As a ground-breaking and successful journalist, newscaster, political analyst, and author, Gwen Ifill was an inspiration to many Black girls and women. She was born on September 29, 1955 in Jamaica, Queens in New York City to (Oliver) Urcille and Elenor Ifill. Her father, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, emigrated from Panama, and her mother emigrated from Barbados. Because her father pastored at multiple churches around the East coast, Ms. Ifill moved often as she was growing up. During this time, the family lived in church parsonages and subsidized housing.
Ms. Ifill’s interest in journalism began when her parents insisted that the whole family should gather in front of the television every night to watch the national news. In 1977, Ms. Ifill graduated from Simmons College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications. Before she graduated, she interned at and was later hired by The Boston Globe— this began her 40-year career in journalism.
Working her way up to become an established journalist, she went on to work for the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and later worked as a newscaster for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). When she joined PBS’s Washington Week in Review in 1999, she became the first woman and the first African American to moderate a major television news show. Ms. Ifill continued on as a senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. People may also remember her as the moderator for the 2004 and 2008 presidential debates. In addition, she paired up with her PBS Newshour co-host Judy Woodruff to moderate the 2016 primary debate between Senators Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Ms. Ifill was questioned in 2008 about whether she could be neutral when covering Barack Obama because of her race as a Black woman. She answered by saying, “I’m still capable of looking at his pros and cons in a political sense. No one’s ever assumed a white reporter can’t cover a white candidate.” In 2009, Ms. Ifill published her book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” in which she writes about the groundbreaking presidency of Barack Obama and what that means for Black candidates throughout the country. She also discusses emerging Black politicians like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker among others.
Ms. Ifill’s sudden death in 2016 came as a shock to the nation as people learned that she suffered from an aggressive form of endometrial cancer, a subset of uterine cancer. After months of treatment, she died at the age of 61 in hospice surrounded by loved ones. Studies have shown that these types of endometrial cancers are 1.9 to 2.5 times more prevalent among Black women when compared to their white counterparts. Although the incidence of endometrial cancer among all women is steadily increasing, the incidence among Black women is increasing at a faster rate. Along with an increase in the prevalence of this disease, Black women are also twice as likely to die from endometrial cancer than other racial groups. The prognosis of this cancer can be greatly improved by early diagnosis and treatment; however, Black women can face significant barriers to having a timely diagnosis and access to treatment. To learn more about uterine cancer, visit RSP’s Black Women and Uterine Cancer / Endometrial Cancer page.
Ms. Ifill was keenly aware of being a role model to many people in many ways. We end this tribute to her with her own words in response to being named the 2015 Washingtonian of the Year by the D.C magazine Washingtonian: Ms. Ifill said, “We can’t expect the world to get better by itself. We have to create something we can leave the next generation.” Although she died too early, Ms. Ifill did leave the next generation of Black women and girls something: hope.
- Almendrala, A. (2016, November 16). “Gwen Ifill’s Death Shows We Need Better Endometrial Cancer Research.” HuffPost. 2016 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gwen-ifill-endometrial-cancer-research_n_582bab28e4b01d8a014b4687
- Baskovic M, Lichtensztajn DY, Nguyen T, Karam A, English DP. “Racial disparities in outcomes for high-grade uterine cancer: A California cancer registry study.” Cancer Med. 2018;7:4485-4495. https://doi.org/10.1002/cam4.1742
- Cancer Treatment Centers for America. “Endometrial cancer: What to know after journalist Gwen Ifill’s death.” Cancercenter.com. 2016 https://www.cancercenter.com/community/blog/2016/12/endometrial-cancer-what-to-know-after-journalist-gwen-ifills-death
- Kurtz, H. “In a Historic Year, Ifill Has One Thing to Do: Her Job.” Washington Post, 2008 https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/03/AR2008090303319.html
- Sutton, K, Gold, H. “Gwen Ifill dead at age 61.” Politico. 2016. https://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/11/gwen-ifill-dies-at-age-61-231347.