Bonnie J. Campbell

Bonnie Campbell: Innovator in Iowa, Leader for the Nation - 2018

Bonnie J. Campbell
April 15, 2018
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With her passion and her commitment to protecting more women in Iowa and across the country and ultimately around the world, she really broke the glass ceiling.
I was always so impressed with how she just held her head high and she didn't give up.
She's phenomenal. She really is grand in every way.

NARRATOR: Bonnie Campbell – innovator in Iowa, leader for the nation.

CAMPBELL: I grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. Every year at the state fair, our state senator, Janet Hill Gordon, came every year to say hello and talk about the importance of civic participation. And I thought, that is the coolest thing in the entire world that you would be a lawyer and a state senator. And it didn't ever enter my mind that I could do that. I was in the tenth grade before my guidance counselor said, "Well, where are you thinking of going to school, to college?" and I said, "I haven't been thinking about it." Because literally nobody in my family had graduated from high school. But President Kennedy signed an executive order saying, when the government goes out to recruit people for clerical jobs. But at the time if someone wanted to dictate a letter, a secretary sat there writing shorthand. And I was really good at shorthand and typing, so I got recruited by the government. Truthfully, I just wanted to get away from home and see what the big city was like.

NARRATOR: Just as Bonnie began to get a taste of political life in DC, tragedy struck at home.

CAMPBELL: He was 17. He murdered a girl. He just…he'd offered to give her a ride home from school. Who knows for sure what happened after that. He was convicted. And sitting in the courtroom, that was a most incredibly painful time in my family's life. And I can't imagine what it would have been for the victim's family. She was just a girl.

NARRATOR: It's easy to imagine how a tragedy like this could have a profound impact on someone, and for Bonnie, it led her back to the courtroom

CAMPBELL: I remember saying to my husband, "Oh, I'd really love to go to law school but all those people are so smart." And he said, "Well, think about it. Are they really that much smarter than you?" "Well, you know, maybe not – I don't know." But I had a lot of encouragement.

FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY ROXANNE CONLN: I knew that very few attorneys were female. It was like 1% of all practicing lawyers were female. It didn't bother me. It did not cause my concern until I got to law school, at which point I found that I was not welcomed. They tried to embarrass me out of law school. But what they did instead was teach me that women were not equal before the law.

CAMPBELL: I just wanted to be a lawyer and do something.

NARRATOR: Little did Bonnie realize how far her interest in law would propel her. She quickly became the first woman to chair the Iowa Democratic Party and started her campaign to be the first woman attorney general in Iowa.

FORMER IOWA GOVERNOR CHET CULVER: She transcended gender, in terms of being an exceptionally impressive candidate. During the real tough part of the campaign, it was more about, you know, the next debate or where are we going to go and are we executing on our field plan. And then after she made history, then that's when the pundits and others really, I think, appreciated and understood what a trailblazer she really was.

CAMPBELL: I was personally motivated by giving a woman's voice to issues that people didn't talk about very much. I discussed domestic violence and sexual assault and stalking, and so did people who would come to things, because they hadn't really had a woman's voice speaking on these issues. I think, I really believe that made the difference.

NARRATOR: Newly in the spotlight, bonnie gained a shadow in the form of a stalker.

CONLIN: That's what happened to Bonnie. That's what happened to me. That's what happened to a federal judge here in Des Moines. It's happened to more than one woman and it really helped her to crystallize how the law needed to be changed and she changed it.

CULVER: Anytime that you have a personal experience and then you're put in a position to actually make changes based on that experience, I think that makes the politician and elected official even more effective and more genuine.

CAMPBELL: Police officers, judges, prosecutors – we don't just make policy in a vacuum. We know where the holes in the system are.

NARRATOR: Bonnie empowered more women to share their stories.

CAMPBELL: But I was doing a town meeting in Cedar Rapids and a young woman stood up and said, "Would you consider passing a law against stalking?" And I had never heard the term and I said, "What do you imagine that law would say?" And she said, "Well, for example, my mom went out with this man a couple times and then she didn't really want to go out with him anymore, and he started calling her, showing up where she was. And so she went down to the Cedar Rapids Police Department to complain about him, but he killed her on the way there. He followed her and he shot and killed her." So I leave, call my staff, and say, "Do we know anything about anti-stalking laws?" We all kind of know what stalking means. but legally it had no meaning. Harassment had a meaning. And interestingly, we worked with legislators to come up with an anti-stalking law. The definition was "a credible threat of harm or injury and a step or steps in furtherance of that threat." And so we think that that did it and it did become pretty much the template for the federal law. But it took prosecutors a while to get in their minds that that step in furtherance of the threat didn't have to be that you're standing with a gun at my head, that it could be things that reflect the pattern of a dangerous person. I got a protective order against you and it says don't call, don't write, don't send flowers, don't be within so many feet, don't follow, don't be at the grocery store – it's very, very comprehensive. And you send flowers and you're just sort of on the perimeter of where I am, over and over again. Well, that's not the gun to the head but it's behavior that is prosecutable.

NARRATOR: In 1994, Bonnie fell short in the race for governor of Iowa.

IOWA STATE SENTATOR LIZ MATHIS: She was struggling in her campaign, but I could tell that she was, she was frustrated, but she just kept going. I was always so impressed with how she just held her head high and she didn't give up.

NARRATOR: Opportunity was right around the corner. President Bill Clinton called, appointing Bonnie as the first director of the new Violence Against Women office.

CARRIE CHAPMAN CATT CENTER DIRECTOR DIANNE BYSTROM: So the Violence Against Women Act…. She was brought into the Department of Justice. They had that program. And I would say, you know, beyond Iowa that act has had a tremendous impact on women in the workplace, you know, in areas of safety, domestic violence. There's funding for college campus programs. And so that bill has had a lot of reach.

CULVER: Well, I think when Time magazine recognized her as one of the most influential Americans. She did important work fighting for and defending women around the around the globe and around the world.

NARRATOR: That reach had wings. It allowed Bonnie to gain international experiences.

CAMPBELL: [I] ended up being a delegate to the fourth UN Conference on Women in Beijing. Hillary came and gave her speech and made the famous "women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights now and forever." And that was really controversial, even in our own delegation. She helped to give me a larger lens to think about domestic violence and sexual violence as a fundamental human rights issue. It was the most amazing experience, because my experience had been in Iowa, which was a perfect experience for going there.

NARRATOR: Bonnie continues to serve the people of Iowa as a lawyer and activist in Des Moines. Although her career has not yet finished, her legacy has already begun.

CULVER: My hope that as people look back at Bonnie's career, that she can really serve as an inspiration. We can expect her to continue that great work and I think the sky is the limit in terms of her influence at home and abroad.

BYSTROM: I think that she's worked throughout her career to get people involved in political office. A democracy needs to be more representative of the people in its population. We have a country where more than 50% of our population is female and right now in Congress we have about 20% representation of women.

CONLIN: City council, school board, state legislature – across the board. Right now in Iowa, I have never seen so many women seeking public office, and good, qualified, articulate, smart, persuasive women seeking office.

MATHIS: We have a majority of women running. We've never had that before. And women became more involved in the recruiting of other women.

CAMPBELL: And this is about as exciting a moment as I've had in quite a long time, it really is. I mean, it's slow but change is perhaps on the way.

Documentary is courtesy of Epoch Films, Aubree Taylor, and the Wartburg College Department of Journalism & Communications.