chair. In 1976, Barbara Walters and Pauline Frederick each moderated a presidential debate; men moderated one presidential debate and the vice presidential debate that year. Importantly, and particularly motivating to Emma, Elena, and Sammi’s petition, 2012 marked 20 years since the last woman had moderated a presidential debate. In 1992, Carole Simpson moderated the second presidential debate at the University of Richmond. In the intervening years, Gwen Ifill moderated two vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.
In 2016, women are two of five debate moderators of the presidential and vice presidential debates. Martha Raddatz will join Anderson Cooper as co-moderator for the second presidential debate (October 9th, Washington University). Elaine Quijano will moderate the vice presidential debate next week, the fourth straight presidential election in which women took on this role.
To get a more complete picture of women’s representation among debate moderators, we counted the men and women taking on the role since the 1960 presidential debates (note that there were no presidential debates held in 1964, 1968, and 1972). Since then, men have moderated 30 debates – 25 presidential and 5 vice presidential – and women have moderated 9 debates – 5 presidential and 4 vice presidential. Of note, Jim Lehrer moderated 11 of those 25 presidential debates. When 2016 debates are included, men will have moderated 82% of presidential debates and 50% of vice presidential debates since 1960.
The presidential debates held from 1960 to 1992 also included a number of panelists who posed questions to the candidates. Overall, women were 12 of 61 (20%) debate panelists across 18 debates where panelists were included. There were no female panelists in half of those debates, though three were moderated by women (presumably organizers felt like having a female moderator was enough).
In 24 of the 43 presidential and vice presidential debates held from 1960 to 2016, no women were on stage – as moderators, panelists, or candidates. With candidates included, there will be at least one woman on stage in each of the presidential and vice presidential debates this year. Mark that down as yet another way history is being made in election 2016.