Veteran Feminist of America


July 15, 2015 

NEW YORK (AP) — Marlene Sanders, a veteran television journalist for ABC and CBS News at a time that relatively few women did that job, has died of cancer.  She was 84.

Sanders was also the mother of CNN and New Yorker journalist Jeffrey Toobin, who announced that she died Tuesday on his Facebook page.

"A pioneering television journalist — the first network newswoman to report from Vietnam, among many other firsts —she informed and inspired a generation," Toobin wrote. "Above all, though, she was a great mom."

Sanders was a producer for the late Mike Wallace in the early stages of his career. She wrote, reported and
produced news and documentaries for WNEW-TV in New York before joining ABC News in 1964. She worked there for 14 years.

She was the first woman to anchor a network evening newscast in 1964 when she filled in for Ron Cochran. She
reported from Vietnam in 1966 and later became the first woman to be a vice president at ABC News, where she was head of the network's documentary unit.

She moved to CBS News in 1978, where she also wrote and produced documentaries. She often reported and wrote on the
women's movement, and closely followed the status of women in her own industry, said James Goldston, ABC News president.

Sanders co-authored a book, "Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News" and taught at both New York
University and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

"Marlene Sanders got there first," Bill Moyers said. "That women are finally recognized as first-rate professionals
is due in no small part to the path-breaking courage of Marlene Sanders."

Comments can be sent to Jacqui Ceballos:


Memories of Marlene Sanders are pouring in from our VFA Members:

Marlene was tough and honest and no-nonsense in expressing her opinions, but she was a loyal friend to many of us.  She was generous with her time and her financial support for numerous feminist projects including WomensENews and the film "She's Beautiful When She's Angry." She  helped to support several VFA projects too. She was a good friend of Betty Friedan, and Betty stayed at Marlene's apartment when visiting New York City.  Muriel Fox


8 weeks ago she went to her grandson’s graduation from Brown, 7 weeks ago she went to Iceland, 6 weeks ago she had a stomach virus that turned out to be rampant cancer, she went into hospice care yesterday at 12:00, died at 1:40 PM.  She died in the no-nonsense efficient way she did everything. Charlotte Mayerson


Marlene Sanders: TV news correspondent, producer, documentarian and news v.p.

I was a child of the Depression, born January 10, 1931 in Cleveland, Ohio, to a family struggling to stay middle class.  My family name was Fisher, my stepfather's name. My father, Mac Sanders, and my mother were divorced and I grew up with my half-brother, Rob Fisher.  I went to public schools and was what was considered a tomboy, enjoying baseball in the quiet suburban streets. 

By the time I reached high school I somehow knew that I would take a different path from the women I observed around me.  There was no discussion in the 40's and 50's of careers for women. We were expected to marry well, with possibly a job we could "fall back on" if need be. 

The options were unattractive to me: nurse, teacher, clerk. I became enamored of the theatre   from age eight and  had begun to get parts in local community productions, and later in high school plays. Everyone in my Shaker High yearbook wished me well on the stage or in the movies!

During my high school years, I also was influenced by a history teacher, Alfred Bosch, who perceived correctly that I was deeply interested in current events as well as history. He introduced me to a variety of publications that supported the Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace for President, in 1948. My family assumed I would grow out of my unconventional political beliefs as well as my theatrical aspirations and that I would marry and settle down.  I did in fact marry, and my husband, Buddy Kahn,was a high school boyfriend, several years older than I. 

Fortunately, we both wanted to move to New York.  He had been admitted to Columbia's Teachers College to pursue a PhD  in psychology, and I could search for theatre work.

As it turned out, I mostly got secretarial jobs. Neither my theatrical career nor the marriage was working out. During a trial separation over one summer, I found a job that might help me make the transition into production work. I was hired at The Theatre by the Sea, in Matunuck, RI where I was assistant to the producers.  Since it was just a summer job, I talked to anyone who crossed my path about work in the fall. 

Fortunately, one day I was sent to the train station to pick up a radio guy from Chicago who was co-producing a play at the theatre as a pre-Broadway tryout. His name was Mike Wallace. Mike told me he was going to anchor a new TV news program at a local station in NY and his producer, Ted Yates, was putting together a staff. He introduced me, and miraculously I was hired. 

Thus began my long career in TV news. I rose from production assistant, to associated producer, booker, news writer and producer.

Meanwhile, Buddy and I had divorced and I had begun to go out, mostly with celebrities I met through work, but also with friends of my male colleagues. One day a co-worker suggested I should meet Jerome Toobin, manager of The Symphony of the Air, an orchestra formed after NBC dissolved the NBC symphony.  We met, had instant rapport, and were married 3 months later.  Meanwhile the job at Dumont, CHANNEL 5 had expired with the advent of new management. Jerry and I had been married about a year, and I had finally felt ready for motherhood.

