When Nina Totenberg was growing up in Scarsdale, New York, she wanted to be Nancy Drew, intrepid teenage detective and heroine of the beloved books written by Carolyn Keene starting in the 1930s. “Nancy Drew was the only role model around of a girl who was successful and assertive. I also would have wanted to be a cop had I thought there was a chance I could become one.”
Totenberg will be given with the Barbara Boggs Sigmund Award, presented annually by Womanspace to a positive role model who has championed causes and issues affecting the lives of women and children. The award and reception will take place on Wednesday, May 17, at Janssen Pharmaceutica in Titusville.
As the legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, Totenberg reports regularly on NPR’s national newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition. Her biggest story was about Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, which led the Senate Judiciary Committee to reopen his confirmation hearings in 1991. The story and the ensuing brouhaha opened up a new page in women’s history.
Totenberg has a long list of accolades and awards, including some of the most prestigious in journalism, including the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, and George Foster Peabody Award. The award she will receive from Womanspace is given in memory of the late Barbara Boggs Sigmund, former mayor of Princeton Borough, and one of New Jersey’s best-known political women, who died in 1990. When she was a Mercer County Freeholder in 1977, she spearheaded the creation of Womanspace, Inc., an agency to help women and children in crisis because of domestic violence or sexual assault. With a team of about 70 professional staff and 500 highly-trained volunteers, Womanspace partners with the police department of every single municipality in Mercer County to help abuse victims and give them safe haven.
Pat Hart, executive director of Womanspace, says that “in getting the word out and building awareness about the issues of sexual and domestic violence, Totenberg sets an example for everyone. She lets women know that they have possibilities. She is someone who follows in the footsteps of Barbara Boggs Sigmund, who was a visionary leader, and we are honored to present her this award.”
Totenberg says, “Cokie (Roberts, television news journalist and Sigmund’s sister) is one of my friends, so I knew Barbara when she got sick and through all the years she fought her cancer. She was always such a doer in life, and I know how much she cared about Womanspace. At the time she made it happen there weren’t that many of these places that sheltered women and children. People said why do we need it and why should we use taxpayers’ money to do it? It was a revolutionary idea.”
Totenberg says even today, many years later, women not as valued as they need to be in society. “Look where money goes. We’re always struggling for children to be protected. Money is cut from education, from women’s programs, from children’s services. That’s a concern. We need to stop that trend.” She also observes that society still tends to put the blame on the victims. “When women suffer domestic violence or sexual assault, all of us often assume that somehow she’s responsible for what happened, that she must have put herself at risk, we ask why didn’t she just leave. Regardless of her behavior, it’s the violent behavior that needs to be highlighted. No man has the right to harm or assault a woman. We have to put the responsibility on the correct party.”
Totenberg was born on January 14, 1944. Her father is Roman Totenberg, the renowned concert violinist, who still plays, travels, and teaches at Boston University. He celebrated his 95th birthday earlier this year. Her mother, Melanie, raised Nina and her two sisters and also served as her husband’s executive assistant. “I spent my entire childhood being Roman Totenberg’s daughter,” says Totenberg. “And now he’s Nina Totenberg’s father. He’s so proud of that.”
She graduated from Scarsdale High School in New York, and then went on to study at Boston University, though she did not earn her degree. She dropped out to work in newspapers. “I wrote for the women’s page of the Record American, a Hearst paper, in Boston,” she says. “I would cover fashion and recipes and then I would do an extra shift at night and go to the school committee meeting or cover the police beat.”
She says there was only one woman working on the news side then, and she thanks God for the tremendous opportunities open to girls and women today. “Even for women in the most terrible straits in life, there are possibilities for them to remake their lives. If you get some skills you can get a job. Things were so different even 30 years ago. Women were teachers, secretaries, and nurses, and not much else. And sometimes they worked on the assembly line.”
Totenberg found that she and journalism made a very good fit. She even discovered that her work had some similarities to the detective work of her childhood heroine, Nancy Drew. “I wanted to be a snoop. I wanted to be a voice of truth. I wanted to be a witness at history, to really be there and tell what happened.”
Totenberg climbed the career ladder as legal affairs correspondent for the National Observer, then as Washington editor of New Times Magazine. She joined NPR in 1975 and acquired the Supreme Court as her beat. She finds it entirely appropriate that neither she nor many of her colleagues who cover the court have a law degree. “You’re not reporting on legal things for lawyers. You’re writing for laypeople. You have to write your story in a way that’s understandable for laypeople and still interesting, sophisticated, and accurate for the most critical readers.”
Totenberg is the widow of the late former Senator Floyd Haskell (D-Colorado), who she married in 1979. She was married to trauma surgeon H. David Reines in 2000 and has four step-children. With a full and busy family life and an illustrious, demanding career, she recognizes that she doesn’t have enough hours in a day and neither does anyone else. “Nobody can have it all, all the time. Not if you have values. You can’t be at the absolute top of the heap and work your tail off and be a good husband or wife or parent — not all the time. Life is a compromise.”
I ask her what she thinks about the sweeping new changes on the court recently, including the appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts and the replacement of Sandra Day O’Connor with Justice Samuel Alito. Her first observation has to do not with judicial philosophy but rather seating arrangements. “It’s very odd because for the last 11 years they have all sat in the same place, and it was the same even when Chief Justice Roberts came on board. But when Sam Alito replaced O’Connor, it scrambled the whole bench. Justice Ginburg used to sit above the press section, literally a seat away from me and opposite was Justice Breyer. Now Breyer is near the press and everybody’s opposite. When I hear Justice Scalia’s voice I look up to the wrong place.”
On a more serious note, Totenberg is looking to the court for some very interesting developments in the near future as a result of its vastly more conservative makeup. “Replacing Justice O’Connor will mean dramatic changes in cases on gender discrimination. She was the fifth vote on a recent case involving Title 9, where a teacher had complained to the school board and filed a formal complaint about girls’ athletics getting vastly inferior facilities. When he complained within the system, he was demoted and then removed from being coach and filed a discrimination complaint. A lower court had said his complaint wasn’t covered by Title 9 because he wasn’t a woman and he wasn’t a student and he wasn’t affected. But the Supreme Court agreed with him 5-4. With today’s court it is possible, even likely, it would have gone the other way.”
As for today’s young women, Totenberg’s one wish is that they had a better understanding of how recent their opportunities are and how perishable they are if not defended. “On the other hand, I’m glad they don’t have to worry about it. When somebody tries to take it away from them, they’ll get pissed off and do something about it. And it’s not out of the question. It’s not just the court. It’s the legislature. It’s college sports. There are stories about men being the oppressed minority. So women have to remain forever vigilant. But it’s always been that way. My generation doesn’t understand that 50 to 75 years earlier women couldn’t own property or be heirs. In the same way each generation is somewhat oblivious about the generation before it. That’s why we need to discuss history.”
Barbara Boggs Sigmund Award Reception, honoring Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio, Wednesday, May 17, 6:30 p.m., Janssen Pharmaceutica, Titusville. $100; students, $25. Visit www.womanspace.org or call 609-394-0136.