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Cokie Roberts Interview: "Capital Dames" Chronicles Women of Washington During Civil War Times

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Cokie Roberts

Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News and contributing senior analyst for National Public Radio. She has won countless awards and in 2008 was named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. She is the author of the New York Times bestsellers We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, Founding Mothers, Ladies of Liberty, and with her husband, journalist Steven V. Roberts, From This Day Forward and Our Haggadah.

On April 14, 2015, Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868, will be released. Roberts serves on the boards of several non-profit organizations such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and was appointed by President George W. Bush to his Council on Service and Civic Participation. She is the youngest daughter of the late ambassador and longtime Democratic Congresswoman from Louisiana Lindy Boggs and the late Hale Boggs, also a Democratic Congressman from Louisiana.

“As with World War II, you had women forced to take on some roles like working in the arsenals because the men were at war. Women were hired by the government partly because there weren’t enough men to do it and partly because they could be paid less. Even things like nursing before the war were not considered women’s work. There were no female nurses. So the whole field of medicine was open to women during the war.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Cokie, in addition to being a bestselling author, what fills your time professionally?

Cokie Roberts: I’m still on ABC and NPR, and my husband and I have a weekly column syndicated in newspapers around the country.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You dedicated Capital Dames to the men in your life instead of the women as in previous books. What kind of relationship did you have with your dad as a child and then as an adult?

Cokie Roberts: Well, of course, as an adult, he was gone. His plane went down in 1972. I was in my 20s. But as a child, it was a wonderful political family where my father never tried to exclude the children from anything, so we were taken quite seriously. I’m not implying that it wasn’t fun, but our minds were taken seriously. We were taken out of school to go watch congressional debates and things like that. Our opinions were valued.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you ever interested in running for political office?

Cokie Roberts: I’m the only member of my original nuclear family that didn’t get involved in politics. Sure, I thought about it, but I met my husband when I was eighteen years old, and he was always going to be a journalist. It would’ve been a little hard on him if I had gone into politics. I tried to sort of do my part by explaining it all as a political analyst.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When and why did you begin writing about women and their stories?

Cokie Roberts: My first book, We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, came out in 1998. Why I wrote it was because the publisher came to me and said, “Write a book.” I asked, “What about?” They said, “Oh, you’re bound to have something to say.” (laughs) I realized that I actually did. I was interested in what roles women played through history and the fact that people are so ignorant about them.

Steven and I wrote From This Day Forward, which also had a strong historical component about marriages in American history that got me even more interested. Founding Mothers came out in 2004, which was about women of the founding period, and the sequel to that, Ladies of Liberty in 2008, is about women of the early republic. It has been an ongoing interest and exercise, which I’ve greatly enjoyed and that has been very well received.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who was your biggest female influence?

Cokie Roberts: My mother was by far the most, being a very interesting, intelligent and fun woman, but also a very influential first political wife and then a politician herself. But I have a bevy of wonderful southern aunts and great aunts. Actually I’m heading to Mississippi tomorrow for my aunt’s 100th birthday. Then these women who were incredibly important in my life were the nuns taking girls seriously in the 1950s, which was not a common occurrence.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Back to your current book, Capital Dames. How did the Civil War forever change the role of women in American society?

Cokie Roberts: As with World War II, you had women forced to take on some roles like working in the arsenals because the men were at war. Women were hired by the government partly because there weren’t enough men to do it and partly because they could be paid less. Even things like nursing before the war were not considered women’s work. There were no female nurses. So the whole field of medicine was open to women during the war.

By the way, working in the government after the war was over, they didn’t go back home. Instead, they stayed, so you had a whole new line of work for women. Journalists and writers, and the women who described themselves as belles were the political women of Washington. Many of them were married to southern politicians, and many ended up as suffragettes, social workers and writers.

All of their kind of wonderful political skills that they had used mainly to advance their husbands also sort of advanced their own place in Washington’s society, and suddenly went to good uses. Wars have that affect where people start to say, “I want to do something serious.” A war fought on your own grounds with more than 600,000 Americans killed, gets your attention.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Exactly. Cokie, you’ve been a journalist for many years, and that’s traditionally a male-dominated profession.

