Sandra Elkin, Creator of a Pioneering Feminist Talk Show, Dies at 85

Sandra Elkin, who as the creator and host of the weekly PBS talk show “Woman” in the mid-1970s brought frank discussions about birth control, job discrimination, health care and other issues confronting American women into millions of living rooms across the country, died on Nov. 8 at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.

The cause was a heart attack, said her son Todd.

Ms. Elkin was a stay-at-home mother in suburban Buffalo in 1972 when she approached the management of WNED, the local PBS member station, with an idea: a half-hour public affairs show focused on women and their concerns as the sexual revolution and second-wave feminism reshaped the gender landscape.

Although she had no experience working in television, the station was sufficiently impressed with her pitch to give it the green light after just two weeks of negotiation.

“Woman” was an immediate local hit, and after its initial season PBS picked it up for nationwide distribution. By 1974 it was reaching about 185 stations as far-flung as Fairbanks, Alaska, and Corpus Christi, Texas, distant from the liberal cities where the women’s movement had first emerged.

Guests included a Who’s Who of contemporary feminism. Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Susan Brownmiller all trooped to Buffalo to speak with Ms. Elkin. She also led an all-female crew to Paris to film an interview with Simone de Beauvoir.

But most of her guests — housewives (and househusbands), prisoners, blue-collar workers — were far from famous, by intention. Ms. Elkin insisted that the show was about information, not entertainment, and that she was there merely as a “conduit.”

“We don’t play the usual talk-show games,” she told The Buffalo News in 1975. “There’s no baiting guests or embarrassing them.”

That’s not to say Ms. Elkin and “Woman” shied from controversy. Ms. Brownmiller sat for a two-episode interview about rape. An episode about birth control featured diaphragms and intrauterine devices, intimate items that many viewers probably considered exotic or even frightening, especially in conservative corners of the country.

Still, the show won broad viewership among both men and women, in part thanks to Ms. Elkin and her unguarded warmth as a host. She had never wanted to be on camera, and she agreed to do so only after the first season ended and the original moderator, Samantha Dean, moved to another station.

Sitting on a couch facing her guest, often with one leg tucked under her and casually dressed in jeans and a sweater, Ms. Elkin made viewers feel they were simply listening in on two friends talking.

“Women love to teach each other things, to tell each other what they think,” she said in 1975. “I love being a part of this.”

Sandra Ann Marotti was born in Rutland, Vt., on Oct. 16, 1938. Her father, John, was a tailor, and her mother, Lisle (Thornton) Marotti, was a secretary for an investment firm.

She studied theater at Green Mountain College. While working in summer theater in Vermont she met Saul Elkin, a theater student at Columbia University. They married in 1958.

The couple settled first in Vermont and in 1969 moved to Buffalo, where Mr. Elkin taught at the State University of New York.

Ms. Elkin and a friend, who were growing bored as homemakers, pitched a conventional women’s show to WNED, focused on things like cooking and decorating. But they shelved the proposal when the friend moved to Florida.

In 1972, the station asked if she was still interested. Yes, she replied. But she had a different idea.

“A few years ago I started writing questions that were bothering me and my friends,” she said in an interview with The Kane Republican, a newspaper in Pennsylvania, in 1977. “I found that they broke down into categories that turned into the list of topics I first presented” to the station.

She started with 30 show ideas, enough for a full season and then some. She didn’t need to search for more — within weeks of the first episode, Ms. Elkin found herself inundated with suggestions, via letters, phone calls and casual cocktail party conversations.

After some 200 episodes, “Woman” went off the air in 1977. It ended for a variety of reasons, among them Ms. Elkin’s move to New York City and PBS’s decision to withdraw support from the show in favor of a more slickly produced women’s interest series with a magazine-style format.

Ms. Elkin and Mr. Elkin divorced in the early 1980s. She married her longtime partner, Anke A. Ehrhardt, in 2013. Along with her son Todd, Dr. Ehrhardt survives her, as do another son, Evan, and two grandchildren.

In New York, Ms. Elkin pursued a second career as a literary agent. She also produced videos on H.I.V. education at the height of the AIDS crisis and later traveled to South Africa to produce similar videos for local viewers.

For the last two decades, she had pursued a series of long-term photography projects. One involved portraits of women around the world. Another focused on women town clerks in Vermont, the sort of people she considered the “first firewall of our democracy” — people she said were needed now more than over.

“We’re at the precipice with democracy,” she said in a 2020 interview with the website Think Design. “We’re certainly at the precipice with climate change and with institutionalized racism and sexism. We’ve just got to step up and do what we need to do.”


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