Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog

7.17.2009

Cokie Roberts: Mother, Daughter, Sister, Woman, Journalist

By Andrew Miller
At the Harold Washington Library in Chicago on Monday, July 13, Cokie Roberts, distinguished author and political pundit, was interviewed by PBS’s Elizabeth Brackett, a winner of both the Peabody and Emmy awards.  In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Ms. Roberts’ book, We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, the interview centered on the groundbreaking roles of women in a variety of fields and their positive effects on many institutions in this country and across the world.   

Starting off the discussion, Elizabeth Brackett asked Cokie Roberts about the place for women in America.  Ms. Roberts’ answer was that women are present “everywhere” in society and are a robust, effective group. Brackett then moved on to more personal questions, asking how Roberts was able to balance both career and family over the years. Roberts was very candid, pointing out that in the 1950s, she was supposed to “marry well”—meaning marry a “good guy”—and in the 1960s, she only though of herself as “wife” after getting married at the age of 23.            

The discussion became more intimate as Cokie Roberts delved into her own past with her parents and sister. She mentioned that, although women were not considered politically equal to men when she was younger, her mother, Lindy Boggs, was able to run her father’s congressional campaign (Haley Boggs was a Democratic representative from Louisiana from 1941-1972) and actually took his Congressional seat from 1973-1991 after his untimely, tragic death in an airplane accident in 1972.   Roberts’ sister, also a very accomplished woman, succumbed to cancer at age 51, the second major loss in Roberts’ life.   Asked how she had endured both losses, Roberts became emotional, saying that her Catholic faith had helped her endure.   She also spoke about the nuns who had been responsible for much of her education while growing up in New Orleans and called them strong and inspiring women. 

The discussion reached a climax when Roberts touched on the need for balance and the epiphany that helped her grow to be both “wife” and professional woman.   After graduating in 1964 from Wellesley College with a degree in Political Science, she said, “As a young woman, I had good job after college, [working] for a production company.”  At 21 she was anchoring a television show in which U.S. policymakers interacted with foreign journalists.  As she said, “At that age I was too young and naïve to be afraid.”  Interestingly, she never thought of keeping her production job at the time after she was married, nor was she encouraged to do so.   In fact, she was often told that one reason she should not be hired for some of the positions she might have wanted was that men were concerned that other men might have to work for her.  Later, while talking about her own experiences as a professional in those early years, she spoke of men’s “charming lines” while they rudely and aggressively put their “hands on women’s knees.”   

After she became a mother, Cokie was no longer first of all a wife; she considered herself to be foremost a mother. She became subtly emotional as she spoke about being a mother for the first time: “From the time they were born, I saw myself as a mother.”  Interestingly, in her opinion, a dividing line exists between mothers and fathers on this issue: “Some fathers first see themselves as fathers, but not most.” 

Moving on to U.S. politics, Brackett asked Roberts about her thoughts of soon-to-be ex-Republican Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, and Democratic ex-Senator and now Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton—particularly the role of the media in Clinton’s historic presidential race for the Democratic nomination and Palin’s equally historic Republican vice-presidential candidacy in the 2008 election. 

First, Roberts heartily condemned the media’s “sexist” treatment of the two lightning-rod women, specifically saying that there was “blatant sexism towards Clinton and abuse of Palin.” She called it “depressing” and scoffed at the media’s supposed interest in who would take care of Palin’s children.  She pointed out that President Obama never was asked that question while he was running for the Democratic nomination and presidential election. She noted that Charlie Gibson of ABC had asked Palin about who would take care of the kids—prompting Roberts to simply say that the “woman is the mother and it’s her own business.”  Although Roberts felt strongly that Palin had a real “problem” now because of her resignation from her current position, she pointed out that only in American can one constantly resurrect oneself. 

In reference to Clinton, she was equally appalled by Clinton’s treatment in the press, including some of the descriptions of her, which she considered forms of “sexism.” She pointed out the dilemma female politicians faced: “they couldn’t [criticize] it, since they’d be called cry-babies.”  She praised SNL for finally pointing out the blatant sexism leveled against Clinton and the difference between their treatment of her and that of Obama.       

In reference to Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s ongoing Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Roberts expressed strong support for her and extolled her controversial “wise Latina woman” quotation, eliciting both laughter and applause from the crowd. Roberts emphasized that diverse backgrounds are essential in America and that women “bring different sensibilities.”  She noted that public institutions should reflect the people they serve. 

In her concluding remarks, Cokie Roberts exclaimed, “I want to see a female president before I die.” She believes that it will take the right woman at the right time, and that it will happen, though perhaps not in her lifetime.  She also expressed a fervent hope that one day, as with young African-Americans at this time, girls also will one day be told that they too can be the President of the United States and provided with an inspiring role model.     

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SHAWN HEALY

Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project


Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.



Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.


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