THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“There’s a New Sheriff in Town and She Happens to Be an Old Broad.”
Interviewed by Kathy Rand, VFA Board, April 2019
KR: Hi Nancy, thank you so much for joining us today. Can you just start by telling us your name and a little bit about your background?
NK: Nancy Keenan. I was born and raised in a little town called Anaconda in Montana. It was a mining town, basically copper mining. We smelted the copper after they dug it up out of Butte. It was a union town. It was a place where my mother’s siblings were – all eight of them. Also, we lived within blocks of each other – cousins and family. And then my father’s family was also a few blocks from each other, so a lot of family and a big union town. I was raised in a union family and very active and involved in politics. That’s kind of my entry into all of this – I was raised in a very political family.
KS: What year were you born?
NK: 1952, Valentine’s Day.
KR: What’s your family’s ethnic background?
NK: My mother was second generation they say “Slovakian”. We’re not quite sure. My grandmother was across the street, so all of the Slovakian ethnic food that we were raised on. My grandmother was cooking on a regular basis and we would just go across the street. And my father was Irish. That’s where the political and the activism side was – the Irish side. My father was a politician. He was both in the State Senate and a County Commissioner. My earliest memory, thinking about this interview, was being taken by him to see John F. Kennedy at the Butte airport. We stayed for maybe five minutes or 10 minutes. It seemed like an eternity to me. I was always the one that was brought with him to all of the political rallies and events and meetings. That was the Irish side of the equation that brought me to the political arena.
KR: I’m assuming your family were Democrats.
NK: Oh gosh yes. I’ve often said we always thought – damn Republican was one word until I was 21.
KR: That’s pretty funny. What was your growing up life like in school?
NK: I was educated in Catholic schools through high school – grade school and high school. That was the influence of strong women, nuns and teachers. And I found that from the time I was very young the encouragement that, “Yes you can do it.” There were no limits. That was the message that I was constantly getting in the Catholic schools. I think at home it’s interesting that my father, being a state legislator – he was there in ’73 when Roe was decided, Roe v. Wade. And they had to vote to ratify it because we had an anti-abortion law on the books in Montana. So, all of that was happening in that era of the 60s and 70s. I was in high school in the 60s and in the 70s then watching my father vote, and at times not agreeing with him. Although he did vote to repeal over the Roe v. Wade law in Montana.
KR: It had to be a difficult challenge for him to weigh his personal views against his political.
NK: That was right. I remember that conversation. I came home from Carver College and I was in my room. I remember the conversation between he and my mother about how he had to vote. They went to church every morning, strong Irish Catholics and so for him – in this discussion that went on that I overheard but was not part of – about the importance of separating basically your personal and religious beliefs from what you were there to do, is represent the political and the public.
KR: You said you had a number of siblings. Where did they all fit in?
NK: Yes, three older sisters and the younger brother. I was the one that my father grabbed by my hand and would haul me off to all of these political events. I think they attended some obviously, but I was the one to show an interest there. I was the one that wanted to go with him. The Democratic Party would have their picnic and I’d be the one that would go and see what officials where there. I remember Dolores Colburg was the State Superintendent of Schools. I had to be maybe eight, nine years old and then I became a State Superintendent of Schools.
It was just a fabric of my life – not the activism on organizationally initially, but activism in the political arena both as I grew up watching him, being in high school during the 1968 Democratic convention. Actually, we had only three kids in our high school convened after all of that chaos of 1968 – convened the school to have our own convention. You could be a protester, you could be a cop, or you could be a candidate and all 300 kids had to participate. But you were something. I wanted to run for president, and I kept getting shut down, so I said then I’ll be vice president. So, I ran as a vice presidential candidate. We lost the nomination but just to learn that political process of a convention. It seems like I was steeped into the politics.
KR: Where did you go to college?
NK: I went to the University of Montana in Billings. I did graduate there with a teaching degree. I went on to teach but was only teaching – I ran for the Montana legislature. So, there was always this draw. I loved teaching, I taught children with special needs. I love teaching, but it just seemed like a natural fit. So, I ran for the legislature. My father had since passed away and the first thing people said to me – but you’re a woman. And I said well what does that have to do with anything if I want to run for office? I ran for the state legislature in 1982. I won a six-way primary. All Irish, all Catholic and I think all men except me, so I won.
KR: It sounds like it wasn’t a difficult decision for you to decide to run because you were so steeped in. What was that experience like running?
NK: In the primary I think the total vote count was 305. Because we divided across so many. I knocked on doors, I did what people told me to do about running and I had knocked on doors with my father. So again, it was just a natural kind of transition. I think for me, serving in the legislature was the second ah-ha about women. I was put on the Revenue Oversight – women had never served on the Revenue Oversight Committee. And I remember also carrying three major pieces of legislation. One was non gender insurance, where you could not discriminate on your insurance based on gender. Carried that and we were the first in the country in Montana to pass non gender insurance. They have since tried to repeal it a thousand times – we beat it back.
