Carol Moseley Braun

“I never understood why our society would relegate fully half the population to a ‘lesser than’ position.”

Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Executive VP, November 2021

KR:  Carol, thank you so much for being willing to participate in the Veteran Feminists of America Pioneer Histories Project. I am excited and honored to be doing this interview with you today. Please tell us your full name and when and where you were born.

CMB:  Carol Elizabeth Moseley Braun. I was born here in Chicago, August 16, 1947. And thank you for having me. I’m delighted to do this. This is wonderful. I appreciate your efforts in this project.

KR:  Would you tell us a little about your growing up life?

CMB:  My parents had a very difficult marriage, but I grew up on the south side of Chicago in two different neighborhoods as I recollect. Three actually. The first one was in the traditional old “Black Belt.” And then after the Supreme Court ruled that they couldn’t have restrictive covenants, in Hansberry vs. Lee, my father took the first opportunity to get us a house in what was then almost suburbia, Chatham. I grew up in a wonderful neighborhood. We used to have backyard sleeping parties and collected blueberries, and my mother would make pies. Those kinds of things.

It was something out of a movie for the better part of my growing up. Except my parents’ marriage was so volatile; they fought like cats and dogs. And it was devastating to my brother, who’s dead now. But to me, it was one of those situations which just made me stronger, even though it gave me a particular insight into the battered woman syndrome and to what happens with violence in the home, not just to the women who are involved, but to their children. And so that was my growing up background.

I went to both public and Catholic schools, Ruggles primarily, and then St. Dorothy’s, and then went to the public schools. After I finished elementary and secondary education, I then went to University of Illinois, originally down in Champaign-Urbana. But then I transferred and finished up here in Chicago, which was a blessing. It was a childhood that, frankly, was in some ways unremarkable. In other ways, was very remarkable, because it really gave me the kind of grounding that sustained me in my years being a feminist. And I’ve been a feminist since I was born. When my mother would tell me, “Girls don’t do that”, I would say, “Why not?” So that’s my background.

KR:  Then you went on to law school?

CMB:  Yes. And then following University of Illinois, I went on to law school at the School of the Neighborhood, parenthetically, University of Chicago, which is right down the street from where I live. It was like going to the neighborhood school. I didn’t live outside of Chicago until I got elected to the Senate. My entire life was growing up here, except that my mother’s family has a farm. I say that in the present tense, as they still have a farm in Union Springs, Alabama, and we would spend the summers on the farm, which was really another great part of my education.

Being on the farm made me a conservationist and made me so critically aware of environmental issues. And that actually stood me in very good stead when I ran for the Senate, because when I got to southern Illinois, I was able to function among farmers in a way that was as natural to me as functioning amongst people in the city. So that was my background.

KR:  Was law something you always wanted to do? How did you end up in law?

CMB:  I had no idea I wanted to go into law. Or politics, for that matter. I wanted to be an art historian. My father, however, told me I wouldn’t be able to make a living as an art historian. That meant that I backed off of that ambition and went into the law because that was something he had always wanted to do. He was in law enforcement. But I think he envisioned going to law school and becoming a lawyer. And because of that, that was one of the things that propelled me into law school.

KR:  How did you get involved in public service and political life?

CMB:  Well, those are two different things. Public service. I remember I was starting off as United States attorney, and so in the US Attorney’s office, I was in public service. And actually, in hindsight, we just had a death here recently – Tim Black just died. And I met Tim Black in the context of he was organizing a group to work for my then boss, Jim Thompson, who was a Republican. And I was so totally out of it politically. I had no idea that I was crossing any lines. So, I joined Tim and others as part of United Black Voters for Jim Thompson.

And we worked for Jim Thompson to get him elected governor. And he did get elected governor. I did not become a Republican, obviously. But that was the beginning. That was touching my toe into the political office pool.

KR:  You were working as a lawyer. What was your first elected position and how did that come about?

