Roxanne Barton Conlin

“In Order to Change Things, You Have to Have Power and the Way You Get Power in this Country is to Run for Office.

Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, February 2021

RBC:  My name is Roxanne Barton Conlin. I was born on June 30th, 1944. I am the oldest of six children in a poor, Irish Catholic family. It was a difficult childhood; besides poverty, there was violence in my home, and I was in charge of protecting the family. I went to work when I was 14 and lied about my age. I started smoking, which was a big mistake and it took a long time to get over that particular lie. I smoked for many, many years unfortunately. 

I went to college [Drake University] when I was 16 and I went to law school [Drake University Law School] when I was 19. I graduated from law school when I was 21.It was in law school that I came to understand the treatment of women under the law. I’m pretty sure that’s not what they wanted to teach me, but that is what I learned. I decided in law school that I would try to fix it and I would do my best as an attorney to represent people who wanted to change the world, wanted to make the world a better place, who wanted to protect people’s individual rights. 

And that’s what I have done ever since in one way or another. I have four children. My oldest two children are adopted. I adopted these kids as teenagers. I made the other two in the usual way and they’re all pretty successful people. My two sons live in Des Moines. My two daughters live far, far away, I don’t know why, but they live a long ways away. My husband, James, and I have been married for fifty-seven years. We got married after we had known one another for two weeks and one day.

MJC:  Pretty good judgment there.

RBC:  I look back and think, oh my God, how did I know? If one of my kids had done that I think I would have been extraordinarily upset. But I did know, I did know.

MJC:  In law school you had sort of formulated an idea about your life. So when did you bump into or help create the women’s movement aspects of your life?

RBC: I read Betty Friedan’s book, so I didn’t feel as alone as I had before that. I started talking to friends and family about what I saw as the inequities that affected women. I was invited to give my first speech on women’s rights to a church group in 1968. I’m lucky that they did not stone me, because I was talking about the very radical idea that women are equal, they’re entitled to equal financial rights, social rights and equal pay. It was a revelatory conversation with these church members, who did not see it that way at all. 

I gave that same speech for decades and now it’s not radical at all. We have changed the world, Mary Jean, we definitely have. The women like you and me and others who are legion have made an enormous difference in the lives of young women. Such an enormous difference that they don’t even know what it took for us to move the world forward.

MJC:  After the speech at the church?

RBC:  After that, between about 1968, and the first convention of the National Women’s Political Caucus, I think I gave other speeches. I was an assistant attorney general for the state of Iowa, working for a very, very conservative man, so I had to be a little bit careful, though it never worked out. Virginia Watkins and I and many other women here in Des Moines started the NOW chapter and after that,  I went to the National Women’s Political Caucus, and that seemed like a very good fit for me, because I was a political activist. 

I had been the president of the Polk County Young Democrats, which had a thousand members. I could put 400 on the street overnight. So that made me a very popular political figure for political candidates to contact. I was very active politically from the time I was about 16 on. The Political Caucus addressed some of my concerns. In order to change things, you have to have power and the way you get power in this country is to run for office. We set a goal to get women to run for political office. After I got back from Houston, it took me a while to get organized, but we had the first meeting of the Iowa Political Caucus in my living room. I sent out handwritten letters with maps to my house. 

There were about 30 women who showed up. Mary Louise Smith was one of them and Lynn Cutler. We decided we’d have a convention in that September, and we did at Iowa state. We had planned for a couple of hundred people and we got almost a thousand!  That was a good thing. Sissy Farenthold was a speaker, Bella Abzug was there, Jill Ruckelshaus was there. We organized the caucus and we immediately started to work for the candidates who were running. Most of the ones that we supported won and we were off to the races. 

I ran for president of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1975 and I was not successful. Mary Louise Smith, my good friend, did not support me, she supported a Republican woman. It was a great disappointment to me, but I got over it.

MJC: Do you remember who won?

RBC:  Audrey Rowe Colom was the Republican woman from Connecticut who Mary Louise supported.

