FFL REMEMBERS REMARKABLE PRO-LIFE WOMAN®
AMBASSADOR LINDY BOGGS
By Serrin M. Foster, FFL President
Former Congresswoman and Ambassador Lindy Boggs died Saturday July 27, 2013, at the age of 97. She lived a most remarkable life.
Born Marie Corrine Morrison Claiborne in Louisiana on March 13, 1916, she was later nicknamed “Rolindy” because she resembled her father Roland, who died when she was just two years old. But eventually people came to know her as “Lindy.”
Boggs’ ancestors served in Congress during both the 18th and 19th centuries. She was a descendant of the state’s first governor, William C.C. Claiborne, and second cousin to deLesseps Story “Chep” Morrison, Sr., Mayor of New Orleans from 1946 to 1961. Politics was in her blood.
Lindy Boggs was a teacher when she married Thomas Hale Boggs, Sr., a lawyer and former classmate at Tulane University who was first elected to Congress in 1940. She was just 24 when she arrived in Washington, D.C. She served as his campaign manager, staffer, and top political advisor. “Early on, Hale established with politicians at home that I was his direct representative and that they could say anything to me that they could say to him. Whatever decisions I made, they would be his final decisions,” she recalled.
In October 1972, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, along with Representative Nick Begich, an aide, and their pilot, disappeared while traveling over a remote section of Alaska en route to a fundraiser for Begich. Three months later, the House declared his seat vacant. Boggs (and Begich) won election posthumously. On January 12, Lindy Boggs announced her candidacy for her late husband’s seat saying, “I know the job and am humbled by its proportions.” Ten days later, the U.S. Supreme Court would announce its landmark decision, Roe v. Wade.
“She’s the only widow I know who is really qualified — damn qualified — to take over,” barked the cantankerous Armed Services Chairman F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana.
Boggs won the special election in a landslide victory. Shortly after the election, she was asked if she had any doubts about running for her husband’s former office. She quipped, “The only thing that almost stopped me was that I didn’t know how I could do it without a wife.”
Boggs became the first woman to represent Louisiana in the House of Representatives. It was only one of many firsts.
Representative Boggs helped to write the Employment Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 and held seats on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.
Among her most noted accomplishments was personally marking up the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. Representative Boggs appreciated that it prohibited discrimination on the basis of “race and age, and their status as veterans.” But as a new widow who had to manage her own finances, she decided to expand protection for women. Without informing other members on the Committee, she said, “I ran into a room where there was a copying machine, wrote in ‘sex and marital status’ on the bill, and made 47 copies.” After distributing the copies, she explained to her colleagues in her Southern drawl, “Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do, I’m sure it was just an oversight that we didn’t have ‘sex’ or ‘marital status’ included. I’ve taken care of that, and trust it meets with the committee’s approval.” It passed unanimously, 47-0. She was a freshman legislator at the time.
In 1977, Boggs helped co-found the Congressional Women’s Caucus. She considered herself a champion of women’s issues. “Almost all women’s issues are economic issues, a stunning idea to those persons who want to hear about ‘Great Women’s Issues’ and expect us to be preoccupied with the ERA or abortion or sexual harassment.” She explained, “The major issues of importance that I’ve worked for are economic ones: equal rights for women in business, banking, and home ownership; the promotion of women in the workplace; better jobs in government contracts; and equal opportunities for higher education, especially in science and medicine.”
While Boggs did not see abortion as the top issue for women, the pro-life Democrat consistently voted against abortion and for women. Most famously, in 1977 she and five other women out of 18 voted “Aye” for the Hyde Amendment, which to this day bars Medicaid funding for most abortions.
Few could have predicted that a Louisianan born and raised on a plantation would become a fierce advocate of civil rights. But Boggs understood that civil rights were an inseparable part of the political reform movement of the 1940s and ’50s. Among her accomplishments was working for the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1965 and 1968. “You couldn’t want to reverse the injustices of the political system and not include the blacks and the poor. It was just obvious,” she said.
Boggs was the only white representing a black-majority district in Congress when she announced her retirement in 1990. “I am proud to have played a small role in opening doors for blacks and women,” she said at the time.
In another sign of her trailblazing career, Representative Boggs was the first woman to chair a major political party’s presidential nominating convention. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York, she decreed that she would be addressed as “Madam Chairwoman,” rather than “Madam Chairman” or “Madam Chairperson.”
