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Vol. LXI, No. 43
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
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Cokie Roberts’s Talk on Leadership Wows Packed Auditorium at Stuart

Linda Arntzenius

Political commentator and author Cokie Roberts was the featured speaker at a Women in Leadership Forum hosted by the Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart last Thursday, October 18.

The school’s auditorium, which seats some 550 on long pews, was filled to capacity with people standing in back to hear the award-winning NPR reporter.

For some 45-minutes, Ms. Roberts, who attended Sacred Heart schools in New Orleans and in Washington D.C., talked on the role of women and value-centered leadership.

“I want our girls to realize they can do anything they want,” said Headmistress Frances de la Chapelle, who went to school with Ms. Roberts. “I want them to see that Cokie Roberts was no different from them growing up attending a Sacred Heart School.”

At the podium, Ms. Roberts began by describing the influences of her early years and the values that she and her sister had learned from the nuns at school back in the 1950s. Her sister, the late Barbara Boggs Sigmund, was mayor of Princeton Borough from 1983 until her death in office at age 51, in 1990, after an eight-year battle with cancer.

Ms. Roberts is the daughter of the former Ambassador and Representative Lindy Boggs and Democratic Congressman Hale Boggs. The main influence on her life, said Ms. Roberts, was and still is, her mother, who with other women in Washington, were the ones who ran everything, albeit many of them from behind the scenes. Her mother, she said, was a woman of faith who expected her children to do the right thing.

Ms. Boggs became U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican at the age of 81 and had the difficult task of representing President Bill Clinton to the Pope, quipped her daughter. “My mother was interesting on the subject of behind the scenes leadership,” said Ms. Roberts. “As a political wife and a member of congress herself, she saw power from both perspectives.”

Describing her research for the book, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, Ms. Roberts said that she had learned valuable lessons about women as leaders. Published in 2004, Founding Mothers explores the lives of the women behind the men who wrote the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

In it, she describes the ways in which successful women had effectively employed their personal values, using examples from history to show how courage, humility, faith, and efficacious charity had shaped the action’s of the nation’s most prominent women.

“My mother modeled by example not by words,” said Ms. Roberts. And it was the example of women from the history of the American Revolutionary war period that Ms. Roberts focused on, citing Martha Washington, who had valued duty above all. Mrs. Washington had endured long cold winters at Valley Forge, maintaining soldiers’ morale and keeping them from deserting. She also set an example for the troops by taking the smallpox vaccination.

Ms. Roberts then related the examples of Esther Reed, who raised money for the cause in Philadelphia and Trenton; Rebecca Brewton Motte, who not only sacrificed her home after her husband had been killed and her son-in-law taken prisoner but helped burn it down to prevent its use by the British; Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett), whose law suit against a cruel mistress became a cornerstone of the abolition movement; and Priscilla Mason, who spoke out for women’s education and right to employment.

Questions and Answers

In the question and answer session that followed her talk, Ms. Roberts was interviewed by WPVI-TV reporter Nora Muchanic, who asked whether the speaker had any political ambitions of her own. “I admire people who run for office because it takes courage to be a public servant on call 24 hours of the day,” replied Ms. Roberts, adding, “I don’t have that generosity of spirit but I have contributed to the public’s understanding of how politics works.”

Asked by a student to describe some of the challenges she faced during her own career, Ms. Roberts said that she started out at a time when it was legal to say “we don’t hire women to do that,” an attitude that became untenable after the Civil Rights Act.

On the subject of being a Sacred Heart student, Ms. Roberts said that she had received a “glorious education” from a school that takes girls seriously. She quoted Madeleine Sophie Barat, the French woman, saint, and founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart, who said: “For the sake of a single girl, I would have founded this society.”

Asked for her favorite quote, Ms. Roberts said that while she didn’t really have a favorite, she was fond of the remark made by the British general and colonial governor Charles Cornwallis just before the battle of Yorktown. Cornwallis, who had won the battle of Brandywine and captured the cities of Philadelphia and Charleston, and whose surrender to Washington at Yorktown ended the war, said: “We may destroy all the men in America but we will still have all we can do to defeat the women.”

“These are the women we can look to when we are thinking of becoming leaders ourselves,” said Ms. Roberts, who was cited by the American Women in Radio and Television as one of the 50 greatest women in the history of broadcasting.

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