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Here’s How the Democratic Debate Moderators Will Make Major History

3 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Correction appended, Feb. 12

In a historic first, two women will ask all the questions at Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate.

Co-anchors Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff will moderate the PBS NewsHour debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Though women have moderated primary debates before, they’ve often been paired with male moderators or tasked with letting audience members ask the questions.

When the first two women moderated debates, they weren’t even allowed to ask questions.

NPR correspondent Pauline Frederick became the first woman to moderate a presidential debate in 1976, when she participated in the second debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but she was joined by three male journalists who asked every question.

A week later, ABC News anchor Barbara Walters moderated the final presidential debate between Ford and Carter, though she too was joined by three male colleagues.

In both cases, the women’s only role was to call on the candidates and introduce the male journalists.

“Thank you. Governor Carter, your response, please,” went a typical statement from Walters in that debate. “Thank you. Mr. Maynard, your question to Governor Carter.”

ABC News’ Carole Simpson moderated a 1992 town hall-style debate alone but almost all of the questions came from the undecided voters who made up the audience.

“My job as moderator is to, you know, take care of the questioning, ask questions myself if I think there needs to be continuity and balance, and sometimes I might ask the candidates to respond to what another candidate may have said,” Simpson said when she began the debate.

Hailed as the first woman to moderate a presidential debate, she later told the Huffington Post that it wasn’t as much of a feminist achievement as it had seemed. “I had no control over the questions that were asked, or who asked, or in what order,” she said. “I was like a traffic cop.”

During the 2012 election, a petition to allow a woman to moderate a general election debate argued that a “20-year drought” on female moderators had gone on too long. As a result, CNN anchor Candy Crowley was chosen to moderate a town hall debate between President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney in October 2012, directing questions from the audience and asking many of her own. ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz also moderated the vice presidential debate that year. And on Jan. 14, Fox Business Network’s Trish Regan and Sandra Smith moderated a Republican undercard debate.

Almost 24 years later, PBS has touted the quality and significance they expect Thursday’s debate to have when Ifill and Woodruff take center stage.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the first all-female moderating team at a presidential debate,” NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just said in a statement.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Thursday night’s hosts as the first pair of women to host a presidential debate together. Fox Business Network’s Trish Regan and Sandra Smith were the first to do so in a Republican undercard debate on Jan. 14.

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