MJC:  I remember that the Iowa Political Caucus was the best in the country.

RBC:  Yes, it was. It was really big. The dues were two dollars, so we had a lot of members and a lot of activists. Women always did the scut work of politics: we address the envelopes and seal them. We were on the ground, door to door, that kind of stuff. But we never ran for office until after someone said, “you should think about running.”

I was standing in Grinnell, Iowa, with a group of women after making a speech about how important it was for women to be in positions of power. There was a group of people around and there was a man with a beard, so I assumed that he was a fellow traveler. Someone said to me, I just couldn’t do that. I’m not smart enough. I told her to come down and watch the legislature in action, sit in the gallery, watch the legislature, you will wonder how some of these guys get their pants on in the morning. 

The person that I identified as a fellow traveler was in fact a newspaper reporter, so that ran on the wire for twenty-four hours. That was one of the many times that my boss, Richard Turner, the Attorney General of the State of Iowa, called me over and suggested that I should be more careful.

MJC:  That was a non-partisan position, correct? If you’re a US attorney?

RBC:  No. I was United States Attorney in the Carter administration. The Assistant Attorney General for Iowa, that was a partisan position. The Attorney General was a Republican, a conservative Republican. I was the bane of his existence.

MJC:  So you inspired yourself through your work in the political process to run for office correct?

RBC: Right. I didn’t run for office for sometime – in 1982. I was the United States Attorney. I was the second woman ever confirmed by the United States Senate to be United States Attorney. That is the chief law enforcement officer in what was, up to that point in time, his district. And it was a great job. I loved the job. It’s a great job for a trial lawyer and it was also a job where I had at my disposal the power of the federal government to do good things. I tried to do good things. I prosecuted white collar criminals as opposed to drug dealers and the like. And then Ronald Reagan was elected.  U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President. I did not please him, and he did not please me either, so I ran for Governor.

MJC:  Is that 1980 you ran for governor?

RBC:  No, I was United States Attorney until August of 1981 and I ran for governor in the election of 1982.

MJC:  All right, let’s talk about that.

RBC:  That was fun. All the women who had been politically activated; it was really more of a cause than a campaign. We tried very hard to win in Iowa and came pretty close. I won a three-way primary by a lot, more than 50 percent. We didn’t realize that we were  not ever going to win the general election. We didn’t know at the time about what’s called the Bradley Effect. People will lie to pollsters in order not to be considered racist or sexist and I think that happened to us. But I would do it again. If I could have that campaign again, I would do it again.

I traveled all over the state of Iowa. I talked to people that I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to talk to. I bet you I met a hundred thousand people. I love the people of Iowa, even though they rejected me, I love them still. It was the highest highs and the lowest lows. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. People ask me was it all worth it after it was over? I probably got a thousand letters and cards from people, including young people, fourth, fifth, sixth graders asking whether it was all worth the time, the money, the pain. 

I think about those young people, and I know it was. Some of those young people have gone on to great things One of them is U.S. Rep. Katie Porter. I didn’t even know this, but she talked about being at a parade in Iowa when she was about eight years old that I was in. Her mom said that one is going to be governor Of course that was wrong. But anything I had to do with Katie Porter, yay! But there are other women who have gone on to do great things: Lynn Cutler, Marie Wilson, there are Iowans everywhere doing really important work.

MJC:  Were you the first woman to run statewide?

RBC:  Yes.

MJC:  And your opponent’s name?

RBC:  Terry Branstad, who went on to be the longest serving governor in the United States of America and who left office in 1998. We elected a Democrat, Tom Vilsack, and then we elected another Democrat in 2006, Chet Culver and then Terry Branstad came back in 2010. He tried to fire Iowa’s only gay, appointed officer: the Iowa Worker’s Compensation Commissioner who serves a six year term. That man was my friend He was my law clerk when he was in law school and he has been my client ever since Terry Branstad tried to fire him. We tried that case in June / July of 2019 and won a verdict for him of 1.5 million dollars. On appeal to the Supreme Court. I argue the case on March 24th.