CMB:  State Representative. Here’s another story. Here in the neighborhood, I had left the US Attorney’s office to become a homemaker and stay home with my son, who had just been born and got involved in my free time, if you will, in a neighborhood effort to preserve and to protect the Bob-O-Links up at Jackson Park. Jackson Park is walking distance from my house. Someone had a sign that said, “Bob-O-Links, yes. Park District, no.” I’m fighting the Park District over whether you’re about to do the golf driving range, which, by the way, we lost that, and the golf driving range is still there.

And in the process of that, some of the people who are involved with that protest came to me and said, our state representative, Bob Mann is retiring, and we think you’d be a good replacement for him. And I said, “Oh, no, not me. I don’t think about politics, etc.” The same excuses girls normally give to these kinds of things. And I demurred. And then one of the people who here at Hyde Park is still around and still a political pundit said, “Don’t run. You can’t possibly win. The Blacks won’t vote for you because you’re not part of the Chicago machine. The whites won’t vote for you because you’re black and nobody’s going to vote for you because you’re a woman.” When he said that, it was like, okay, where do I sign up for this job?

KR:  You were a State Representative for ten years. Is that right? There were not a lot of women in the state legislature at that point. Will you talk about your experiences there?

CMB:  Actually, my election to the state legislature came in what they called The Year of the Woman. I mean, every time there’s more than one woman elected to something they think it’s the year of the woman, I’ve determined. But I got elected. In fact, our district wound up sending two women to the state legislature, me and Barbara Flynn Curry. When I got to Springfield, it was kind of an uphill slog, because I wasn’t part of the machine. I was such an outlier. I was black, female, not part of the Chicago machine. It was like I didn’t fit.

But I managed to function, in any event, because of my legal training, no doubt. But I functioned as a state legislator and passed a number of bills. And then halfway through, by the time we got to the 1980 reapportionment, the powers that be really relegated the black community to the absolute fewest number of seats that they could give. The gerrymandering was so blatant and not only the black community but the Hispanic community. They gave the Hispanics nothing. In fact, there was a district that was carved up so badly to keep the Hispanics from getting a spot, that I referred to it as the swastika district because the figure looked like a swastika.

But my senior counsel said I couldn’t call it that in court. It was too inflammatory. I sued and filed a lawsuit and was blessed to have Tom Sullivan and Jenner & Block come to my rescue and take on the case, because there’s no way I could have handled the three-district court judge case by myself from my kitchen table. Just wasn’t happening. And they stepped up to the plate and took the case. And not only did we win, we wound up creating two new senatorial districts in which Blacks had an opportunity to elect and the first Hispanic district in the entire state.

We won that case. And everybody was telling me I was going to be run out of town on a rail. But instead of being run out of town on a rail, Mayor Washington got elected, within a month of our court victory, and he named me his floor leader. I was able to go back to Springfield in glory, instead of being reviled. I went back to Springfield as his majority leader.

KR:  I know you focused a lot on civil rights, on human rights and rights for women, people of color, disadvantaged people. Were there specific issues you worked on in the Illinois House that you want to share?

CMB:  I had an apartment at the time right across the street from the Capital. And that became kind of the war room for the Equal Rights Amendment. And we, we meaning all the women who were supporting it, would meet over there at my apartment and strategize what we’re going to do to handle it. I can remember that battle like it was just yesterday because ERA failed when it did not pass Illinois. And that’s something you can always have regrets about.

But what I tell people is you have to remember that Phyllis Schlafly came from southern Illinois. And she and her minions really had done a lot to shift public opinion against the Equal Rights Amendment. And we had to take on all the goofy statements like “women in foxholes.” It was just ridiculous what they did. And the Equal Rights Amendment was another pivotal issue for me in the state legislature.

KR: And it’s still being fought. Then you became the Recorder of Deeds. Is that correct?

CMB:  I was going to retire from politics altogether. And that’s when Harold Washington told me he didn’t think that it was good for me to leave and I suggested to him, I said, what about clerk? He said, no, we’ve got somebody else for that. He said, but you’re going to become the Recorder of Deeds. And I remember saying to him, “Mr. Mayor, don’t we already have one of those?” Because there was a guy who was a colleague in the state legislature who was also the Recorder of Deeds.

