With a 40-year career under her belt, Judy Woodruff says "it's the optics" of being a woman in politics right now that draw her to the stage.

Judy Woodruff
Credit: Scott Henrichsen Photography/PBS

On December 19th, 2019, seven democrats vying to be the party's 2020 nominee for president — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer — will take the stage at Loyola Marymount University in California for the next democratic debate. It’s already historic for several reasons.

First, it almost didn't happen. All qualifying candidates threatened to boycott the debate altogether, in solidarity with a local campus workers union, but an agreement was reached in the nick of time. There’s been outrage over candidates like Julián Castro not qualifying for the debates, while billionaires like Tom Steyer make it to the stage, and a noticeable lack of candidates of color participating as the field narrows. All of this is top of mind for Judy Woodruff, PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor, who will be one of the moderators Thursday night. Throughout Woodruff’s career, she’s been a trailblazer in terms of women’s leadership in political coverage. Now, at a point in time where more women are running for president than ever before, Woodruff is uniquely situated to examine how both politics and political journalism benefit from a diversity of voices in the conversation.

In previous debates, moderators have garnered criticism for failing to address LGBTQ protections, reproductive healthcare access, paid family leave, and gun control. Now, the importance of Americans being represented by who asks questions, as well as who answers them, in our political debates is more vital than ever. Woodruff will be joined by Tim Alberta, POLITICO’s chief political correspondent, Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent and primary substitute anchor for PBS, and Yamiche Alcindor, PBS NewsHour’s White House correspondent.

“I think that we should look like America,” Woodruff told InStyle the week before the debate, speaking from Washington, D.C., in response to why it is so important to have women in leadership positions in journalism. As for her own career in the field, Woodruff has a reputation for being an exceptional debate moderator, including moderating the 2016 PBS Newshour debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders alongside Gwen Ifill. Throughout her four decades covering politics, Woodruff has been a chief White House Correspondent for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, anchored PBS’ documentary series Frontline with Judy Woodruff, and is a founding co-chair of International Women’s Media Foundation, which promotes and encourages women in the journalism and communications industries.

Given the breadth of her career, it’s hard to fathom that when Woodruff first applied for a job as a reporter, in the early 1970s, she was told that the outlet already had a woman reporter, so that quota had been filled. Now, she said, news organizations don’t just expect to hire women, but they anticipate women excelling, and moving into the highest leadership positions. “You can also say the glass is a third full, but that’s it,” Woodruff said, pointing out that women comprise roughly a quarter of the U.S. House of Representatives, and there are only a few women governors throughout the 50 states.

That glass-not-full-enough image is on her mind as she prepares to moderate, too. “It’s the optics,” she said. “It's the fact that young girls tuning in to watch these debates, sitting there with their family, can see that women have reached the point where they are part of the political process in terms of being in a position to ask these questions.” Woodruff also pointed out that the necessity of representation in politics and journalism extends beyond women, too, explaining that people covering news and politics should represent the entirety of America, including marginalized groups who feel they aren’t being heard. “We need to have those voices and those perspectives in our newsrooms,” Woodruff continued. “It should be that way in a democracy. We need to be constantly striving in that direction. We've come a long way, but we still have a way to go.”

The same could be said of this moment in which Woodruff will moderate. While a record-shattering number of women are running for the presidency, and women became first-time mayors, youngest city council members, and took state senate seats in the November 2019 elections, experts, like those at the Center for American Women and Politics, caution that there’s still work to be done in making politics equitable. In political journalism, in addition to Woodruff being at the helm as anchor and managing editor for PBS NewsHour, co-host POLITICO also has women leadership, with Carrie Budoff-Brown serving as editor. In the debate, Woodruff will also be joined by two women in senior roles at PBS, Amna Nawaz, who some have reported will be the first South Asian American to moderate a U.S. presidential debate, and Yamiche Alcindor, who won an award in tribute to Gwen Ifill at Syracuse University's 2017 Toner Prize ceremony.

Women representation on the debate stage, in debate questions, and in debate coverage is complex. The moment feels reverent and fierce at the same time. Still, amid demands for representation, people keep asking: Is the policy a good policy because the candidate behind it is a woman, or is the question a good question because the journalist asking it is a woman? “I don't ask a question differently, for example, about the budget or taxes or foreign policy because I'm a woman,” explained Woodruff, but she pointed out that women, and all individuals, have different experiences that could inform what they’d ask. “Everybody brings to this experience, to this process, their own life experience,” she continues.

That includes questions that will be asked tomorrow night. Woodruff said that this debate’s moderators watched previous debates, paying close attention to what other moderators asked. “In the end, we know that we have to make tough choices,” she said of what will ultimately be asked of candidates. With just a few hours for the debate, Woodruff explained, moderators can’t ask every question they’d like to, leading to a weighing of what to leave out and an analysis of where we are in the news, and as a country, by the time the debate begins. “What do you think that voters, most voters, many voters, want to hear about most, want to understand more about, from these candidates?” she said. “We’re certainly going to be conscious of the news cycle,” she said, explaining that sometimes, a story breaks a day or two prior to the debate that cries out for a question, "but we're also conscious of the bigger picture: Where are we today as a country? Where are we in terms of what's on the minds of the American voters?”

This week, that could mean anything: Impeachment is looming large with a vote set to happen Wednesday. The final deadline for enrolling in health insurance coverage for 2020 was recently extended, thanks to website glitches, which opened up a conversation on Americans not understanding their insurance, or not being able to afford coverage. This past weekend marked the seventh anniversary since the Sandy Hook tragedy, in the wake of which many say not enough has been done about gun violence in this country. In the coming months, the Supreme Court will rule on three cases involving LGBTQ+ rights and protections; specifically, whether employers have a right to discriminate against LGBTQ employees.

While Woodruff explained she feels it is crucial to bring up topics that feel timely to the American people watching at home, she also believes it is important to bring others into the political conversation who might not see themselves there, or be following politics that closely. She expressed discouragement over the percentage of Americans who don’t register to vote, or otherwise engage in and follow America’s electoral process. “I know that people lead very busy lives,” Woodruff said. “They have families, they have jobs, they have their immediate concerns. At the same time, I hope that we can find ways to — by we, I mean all of us in journalism and, frankly, all of us in public life — to reach out to people who feel like they're not being spoken to.”

“What I hope that viewers will come away with,” Woodruff continued, “is to have a better understanding of who these candidates are as people, as potential leaders; what their positions are on some of the most important issues.” Woodruff pointed out the necessity of seeing how candidates handle themselves in a stressful situation, as the presidency demands 24/7 attention. Though Woodruff said the focus should be on the candidate, not the question, she hopes to show “a more human side of them,” giving them a chance to explore their views on a subject that doesn’t come directly out of their campaign playbooks.

Woodruff has experienced the span of a political and journalistic industry that’s shifted wildly, and still doesn’t seem to have gone far enough toward women being equal in terms of leadership. Before taking her place on the debate stage alongside esteemed fellow moderators and candidates, she issued this reminder: “It doesn't mean everything's perfect. We still have a way to go.”