Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, an outspoken feminist and humanist, the mother of two children and two stepchildren, and the wife of Ohio’s junior senator Sherrod Brown. It’s this last title that she grapples with in her< recent book … and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir From the Woman Beside the Man, in which she recounts her experience on her lovely husband’s campaign trail.
What you won’t find in her bio is that, at 50, Schultz embraces her age with a youthful vibrancy, and while she is commanding, she is also warm and boasts a deep, full laugh.
Two days before her son’s wedding, Schultz spoke with In These Times over the phone about, among other things, growing up a member of the working-class in Ashtabula, Ohio, her love for the late Grace Paley, and why it bothers her that women can be so catty.
In a recent column, you remembered Grace Paley, who was incidentally a long-time In These Times subscriber and donor. You wrote that her writing helped you realize the “universal language” of class.
Paley was this New York Jewish writer, writing about New York Jewish women. When I read her as a teenager, I realized that the women around me had way more in common with the women in Paley’s stories than with the [wealthier] women across the river. If you are growing up and don’t have the privileges afforded to others, your life could turn out very differently simply because of that.
A couple of years ago, an editor who was frustrated with some of my writing said to me, “Connie, you are not working class. You are an intellectual.” And I looked at him and I said, “Well, if that’s true, then I’m an intellectual from the working class. We have smart people too.”
I realized then, wow, this consciousness that I have, it has never left me. Had I not had the chance to go to college, I could still be living and working in Ashtabula, perhaps in one of the jobs that one of my relatives has. I don’t see how I could be advocating any other way. As I say all the time, “The privileged already have their advocates, they don’t need me!”
John Edwards has been getting a lot of similar flack recently – advocating for the working class from the cushion of his big house and bank account.
A part of you, no matter where you’re at, always feels more comfortable with folks who are from where you’re from. There are times when I can feel like, ‘Wow, I am so out of my element.’ Not only because I don’t have what a lot of these people want, but I don’t ever want it. We’re always going to speak a different language to a certain extent.
You have criticized female journalists for attacking other women. In one recent column you wrote, “A male reporter gleefully lobbed this hand grenade recently: ‘You can stop worrying about us guys undermining your gender. … You ladies are doing a fine job of it all by yourselves.’”
Some women have said, “You know, you’re trying to hold us to a higher standard than male journalists.” Well, yeah, but that’s not going to be much of a reach. We should uphold a higher standard because it took us a long time to get these positions of power and I don’t want us to waste them, especially by undermining other women.
That doesn’t mean we don’t criticize women on policy, it means that we elevate the level of conversation. We don’t make it about cleavage. We don’t make it about this horrible notion of a trophy wife.
This whole Hillary Clinton cleavage thing was just ridiculous. I wrote in my column that if when I turn 60, anybody is talking about my cleavage, I’ll throw a party and wear a granny thong! (Laughs). And Robin Givhan [of the Washington Post] is not absolved because she’s a fashion writer. I will not accept that.
I find that it’s not just in journalism, but all areas of life. Women seem to be most competitive with each other, even when mutual support would be more advantageous. Maybe it’s exactly because we have to work so much harder to get where we want to go.
It’s disheartening to hear you say that because you’re so much younger than me, but I know it’s true. We absolutely have to carry as we climb. As I often say to audiences of women my age and older when I’m asked what we could be doing to help young women, “Look, we don’t have their midriff, they don’t have our wisdom.”
You put your career on hold to join your husband on the 2006 Senate campaign trail. You write in …and His Lovely Wife how that was a difficult decision. How did it feel getting back to the column?
It’s so nice to see things happening in the news and not feel that constant frustration I felt during the campaign of not being able to weigh in on them. That was so hard sometimes. But I’m not complaining. My editor at Random House has a great motto: “No whining on the yacht.”
You touch on a lot of personal issues in your column, but in the book you seemed to take it to another level. Was that a conscious decision?
It needed to be open and personal. I wanted an honest book because I was trying to make the point that this is hard, but it’s still worth doing. I want to encourage other women to be involved in politics. I’m not gonna run for office. I’m a journalist, that’s what I’m meant to do. But I also know that when more women are elected, we have more legislation on family issues, on healthcare, on education. We need more women in elected bodies.
I was going to wait till the end of the interview to ask you this, but since we’re already on the topic of women in politics, are you endorsing Hillary?
I’m asked that a lot. I’ve waited a long time for this moment in history. Do I think she’s a perfect candidate? No. But here’s the thing: I’ve been voting since I was 18, and I’ve voted for an awful lot of men, none of them were perfect. Some of them were real bozos, but they were the best that was offered. I don’t need Hillary to be perfect. I have a lot of confidence in her and lot of faith in her ability to lead this country. When I watch her at debates, she is the smartest person in the room. She’s the most experienced person in the room. Does that mean that I don’t think Obama or Edwards are viable candidates? Of course not. We’re talking about an abundance of riches for the Democrats. But I’m there with Hillary.
Is there anything that concerns you about her?
I wish her vote had been different on the war, of course. But I like how she’s growing as a candidate. And I do like her personally. I don’t know her well, but I trust her.
In the July issue of The Nation, Lakshmi Chaudhry looked at why so many women have an issue with Hillary, and she wrote, “Let’s be clear: Hillary has a ‘feminist problem,’ and more so with those who lean left.”
What do they want from her? How can she be what they all want and still get elected? I know she’s a feminist. On election night, she called Sherrod and congratulated him, and you know what she said? “Tell Connie not to give up her career. Tell Connie not to let anyone tell her that she can’t do this anymore.” That is a feminist. And that is somebody who really knew my deepest fear without my ever having to say it to her.
Do you find your job affects you socially when you’re in Washington?
Only in Washington, my dear, only in Washington. (Laughs). Anywhere else in the country, I am first and foremost a columnist and book author. In Washington, I am first and foremost a senator’s wife. Which is why I’m talking to you from Cleveland.
Do you have anything to say about the recent exodus of White House staffers?
Hallelujah! The happy feet dance you’re hearing is mine.
The damage that this administration has done to this country is just unreal. But I’m optimistic. And one reason is the increasing involvement of women, especially older women, in politics and at the grassroots level.
If there is a silver lining to this administration it is that it has gotten people engaged and involved again. Outrage is a very powerful motivating force. My mom is a perfect example.
Women at my age in this culture, we are supposed to become invisible because we’re no longer young. Well, the hell with that. Older women all over the country are saying, “I will be heard.”
It always makes me think of that quote by Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” I say this quote and see women tear up because too often we’re so afraid of how we’ll sound, instead of just being heard.
You are known for lending a certain humor to very serious issues. It seems like it comes naturally, does it?
Well, here’s how it works. My boss, the best editor I’ve ever had, says, “When you’re the most angry, you should be your most funny.” Nobody wants to hear blind rage. If you can laugh at yourself, or can get people to laugh along with you, you’ll make them hear the message without them even realizing it.
I have to ask. In the book you wrote that you were the last person in the world who wanted Sherrod to run for Senate. How would you feel about being the wife of a presidential candidate?
I’m going to come to Chicago and wrestle you to the ground now. (Laughs.) Uh, no. I would not want to be the wife of a presidential candidate.
Sherrod has said he’s not running. Sherrod says – oh, I feel like a campaign wife again with all this “Sherrod says” – but Sherrod says you can’t be a great senator if you always have one eye on the White House. He wants be a great senator, and I support him wholeheartedly in that endeavor.