MJC: Oh it’s still going?

RBC:  This is its third trip to the Supreme Court, the other two times we made very important, good law for the state of Iowa.

MJC:  Can you mention what those rulings were?

RBC:  Yes, the first appeal was on the issue of whether or not a person who holds a public office, an employee of the state of Iowa, can be held individually liable when they do things that are not in the course of their employment, like defame people or assault people. The answer to that question was thought to be no, but it’s not no. The answer to that question is yes indeed, you can hold public officials and employees of the state of Iowa liable when they act outside the course of their employment. Some procedural things would change as well. 

The second time we went up, it was on an even more important issue, and that is whether the state constitution permits an individual cause of action for damages to people whose rights have been trampled on. There is a federal statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which permits that kind of cause of action, but if you are a human being, you do not want to go to federal court. I worked on that issue for about 20 years, I got it before the Supreme Court in 2006, and it was pending there for two and a half years. Ultimately there was a tie, so I did not get that fixed. But this time I did.

MJC:  Well, you’re persistent.

RBC:  Yes, I am persistent.

MJC:  So you were pursuing your law practice through this period – do you stay active in the political caucus or do you move into your individual achievements?

RBC:  I’m still very politically active. I count among my friends Iowa’s Democratic public officials. I’m in a group called Fund Her, which is a California based group that funds the campaigns of women candidates all over the country. They’ve got an excellent track record and I think it’s an important group.  I’m active in my professional organizations. I was the first woman to be the president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and remain on several committees. . And then I have the full caseload.

MJC:  Decision early on to be an advocate, is that what led you into being a trial lawyer?

RBC:  Yes, absolutely. If you seek to change the world, you can do it in politics. I ran twice for public office. In 2010, I took on Chuck Grassley and that was doomed to failure but I did that for a couple of reasons. In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, held that the prohibition against issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples was unconstitutional. As a result, the three judges who were up for retention in 2010 were under attack from the far-right wing. 

Never before had this  happened in Iowa, ever. Retention elections were generally very low-key affairs; almost nobody voted in them. Those three judges were excellent, excellent judges and did not deserve to be the target of the radical right wing, but they were. We simply did not know what to do. We had never faced a position where we had to give money to judges and so we didn’t know what to do and we didn’t do it right. 

I ran for office because I still saw myself as a young radical, which apparently I’m not anymore. I thought I could bring out more people by running against Grassley. That didn’t happen. I didn’t win, and all three judges were defeated. Terry Branstad had the opportunity when he won his election to appoint three new justices to the Iowa Supreme Court. Now the court that I will argue before next month has six republican appointed judges and one hold over democratically appointed judge. So, I have to say, I’m not optimistic about preserving the verdict we won in the sexual orientation discrimination case.

MJC:  So Iowa was the pioneer, was the first state to approve gay marriage.

RBC: No, Massachusetts and Hawaii. Because it was in the Middle West, because it was seen as what it is, which is a pretty stodgy traditional place, it was accepted far more across the country. It was cited a number of times, to reach the same conclusion by other State Supreme Courts. And then, of course, the United States Supreme Court finally at long last, much more recently. But for Iowans, for a while, we had gay marriage tourists. It was a real economic boon to Iowa.

MJC:  Just kind of summarize the changes you’ve seen in women in the law. And then we’ll talk about women in politics.

RBC:  When I started practicing law, the Equal Opportunity Act was already in place, passed in 1964, effective in 1965. But you may well recall that the head of the EEOC said, “don’t worry, I’m not going to enforce it. I’m not going to try to make things equal for women.” Sonya Roberts brought one of the very first cases and then the rest of us started in and we had an informal network of women lawyers across the country that included Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the time that did law  development for women’s rights and it was effective. That’s not to say that we have solved the problem of equal employment opportunity for women, because we have not. 

