Interview - Congresswoman Niki Tsongas

Founding Director Florence Graves interviewed Congresswoman Niki Tsongas by phone on March 8, 2017, International Women's Day. To symbolize the struggle for women's rights, Rep. Tsongas wore white, the traditional color worn by suffragists, to President Donald Trump's first speech to Congress.


Florence Graves, Schuster Institute: Hi, I’m Florence Graves, and I’m the founding director here and I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you during this historic month of March.

Rep. Niki Tsongas: Well, thank you so much for reaching out to me.

FGG: I know that you’re actively involved in the, in the Congressional Women’s Caucus, and also…many of us here are thinking about the day that President Trump gave his speech to the Congress, and seeing women, a whole group of women including you, dressed in white. And-- 

NT: Yeah.

FGG: I was wondering why you decided to do that. What was it? Is it symbolic?

NT: Well, it was, it was, it was both symbolic, and I think to make a point. Wearing white, the fact of our wearing white was organized by the Democratic Women’s Working Group, though, and they, and they thought white was a good color. They actually debated whether it should be white, but in the end felt that wearing white was important, as it was the official color of the Suffragist movement--

FGG: Right.

NT: But also a reminder that we continue, the fight is ongoing for American women and women across the world really, to attain equal rights. So… it was really to honor those Suffragists who were so brave and who led the way, and who we are, where we are today for that. But also a reminder that there is still much work to do, that it’s best achieved by our coming together, and I think also wearing white was just a way of our drawing attention…as we all sat together—of our unity in this effort.

FGG: And why now?

NT: Well, I think it, one of the things I discovered as a member of Congress and the first woman elected from Massachusetts in 25 years--

FGG: Right! 

NT: --was just how important it is in terms of what we bring to the table. We all have our points of view on the issues; we all have to think about, you know, national security, whatever it may be, but there are also issues that go unaddressed if women are not at the table, and I have certainly seen that, in my tenure on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. So I think there’s that recognition, that we just need to be there. But also with our president, Trump, his first State of the Union address, I think it was just to show him that his actions toward women, his comments—his outrageous comments during the campaign, that these things will not go unnoticed and will certainly not be met with silence. So as we watch the Trump administration move forward, that we will be committed to protecting women’s rights, and, and just as importantly, preventing President Trump from rolling back whatever progress we’ve made to date. And I think also we’ll remain very committed to continuing to recruit and support women who seek to hold elective office, both in Congress but also in whatever level of government women, you know, become interested in serving.

FGG: And it appears—I mean, some commentators have said–that his election actually galvanized a number of women to decide to run for offices, throughout, whether it’s, state or local or national. Had you heard that?

NT: That’s so true. I often say that women can’t win if women don’t run, and so as a way of encouraging young women, or perhaps not so young depending on where people are in life, I just, I try to remind them that it’s not rocket science, but it does take a tremendous commitment on our part, as it does with anybody who seeks to represent the public…in any capacity, but that it’s a remarkable opportunity as well to make a difference in the lives of the people you seek to represent, as well as the communities you represent. So I try to encourage women in general, but I do think the Women’s March, the day after President Trump’s inauguration, was a remarkable display, of just, how concerned women are across this country, how committed they are to pushing back and fighting, some of the…policy decisions that will come out of the Trump administration in concert with our Republican colleagues in Congress, and if it takes running and serving—running for office and then hopefully serving, that that is a, very important place to make a difference. I’ve certainly seen it over and over again as I’ve had the opportunity to serve in Congress. 

women wearing white

FGG: How do you reflect on the fact that, you know, large percentages of women actually voted for Mr. Trump despite things that probably would have killed even, you know, the nomination of some, of anyone, just about anyone else who said those things or promised those things. How do you…think about that? What does it say about where we are?

NT: Well I think the bottom line truth is that President Trump and secretary – now President Trump and Secretary Clinton represented very different points of view about what they thought the future of this country should be. So as much as it’s very important for women to run for office and seek support, the fact that we are female does not automatically guarantee us a blessed thing. We have to get out there and make the case and earn the voter’s trust on a whole host of issues, and that is true for anybody who seeks to serve. I do think at that point when then you have sort of reached a certain threshold, and if you have voters for whom it is very important to elect a woman, that becomes the add-on thing. But I have not found it to be the case that simply by virtue of my gender, I am guaranteed the support of a voter -

FGG: Well, of course.

