Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cokie Roberts Celebrates 60 Years of KMUW at Wichita State University

Wednesday night, we went to Wichita State University to see author and NPR journalist, Cokie Roberts. It was a celebration of public radio station KMUW's 60th anniversary. Roberts commented that she was also in Wichita for the 40th anniversary.

She said they allowed her to speak about whatever she wished, so she talked about her book, "We are Our Mother's Daughters," which has been re-released, ten years after its debut. She said things have changed for women in the last 10 years so she was able to update the book.

When she originally proposed the title, editors tried to talk her out of it, but she was adamant about it. However, she says "the title is problematic." It was some time before she could get an editor to tell her what their issue was with it. She said eventually one of the editors said, with an exasperated tone, "I am NOT my mother's daughter. You cannot make me be my mother's daughter." Roberts said, "I didn't know her well enough to tell her to 'suck it up and get over it.'"

Roberts' mother was not the typical, stay at home mom. Her last job, which she started when she was in her 80s, was being the ambassador to the Vatican. As Roberts joked, "My mother found herself representing Bill Clinton to the Pope." Prior to that she served nine terms in congress, running for her husband's seat when he was killed in a plane crash. Roberts' father was elected to congress before she was born so politics has always been part of her life.

Roberts said her mother is the inspiration for everything she has done. She said, "I am only my mother's daughter when I am my very best self."
Her mother is now 93, and maintains her home on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Roberts joked that when she took her children to visit years ago they would pass by the strippers and she couldn't help but think about the song, "over the river and through the dale, to grandmother's house we go." 

She said when her mother became the ambassador, Roberts teased her that, "she moved from Bourbon Street to the Vatican... but the costumes didn't change. It was still men in dresses."

Roberts lives in the house in DC where she grew up. She said when she got married in the backyard years ago that her mother cooked for all 1,500 guests. She said she and her husband-to-be didn't know most of the guests. They were political associates of her father's. Roberts said when her own daughter got married in the exact same spot 31 years later that, "You can be assured it did not occur to me to cook."

Roberts said things have changed for women, but not as much as she would have hoped. She said, "It really does count to have a woman as speaker of the house. It's a constitutional position, not a political one, second in line to the President."  But, when she spoke about the recent political campaign she said, "never, ever, ever, ever, ever has a male politician been asked who will take care of the children."

On the situation in DC, she said, "The mood is less poisonous than it has been in the last 16 years." She said the Obamas have "Wednesday night at the White House" and, "the republicans tellme the sense of rancor is not the same."

She said there is good news for women in the ten years since she first published the book. She said, "Not only are more women making it to the top, but the women who've made it are using their success."

But, she said there's plenty of room for improvement. She related a conversation she had with Billy Jean King, in which she pointed out that women are covered on the sports pages now. King said, "We do have coverage on the sports pages - about 8%. About 7% is horses and dogs."

Roberts talked about some women who have risen to the top of their fields, and how their perspective changes things. She mentioned the head of Pepsi who calls her mother in India every day and has been quoted as saying, "You are a mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend. These are the important things." She spoke about the President of Brown and quoted her as saying, "Look, a job is job is a job. A life is too short to not pay attention to it and make it a happy one."

Roberts summed up by saying, "The thread that goes through it all is care-taking. That's what we have been doing for time immemorial is taking care. Taking care of our children, parents, friends, families, communities." She laughed and said, "We're usually doing it while we do something else." Early in the speech she joked that "multitasking is a made-up guy word to describe what women have been doing forever."

During the question and answer part of the evening, she was asked how that care-taking can still happen when the traditional family is not as common. She said, "people create families" and went on to talk about a situation in her life. "One of my very best friends is dying. Her daughter has needed me tremendously through this. That's part of this continuity. The thread continues, unbroken."

She answered some questions about her years at NPR, stories and colleagues, including Susan Stamberg's mother-in-law's famous Cranberry Relish recipe. She said, "It's pepto-bismol pink. You don't want to go near it."

She said public radio was welcoming to women early on but that a male colleague used to refer to the area where she, Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg had their desks as the "fallopian jungle." She pointed out, "he's not there anymore but we still are."

Photos of Cokie Roberts are courtesy of
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