Vivian Vahlberg; The struggle to 'have it all'
Washington — ''You've heard the old Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times.' Well, I just happened to take the presidency the year the club decided both to change its management and start a $50 million renovation project on its office building,'' says Vivian E. Vahlberg, new mother, part-time worker, Washington correspondent for three Midwestern newspapers, and the first woman president of the National Press Club -- at 5,000 members, perhaps the nation's largest.
The president is describing her climb to that role, with her arms around Brady, her green-suited toddler, in their Capitol Hill home. Mothering Brady and advancing in her writing are her two other career goals, and she speaks of her struggle to ''have it all.''
''When we were thinking about having a child, I went through a lot of soul-searching, as you might imagine,'' she says in her slight Oklahoma accent. ''I asked my employer (the owners of the Daily Oklahoman, the Oklahoma City Times, and the Colorado Springs Sun) if I would be able to go part-time without losing my benefits.''
They agreed and, after a brief vacation from all writing, she started a schedule of staying home with Brady in the morning and reporting in the afternoon. ''I was pretty vigilant that first year, though it occasionally went to 30 hours a week. This year, of course, is different.''
Although she still stays home in the mornings, since January she has worked ''40 hours plus'' at the National Press Club, where she heads up 30 committees, two restaurants, over 100 speakers, biweekly board meetings, the formation of a new, two-story club facility, and a valuable piece of downtown office space whose walls, plumbing, electricity, heating, and air conditioning are being replaced.
''My paper gave me a year's leave with pay to head this up,'' she says, ''though I hope to do a little writing for them later this year. But it's May already, and I haven't finished appointing all the committees. The pace is incredible!''
Ms. Vahlberg's career pace can be described in the same way. A high school stringer and summer employee of the Daily Oklahoman, she came to Washington in the early '70s as an intern from Northwestern University, where she was studying for a graduate degree in journalism.
Three months later she found herself with a job offer from her old paper as a ''reporter/secretary. I didn't know whether it would be mostly secretarial work, with an occasional story; or mostly reporting, with occasional filing,'' she says. ''But I decided to risk it.''
She signed on with 20-year veteran Allan Cromley, who ''figured out very quickly that we were both professionals, and treated me that way.'' Helping that evaluation was Mr. Cromley's involvement as music chairman of the prestigious Gridiron Club, a journalist's association which puts on a yearly musical spoofing themselves and the politicians they cover. (Nancy Reagan appeared in this year's performance in a skit about a high-fashion First Lady who breaks expensive china.)
''For my first three months there, I saw Pulitzer Prize winners streaming into Allan's room with lyrics and suggestions and requests for solos. Somebody had to cover the news,'' says Ms. Vahlberg, only half in jest, ''so I started doing major stories from the very beginning.''
She did her secretarial duties ''in the early morning or during spare moments ,'' and says that she never objected to them or to ''getting Allan an occasional cup of coffee. After all, he was bureau chief, and had been there for 20 years. Getting him coffee was no threat to my professionalism.''
It is exactly that kind of low-key cooperation, coupled with visible professionalism, that enabled Ms. Vahlberg to rise to the top of what was once an all-male bastion. ''You have to carefully pick the times you're going to bristle,'' she advises. ''When men call you 'honey' or 'sugar,' there's really no point in getting upset if it's the only time you're going to talk to them. But for my regular sources, I usually try to point out how belittling it is in a humorous way - I'll call them 'lambie pie,' or something.''
Humor and charity have helped her deal with ''old-school journalists, who are used to dealing with women as wives and mothers,'' she says. ''It's not really malevolence that makes them treat women (as inferiors),'' she believes. ''But I do think it's still hard to be taken seriously as a woman.''
Ms. Vahlberg covered the vote that let women into the National Press Club in 1971 from ''the balcony, where we were allowed to sit.'' She then served eight years on the club's board before becoming president. ''I watched men join the board after I did, and become president. But part of that was my decision - I had a baby during that time and had to get my paper to agree to subsidize me.''
On the board, she would ''make points, and they would be ignored or forgotten. Then a man would make the same point, and it would be discussed. There is a presumption in our society that men are competent and women are trivial. You have to work very hard to overcome that presumption.'' You also, she believes, have to ''be confident that your views are worthwhile, and learn to stick in there longer to make them known.''
This persistence was not seen as admirable by some, who asked her ''why I would want to work with such stodgy old forces over at the Press Club. But I remember what Helen Thomas (White House bureau chief for UPI, the first woman on the National Press Club's board, and first woman member of the Gridiron Club) told me: ''If a door is opened, I want to walk through it.' ''
Ms. Vahlberg says she is reaping the benefits of people like Helen Thomas, who helped break the institutional barriers to women in journalism. ''When I arrived in Washington, women could go on presidential trips, and they were allowed to cover almost all events.'' Now, she feels, most of the barriers are mental - and surmountable.
Take the issue of which press club to join in Washington. Three major clubs exist, which originally served the separate needs of men, women, and blacks. ''Now, we all let everyone in, she says. ''But people have developed loyalties and friendships in the different clubs, so the split continues.''
She is trying quietly to lay the groundwork for eventual merger of all three clubs through ''small dinner parties and occasional conversations with their members.''
But most dinner parties for friends are part of the list of things she has had to ''let slide'' this year - along with gardening, relaxing, and walking in the park. ''And when we do entertain,'' she admits, ''I've been known to serve carryout pizza. But people understand - it's just one year.''
Meanwhile, she gets through by relying on her part-time housekeeper (''she's the real secret'') and ''very supportive husband,'' and by ''allowing Brady to pull us out. We spent last Sunday walking around the mall (a large park) because we said that Brady needed the sunshine.
''It was glorious,'' says the woman of the interesting times.