Rep. Johnson works to develop a culture of peace
Kaitlyn Rabach | Friday, October 4, 2013
When Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30) became the first woman in state history to lead a major Texas House committee, the Labor Committee, her supporters knew this would not be the only barrier this Texas native would break.
Johnson, who graduated from Saint Mary’s in 1956 with a degree in nursing, was first elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972. She said her first stint running for office in the Texas State House was largely motivated by timing in her home state and the support of community organizers.
“In Texas that year, it was considered the year of the women,” Johnson said. “We had outstanding female candidates for governor, and it was really seen as the year of encouragement. That encouragement extended to my community, and I was pushed to run.”
After a successful stint in state office, Johnson said President Jimmy Carter appointed her in 1977 to serve as regional director of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare because he recognized her advocacy for workers, children and families.
“I left the administration after President Carter was defeated, and I remained active in the community,” Johnson said. “I had many people suggesting that I get into office again, so that is the reason I ran for the State Senate.”
In 1986, Johnson said she was elected a Texas state senator, becoming the first female and African American from the Dallas area to hold this office since the Reconstruction. In 1992, she retired from the state senate because she was encouraged to run for Congress.
Johnson began her term in the House of Representatives in January 1993.
‘Confident about the education I received’
Although she said she does not believe Saint Mary’s as a whole prepared her for a career in politics, she said the College allowed her to feel confident about her educational background.
“I think it is important that anyone who decided to run for office have a good educational background,” Johnson said. “I feel very confident about the education I received at Saint Mary’s and am very proud of everything I achieved there.”
As the first nurse elected to the House of Representatives, Johnson said her background in psychiatric nursing gave her the skills to work well with people.
“The main thing I learned in nursing was the importance of paying attention to detail,” Johnson said. “With this career and training, I developed a strong habit of doing homework and a focus on planning, which I believe has helped me throughout my political career.”
Johnson, who serves on the Committee of Science, Space and Technology, said her background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields gave her the knowledge and ability to contribute to discussion on the committee’s legislation. From 2000 to 2002, she was the ranking member of the subcommittee on Research and Science Education. While on the subcommittee, she said she emphasized education in STEM disciplines.
“I really think it is time for America and American women to understand that all professions should be, and for the most part are, open to women,” Johnson said. “Many of the professions that require very strong background in STEM courses have been dominated by males, but we need all the brain power that we can muster to meet the challenges of a global society.”
Because of the many strong role models present at the College, Johnson said she was exposed to a strong commitment to social justice on both domestic and international levels.
“I had excellent role models among the various nuns, and, of course, we had some professors that were not of order, but the idea of that commitment to people, to the nation, was very impressive,” Johnson said. “Students from all over the world were welcomed, and I think that because of this, I had a very rich experience at Saint Mary’s.”
Commitment to peace
As an African-American woman in the political sphere, Johnson said she has experienced discrimination.
“Sometimes I’ve wondered whether I should identify first as an African American or as a woman,” Johnson said. “I have certainly felt and experienced discrimination along the way. I have tried my best to not allow it to get in the way, but rather attempt to practice ways in which I may help those who are prejudice understand that we all – for the most part – want the same things.”
Having been involved with several different caucuses, Johnson said she believes all are calling out for peace and equality.
After experiencing the 2001 terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., the congresswoman said she felt she had to do something to reduce war and violence in the world. In order to do so, she believes women have a very special role as peacekeepers in the world.
“Throughout my time in office, I have seen the faces of war firsthand in Bosnia and the Congo,” Johnson said. “After 9/11, I decided I needed to do something, however small, to try to develop a culture of peace in the world.
“I had seen on the cover of Newsweek magazine two boys from Liberia who were 12 and 14 years old all dressed in war gear with machine guns, and I just thought enough was enough.”
Johnson said in 2001 she founded the “A World of Women for World Peace” initiative, which includes conflict resolution programs for women and girls of all ages. By using several different avenues, including radio, travel and Skype, Johnson said she has been able to communicate with women across the world.
“I have learned that, generally speaking, people all over the world really do want peace, even when leadership in those countries seem like they are just there for war, the majority of the people, for the most part, scream out for peace,” Johnson said. “So what I try to do is touch the women to make sure they can speak up and gain leadership positions in those countries to focus on peace and conflict resolution. These women can promote respecting differences instead of war.”
Although it has been years since Johnson attended Saint Mary’s, she said she still goes back for reunions and has periodically served on different boards, one of which is the board of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership (CWIL).
Over the past two summers, CWIL has hosted a State Department-sponsored program titled “Study of the United States Institute.” The program brings international women to Saint Mary’s for four weeks of intensive training on women’s leadership. The institute concludes in Washington, D.C.
Johnson said she had the opportunity to meet the young women studying at the institute in July 2012 and July 2013.
“I was impressed with the questions [the women] asked, and I thought it was an excellent example of how internationally, women can be connected, how to encourage networking and how we can work to fit into this global society that we are in,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she is thankful for her experience at the College and stays in touch with other Saint Mary’s alumnae in Congress, particularly, Congresswoman Donna Christensen, U.S. representative for the Virgin Islands.
“[Congresswoman Christensen] and I meet up sometimes,” Johnson said. “We know the experience of Saint Mary’s. … A little while back, Father Hesburgh was in D.C. and honored for an award, and we were excited to tell him we were from Saint Mary’s.”
Contact Kaitlyn Rabach at [email protected]