FEATURES | spring 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry: An Activist First Lady?
The daughter of a Portuguese doctor and a homemaker, Teresa Simoes-Ferreira was born in 1938 in Mozambique. She studied romance languages in South Africa (she is fluent in five languages), and then attended the Interpreters School of the University of Geneva, where she met John Heinz. They married in 1966. Heinz, a Republican, was elected to Congress in 1971 and then went on to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate. In 1991 Heinz died in a plane crash.
Personally inheriting more than $500 million, Teresa also became the chair of the Heinz family’s $1.2 billion philanthropic foundations, using her position to develop policies in environmental protection, women’s health care and prescription drug sales reform. Although she had met John Kerry in 1990, she renewed their acquaintance at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. They were married in 1995.
Teresa Heinz Kerry was named by The New York Times as “one of the nation’s leading philanthropists” and by Utne Magazine as one of 100 American visionaries (“people who could change your life”). Ellen Hawkes talked with her about her role in the presidential campaign.
Ms. How are you contributing to your husband’s campaign?
THK Basically by doing what I’ve always done in campaigns: talking about issues, having conversations with people — sometimes about what they’re concerned with, other times about some of the work that I do.
Ms. When you’re meeting women, what is your sense of the most important issues for them?
THK When we’ve spent more intimate time talking with, say, 20 or 30 people, a couple of things have come up. One is the international perspective. I’ve touched a lot on the international complexity and scope of problems, from foreign policy to terrorism to AIDS to NAFTA to Kyoto, and I’ve tried to connect the dots from the work that I do [in the philanthropic foundations]. I try to show how [the international perspective] hinders or enables issues that we view as “national issues,” such as jobs and clean air and the funds we have to spend to combat terrorism, etc. I feel it’s important to connect those dots.
Issues of health, of education — whether they come under the aegis of “leave no child behind” or whether they’re about the quality of your child care, whether that is uneven if not downright bad — those are practical issues that women care about.
Ms. I’ve read so many clips about you, but I see no mention of your mother in them. What was she like?
THK My mother was a wonderful, enabling woman. She was the old-fashioned concept of “mom.” She did however keep the books and manage the money in our family, so she was very smart that way. But she taught me to be a mom, and she taught me those values, and I’ve actually incorporated as much as I could of them within a more modern, American context. We were very close, and I took care of her at the end when she had two terrible major operations in the States.
Ms. When your husband first considered running for president, I gather you were reluctant.
THK I’ve always been reluctant. With my late husband and with John Kerry.
Ms. What overcame your resistance?
THK The problems in the world, my age, and the fact that John’s time has come, my thinking that he has a set of credentials and experiences that enable him to be a wise leader at this time.
Ms. What did you think regarding Judith Steinberg’s statement about not wanting to give up her career to campaign?
THK I think she was treated badly. She should have been left to her work and what she likes to do. I really resent people thinking that everybody has to be the same just because they’re a wife. Imagine if those same people were guys married to a women running for office — they wouldn’t all have to be the same. It’s certainly a double standard, that’s for sure.
Ms. You have your own professional life. If you were to become first lady, would you continue running your foundations?
THK Yes, absolutely. That was the one condition I wanted to make sure of — that it would be legally and otherwise acceptable, and it is. So I intend to continue my work and continue to share the work I do with other foundations and other communities.
Ms. So you don’t see the role of first lady as subsuming or making you shape yourself to certain traditions?
THK No, there are certain things obviously that the spouse of any official has to do, whether it’s a man or a woman. Whether you accompany a spouse to certain affairs, such as husbands of congresswomen or senators who accompany them to events, these things are social-formal-political. But I don’t think of the role as a formative or life-changing one. It’s a time-changing job but not a life-changing exercise.
Ms. Your comment noting that the public shouldn’t expect first ladies to do or say certain things, that they are not chattel, is a strong feminist position.
THK Yes, absolutely. But women — and men too — should be allowed to be who they are, and the more pressured and more complex a situation, the more valuable it is to be yourself, because that’s the only way the situation is sustainable — when you’re able to be yourself and be happy
Ms. I can see you as an activist first lady.
Ms. Hillary Clinton prompted antagonism when she seemed to be so activist and involved in public policy. Why do you think such antagonism existed?
THK A lot of people want politicians or elected people to go through the motions. So they feel that if you want to do certain things, then you should go through the proper channels. For instance, the Health Care Task Force: If she’d been an honorary rather than a full chair, then it wouldn’t have been as upsetting for some people. I think if someone, whether the wife of a president or the husband of a president, is going to take a big role like that, then the president should ask the spouse to go through the normal appointment procedure, as for a cabinet position or whatever: undergoing hearings, being vetted, and then getting paid! Then, the spouse is accountable, like any other presidential appointment. Yes, and then, when things go awry, the president is accountable too. That’s what probably upsets people—that the president and spouse seem to be taking advantage, and that’s unfair.
Ms. First lady, as someone said, may be the leading unpaid job in the country —
THK Correct. Now if they paid me [laughter], and I was vetted and elected as co-first lady or co-president or something like that, that would be very different. Then, I could open my big mouth.
What should be the role of the First Lady?
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