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American Journalism Review
In Memory of Nancy Woodhull  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 1997

In Memory of Nancy Woodhull   

By Deborah Tannen
Deborah Tannen is university professor and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her most recent book is "Talking From 9 to 5."      


During her 33-year career in journalism Nancy Woodhull served as, among other things, a founding editor of USA Today, president of Gannett News Service, Freedom Forum trustee and executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center. She was also a tireless champion of women in general and women in journalism in particular. Woodhull, 52, died April 1 after a four-month battle with cancer.

As I headed for the Freedom Forum memorial service for Nancy Woodhull, I decided to leave my heavy purse in the trunk of the car – and was reminded, as I am whenever I go forth without a purse, of the first time I met Nancy. When I noticed that she carried no purse, she showed me that she had everything she needed in her pockets: credit cards, business cards, a small amount of cash, tissues, keys. Women are encumbered by purses, she said. It's one more thing that keeps us off balance.

Of all the people I have known, Nancy Woodhull is the one whose words come back to me most often. She saw things that others didn't see and pointed them out in such a forthright way that they immediately seemed self- evident.

She had enormous insight into the everyday lives of women, especially in the world of business. I remember her pointing out, for example, that when she offered new and challenging tasks to men, they usually responded, "Fine. When can I start?" But women in the same position often expressed the doubt that the men may also have felt: "I've never done that before. I'm not sure I can."

Her response was completely original – and far more likely, I think, to communicate to women than the less helpful injunction, "Be assertive! Act self-confident!" She pointed out that if she offered them the job, then she thought they could do it. Questioning whether they could was actually questioning her judgment as a manager.

That she could make this observation shows how often she saw ability in others – and trusted them to fulfill it. And her comment on the pattern she perceived is pure Woodhull, because it puts the matter squarely in the domain of interpersonal relations, not the individual psyche. It shows Nancy's view of the world: individuals joined together in close connections.

Innumerable people know each other today because Nancy Woodhull brought them together. That is the sense in which she was a master "networker" – not the sense that is often used, with a faint unsavory tinge, to refer to insincere efforts to befriend people who may be of use. Nancy's networking was usually focused out, not in – doing more good for others than for herself.

She made new friends and contacts easily, yes, because she genuinely liked people and quickly saw the best in them. But as she drew people into her circle, the circle widened, and its members made contact with each other. When I visited her in the hospital near the end of her life, I arrived with Judy Mueller, another Washington friend, to find her room already filled with relatives and other friends. The first words she spoke, after greeting Judy and me, were whispered to her husband Bill, in a voice too weak to be recognizable except for its phrasing: She asked if he had introduced everyone to each other. Even at the end, she was using her last energy to bring people together.

This is how I met Nancy Woodhull: She had come across my book "That's Not What I Meant!" which was published in 1986 to no fanfare or acclaim. Together with Jean Gaddy Wilson, she was producing a short video about consumers of news and invited me to come to her offices to talk about newspapers. I discovered that she kept a carton of "That's Not What I Meant!" in her office, and gave out copies to anyone who came by. (Since I had that book, she gave me another one she also kept by the carton: a wonderful photo and essay collection called "Women & Work.") That gesture also was pure Woodhull, I came to learn: the generosity, the openness. She came across something she thought had value and, at her own expense, with nothing to gain, passed it on to others.

When "You Just Don't Understand" was published it was not expected to be a bestseller. Like my previous book for nonacademic readers, it had a modest first printing. The only magazine that had bought first serial rights, Psychology Today, went out of business before publishing the excerpts. My editor asked if I knew anyone in the press who might help make people aware of the book. Well, I knew Nancy – not well, but I knew her. So I called and asked if she had any ideas. Without hesitation, she said, "Call me tomorrow at 10." I did, and she gave me a list of a dozen or more editors and columnists across the country and told me to send them the book and to use her name. I did – and nearly every one followed through with an article or notice.

I would like to think they would not have done this if they had not found the book of interest. But that they took the trouble to read it and see if they liked it was a tribute, there is no doubt in my mind, to their trust in Nancy Woodhull.

One of Nancy's mottos – something she didn't just preach, but lived by – was, "Do something to help another woman every day." This, it seems to me, is the purest and most admirable kind of feminism. It has nothing to do with ideology. It has not a whiff of anger or hate – just a loving dedication to action, to individual people and to making the world a better place.

I don't know what we'll do without her.

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