Cokie Roberts: These days much less so, I’m happy to say, but yes, certainly when I went in, that was the case.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you discriminated against for being a woman?

Cokie Roberts: Oh of course, of course. In the 1960s when I went to work, of course. You couldn’t get a job. “We don’t hire women to do that.” They’d often say that with their hands on your knee. Men were being promoted over you. That was just the norm. What young women certainly don’t understand is that the 1964 Civil Rights Act made it illegal to do that. You still have to call them on it, but it is illegal. Until then it was completely legal to say, “We don’t hire women to do that.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Indiana has recently brought attention to “religious freedom” laws which some described as exercising discrimination on certain individuals because of sexual orientation. Discrimination is still prevalent in the world today. Is there a danger we could go back to discriminating against minorities or others even though it is illegal to do so?

Cokie Roberts: No. I don’t think there is a danger. First of all, the backlash was so strong that they understood it. I mean that it wasn’t working for them. Secondly, the society is such that you can’t … there’s no way to fill jobs if you tried to do it just with men. The majority of college graduates are female, and the vast majority of graduate school graduates are female, so you’re kind of stuck with women whether you want to be or not. Nineteen states have the law. This one clearly had some mean-spirited ambition in it, and it backfired. They had to actually write in anti-discrimination language.

It’s interesting when you talk these days to evangelical preachers who are politically involved on the right. They now feel like they’re counter cultural. They use to call themselves the “moral majority.” Now they think they’re fighting a moral battle against the majority.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That is interesting. Is there such a thing, Cokie, as an unbiased news commentator?

Cokie Roberts: Sure. I hear all the time from people that I’m not biased. It’s true that I’m not partisan. I basically call it as I see it. Where we are now in the media is not very different from where we were in history where every newspaper had an ideology, and everybody knew it. That’s where we are now with cable television and talk radio. So for mainstream media, the hope is to be fair, but you can be fair and still have a point of view. But your point of view should not be in the news pages if you’re The New York Times.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the greatest challenge facing Congress in 2016?

Cokie Roberts: Congress has an inability to get anything done. The greatest challenge is finding a way to function as an institution.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has there been a president in history more disliked than Barack Obama?

Cokie Roberts: Oh absolutely! George W. Bush was at least as much disliked by the democrats as Obama is by the republicans.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The country just seems more divided now. Perhaps that is due, in part, to the rise of social media over the years, making people more aware of the dissention.

Cokie Roberts: Exactly, and keep in mind that you’re sitting in Birmingham, Alabama. What you’re seeing are the Obama haters bigtime.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a chance we’ll see a female win the presidency in the near future?

Cokie Roberts: Absolutely, It could be as a result of the 2016 election, but if not, at some point within our lifetimes, we will see a female president. As I was saying about college graduates, the pipeline now is much thicker. For a long time, it was kind of grasping at straws, but now you’re talking about serious women in serious positions.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think Hillary Clinton will win the next election?

Cokie Roberts: She has an excellent chance. Hillary’s actually pretty hard to defeat because when you combine the democratic strength, Hispanic and African American young people, and add white women to her, which is generally difficult for democrats to get, it makes her hard to beat. She certainly could lose. She can beat herself, but just looking at the numbers going in, it’s not going to be easy to beat her. And I’m not even talking about the Republican candidates. I’m talking about the voters.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What else needs to be done in the fight for women’s equality?

Cokie Roberts: Frankly, I think the single biggest thing that women need is a much more caretaker friendly workplace so that we are not constantly pulled in different directions in trying to take care of children, parents or community or whatever it is and still trying to put in hours in a workplace that is still basically operating as if the country was in 1950, not understanding that people can be flexible, that people can be at home.

Today I happened to be in town and able to cancel my appointments when one of my youngest grandsons got sick, and his mother didn’t have a backup. She was just lucky I was here. There is no reason that you can’t do nine tenths of what you need to do at work from home.

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