NT: - It has to go beyond that. Yeah, it has to go beyond that, and I think in these two cases I think you just saw two dramatically different points of view around what the country – where we should head as a country, and 62 million people embraced President Trump’s view of that, and that’s a caution to all of us.

FGG: Why?

NT: Well I think –

FGG: Why do you think that’s a caution?

NT: Well I just  think as we see his proposals that are coming forth on a whole host of issues, around which I take great exception, today we are beginning the process of debating the Republican version of health care, and, it is certainly nowhere near the kind of – it certainly does not create the access to health care, doesn’t address the affordability of health care, undermines Medicare -  embedded in the ACA was adding years of sustainability to Medicare, it gives tax cuts to the wealthiest of Americans, it disadvantages low-income Americans for who the first time had access to health insurance, so, these are the real impacts of those choices that our voters across this country made.

You know, the questions around what is the relationship of his campaign with Russia, who certainly wishes us, doesn’t wish us well, very important questions. His views on immigration, again, very distressing to me and so many in the district. So, I think, but, I think that that there were those who supported all of these issues, because in fact, President Trump is doing exactly what he said he would do, reminds us that there are real differences across this country that we as Democrats have to address as we go forward. Not to say we compromise our values, but we have to put ourselves in other people’s places to try to understand why on earth this point of view had any appeal at all.

FGG: Right, so I am sure you may know that women in the United States have only had the vote, not quite 100 years yet. It will be 2020 when the celebration of women having achieved the 19th Amendment being finally affirmed. When you think about that, what, you know, and it took 85 years I’m told, they worked for 85 years to try to get it passed. So, when you think about or reflect on the fact that it hasn’t even been 100 years that women have had the right to vote, what do you think about that, and how do you see more women, issues related specifically to women being able to - equality being able to get any traction very quickly?

NT: Well, again, first of all I happen to be the representative of the third district of Massachusetts. And I am fortunate to be the congresswoman from a district in Massachusetts that elected a woman to Massachusetts’ Congress five years after women did get the right to vote. And the woman who held this seat, Edith Rogers, continues to hold the record of longest-serving female member of the House of Representatives. Which I think is just a remarkable testament to my district at the very least, that they were so much in the forefront of willing to elect a woman and to do it year after year after year. And in fact, in part of, I think as a result of her long tenure, has elected women to the majority of the state senators in that district, in my district are women, and we have elected a robust number of women to the State House of Representatives as well. So I think part of it –

FGG: In your district?

NT: Yes, in my district.

FGG: Not so much the whole state.

NT: Yes, just one example. Not so much the whole state. So I don’t think it was any accident that 25 – when I did run, that I was able to be successful, because there was a culture, and a tradition and a comfort with women serving and being an advocate for a district. But I can also tell you in my capacity on the Armed Services Committee, I have made a good number of trips to Afghanistan, where you see again the remarkable, almost bondage that Afghan women can be held in. But again, you also see the remarkable leadership of women as they have been given the opportunity while we have been there, to come out of the shadows and begin to seek to lead their country. And again, you have in President Ghani a leader who is committed to women’s rights. So, it’s a combination of factors but there’s no denying that it is a challenge.

But again, as I so often say, if we don’t…we can’t win if we don’t run. So, so much a part of it is about women just sort of taking on the challenge, and putting, us putting ourselves out there, and in so many cases, women do win. And once you win, then you are at the table where you can begin to bring up the issues that are long neglected, or simply bring your own particular personal point of view around an issue that, you know, that we all have to contend with in elected office. And as I have said, I have seen it over and over and over again. So, the issue of equal pay for equal work would never be an issue, even though we still have work to do, would never be an issue if women weren’t elected to Congress. The issue of paid sick leave and family leave is predominantly a women’s issue in the sense that we are the ones that have taken it on…and men benefit from it, but the reality is if we were not there it wouldn’t have the focus that we bring to it. And as a member of the Armed Services Committee for the past eight or nine years now, I have really focused on the issue of sexual assault in the military, the status of women in the military, the health care for women in the military, the way in which we equip and protect women in the military. Again, if I were not on that committee in concert with other women, these issues would never, it would be denied, it would be neglected, I don’t think intentional, but we have to be there.

FGG: Right. So, I saw that you tweeted out a picture of yourself today, and you are bathed in red.

NT: I am, I have a red shawl I had to wrap around my shoulders. When we were all in white I couldn’t’ find a white jacket so I borrowed a white shawl from another member, and I reminded myself I am going to have to go get a red coat and white coat, because it is a way of drawing attention to the fact that we support for example, today, International Women’s Day, as women have not gone to the workplace, we really begin to see the many diverse ways in which women are so much a part of this, an indispensable part of our country’s life. So by wearing red today, we are, it’s just to indicate our support for that.

