Cokie Roberts: Women's impact on America from Sewards to senators

Nov 12, 2013

NPR political analyst Cokie Roberts is also an author of historical non-fiction books. And she will be speaking in central New York Thursday evening at the Seward House in Auburn. WRVO's Catherine Loper spoke with Roberts from her home in the Washington, D.C. area about the role of women in American history and in politics today.

Catherine Loper: You’ve written more than one book about the role of women in the history of our country. What have you found in your research about the contribution of women that hasn’t necessarily always been told?

Cokie Roberts: Well, I think hardly any of it has been told. The books that I’ve written that are really solid history books are about the founding period – “Founding Mothers” and “Ladies of Liberty” – and these women were as essential to the creation of this country as the men were. And I think it’s actually quite fair to say that the men couldn’t have done what they did if the women hadn’t done what they did. And not only were they keeping the home fires burning and all of that, but they were deeply, deeply political, and very committed to the cause of separation from Britain.

Catherine Loper: And I know the people from the Seward House feel like there are many women from that family who contributed as well…

Cokie Roberts: Absolutely. I’m working on a book right now about how the Civil War changed the lives of women in America, concentrating on influential women in Washington. And Fanny Seward, William Seward’s daughter was here with him, and her mother and brothers, when he was secretary of state and before. She was a schoolgirl originally, but then turned 18 in 1860 and she kept a wonderful diary, and it is very, very keen on explaining to you exactly what’s going on in politics in Washington in that period. It’s terrific. And she has a hair-raising tale about the night of the assassination when she was in her father’s room when the assassin came in.

Catherine Loper: How do you think her story relates to the role of women you’ve seen in your time in Washington?

Cokie Roberts: Well, I think what it tells you is they’re part of a continuum. And that they didn’t just sort of arrive in the 1990s or the 21st century. Women have played a key role in public policy and particularly in social change from the beginning of the republic. But of course we now have women in much more explicitly powerful positions and that’s particularly true of your New York women – first Hillary Clinton in the Senate, and now Kirsten Gillibrand, who is really making the Senate pay attention to the plight of women in the military. And she’s doing it in a way that is so interesting to me, because it is something that a few years ago I don’t think you would have seen. You did have women in Congress, my own mother included, who were very aware that they had to carry the concerns of women into the legislature. But she’s taken it even a step further, to essentially say, ‘Look, you pay attention to me here. I am carrying the cause of women who have been harmed in our own military, and you’re not paying attention because you’re not women.’ And it is a very role and she’s playing it quite well.

Catherine Loper: And it’s really changed the argument over that topic, I think.

Cokie Roberts: Absolutely.

For more information about the Cokie Roberts event at the Seward House go to sewardhouse.org.