Barbara Lee

WiLL/WAND BellSouth Torchbearer Award Speech - Oct. 13, 2003

Barbara Lee
October 13, 2003
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Thank you, Liz for that generous introduction. I am so pleased to be here tonight. I also want to thank Susan Shaer and Nan Orrock for the enormous impact you have made with WAND and WiLL.

I had the chance to tag along with Susan Shaer at a candlelight vigil on the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts last winter. Susan co-chaired a coalition of peace activist groups and worked with to protest the war in Iraq. It reminded me of how I felt when I joined WAND in the mid 1980s. Just the act of becoming a member turned my feelings of fear and powerlessness into ones of hope and optimism.

Many of you know that I had the honor of receiving the inaugural WiLL/WAND BellSouth Torchbearer Award in 1999. The more recent recipients of the award have not been able to attend this important evening to pass the torch, unfortunately for them and happily for me, so I have had the privilege of presenting this award for each of the past three years, to women whose leadership has changed the world.

Millie Jeffrey’s lifetime of achievements has defined a century—she stood up to antiunion forces against the threat of physical harm, marched in Selma when others were afraid and has since worked for women’s equality.

Janet Reno’s leadership helped Congress to pass and later re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act, resulting in a 25 percent decrease in the number of women experiencing violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

Eve Ensler, in daring to expose the epidemic of violence against women, has transformed the art world with her landmark piece, the Vagina Monologues, and started a movement that has brought together thousands of women in the name of change.

This year’s recipient of the WiLL/WAND BellSouth Torchbearer Award, is renowned White House correspondent Helen Thomas, is another woman whose leadership and powerful words has changed the world. Ms. Thomas has built her career by relentlessly questioning the status quo and she has opened the door for other women to follow in her footsteps.

Helen Thomas has lived a life of firsts. She was born in 1920, the 1st year that women had the right to vote, and she is truly the 1st lady of the press. She was the first woman to be White House Bureau Chief for a news wire service, the first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association, and the first woman officer of the National Press Club. She also was the only print journalist to travel with President Nixon on his groundbreaking trip to China in 1972. And she is the one whose face we’ve seen asking the 1st question from the 1st row at presidential press conferences, challenging presidents on policies from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

Ms. Thomas started her career as a copy girl and worked her way up into the White House by hard work, intelligence and sheer force of will. She was a young reporter in the Washington bureau of United Press International when she began covering John F. Kennedy and his family. She even camped outside their elegant townhouse in Georgetown to report on the dignitaries who passed through. On Kennedy’s inauguration day, Helen marched herself up into the White House press room and never left. She ended her 1st presidential press conference in 1961 by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President”—a tradition that continues today. In May 2000, Helen left UPI and she now writes two editorials a week, which appear in 12 daily Hearst Newspapers and are available in 600 other news sources across the country.

In the two years since September 11th our world has become even more uncertain. In this period of time most crucial to the protection of freedom in America and around the world, Helen Thomas has been a powerful voice, questioning our government’s use of violence in the name of democracy. To illustrate this, I would like to read to you several excerpts of an exchange between Helen and then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, on January 6, 2003:

Helen said, “Have they laid the glove on you or on the United States, the Iraqis, in 11 years?”

Ari responded, “I guess you have forgotten about the Americans who were killed in the first Gulf War as a result of Saddam Hussein’s aggression then.”

Helen replied, “Is this revenge? Eleven years of revenge?”

Ari answered, “Actually, the President has made it very clear that he has no dispute with the people of Iraq. That’s why the American policy remains a policy of regime change. There is no question the people of Iraq—”

Helen interrupted, “That’s a decision for them to make, isn’t it? It’s their country.”

Ari responded, “Helen, if you think that the people of Iraq are in a position to dictate who their dictator is, I don’t think that has been what history has shown.”

Helen rejoined, “I think many countries don’t have—people don’t have the decision— including us.”

In a recent column discussing the glaring absence of information on the Iraqi death toll, Ms. Thomas wrote, “If we do not know or care about the human cost of war for the winner and losers, America will be forever diminished in the eyes of the world.”

The leadership voice of Helen Thomas, along with women like Millie Jeffrey, Janet Reno and Eve Ensler, has been invaluable to our country and has challenged us to find justice in our hearts, our homes, and our laws.

It is so meaningful for me to present this award tonight because it is just this type of leadership that I focus on in my own work. The mission of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation is to promote women’s leadership, particularly in the political arena. I believe that electing women to public office is the most powerful way to promote women's equality and to create social change.

We all know that women's different life experiences contribute to different priorities and perspectives in leadership. Research confirms that both Republican and Democratic women are more likely than their male counterparts to initiate and to support legislation to champion social justice, protect the environment, advocate for families and seek nonviolent strategies in conflict resolution.

The more we see women “above the fold” on the front page of the morning paper, the sooner we will see a woman sworn in as president and the better prepared we are to champion women's leadership and humane policies in every arena.

Helen Thomas has bee called “the dean of the Washington press corps.” She has broken through every glass ceiling in the traditionally male-dominated world of journalism. If only Helen had the chance to say, “Thank you, madam President.”

Helen has such stature in Washington that Hart Seely, in a recent New York Times op-ed, canonized an assortment of Ari Fleischer’s more memorable comments to Helen, illustrating the remarkable presence she has in the press room:

Helen, bonjour; I like your chapeau.
I’m happy to take your questions, Helen.
Always interested in your opinion, Helen.
I’m not answering the question, Helen.
It’s a wily paraphrase, Helen, wily.
Keep going, Helen.
Let events take their course, Helen.
Go stand in the corner, Helen.
What’s next, Helen?
Helen? We’re back to Helen?
Helen, I dispute the premise of your question
Helen, without accepting the premise of the way that question is phrased, let me tell you what the President thinks.
Helen, your views on this are well known.
Helen, we all know you have opinions.
Helen, with your support, the answer will be yes.

As we honor Helen’s legacy by presenting her with the 2003 WiLL/WAND BellSouth Torchbearer Award, I would like to close in her tradition by saying, “Thank you, Ms. Thomas.”