By AUDREY FISCHER
Introduced as a “women’s history-maker” in her own right, Constance “Connie” Morella, both a former U.S. congresswoman from Maryland and U.S. ambassador to an international organization based in France, spoke at the Library on March 18 as part of the Library’s celebration of Women’s History Month. The Law Library of Congress invited her to deliver a lecture, which she titled “Legislating in Heels.”
“The Women’s Movement put the movement into me,” said Morella, who was appointed as a founding member to the Montgomery County Commission for Women in 1971 and elected its president in 1973. In her evolution from educator to politician, Morella was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978 and to the House of Representatives in 1986.
The first woman to hold the position, Morella represented Maryland’s 8th congressional district from 1987–2003.
She also raised a family—her three children and her late sister’s six children, including a set of twins.
“With five in college at the same time, we suffered from ‘malnutrition,’” she quipped, exhibiting the sense of humor she said was necessary to raise a large family.
So it is not surprising that throughout her career, issues concerning women and families have been important to Morella. She recalled that in the early 1970s, it was a struggle just to give women “a seat at the table.”
“When I went door-to-door to campaign, people asked who I was supporting,” she said. “They were surprised to learn that I was the candidate.” She was only one of 24 women in the 435-member House, which today is led by the first female speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
The Republican congresswoman worked on issues of equality for women in obtaining credit, housing and employment, recalling when the “want ads had a separate column for jobs suitable for women such as teacher, nurse, secretary.”
After much hard work by Morella and colleagues on both sides of the aisle, the “Violence Against Women Act” was signed in 1994.
“Domestic violence was the ‘dirty little secret’ that people didn’t want to talk about,” recalled Morella. She cited Vice President Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) as major supporters of the legislation.
“We had to get men involved” on that issue and others, such as equality in women’s health issues, she said. Morella recalled a time when women were not included in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health. Women were regarded as “little men,” thereby covered by clinical trials on males.
“Anatomically, we are not little men,” Morella emphasized.
In the areas of women in the law and politics, Morella peppered her lecture with stories of ground-breakers such as Margaret Brent (1601–1671), a lawyer for Lord Baltimore. As the first woman property owner in Maryland, Brent was allowed to vote in the Maryland General Assembly.
She also cited Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to serve in the House of Representatives, in 1916, before women had the right to vote. A lifelong pacifist, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. involvement in World Wars I and II.
Morella lauded the increasing number of women college presidents and improvements in the status of women in science and technology. She cited Kathleen Sebelius, recently appointed head of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Donna Shalala, the agency’s former head, who has been president of the University of Miami since 2001.
Morella lamented the shortage of nurses, traditionally a job for women: “Perhaps more men will enter the field.”
In the financial arena, Morella speculated that if more women were at higher levels in the banking industry there “might have been a higher level of ethics in this financial tsunami.”
Following what she calls her “unelection” in 2002, Morella was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OEDC).
“I went from Parris Glendening [former Governor of Maryland] to Paris, France,” she joked. “And my husband said he went from ‘Who’s Who’ to who’s he?” (Anthony Morella, professor of law emeritus at American University’s Washington College of Law, was former counsel to a cadre of U.S. government officials.)
The OEDC was founded in 1948 to help administer the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of post-war Europe. As one of only seven women in the 30-member agency, Morella continued to express her concern for global women’s issues. She is also concerned about the view of America around the world.
“The free world is looking to President Obama for leadership, accountability, regulatory oversight and sustained diplomacy,” she said.
Morella was asked by the audience how, as a Republican, she balanced her duty to represent a heavily Democratic district. It is a question she is asked frequently, as well as how she reconciled her more liberal views with those of her party.
“I practiced the three Cs,” she said. “Country, constituency, conscience.”
Morella said that explains her decision to oppose her party’s support of impeachment of former President Clinton and its support of military force in Iraq.
Morella’s positions were not popular with her party. “People would contact my children, some of whom still lived in Montgomery County, to ask them to talk to their mother about her position on these issues,” she said.
For her part, Morella shut off the home answering machine at times, knowing she could be reached at various other offices.
Asked what she would change if she were still in Washington, she immediately responded, “attitudes,” mourning a loss of civility that has made bipartisan cooperation nearly impossible.
“We can learn from the Marshall Plan that when nations work together, they can overcome the greatest challenges,” she said.