The second thing for me was issues around women and domestic abuse and so I got very involved in that arena. I was in the legislature for six years and then ran for state superintendent of schools. That’s where I met Mary Jean Collins. That’s where there was an anti-choice piece of legislation and we spoke at a rally – Mary Jean came out. We spoke at a rally and there were five statewide elected officials – three men, two women, one Republican woman and me. We were all Catholic and the Catholic Bishop called just me and the other woman and wanted meetings with us.
So that was huge in my life both personally and professionally to be called by the Catholic Bishop to be threatened with excommunication. Andie Bennett met with him in his office at the church and I said, “Nope. If he wants to talk to me he can come here to the Capital.” And so, he did come in all of his regalia and there was a reporter that I invited. And I said my meetings are open and if you want to reject him coming in then that’s your choice. But he came in and he lectured me for about 10 – 15 minutes – seemed like an eternity. And then I listened respectfully and then I said, “You can dictate in the halls of your cathedral, but you cannot dictate in the halls of this Capitol. We represent all women of faith and all belief systems.”
And that became the headline. And then the fight was on. And the numbers of letters both supporting my position, but obviously there were lots of letters condemning my position. I think the most personal part of that is my mother, as I say, went to church every morning and I would run down back home to go to church with her once in a while. The weekend after that she wanted to go to church and I went. And I’m like, “Oh, here we go.” And the first experience in the service was a woman at handshake of peace said, “The Bishop is right, and may you burn in hell.”
Then of course my mother, being stubborn, said, “Well, we’re going to coffee.” And I’m like, “Mom, please.” No one would sit with us within the community center. But women walked by, time and time again and put their hand on my shoulder and said, “Dear, we’re with you. We’re with you.” And I think that was a lesson in itself as well. Don’t assume that you know how people are thinking or what they believe. They will express it to you when they feel safe enough. That was a monumental experience in my life and one I will never forget.
KR: Talk a little bit about your other political – I know you ran for Congress.
NK: Right. I served as the state superintendent for 12 years and then ran for Congress in 2000. I lost by a nose, so to speak, but one door closes, another one opens and I ended up in D.C. and eventually at NARAL Pro-Choice America as the president of that organization. One of the most amazing experiences of my life to now [is] taking a different way, not in the political arena as a candidate, but taking into the political arena with that experience in helping other people get elected that shared those values. And to me that was just a natural transition to be then able to work with candidates and find candidates and elect candidates that share the value around reproductive justice, reproductive choice and make sure we elected them.
KR: A different kind of activism. Was your mother still alive when you took that job?
NK: No, she died in 2001 and I was at NARAL in late 2004. But my sisters [were] and all of them were obviously very supportive. And you know it was a pretty amazing experience for me to have that unbelievable opportunity.
KR: Talk a little bit more about what you did there.
NK: I entered in after John Kerry lost to George W. Bush. So, we went from the Bill Clinton era to have George Bush [where] the attack was on everything from the international gag orders and even though I think personally you know [with] Laura his wife and mother there wasn’t quite that intensity. But look: there was pressure for them to just go all out. So, we were on the defense there. We saw the big shift from the state’s activism to the federal, where everything was trying to be undone at the federal level under George Bush. And then his run for re-election, again just doing everything we could to if not defeat him then elect others that could counter both in the House and the Senate.
So NARAL being a political organization of the C4, that’s what we did. We worked with candidates. I think there I remember Tim Kaine. And this was an interesting experience for me too, because Tim Kaine was considered anti-choice. He was running for the governor of Virginia. And he asked to meet with me at a governors meeting and he said, “How do you reconcile you being of Catholic faith and being pro-choice?” I said, “Well Governor, women hear God with their own two ears. Why do they have to hear your God? They make this decision having thought it through very well and what you want to do is make them hear your God. And there’s the difference.” And I recall him sitting back and he said, “I never thought about it that way. So, don’t impose your god on these women. They hear their god.”
So it was that opportunity again to talk to people, to influence people, to teach them how to talk about a very difficult issue especially when you’re running for office. They all were like deer in headlights. They didn’t want to talk about it. But you can talk about it in a very proactive way. Reduce the need. If you increase contraception you can reduce the need for abortion care while keeping it safe and legal. So that was also an opportunity to work with both national level candidates, state level candidates and obviously presidential candidates in 2008 with Barack Obama.
KR: How did you get the courage that you so clearly had to do some of this coming from your background? It had to be difficult.
NK: I grew up that you did what was right and you felt there was this issue around justice and equality and fairness. If you operate off of your values, then it’s not hard to say I believe that this is the right thing for us, for people. And so, I don’t know, people describe me as feisty and scrappy, or that I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the fight sometimes. But I also enjoy accomplishing things. So, it’s not just about the fight, it is about the outcome and what we can accomplish. But sometimes you have to fight in that process.
KR: Was your father feisty? Would you describe him in that way?
NK: He had a good Irish temper. He was determined, he believed it and he’d go after it. And sometimes it’s not popular and I saw it. I think I saw it as a young child that sometimes people didn’t like your position, but they select you as a person. And he would always say that. He said, “You know they may not like what you’re standing for, but you still have to have them like you as a person.” And I found that time and time again. I could disagree with Republicans, we could have epic battles and yet we’d go and have a drink, or we’d go have dinner together and I would make sure that we always had that relationship beyond just the political.
