Jan Schakowsky, a fifth-term congresswoman from Illinois, is a leading advocate for women’s issues and is unafraid to call herself a feminist. She described to me her transformation from stay-at-home mom to Washington powerhouse fighting for an end to the war in Iraq, universal healthcare, veterans’ rights, product safety, and more. Enjoy this conversation with the Democratic Chief Deputy Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives (she might just invite you to her Ultimate Women’s Power Lunch).
Q: What inspired you to go into politics?
A: My political career began, almost by accident, in 1969 when I led a small group of housewives in the fight to put freshness dates on products sold in supermarkets. For a twenty-five-year-old stay-at-home mom, this was an exhilarating and empowering experience, transforming me from an ordinary housewife to an ordinary housewife who could make a difference in the world. It led me to other organizing and advocacy efforts and eventually to jobs such as Executive Director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens, fighting for affordable health care, and finally running for office myself. I realized that I could continue to stand up and fight for ordinary Americans as an elected public official.
Q: You were a founding member of the Out of Iraq caucus and opposed the Iraq war legislation. At this point, how can the United States achieve the most positive results in that country?
A: It is imperative that the U.S. recognize that there is no military solution to the situation in Iraq. Therefore, I believe we must immediately begin the withdrawal of our troops. As a founding member of the Out of Iraq caucus, I opposed the war from the beginning and four and a half years of bloodshed have only made it more evident that there is no military solution in Iraq. Instead of sending our troops and resources to referee a civil war, we should use them to fight terrorism where it really exists—in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq should be coupled with a serious diplomatic and humanitarian effort, involving as many states in the region as possible. Only with regional support will Iraq be able to become a safe, stable, and prosperous country.
Q: You’ve stated universal healthcare coverage for all Americans as your top priority. What are some of the greatest obstacles to achieving that goal?
A: The greatest obstacle that prevents us from achieving universal healthcare is the power of the for-profit health industry and their political allies. The American public supports comprehensive reform. American businesses want relief from high prices that hurt their ability to compete in the global economy. There is no shortage of political will among Democrats in Congress for universal healthcare, but our efforts are thwarted by the Bush Administration, which is more interested in pushing privatization than reducing costs or increasing access to care. One of the many changes to look forward to is the fact that healthcare will top the agenda in a new Democratic Administration.
I believe that it is absolutely critical that our government provide every American with guaranteed access to affordable, comprehensive, and high-quality medical care. Not a week passes without calls from constituents about their problems getting medical treatment for their children or their parents or themselves. Many of them are insured but cannot afford cost-sharing requirements or have gaps in benefits—like the young woman fighting breast cancer whose insurer wouldn’t cover anything related to that disease. The guarantee of healthcare, like fire protection and public education, should be available to everyone.
A government-financed health care system that serves all people would also have a significant impact on our economy by lowering the costs to businesses and families. The Democratic-led Congress is trying to address the health care crisis in this country by expanding programs like the State’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, over Presidential opposition. I strongly believe that we have a moral responsibility to provide healthcare to every American. I will die a happy woman if on my tombstone (or urn, whichever my survivors prefer), it says, “She helped bring healthcare to every American.”
Q: You are the Democratic Vice Chair of the bipartisan Women’s Caucus. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
A: I am very proud to call myself a feminist. While I have always been a supporter of women’s rights, I don’t think I really considered myself a feminist in the political sense until I joined together with a small group of housewives in 1969 to put freshness dates on products sold in supermarkets. Not only was that my first foray into grassroots politics, but it was also the first time I really felt empowered as a woman. Ever since then, I have been encouraging women at every level to run for office.
As Democratic Vice-Chair of the bipartisan Women’s Caucus, I have been able to bring women’s issues to the forefront of the debate in Congress. I have sponsored and supported legislation to improve healthcare, childcare, equal pay, and to protect women from abuse. In the 110th Congress, my bill to commemorate International Women’s Day was approved and signed into law by President Bush.
In January 2007, I had the historic honor to second the nomination of my close friend Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Not only was this a triumph for the Democratic Party, but it was also a crowning achievement for the women’s movement. Last May, Speaker Pelosi joined me and more than 2,000 of my closest girlfriends at my Ultimate Women’s Power Lunch in Chicago. This year will mark the seventh year that I have hosted this fundraiser to celebrate all the women who are making a difference in our country. The money that I raise at this event goes to support women candidates and to strengthen our Democratic majority in Congress.
Q: Of what are you most proud?
A: As a Democratic Chief Deputy Whip, I have been able to assist Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader (Steny) Hoyer in securing major legislative accomplishments during the 110th Congress. The new Democratic-led Congress has passed legislation into law to lower the cost of college, increase the minimum wage, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, improve national security, and expand veterans’ benefits. It has been an honor and a privilege to be part of the House Democratic Leadership that helped make these initiatives a reality.
During the 110th Congress, I have been able to pass legislation to regulate the private security contracting industry, strengthen civil liberties, eliminate dangerous products, improve drug safety, and strengthen vehicle safety. I have also introduced legislation to phase out the use of private security contractors, protect the Great Lakes from pollution, expand cancer screening and prevention programs, provide a safety net for veterans facing bankruptcy, establish nurse staffing standards to promote patient safety, and provide accessibility in federally-funded new construction.
My proudest accomplishment was when my Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act, H.R. 1216, became law. My bill required auto manufacturers to adopt simple, common-sense safety measures to decrease the number of deaths and injuries that have resulted from children being backed over, strangled by power windows or killed when they inadvertently shift a car into gear causing an accident. After years of working on this legislation, it was extremely rewarding to for my bill to pass both the House and Senate with unanimous support and for President Bush to sign it into law.
For several years, I listened to grief-stricken parents relive the nightmare of backing over their children or finding them strangled by a power window. While I know nothing will ever take away their pain, I am happy that this new law will ensure that no other family will have to go through what they have had to experience. As a Member of Congress, I live for the moments when I can make a real difference in people’s lives.
This is the first in a DivineCaroline series spotlighting powerful congresswomen. Each month you can read about issues they face, ideas they have, and adventures they’ve logged.
Photo courtesy of Jan Schakowsky