“I’m a woman,” she said. “Why should it be neuter?”
In 1984, she was on the shortlist of names considered for Vice President. “[The party’s] confidence was pleasing, but I knew that my age and feelings regarding abortion… would preclude any serious consideration of me,” she later recalled. “I stayed within the mainstream of the consideration and talked to various groups, never about myself but always about the fact that a woman could be President or Vice President. I wanted people to remain interested in the possibility.”
During a 1987 National Right to Life Convention, the pro-life feminist invited Feminists for Life’s leadership to her home in New Orleans. While a family tragedy marked her start in Congress, another painful loss accompanied her exit. Lindy Boggs announced her retirement after learning that her daughter Barbara Boggs Sigmund, mayor of Princeton, N.J., was dying of cancer. Sigmund finally succumbed to it in October 1990.
A lifelong pro-life Democrat, she retired in 1991, after nine terms in office. She never faced a serious political challenge for her seat in Congress. That same year, a reading room set aside for female Members of Congress was named the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room. According to a U.S. House historian, it is the only room in the building named for a woman.
Her retirement was premature. Six years later, she answered another call when President Bill Clinton asked Representative Boggs to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Her daughter, ABC News journalist Cokie Roberts, described the hearing as a “love fest,” with friends and colleagues in the Senate filling their time with praise for the octogenarian.
At age 81, she became the first American woman to hold the diplomatic position. She served from 1997 until 2001. Feminists for Life named her a Remarkable Pro-Life Woman® in 1998.
In 2001, Congress honored her for her “extraordinary service” on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Congressional Women’s Caucus.
As a U.S. Senate spouse, Susan Hurley DeConcini traveled in the same political circles in Washington as Boggs. Later, DeConcini served as a member of Feminists for Life of America’s Board of Directors, and in anticipation of a 2004 Board meeting in New Orleans, DeConcini invited her friend Lindy to a private dinner hosted by FFL’s Board of Directors at Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans.
I remember how excited we were when Susie told us that she had accepted our invitation to hold a dinner in her honor. You knew immediately that Ambassador Boggs was New Orleans royalty, and if you didn’t know it already, everyone in the restaurant and everyone on our walk after dinner to her home in the French Quarter made it clear.
As we made our way through the carriage entrance under the house to the center of the courtyard, she stopped to explain the layout of the grounds. As she stood next to her fountain, she told us that she inherited the property from an aunt. Soon after, she arranged for the removal of a dying tree. The landscaper called to assure her that although he couldn’t find the key to the gate, they scaled the wall and removed the tree. Horrified, she replied, “But I don’t have a gate!”
The Ambassador gave us a private tour of her historic 18th century Bourbon Street home and her treasured family and political mementos — many were one and the same. Her canopied bed rivaled those in palaces in Europe. She was living in a museum.
Ambassador Boggs told us that her children were nervous about her living alone on Bourbon Street, but it was apparent that the strength of this woman and the genuine love and admiration felt by the people of New Orleans meant that if anyone should cause her harm, they should be the ones who should be nervous.
The following year, Ambassador Boggs survived Hurricane Katrina, as did her historic home. When she decided to relocate closer to family in the Washington, D.C. area, her daughter Cokie Roberts and son Thomas Hale Boggs, an influential lobbyist and lawyer, got their wishes.
The recipient of countless local and national honors, she was awarded the Congressional Distinguished Service Award in 2006 for her time in the House of Representatives.
Most recently, she returned to her beloved city in October 2011 for the funeral of her longtime friend and colleague, retired Archbishop Philip Hannan, most famous for “marrying and burying the Kennedys.”
Her daughter remembers her mother as “a trailblazer for women and the disadvantaged.”
“I never expected that I would develop my own agenda or that I would become a voice and a vote for many women during two tumultuous decades,” Ambassador Boggs wrote in her 1994 memoir, Washington Through a Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Southern Woman, co-authored by Katherine Hatch.
Upon learning of her friend’s passing, former FFL Board member Susan DeConcini said, “I admired Lindy Boggs because she was a woman who tried to help other women succeed in the work world and in raising their economic circumstances. In addition to these causes, she was always pro-life, which I believe is the definition of being a feminist. What is more feminine than having a baby and nurturing the baby to adulthood? She and I were on the same page on this subject. She was a role model for many women, including me.”
In addition to her children, Boggs is survived by eight grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.