Coconut Grove

Cokie Roberts talks to Carrollton students about women leaders and leadership

Growing up during a time when women did not have many rights — and equal pay and employment opportunities were not yet law — journalist and author Cokie Roberts learned a lot about women’s leadership.

She was inspired by her mother, Lindy Boggs, the longtime Democratic representative from Louisiana, and read about influential women, including those who had started schools, fought for equal rights and risked their lives to change history.

And when she found their stories hadn’t been fully documented, she wrote a series of books on the women who played a pivotal role during the American Revolution.

“Somebody had to do it,” said Roberts, who spoke Thursday to middle and high school students at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove.

She told the students about Elizabeth Seton, who established the first Catholic school in the nation, and Katharine Drexel, who opened a boarding school to teach people about her mission.

“These women are saints,” Roberts said, emphasizing the importance of a good education.

Roberts is a ‘Morning Edition’ contributor on National Public Radio and a political commentator for ABC News.

Sister Suzanne Cooke, headmistress at Carrollton, introduced Roberts. She quoted Roberts’ mother, saying, “Wise women understand that when you’re making choices, you say no to things in order to say yes to something.”

During Roberts’ speech, she praised the Sacred Heart education, saying it’s where she learned to write.

“I just finished [writing] the book … in the month of January, I was getting up at 3 every morning and writing until 6 every night in order to finish the book,” she said. “So it’s a really good thing I learned to write and write and write.”

Roberts also talked about how she was brought up — and how her family influenced her career choice. Her father, Rep. Hale Boggs, D-La., was the House majority leader when he disappeared in a plane crash in 1972. Her mother, Lindy, succeeded her father and served for nearly 18 years in Congress. Cokie covered Congress for more than 10 years for NPR.

When Roberts graduated from Wellesley College in 1964, it was still legal to say, “We don’t hire women,” Roberts said. The help-wanted ads specified whether the job was meant for “white, colored, males or females.’’

But when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the summer after Roberts graduated from college, everything changed. The law said that no one could be discriminated against in a workplace on the basis of race, religion, national origin or sex.

“People don’t realize that having the law on your side makes an enormous difference,” she said. “They changed the fate of employment for women forever.”

Coming from a family of politicians, Roberts said she took a different path, largely because her husband, Steve Roberts, was a journalist. But she said her family helped her to understand the importance of government and political service.

“It was very much part of our life,” she said.

Roberts said she covers politics and government to try to “inform voters.”

She also spent much of her time Wednesday talking about people from before her time: the history of many religious women from the 18th and 19th centuries who took on leadership roles. She talked about their bravery, persistence and openness — even when they had setbacks.

“They understood that it’s really not just a saying that every person is made in the image and lightness of God,” Roberts said. “And you have to treat every person like they’re made in the image and lightness of God.”

And even though they weren’t recognized for their work when they were alive, they still fought for their cause.

“That is leadership at its absolute finest,” she said.