KR: That’s just what we’re missing today unfortunately. How long were you at NARAL?
NK: Almost 10 years at NARAL. And again, there’s almost too many experiences there to say – what amazing opportunity. But I think a couple key points, one was a night Barack Obama was elected and I was in Chicago.
KR: I didn’t see you in the crowd.
NK: It was amazing. And then we went back to where there was an area that was political friends. And so I was there, and we decided there were so many people waiting for the bus we’d go back there again and just wait it out. Even though it was a gorgeous night and Barack and Michelle came in. Of course, the hugs and the congratulations and I so clearly remember him saying to me, “Nancy it is a great day for the Supreme Court.” And I thought, isn’t that the truth for our issue, particularly, to have him as president was an amazing day for women.
So being there for that election, being there for his second re-election and the opportunity to work with that administration and doing everything around health care and making sure abortion care was covered, that contraception was covered working with Secretary Sebelius all of that was such a difference in the getting things accomplished versus the Bush years where we just were trying to hold the water in the dike back. I was able to see both. What you can do when you have an administration that is truly committed to advancing women, advancing the issues around economic justice. It was such an upfront front row seat in what could be accomplished when you have the right people elected.
KR: Right. Which goes back to elections matter.
NK: Elections matter.
KR: So, you went back to Montana.
NK: Yes, I left D.C. It was time. I felt that we were headed into – you know Obama had another three years or so whatever it was and then I thought this is a nice time for a transition for somebody younger to lead the organization. Be the face of the organization as the next generation and not those of us that have been fighting this battle for so many years. So, I went back to Montana and I failed at retirement. I was there for about a year when I got pulled back into running the Democratic Montana Democratic Party.
That in part was also how I was seeing that young women were not being included. It made me angry, to be honest with you and I was like, “OK, there’s a new sheriff in town and she happens to be an old broad. But by God we’re going to fix this!” And so, we took over the party. There was a young woman who had been there before, an extraordinary young woman who had been pushed out and I just said, “That’s not right. And so, I’ll settle it down – I’ll go figure out how we put the right things in place for the next generation of young women so they can find themselves in these leadership positions and not get run over.”
So, I was at the party for two cycles – 16 and 18. And now again you just said it’s time for laying the groundwork again. Now let those young women begin to define their own way and lead. We got Jon Tester reelected; we got the governor reelected and we picked up some legislative seats, which was very important in a very red state. But as I watch now heading into 2020, there is something to be said having gone from what you would see as progressive politics on the coasts to go back to a very red state and figure out how you get Democrats elected, because it is not easy. People have got to listen a little bit more for those of us that have worked now in those states. It’s not enough to wave the progressive only flag.
KR: Well in 2018, it sure showed that.
NK: That’s right. And I’m a liberal, but that isn’t the point. The point is you have to win elections. And what do you do to win elections. And Jon Tester’s re-election – ’18, that was the other thing I noticed just briefly, but in ’18 it was a different time than ’16. And we saw up front and close the interference of Russia. We did in a place like Montana. But it’s all about power. It’s all about power. Who is going to run? Who is going to have a majority in the U.S. Senate? And then how tough it was that really Jon Tester ran against Donald Trump. And he was there four times to the state.
And every time Donald Trump had come to the state, Jon would drop several points and we’d have to go fight back and where we fought back was with women. And what we fought back with was on health care and reproductive choice and families and economics, but it was like one step forward two steps back. Every time the president would come into the state we were having to go back and redo some ground.
KR: So now you’re retired – again.
NK: Now I am retired and although – I was mentioning to you about this I am so impressed with the caliber of young women and I got the chance to work with them in Montana right now. For me it is like I will be there for them in whatever way possible. I started it was like I’m back in the 60s when you’re doing consciousness raising meetings. I’ve actually encouraged them to meet once a month or whatever together as a group for dinner wherever they can find the time and talk. Talk about their own experience around work especially, because they’re feeling as I said to you earlier that oftentimes men fail at the job they’re in and they get a better one with more pay.
We now have coined that “failing forward”. I’ll credit my niece Dana Swanson for that phrase. They fail forward and women are going – what just happened here? And so, keeping those young women together as cohorts. I think their lives are very busy, but making the time to be with other women to talk about leadership, to talk about what their ambitions are. That it’s okay to be ambitious, it’s okay to want something else and how can they help each other get there. And sometimes it’s just leaning on each other when they need support. But other times it’s a great opportunity to share ideas and get advice. I gathered them a few times at my home. I hope to continue to do that and mostly for them to just talk. Not me, it’s for them to be connected.
KR: But you’re providing the glue to make it happen.
NK: So yes, I retired officially but we’ll always have my hand both in the political arena and like I said today talk a lot of candidates call you know looking for any kind of minimal advice and direction and so always available.
KR: So, anything we haven’t covered about your life?
NK: There were a few highlights there. So, all of that is good. I feel so fortunate and have great friends and women that I’ve stood on the shoulders of their work and so now my job is –
KR: Your shoulders are now available.
NK: My shoulders are now available.
KR: Thank you so much Nancy, it’s been great.
NK: Thank you.