Former congresswomen visit College, discuss being women in politics, upcoming legislation

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Two former congresswomen visited the College March 18 to discuss being women politicians. PHOTO COURTESY / wm.edu

Monday, March 18 in St. George Tucker Hall, two former congresswomen came together to speak to students at the College of William and Mary. Democrat Rep. Marjorie Margolies and Republican Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle both highlighted their experiences as women in politics. The pair’s presence on campus was sponsored by the College’s Public Policy Program and the Congress to Campus initiative.

Margolies represented Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 1995. Before her time in Congress, she worked as a broadcast journalist at several organizations, including CBS, and has received five Emmy Awards throughout her career. A mother to 11 children, Margolies became the first single mother congresswoman to adopt a child from outside the United States.

Buerkle, who represented New York in Congress from 2011 to 2013, began a career as a nurse and had six children before even entering politics. At age forty, she returned to school and studied law at Syracuse University.

John Gilmour, a professor of government and public policy at the College, introduced the congresswomen. He then asked Margolies and Buerkle about their experiences as women in Congress, a question increasingly relevant this year as the College celebrates 100 years of women on campus. Both women immediately looked at each other and laughed.Buerkle started the conversation by conveying the difficulty of even reaching the House of Representatives in the first place.

“You have to overcome a mindset that we as women sometimes limit ourselves,” Buerkle said. “As a professor said [to me] when I graduated from high school, consider being a teacher, consider being a nurse, a home economics major or a homemaker, or consider becoming a nun and entering a convent.”

Buerkle reminded the audience that she chose nursing as her initial career, and that entering politics was an unexpected development that diverged from her initial intentions.

“What I did was, at the age of 40 after having my six kids, I decided to go to law school, which was completely against what had been engrained in my head,” Buerkle said. “It really is a challenge to break through your own stereotypes and your own self-imposed limitations.”

Margolies took the question in a different direction. She focused on the work she does to help women become global leaders and political influencers as president of the Women’s Campaign International, which advocates for female empowerment in countries including Ethiopia, Malawi, Afghanistan and Colombia. These efforts at fostering female empowerment have been a prevalent theme throughout Margolies’ career, and stretch back into her professional career.

“It was 1995 at the United Nations fourth world conference in Beijing. I was the director of the U.S. delegation,” Margolies said in a short film she presented about the organization.  Our commitment: to get more women to the table worldwide.”

Margolies also lamented that many items of legislation she wanted to pass — on topics including sexual harassment, assault and family medical leave — were only possible for her to pursue because her male counterparts in Congress viewed these as inherently feminine topics.

“We knew [this] was something we could do that as women made sense,” Margolies said. “The guys let us do it because we were women and these were ‘women’s things.’”

After speaking to the lengths both women had gone through to support themselves and other women, Margolies expressed the difficulty of fundraising in politics.

“You have to align yourself as a Democrat with groups that think that what you believe in are in keeping with their likes, and then you just push the rock up the hill,” Margolies said. “It’s really, really challenging. And, the more challenging the race the more challenging the fundraising.”

Buerkle added to the conversation and both politicians continued to talk about a day in the life of a congresswoman, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of serving in the nation’s highest legislative body.

“The way you feel most effective is your constituent service,” Buerkle said. “That to me was the most gratifying part about being in Congress. You can pass a thousand bills, you can vote out a thousand bills, but in my case, it would go over to the Senate and very few would be taken up and enacted into any kind of law referring to the polarization in the government.

Margolies agreed.

Now as a member of the Consumer Safety Commission, Buerkle also discussed her appreciation for the degree of freedom she and all of the executive branch have.

Margolies described her time in Congress as incredibly tiring but steeped in incredible honor.

“It’s a huge honor,” Margolies said. “It’s a fascinating place to be. I’ve never been in a place where the day goes by so quickly.”

When asked Congress’s current state, both women recognized legislative dysfunction as a significant issue, one that necessitates cross-party cooperation to solve.

“If I had a wish, I would like members of Congress to get down there and make some really tough decisions and I don’t think that’s the equation right now,” Margolies said.

Buerkle said that while polarization might have increased lately, it has also been written about more in the media.

“I do think that there has been a certain amount of dysfunction always, and people talk about polarization as being more now than it has been, but I think probably part of that is more awareness of it,” Buerkle said.

After listening to the two women speak, Claire Roberts ’19, a public policy major, mentioned the unique nature of hearing the two women speaking together.

“I’m in a course right now about the legislative process, so we’ve talked a lot about polarization in Congress, so of course I thought it’d be interesting to see a Republican and a Democrat talk side by side,” Roberts said.

Margolies offered a conclusion that summarized why discussion between politicians of different political affiliations is so critical. Despite so many differences in opinion, there is hope that there can be productivity in Congress.

“At a fundamental level, we both want to get things done,” Margolies said. “I believe there is a power in disagreeing agreeably.”