The difference is, when I became a lawyer, I think the number of women actually practicing law was less than one percent of the total lawyers. Now we’re up to about actual practicing lawyers of twenty or twenty five percent. Not too many of those women are trial lawyers, but still, the change in the professions, doctors, lawyers, scientists has been dramatic and so important to young women, who look to see whether or not they can do what they want to do. They have to be able to see someone who looks like them. They have to be able to see someone who is doing what they want to do. And now that can be true in almost all professions. 

Credit was denied to women under every circumstance. A woman who had a job outside of the home, her income would not count toward purchasing a home, unless she signed a letter where she promised not to get pregnant. When I was an assistant attorney general, women would call me and say, should I sign that? I would say, sure how are they going to enforce it? We now have the Equal Credit Act. We have Title IX, which was passed in 1972 and has made an incredible difference in the lives of women in education. Athletics is just one aspect of it, but such an important part of Title IX. 

I can remember the objections about how it’s unseemly, it’s unladylike for women to participate in sports. So much of our progress has been so dramatic that thinking back seems like the Dark Ages, it seems like so long ago, but it wasn’t so long ago. It’s in our lifetimes and due to the work of you and others and all of the Veteran Feminists of America. Those are 3 things: education, credit, employment. In terms of marriage rights, do you remember Catherine East?

MJC:  Yes.

RBC:  Catherine was the person in charge of International Women’s Year in 1977. We decided that we would produce pamphlets on the Legal Status of Homemakers, much misunderstood across the country thanks to Phyllis Schlafly who I debated pretty regularly. She insisted that women should stay home – of course, she wasn’t going to be doing that, but women should stay home and raise their children and rely on their husbands for support, which might be all well and good except when the marriage ended, the woman could be left with nothing except a couple of kids and no support. 

The fact is that women had no legal rights within marriage. The end. I wrote or edited 51 pamphlets on the Legal Status of Women Homemakers in every state in the country and those served as a basis for those states to undertake an effort to change the laws in their state that affected women who were homemakers. You know this, it was not easy. We were criticized, we were ridiculed, we were harassed. As a law enforcement person, I had my life threatened on more than one occasion and I still get an occasional death threat, because what we’re doing threatens the patriarchy. 

What we’re doing to this day is threatening to men whose status depends on being men, not men who have  an education and intelligence, but men who are just men and think that gives them the right to oppress women. One of the things that I am proudest of is I established a scholarship fund for the survivors of domestic violence. I think it’s the only such scholarship fund in the nation. I established it in the name of my mother, The Alice Barton Scholarship Fund. It has provided scholarships to hundreds of women at this point and I meet with them periodically. We just had a zoom brunch, and these are amazing women. One of the women is at Iowa State and she’s literally working on curing cancer.

MJC: Doesn’t get any better than that, does it? So, it’s an Iowa based project?

RBC:  It is. It’s managed by the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence and I think we’re in to our 10th year at this point. When I started it, I said I want to do this for about three years. My brother and one of my sisters also participate in funding the scholarships.

MJC:  So talk about the changes that have come in politics as a result of your work in the Women’s Political Caucus.

RBC:  We have seen representation increase dramatically, just dramatically. Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in the United States Senate for decades. And then we went for a decade or more where there were no women in the United States Senate, few women in the House. We haven’t reached critical mass yet and it may take a little more time. But with Kamala Harris as the vice president, I think we’ll truncate some of that. I really do. I think she is a terrific vice president. I think she’ll make an enormous contribution and just being there is going to help a lot. Just being there and being visible and being active and being who she is, I think that will make a big difference. 

We have Amy Klobuchar, so many excellent women, outspoken, feminist women in the United States Senate and so many in the House of Representatives that I don’t even know all their names now. There was certainly a time when I did, but now there are too many. And the same is true at the state level. For some reason, New Hampshire is the most advanced, but that’s because everybody in New Hampshire gets to be in their legislature. There’s like four hundred people in the legislature. 

I think that even here in Iowa, we have more women than ever before. We lost some in the last election. In 2020, we had so many really spectacular women candidates and they did not prevail. I hope they come back in 2022. And we of course, lost a woman for the United States Senate that we all cared a lot about, and thought would do a terrific job and she was not elected. Instead we have Joni Ernst, so there is still work to be done. 

