As a young journalist in the early 1940s, Roberta “Bobbie” Applegate covered sports, police activities and trials at a time when most middle-class women rarely worked outside of the home. If women went into journalism, they were restricted to women’s sections that typically featured the traditional role of women: family, fashion, food and furnishings. But Applegate’s career took a different route.
Born in Idaho in 1919, Roberta Applegate was the daughter of Idaho Statesman editor Albert A. Applegate. “I had been bitten by the newspaper bug about the time I was learning to read,” she later recalled. When Applegate was six years old, her father took her into the newsroom. She remembered, “I just kind of knew that’s what I would want to do.”
After earning a bachelors degree at Michigan State College (present-day Michigan State University) and a masters degree in journalism from Northwestern University, Illinois, Applegate joined the Detroit Free Press as a women’s page reporter. In May 1943, she accepted a job with the Associated Press (AP) and soon began working at the State Capitol. She was the first woman to work in Michigan’s Capitol pressroom, covering state government, the state legislature and the Michigan Supreme Court.
The men at the wire service did not welcome Applegate with open arms. Sometimes an editor assumed that her byline must contain a typographical error and removed the “a” from her first name. A former male colleague later wrote: “She was the first woman on our staff, and the men on it were none too happy to see a woman join them. I was prejudiced against women in newspaper work myself. She understood, pulled at least her weight, and won respect.”
Success at the Capitol led Applegate to take a job as Governor Kim Sigler’s press secretary–the first woman to hold that post in the state, and possibly the first in the country. She oversaw twice-a-day press conferences, worked with editors of the state’s newspapers and wrote most of Sigler’s weekly radio speeches on topics that ranged from proposed constitutional changes to budgetary issues to policy changes.
Following Sigler’s defeat for reelection, Applegate continued to break barriers in journalism. For more on this remarkable woman, turn to the current issue of Michigan History magazine. For information call (800) 366-3703 or visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com.
Roberta Applegate was a 2008 inductee to the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.