This poor man went to his grave thinking I took his job. I did not mean to take his job and frankly, didn’t know that Harold Washington had not talked to him. He didn’t know that Harold had something else for him to do. But that’s the way of the world, I suppose.

KR:  The way of politics. You are best known as being the first African American woman in the United States Senate. Would you talk some about your run for the Senate and some of the things you did there and what your experience was like?

CMB:  The run for the Senate just came on organically, if you will. That is to say our incumbent United States Senator who had been elected or reelected twice, voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. I previously mentioned, Hansberry vs. Lee, but there was also Brown vs. Board of Education. I was in an interracial marriage. There was Loving vs. Virginia. You go right down the list of the Supreme Court cases under the Warren Court, in which Thurgood Marshall played a very pivotal role.

And the idea that Clarence Thomas was being put up as a substitute or replacement for Thurgood Marshall was really just hideous to me. I was beyond outraged. And I can remember having a conversation with our Senator before that, after the first time he voted, and before the Anita Hill thing broke and he didn’t get it. He did not understand why this was a problem. He kept saying the President is entitled to his choice. My whole life would have been different if it had not been for Thurgood Marshall.

I mean, how can you stand by and let the court go in this direction when you’ve got so many constituents who are depending on somebody who’s got Thurgood Marshall’s sensibility about these issues, about civil rights? Anyway, he didn’t get it. And then when Anita Hill came forward, he didn’t get it then either. And he could continue to persist in supporting Thomas which I thought was just hideous. And I finally thought, you know what? This man is not going to listen to me. Maybe the only thing I can do is run against him and take his job, and that’s what I decided to do.

KR:  What were some of the major things you worked on while you were in the Senate and some of the things you feel best about? Your major accomplishments?

CMB:  Actually, a couple of things. I was the first woman in history to be on the senate finance committee. And then in addition to that, I did a lot of work on education because even though the federal government plays a very small role in elementary and secondary education, at the same time, there should be more because our schools need the help. And there’s no reason why the federal government only puts in 6% or 7% of the cost of elementary and secondary education. And I hit on the idea of rebuilding our crumbling schools this way that would get around the argument that the federal government tells Johnny how to read or what to read. And I figured if the federal government does nothing but help shore up the infrastructure, shore up the buildings, then the locals can decide on what goes into curriculum. And I did a lot of work on that.

Now the bill did pass. It was never properly funded, and to the extent it got any funding at all, I think it got lost in the weeds. But the fact is, I’m very proud of that work. I also did work with regard to women on issues like lupus, the first lupus legislation putting lupus in the clinical trials, because that’s a disease that’s almost exclusively female. I did a lot of work in those areas. And again, I’m very proud of that. I worked closely with our current President, Joe Biden, on the crime bill.

I know that’s controversial even today, but I felt strongly that we needed to find a balance that didn’t demonize the police and find some way to give communities the support they needed to help communities deal with the issue of crime, because there was a huge spike in crime in that time, and people were terrified. And I just thought that it was government’s role to be responsive to that terror.

KR:  Were you involved in the violence against women act?

CMB:  Oh, yes. Of course.

KR:  When I was doing some of the research, one of the things that interested me was that you are an early opponent of the Confederate flag. Will you talk about that for a minute?

CMB:  The backstory on that is as interesting as anything, because they slipped the Confederate flag patent renewal into a bill that had to do with renewal or patent on the sugar substitute, Olestra, and I thought I killed it in committee. I had talked to the chairman of the committee and gone around and talked to members and had gotten the votes to kill it. And then, I was sitting in Judiciary Committee having an argument with Orrin Hatch about abortion. He had compared abortion to slavery.

It’s like, oh, God, push my button, why don’t you? We were having that debate. And of course, I was a little intimidated because I’m a freshman Senator, and he’s the grand old man of the Senate at that point. Next my staffer came in with a note that said, Jesse Helms has just taken the Senate floor with a Confederate flag. It’s like, oh, God, what did I do to deserve this day? I walked across campus over to the Capitol, and he was holding forth about how these little old ladies are just doing trying to do the right thing by their ancestors.

