Women Who Lead: Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky
Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky is quite a woman—she is a mother, a former journalist, a former Congresswoman (D-PA), a teacher at a leading university graduate program, and President of the Women’s Campaign International, a global organization dedicated to advancing women’s status around the world.
Born in Philadelphia, PA, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963. She went on to work as a television journalist at WCAU-TV from 1967 to 1971, and then with NBC from 1971 to 1991. For her media work, Margolies-Mezvinsky won five Emmy Awards and became a CBS News Foundation Fellow at Columbia University.
In 1994, she became one of thirty-four Democratic incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives. That same year, she completed her autobiography, A Woman's Place, which chronicled the first term of the exceptional women who revolutionized the gender disparity problem in the United States Congress.
Margolies-Mezvinksy was later appointed Chair of the National Women's Business Council, and the Director and Deputy Chair of the United States delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. She founded the WCI in 1998 and continues to actively provide advocacy training for women throughout the world via the organization. Margolies-Mezvinsky also currently serves as a professor at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.
Throughout her several career accomplishments, Margolies-Mezvinksy found the time to raise a family of eleven children, some adopted, some biological, and others gained through marriage—all of whom she proudly calls her greatest priority.
Tell me about your childhood and life growing up. What is it about your background that made you interested in women’s rights and international human rights throughout your life?
My biological sister and I were fortunate enough to grow up with extremely supportive parents. For as long as I can remember, my parents were just kind people. My family—even my extended family, such as my aunt—was really instrumental in constantly saying, “You go girl!” They were truly my mentors. When I was about sixteen, I heard of a sponsorship program in which young women from developing countries could come to the U.S. and get sponsored by a family. I heard about one girl, an engaged 18-year-old, whose sponsor had backed out of the program last-minute. I asked my father if we could take her on as her sponsors, and my father simply said, “Absolutely.” My parents became hers.
We became sponsors again when I was at Penn for a girl named Rosemarie. Both of these girls became like sisters to me. These experiences were great; they were personal experiences but also provided an international perspective. My time studying abroad in my junior year at Penn, in Balboa, Spain, and Florence, Italy, were also eye-opening experiences. It was wonderful to be in a foreign exchange program. In general, my parents’ open attitude toward sharing really influenced me and my career choices.
It sounds like your parents’ view on sharing also strongly impacted your decision to adopt.
I always knew I wanted to be a parent. When I was a journalist, I did a story on hard-to-place kids. Most of these kinds of kids in the country were African-American, yet there were several articles at the time urging would-be parents not to create mixed-race families. These articles were particularly against single, white women adopting black babies. Well, I was a single, white woman. I investigated several adoption agencies yet none would even work with me for the story.
The first organization willing to talk to me was HOLT, an agency based in Virginia that specialized in adopting Korean babies. When I went to meet with the people there for the story, I fell in love with the little girl who became my first child. She was six years old at the time and living in Korea. Because I was single, I had to bring her into the country with a student visa—she was the youngest person to be brought into the U.S. with a student visa ever at the time.
What made you shift your career from television journalist to politician?
I was a reporter for a lot of years, and I loved it. I had many great experiences. But I felt that no matter how much I got done—for example, I knew that my story on adoption had inspired many others to adopt hard-to-place children—I felt that I was not doing myself. I wanted to get more involved. When I ran for Congress, I took a big gamble. My chances were winning were not big. I truly believe that you cannot win if you are not prepared to lose. So I was prepared to lose… But I won!
After you were in politics, what motivated you to create Women’s Campaign International?
My post as the head of the delegation for the 1995 women’s conference in Beijing provided a lot of opportunities for me and opened my eyes to so many of the world’s problems. I became very interested how women across the world deal with poverty, health, war, etc. I was fascinated with the unfairness of women’s low status in developing countries and the many things that we in the United States take for granted. We never think about, for instance, the women who spend five hours a day trying to get clean water for their families. After the conference in Beijing, it was clear that my commitment to the world was to bring more women to the political table. When you have more women making decisions, the world is a better place.
Is there one topic the WCI works on in which you are particularly interested?
I can’t really answer that. Women’s needs shift all over the world. In some countries, they have poverty but rich lands that they can cultivate; in others, they are starving and AIDS-ridden. It is important to me to give women the tools to deal with whatever needs they may have. It is so extraordinary to see what women can do with these tools.
Your work is so inspiring. Do you have any advice for young women who want to get involved in the kind of work you do with the WCI? What about politics in general or journalism?
For whatever career a young woman may choose, it is important that she never give up. There are so many barriers to growing professionally, but it is necessary not to be discouraged by anything. Also, I think every day should be an adventure. I know that it is so exciting to attend trainings in foreign countries and meet with women from everywhere and really experience their cultures. I always try to make the most of my global travels. Meeting with people from cultures other than my own truly enriches my life. Experiences like these will make you appreciate what you do have and also what you do not know.
Is there any culture that specifically fascinates you?
The Masai warriors of Kenya greet each other by asking “How are the children?” This touches me because I believe that the most important thing is the next generation. We do not put enough emphasis on what kind of earth we are passing down to our children, but that is what it should be all about. We must make the next generation richer, kinder, more open-minded, more informed, and less angry. We have to have a more open dialogue across cultures and countries.
Speaking of the next generation, are any of your eleven children interested in politics?
No one in particular, but if they wanted to enter politics I would support them. I think parents do their children a great disservice if they urge them to go in one direction or another. I trust my kids to make educated decisions about their lives. For me, nothing comes close to parenting. No job comes even close to second place.
But you have so many professional accomplishments. How did that work?
It is so hard to juggle a career and a family and luckily I made it work. My kids are doing great, so I have no complaints about that. In general, I think you can’t really have regrets.
Well, you certainly shouldn’t! Do you have any other last thoughts?I want to stress the significance of including women in peace talks, parliament, and other strata of society. Women aren’t better or worse than men, but they are different. This difference has to be respected.
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