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Issue Date:  February 4, 2005

Cokie credits the sisters

Author of Founding Mothers grew up with strong women

St. Louis

Folding chairs filled the atrium of the Missouri Historical Society, and people were still filing in, standing along the sides and back, heavy winter coats clutched in their arms. Women religious, bearded policy wonks, historians and NPR junkies, they’d all come to hear broadcast journalist Cokie Roberts talk about her latest book.

A glowing introduction by Sr. Kathleen Hughes, provincial of the Society of the Sacred Heart, ratcheted the suspense even higher. Awarded two Emmys. Named to the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. Cited as one of the 50 greatest women in the history of broadcasting by American Women in Radio and Television. Senior policy analyst at NPR for years; political commentator for ABC News.

Roberts stepped to the microphone and announced that she’d written her book, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, in large part because of St. Philippine Duchesne. Roberts, who included in the dedication to Founding Mothers the Sacred Heart religious, went to Sacred Heart schools starting at age 5, and she heard the stories of Philippine, “this feisty, independent woman who had to work so hard to make men do what she wanted them to do! And she kept at it and kept at it. I was inspired by her all my life.”

Later, in an interview with NCR, she admitted she loved the way St. Philippine “was always pushing at the church. I think it’s the stories of her doing it on her own terms that have kept me in the church. I understand that it is my church, not the hierarchy’s.”

Still, would she make some changes? “Oh, I’d ordain women tomorrow. And it would change everything.”

At the Dec. 13 lecture, Roberts noted the short shrift women receive in secular history, where the textbooks read, “ ‘…and then women got the vote.’ Overnight, it was easy,” she quipped. In Founding Mothers, Roberts explored the contributions of the women who worked behind the scenes from the very beginning, including Martha Washington; plantation manager and inventor Eliza Lucas Pinckney; Deborah Franklin; and Abigail Adams, “whose stint as First Lady makes Hilary Clinton look like a shy, wilting violet.”

“Martha, I think, has done herself a disservice in history by wearing that little hat,” she said. “She turns out to be an extremely serious woman with a very good sense of humor. She named her tomcat Hamilton, which was most appropriate.”

Behind the wit lay long hours of research, piecing together lives their owners never presumed to document. “Deborah Franklin was so ashamed of her letters, she burned them,” said Roberts, going on to describe the immense power Ben Franklin’s wife wielded and her brilliance at business affairs.

“Eliza Pinckney came to Washington to be treated for breast cancer and she died there,” Roberts told the audience, not mentioning her own recent skirmish with breast cancer. “George Washington insisted on being one of her pallbearers for the service she had rendered the country.”

Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs Roberts grew up watching women working behind the scenes. Daughter of House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.), she grew up shuttling between New Orleans and Washington, where she noticed that “the women ran everything. The black and white women got together and ran all the social services and basically all the political parties.”

After her father died in a plane crash in Alaska, her mother, Lindy Boggs, won her own seat in Congress. At 81, Boggs accepted a new job in a new country, as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, “which put her in the extremely interesting position of representing Bill Clinton to the pope,” Roberts said dryly. Now 89, Boggs is back in the New Orleans family home. “It’s on Bourbon Street, right smack dab in the middle of all the honky-tonk,” grinned her daughter. “When she moved to the Vatican, I teased her that the costumes didn’t change. It was still all guys in dresses!”

At the Q&A after the talk, hands shot up. “We have powerful First Ladies but we don’t like them to be powerful until they are dead,” one person observed. “There’s some truth to that,” Roberts agreed cheerfully. Another questioner complained that the founding mothers “seemed to be friends with the men of their era and in this era, women and men seem to be antagonists.”

“Oh, you tempt me,” she teased. “These women had a healthy sense of humor about the men in their era, and that’s basically what we have. You men just have to learn to take a joke!”

Humor threads through Roberts’ life, and did from the start. Her family is a glorious combination of propriety and zaniness, and her sister used to say that “being a Sacred Heart girl was like being [political humorist] Mark Russell. You were expected to engage in intellectual fun,” Roberts explained in an interview with NCR.

Born into worldly privilege, Roberts had unusual access to power (not everybody has the U.S. president as a wedding guest). Yet she grew up feeling “a sense of obligation. That anything we had, we were given as children of God and everybody was just like us,” she said.

“My mother always makes the point -- she was educated by Sisters of St. Joseph -- that you are always exposed to women who are running everything,” she added. “That is such a strong message. I didn’t see them having power in the church, but I saw a sort of alternate universe where you could be very seriously Catholic and care deeply about the teachings of Jesus without being particularly concerned with the comings and goings in Rome.”

A few years ago, she wrote From This Day Forward with her husband, Steve Roberts. With candor and humor, they deconstructed their own “mixed” (he is Jewish) marriage. “I would never hold myself up as an expert,” Roberts told NCR, “but I do agree with Steve, who always jokes that the way you can tell a good marriage is by the number of teeth marks on your tongue. Not dissembling, but not saying the first thing that comes to mind, either, because often that is hurtful.”

Roberts quit her six-year gig as co-anchor, with Sam Donaldson, of ABC’s “This Week,” but she wound up as busy as ever, writing books and lecturing all over the country. “It’s a constant balancing act, and at the moment I’m out of balance and I have to fix it again,” she said, “because I’m working too hard.” The realization hasn’t stopped her from volunteering for Save the Children, however. In December 2003, she turned 60, and she wanted, finally, to do the kind of community work that women used to do as a matter of course.

Despite her fascination with the piecework of history, she’d never want to live in any era but this one. “There’s never been a better time for women,” she remarked. “The more you are able to get away from the drudgery of housework, the terror of childbearing, the repression of the village … each passing era has made it easier. What’s hardest now is internal rather than external. That’s not to say that there aren’t still many barriers. But one of the biggest problems now is balance.”

That’s equally true in the public sphere. These days, Roberts worries about the red-blue, liberal-conservative wedges driving the country apart. After World War II until about 10 years ago, she told NCR, there were many more people in the center: “You had a Democratic Party with a strong Southern conservative base and a Republican Party with a strong Northern liberal base. Now there are such homogeneously drawn districts and such safe seats that they never have to talk to each other, much less listen to each other. The political polarization -- on the part of officeholders more so than voters -- is more than usual, and it’s wildly exacerbated by the media. … This is a country where we have no common religion, ethnicity, even language. What binds us is the Constitution and the institutions it’s created, which means government and politics. You turn that into something that divides us, that’s a little scary.”

Asked what someone might highlight 100 years from now to sum up her life, she says she’s done nothing remarkable on her own; only broken ground as part of an entire generation of women who made it easier for others to follow. Asked why the Sacred Heart religious are proud of her, she said, “I think they like that I’m commonsensical and give back. That I understand the value of what they have continually offered, and still do offer. And they like the fact that I write well.” The low, warm chuckle. “They make you write and write and write from the time you are in diapers.”

What she really wants to talk about is visiting St. Philippine Duchesne’s shrine in St. Charles, Mo. “I had been hearing about that place since I was 5,” she said. “To actually be in the place where she was … ” She breaks off, at a loss for once.

What would she say to St. Philippine, if she had the chance? “I’d say to her, ‘We need you back. Talk some sense into these people,’ ” Roberts answered instantly. “And thank you. Thank you for what you left us.”

Jeannette Cooperman is an NCR columnist.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005

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