I always thought the easiest woman to be elected would be a conservative woman and that’s what’s happened in Iowa. We have our first woman governor and she is a conservative, Trump supporting woman. Our first female United States senator is a Trump supporting woman, not women that we can count on to support the rights of women. Maybe this is where Wilma [Scott Heide] said what I will always remember. Some women have their hands out for progress that some women like us have had our necks out for.

MJC:  Are there other ways in which you’re still active in the women’s movement or politics?

RBC:  Yes,  because Iowa’s the first in the nation even though we might not stay that way, I got an opportunity to meet with all of the candidates on a one on one basis to ask them the questions about the things that matter to me. I supported Amy in the caucuses because I thought that she had the right mixture of being a middle Western progressive person. Thinking back, Joe Biden was probably the only one who could have beat Trump, so I’m happy that he was the nominee and over the moon that he was elected. 

I don’t hold any political office anymore. I’ve been the Chair of the party here in Iowa>  I don’t hold any elective office, but I’m still very active. I still participate in ways big and small. Funding, as I’ve aged and made more money, funding becomes a big part of my participation. In terms of the women’s movement, again, I don’t hold any offices anymore. I’m on the board of the Veteran Feminists of America, but I don’t think I have any other office at the moment. I’m on the board of directors of a foundation that supports the work of trial lawyers and on the stalwarts committee of the AAJ. 

I’m still doing work, but I’m not doing the same kind of work that I did in the early years when the work was much different and when the work that had to be done was all encompassing. Now I work for individual clients who have individual issues. Because I am a woman lawyer and because I was the only woman lawyer who was a trial lawyer for a long time, I became a women’s lawyer. Most of the people I represent are women: birth injuries, failure to diagnose breast cancer, sexual harassment, sex discrimination, equal pay. 

Believe it or not, equal pay in 2021 is still an issue for some women in some occupations. This happened to be  a woman who is a principal of a grammar school and is not paid the same as the men who are principals of other schools. What I have learned over the years is you have to pay attention. You can’t just do it and walk away because when you turn your back, it’s going to start again. You have to stay in the fight, you have to keep looking for opportunities to reinforce the idea that women are entitled to equal rights. We don’t have an equal rights amendment, even though we tried really, really hard, but we don’t.

MJC:  There’s a whole book called Unstoppable, which is wonderful. I read it and enjoyed it very much, and I learned a lot about your life.

RBC:  We called it  Unstoppable, the Nine Lives of ‘Me’ because of my hobby, my avocation, as a foster parent for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, where since 1998 I have been taking in kittens, mommies and kittens and sometimes kittens without mommies. I’ve had more than a thousand in my home over the years. Right now, I have three little babies, six-day old babies, and one little baby who is about three months old. Think of me for all your Kitten needs, that’s what I say at the end of every speech I give in Iowa.

MJC:  I bet you’ve provided a lot of kittens around Iowa.

RBC: Oh, my goodness. Yes. I run into people in the grocery store. Well, not now because I don’t leave my house. But when life was different, when you could go out, I would run into people in the grocery store who would say, I have one of your kittens and expect me to remember that. You need a kitten, Mary Jean?

MJC:  Thank you very much and thank you for all of your wonderful work and work on the VFA board, and it’s just a pleasure to speak with you again and to have known you for, what, 50 years we have been in the field together.  

RBC:  In the trenches. And, you know, don’t you think, looking back, that it was a hell of a fight? It’s still going on, but progress has been incredible. It is hard to believe that we’ve been able to accomplish what we have been able to accomplish in this amount of time.

MJC:  I think so, too. I think we should be a point of courage and inspiration for the next generation.

RBC:   But they have to pay attention too. We’ll be off the field at some point and probably in the relatively near future. So, they have to pay attention. They have to protect their own rights and the rights of their children and grandchildren, just like we did.