It’s like, no. I proceeded to hold forth why the Confederate flag was not a symbol we should be celebrating and that we have one flag, the Stars and Stripes. And I laid out my whole argument, and actually, I had lost the vote to begin with and then threatened to filibuster. I said, I will stand here and argue this case and this situation until this room freezes over. But then Howell Heflin from Alabama, got up and said, my grandfather was a General in the Confederate Army. And I think it’s time for us to move past these arguments. And when Howell Heflin weighed in like that, his voice brought over a lot of people, and I was grateful for his help. I don’t know if it’s because of the Alabama connection or whatever, but it motivated him. It made a difference. I won. And we killed a patent on the Confederate flag, and it’s still a debate now, as you know.

KR:  When you left the Senate, you were appointed to be an ambassador to New Zealand?

CMB:  Yes, it was paradise. Well, think about it, as Senator and again, it’s kind of what did I do to deserve this drubbing? Because particularly back here at home, even when I got appointed to the Senate Finance Committee, the newspapers here at home just excoriated me for cutting backroom deals. It’s terrible. They were so nasty to me. And I was getting such bad press, and I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t know what to do about it.

But I get to New Zealand in another job altogether, because as an ambassador, everybody wants to suck up to you. I went from being beaten every day to being treated like a queen. It was wonderful. It was like God decided to save me. I had a wonderful almost three years in New Zealand. I’ve got one picture here on the wall of me doing the traditional Māori greeting, which is where you touch foreheads and noses. And one of my little grandbabies said, “Grandma, who are you kissing?” “I’m not kissing anybody, sweetie.”

KR:  What are you doing these days?

CMB:  Flunking retirement. And I still am trying to serve. I’m on a number of committees. I’m on the DuSable Museum History Board and I’m doing as much as I can with my grandbabies. So those two things. And then I’m working on World War I. My grandfather was a doughboy in the First World War. Another bit of history that most Americans don’t know is that we had 350,000 black soldiers in the First World War.

And one of the reasons the picture of my grandfather is on my screensaver is because that picture obviously will never change – unlike pictures of the babies which change every week. But he fought in World War I in France. And I’ve had occasion to kind of trace his steps and trace his journey in that way. And it makes me very proud that he stepped up for America at a time when he couldn’t vote, he couldn’t sit on the front of the bus. I mean, the segregation was so bad in his time that it took real patriotism for those guys, those people to participate in the war, and they did. They stepped up without fear or reticence to serve this country. And I’m very proud of that as part of my own background.

KR:  You get your willingness and interest in serving genetically. What have we not covered? Are there other things that you think are important? Anything else specifically related to your feminism?

CMB:  Like I said, I’ve always been a feminist, my entire life. When I was seven, I determined what I wanted to do with my life was I wanted to stow away on a tramp steamer. I didn’t know what a tramp steamer was, but I wanted to see the world. That was my ambition as a seven-year-old. And when my mother said, girls don’t do that, I was like, why? I don’t understand. I never got the difference. I never understood why our society would relegate fully half the population to a “lesser than” position. That just didn’t make any sense to me. It wasn’t logical.

Happily, we’ve come to a time where the young women are not having it. They’re not having all those assumptions having to do with coverture and their status in the world as being lesser than and they are moving forward. I’m really encouraged as a feminist; I’m encouraged that we really have succeeded because the young girls have a different set of expectations. They start off with the expectation that they will be treated as equals. They start off with the expectation that they can do whatever it is their talents will allow.

They start off with the expectation that they can have it all. I know that’s controversial. But to me, it’s fundamental, and I just hope that we don’t take a step back, which we might. The pendulum goes both ways, right? It is possible it will go back. But I don’t think it will.

KR:  And it’s thanks to women like you who broke so many barriers that young women today can believe that anything is possible.