Empowered

Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky

Former broadcast journalist Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky discovered while serving in Congress that sisterhood can be politically powerful. Now she's transmitting that power to Fels Institute students.

In politics, even a loss can be turned to advantage if one plays one’s cards right. And that’s exactly what former broadcast journalist Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky has done with her brief tenure as a U.S. representative.

Her Washington connections and her heightened interest in women’s issues, both products of her one term in Congress, add extra substance to the two courses she teaches at the Fels Institute of Government, Women Leaders in Emerging Democracies, and Dealing with the Media. In those courses, and in other programs she has organized in the year and a half she has been on the Fels faculty, she has exposed students to the inner workings of government and the media and helped women gain a better understanding of how they can advance the issues that matter to them in the political arena.

We talked with Margolies-Mezvinsky about how her life and her teaching intersect.

Q. Why did you come up with the emerging democracies course?
A.
Let me tell you how it started, ’cause it’s really fun. I was the head of [the U.S.] delegation to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women [in Beijing in 1995]. …We helped negotiate a document that was pretty powerful. But when we got back, it was very clear [that] our key was to figure out how to empower women all over the world.

Less than one percent of what we spend is spent on foreign aid. And what we want it to go to is health care, education, the environment, young children, seniors. And in every country where there are more women in power, more money’s spent on these things. So I started an organization called Women’s Campaign International (WCI).

We do media training, we do grass-roots organizing, we talk about fund-raising, we talk about polling, and we take trainers. We have a fairly large grant from [the U.S. Agency for International Development].

I sat down with [Annenberg School Dean] Kathleen Hall Jamieson and told her what I was doing. She said, Oh, it would be a perfect course. …We taught the course, and then took about 15 students to Venezuela.

Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky

The one-term congresswoman from Montgomery County brings the real world of politics to students who may some day run the country.

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

Then I spoke to Larry Sherman, [the director of] the Fels Institute, and [we] agreed that this was really the place for that course, because this is practical government.

Q. How did you become interested in this issue of empowering women?
A.
It was through my work on the floor of Congress.

Q. And what led you to run for Congress in the first place?
A.
A very small group of women came to me from Montgomery County and said, Would you be interested in running?

One of the reasons why women don’t run is because they’re really afraid of public speaking. I had done public speaking; I wasn’t afraid of the media I was in. I had married somebody who was a member of Congress [Ed Mezvinsky], so I knew that I could do the legislation. And I knew that would interest me. And I said, You know, why not just try it?

Q. Do you ever regret casting the vote that passed the first Clinton budget and ended your political career?
A.
Nah. I never should have been asked to do that, not with the kind of district I had. But it was clearly right. We needed it.

After it was over, I called all my kids [she has 11, both through adoption and from Ed’s prior marriage]. Dave [her youngest son] said, Mom! Mom! People say you’re going to lose, why did you do that? And I think that it’s really rare when you can say to your kids, Look. I did the right thing. And I think kids learn from the tough times anyway.

Q. Are there any lessons from your Congressional experience that you impart to your students?
A.
Oh, yeah. I wrote a book on it, which, unfortunately, most of them have to read. When I went down to Congress, I started to write down the stories that the [other] women [representatives] were telling me. And they all said a lot of the same things—that they wanted to get something done, that they were less interested in being somebody, that they became interested in politics by saving the tree at the end of the block, it’s a kind of—

Q. “The personal is political”?
A.
And the anecdote is political. You’d sit on the floor of the House and you’d talk about what your kids taught you. Most members of Congress, when you asked them what [they thought] about daycare, think, they may not say it, It’s my wife staying with the children. But that’s only 7 percent of the population.

The National Institutes of Health, and we talk about this in my class, the NIH did not have women in their [research] protocols, and we asked why. And the answer was somewhat legitimate, the fear of putting them in protocols if they didn’t know they were pregnant, so we passed a piece of legislation that said that if you don’t have women in the protocols, you must have a written reason why.

Q. What about the media course?
A.
[That] was a suggestion from one of the students. Rebecca Kurzner is the press secretary for [U.S. Rep.] Chaka Fattah [D-Pa.]. And she suggested to Larry, We have somebody here who was in media for a lot of years and who then went into politics. So why don’t we do a media and politics course? And I said, That’s a great idea. And it’s so much fun for me.

Last year, it started out—the first assignment was, You have been invited on “Crossfire” and you have to stick up for Gary Condit. And then the course became, sotto voce, “Who the hell is Gary Condit?” because then 9/11 happened. And I threw away the syllabus. ...

I take the students down to see “Meet the Press” and Wolf Blitzer [host of CNN’s “Late Edition”] on the same day. [Her Washington trips, which are open to all Fels students, also include meetings with members of Congress, congressional staff, lobbyists and administration officials.]

Q. Are most of the people in these classes interested in running for office?
A.
These are kids who want to get into government. They don’t necessarily want to run, although some of them will. They want to be in congressional offices, they want to work at the [General Accounting Office], they want to figure out how they can be part of the government structure.

Q. Do you ever envision yourself going back into either politics or the media?
A.
I don’t know. If I did anything, it would be more as a commentator or something like that. But I’m not compelled to go back into politics or anything like that. And politics is such a funny game. But I think you don’t close any doors, because it’s silly to close doors.

I really like what I’m doing here, and when you see the kids kind of getting it, it’s satisfying, it’s really fun.

In the media and politics class last year, I had a student who was so energized. And after the class, she said, It’s the most practical thing I ever learned at Penn. And she went down and worked on [Capitol] Hill last summer, and she wrote a paper up talking about how what she learned in the class fit into her hands-on experience on the Hill. So one builds in different ways, and this is a really solid way of contributing [to society].

Originally published on October 17, 2002