FGG: Do you still have it on?

NT: It was a little warm, so I took it off in my office, but as I make my way to the floor to vote, I will absolutely put it back on.

FGG: You may already know this, but Bloomberg had an article today that ranked states on their gender friendly policies. Guess where Massachusetts was – where do you think Massachusetts was?

NT: Well we have been making some good progress, but I couldn’t tell you. Where are we?

FGG: Number four.

NT: That’s not bad, that’s not bad at all. Yeah, not bad at all.

FGG: Vermont is number one.

NT: And again, it is a testament to the women who are serving in the state legislature, because they are, just as we here in Congress are the advocates for so many women’s issues, and family and child issues at the federal level, I am sure, and I know, it is the women legislators in the State House who are really taking the lead on so many of these issues.

FGG: Well, that’s true, but also the Massachusetts State House is known for being somewhat of a boy’s club.

NT: Well, the culture of these institutions has been shaped by men for years. And that was certainly what I noticed when I first arrived in Congress. We all come together as we are called to vote on the floor of the House, and I used to say it was like going from the playing field to the locker room. You know? It was just, something that came about as a result of women not being there in any significant numbers, for altogether too long. But you cannot change that culture if you’re not there. So as our numbers grow, those cultures change. And the boy’s clubs give way to something that is more, gender neutral, which is the way it should be.

FGG: But the progress has been so slow! In the United States, and also, in the states, and for it to be so slow in the Massachusetts State House, how do you account for that? What do you think?

NT: Well, it’s a combination of factors, but again, I do come back to a changing sense of how important [it is] for us to seek elected office. And, there may have been a time when it wasn’t recognized how important it is, or it may have been seen as too daunting, but I do think as more women in Massachusetts, so now, Katherine Clark has joined me in the House, Senator Warren has broken that glass ceiling, so there are three of us out of 11, that I think shows real progress.

I think the other reality is that these seats tend to be held for a long time once somebody gets elected, they tend to be in office for a good number of years, so as these seats open up, I think we all have to encourage women to run for these offices, because as we do, as I said, we have been winning. And even when I was running and had a very daunting primary to run in, there were two women, two of us in a total group of five, and we took over 60% of the vote between us, so the two of us actually were the top competitors, so it just becomes a – which is why I go back to that mantra of we can’t win if we don’t run. It just won’t happen, we have to put ourselves out there, and so I give credit to Emerge, which is an organization that really has focused on helping to give women the tools, young women or not-so-young women who want to run, to sort of train them in the tools of what a campaign looks like, what you have to be able to do, the kind of organization you have to put together…to become more comfortable with fundraising, all of those things are doable, but is important for those of us who are in office to support women who seek office.

FGG: So I have one last question. As you look forward to four more years, what do you think is going to be your biggest challenge in terms of issues related to women, during the next four years? What do you think is going to be the biggest fight, for you?

NT: Well I think, we were fortunate to have in President Obama a president who recognized the need for change, who was very open to initiatives to support women. President Obama’s defense department understood for example that sexual assault had to be dealt with. Understood that you had to open up the services and have all positions in the services open to women, understood that as you bring women into the services you’ve got to be sure that they are being well integrated into the force. So that was a philosophy and an openness that flowed from the administration at the top-most level, even as we here in Congress were pushing legislation through to do that. I think with President Trump it remains to be seen where his administration will be on those issues, in the military, or across this country which is why we all did come together wearing white, to show that we are all here together, ready to fight that fight for the next four years.

FGG: Well, and then you have the Marines – the Marine scandal, right? The Facebook page with all of these women, you know, unwillingly being revealed. I mean, what is he going to do about that, do you think?

NT: Well, it’s a terrible thing, you see the commandant, expressing it has to be more than just - these people will be brought to justice. Some of the reforms that have been implemented through all of our work, I have been working in concert with a Republican congressman from Ohio, Congressman Turner, will make it far easier to pursue justice around these crimes as we move forward.

FGG: Thank you so much for your time. I know how busy you are. We are really grateful that you were able to share some of your time to talk about the significant issues that still face women in this March 2017 Women’s History Month, and also the [International Women’s Day].

NT: Thank you Florence, we know the work is never done!

FGG: That’s true.

NT: Thank you!