We were years away from a women's movement. I knew no other working women. I worked until two weeks before Jeffrey was born. It was the end of May, 1960.  When Jerry and I married I had no idea that the orchestra was on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse. But he was not making much money anyway, and I realized I'd better get back to work. I had an easy, good natured baby, but I was bored and restless and we needed more money. 

I managed to locate a housekeeper who would work for my paltry unemployment compensation until I found a good job.  It took a few months, but I did. This time I became a full-fledged member of the Writers Guild, and worked as a writer producer on a Westinghouse Broadcasting show called PM East. Two years later, that job ended and I was hired at WNEW Radio as Assistant News Director and produced weekly half-hour radio documentaries. During the newspaper strike of 1963 I began broadcasting news, as well as anchoring most of the documentaries. There were few women on the air, but WNEW had only a few complaints. I was blessed with a low voice and avoided the stereotype of women in general who supposedly had high pitches voices with no authority.

Since the orchestra's collapse I was the sole support of my family. I was overworked and felt I needed to move on. An ad in Variety announced their search for another "news hen". Obnoxious as that phrase was, I applied, auditioned, and was hired as a network TV correspondent for ABC in 1964.

My stay at ABC lasted 14 years. During that time I was an anchor, including subbing for the male night-time man in the fall of 1963 when he had laryngitis. The New York Times noted it was a first for a woman. But nothing changed as a result.  During those years i covered major news events and in 1966 became the first woman from TV to cover the Vietnam war.  At home, all was going well. Jerry had landed at CH 13 and had become Bill Moyers's exec producer, and then news director.  I had hired more help at home since I traveled so much, and Jeffrey was thriving.

In the course of covering LBJ's Great Society programs, one day in 1963 I found myself in a reception line at the White House next to Betty Friedan.  I had not yet read “The Feminine Mystique”, but knew about it and knew I was far from one of those housewives "with a problem that had no name".  I was thrilled to meet Betty and we began a conversation and friendship that thrived for all the years that followed until her death. She told me about plans for NOW, and through her I met the movers and shakers who became the faces of the women's movement. 

Over the years, I covered their events and produced the first documentaries on the Movement, including in 1970  Betty Friedan’s national Strike for Equality  and in 1972 The Hand that Rocks the Ballot Box, as well as  several others.

One of the  feminist affairs I covered was the Congress to Unite Women which  Betty organized  in 1969 in her attempt to unite the many radical feminist groups with NOW.  I negotiated with the organizers and had permission to film, with some restrictions.  Sadly, the film disappeared, and I later heard that three or four participants had confiscated it and thrown it into the East River. They thought I had violated some of the rules we had agreed on that allowed me to film there. This was untrue. Also, because I worked for the mainstream media, they decided I was not trustworthy. It was definitely hard to cover the more radical feminist groups.

Among the many feminist groups that organized at this time was Women in the Media.  I was involved with them and also was deeply involved with ABC's Women's Action Committee. Much of the activities were documented in a book I wrote with my friend Marcia Rock, called "Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News" (Univ of Ill. Press). It was first published in 1988 and updated for the paperback in 1994.(There is no website for the book since it was published before they existed, so it has to be ordered from the University Press at 1-800-621-2736. The NYU bookstore also has copies on hand. 

My life might appear to have been charmed, but in 1967 my second son was born, unfortunately with Down Syndrome. He is severely retarded and has been living in a small group home of many years. He will need care for the rest of his life.

My son, Jeffrey Toobin and his accomplished wife Amy McIntosh have  two  children,  Ellen and Adam, and I am happy to have lived long enough to see Ellen through college, and Adam as a talented student journalist at Brown University.  Son Jeffrey's fame has exceeded my own. He has written six books, is a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is CNN"s senior legal analyst.

My own career went through many ups and downs. Changes in ABC's management forced me out as VP & Director of Documentaries, another job first for a woman.  I moved on to ten years at CBS News, followed by four years at Channel 13 hosting Metro Week in Review. My husband died in 1984 following surgery for a brain tumor.

After my departure from reporting, I worked for the Freedom Forum  organizing media panels at their NY offices. And for 11 years I narrated documentaries for HBO on a variety of subjects, including a 10-year-long series called "Autopsy". In 1992 I began teaching Advanced TV Reporting as an adjunct professor of journalism at NYU, and that continues as of this writing in 2014.  I am a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a board member of a venerable anti-poverty organization, The Community Service Society.  And one other thing: I returned to a love of art and have been studying at the 92nd St. Y for the last 8 years, and painting portraits in pastel and oil. It's nice to have free time after all these years.

Comments can be sent to Jacqui Ceballos:

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