Glory road 

A look back at Oklahoma’s leading female corporate executive sheds light on the state’s road to feminism.

Linda Cavanaugh today left and during her early years reporting for WKY (now KFOR) right - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Linda Cavanaugh today left and during her early years reporting for WKY (now KFOR) right

A story or two has been told of an Oklahoma girl who grew up and made her small town proud. Carrie Underwood won American Idol’s fourth season and continues to reap fans and fame with her impressive vocal abilities. Kristen Chenoweth dazzles on Broadway, and Olivia Munn graces Hollywood’s red carpets and movie screens nationwide.

Carlene Roberts is a name that’s likely not as well known, yet her journey up the corporate ladder during the 1950s is one that made career success for women in the Sooner State possible in the years and decades that followed.

Roberts was born in Kansas on Aug. 28, 1913, to a father who worked as a teacher and a mother who would later hold secretarial positions out of sheer necessity. Before Roberts was born, her father died from an electrical accident and her mother, Josephine Lewis Roberts, later moved the family to Oklahoma when Roberts was just 2 years old.

Roberts became an avid learner and an exceptional student by most accounts. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in dramatic arts in 1934.  While she had dreams of becoming an actress, the Great Depression and a regional dustbowl led Roberts to attain whatever steady work she could acquire.

Roberts worked for Oklahoma City’s Chamber of Commerce shortly after graduating from college where former city manager Orval M. Mosier was impressed with her quick wit. When Mosier landed a job as an executive with American Airlines, he asked Roberts if she would be his secretary full-time, and she accepted.

Before her plane touched down in New York City, the local media in Oklahoma were dumbfounded by the woman who dared venture out of state for a career instead of a husband.

“Blond. Blue eyed. Tiny. But not the least bit demure,” was the description provided by The Oklahoman.

Roberts demonstrated success with every project she was assigned, including finding housing for hundreds of American Airlines employees after the company relocated headquarters.

Her work earned her promotions, and her promotions earned her the media’s continual curiosity.

The Miami News described her as “as glamorous as they come,” while a Washington columnist stated that she was “a very hot-looking dish.”

Dorothy Chandler with The Los Angeles Times wrote the following: “An Oklahoman girl, she started up her ladder to fame by the secretarial approach. Girls, take note and work on that shorthand.”

Roberts was skilled at more than shorthand. Her leadership and communication skills earned her the title of vice president of American Airlines in 1951.

During a 1997 interview with The New York Times, Roberts mentioned how the airline’s president, C.R. Smith, agreed to her promotion as vice president but didn’t believe women belonged in executive roles.

In 1954, at the age of 41, Roberts married U.S. Commerce Department assistant secretary Lothair Teetor and bid her career farewell.

“I really wanted to make it a happy marriage,” she said in a 2007. “It never occurred to me not to resign.”

After a life spent trailblazing and observing in her later years that it was possible to work and raise a family, Roberts died on Oct. 29 at the age of 105.

She persisted

click to enlarge Carlene Roberts from Oklahoma was one of the nation’s first female executives in 1951. - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Carlene Roberts from Oklahoma was one of the nation’s first female executives in 1951.
One hundred and five years after Roberts’ birth, women in Oklahoma are climbing up the corporate ladder but unsure of how to balance responsibilities.

Forty-eight-year-old Louisa McCune is the executive director of nonprofit organization The Kirkpatrick Foundation. The foundation supports central Oklahoma’s arts, culture and educational endeavors, among others.

She has held her current role for a little over seven years and previously enjoyed success as a journalist. For 13 years prior, she worked as editor-in-chief of local magazine Oklahoma Today.

As a busy mom to three boys, McCune said she’s still learning how to balance her work life with her personal life.

“Aren’t we all trying to do that? I had no example to go by, and so I’m still learning how to manage, to be quite honest,” she said.

McCune was raised in Enid by a father who worked as a surgeon and a mother who, while described by McCune as intellectual and driven, never reentered the workforce after marrying.

“I think she had fantasies of becoming a foreign dignitary,” McCune said. “But she didn’t pursue them.”

While Oklahoma Hall of Famer Linda Cavanaugh experienced her fair share of struggles while balancing work and home life, she said she experienced her fair share of sexism as well.

“When I was hired, the station’s main photographer made it clear that he was not a fan of a woman in the newsroom,” Cavanaugh said.

She said it wasn’t so much what the photographer said to her as what he didn’t.

“He just refused to talk to me,” she said. “We’d drive to our assignments in complete silence.”

When more women began entering the newsroom, Cavanaugh said several male employees quit, making their sentiments toward feminism known.

“I think there was some apprehension about what we were capable of,” she said. “A lot of guys thought we couldn’t carry the camera equipment, but really it’s just about as heavy as a baby, and we can carry babies.”

Before Cavanaugh became WKY’s (now KFOR) first female newscaster, she said her news director had an honest conversation with her that conveyed both excitement and apprehension.

“He said, ‘We want to try something new,’” Cavanaugh recalled. “‘We aren’t sure it’s going to work, but we hope that it does. We want you to anchor the news.’”

Of the few men Cavanaugh said showed her disapproval, there were tenfold who showed her support.

Born in Norman and raised in Oklahoma City, Cavanaugh graduated from University of Oklahoma with a degree in journalism. Her father was a schoolteacher who, after growing up with all boys, expected nothing less from his four daughters than what a man could accomplish.

Cavanaugh’s sisters hold the positions of CPA, oil and gas executive and schoolteacher.

Last year, at age 67, Cavanaugh retired from KFOR News 4 after 40 years with the station.

She never experienced ageism, she said, adding that KFOR News 4’s management team has maintained its progressive tendencies.

“I wasn’t asked to leave by any means,” she said. “I just figured 40 years was a nice, round number.”

She said she’d like to see women stay in the workforce for as long as they desire.

“Longevity,” she said, “is a gift.”

It is one McCune said she hopes to inherit.

“For as many strides that we’ve made in the workforce, I believe there’s still more to be done,” McCune said. “We’ve gotten ourselves into the workforce; now we’re learning how to balance life in the workforce, and I’d like to see us thrive in the workforce.”

The women agreed that while those who thrive exceptionally might be few and far between, there’s certainly enough motivation to try. 

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