From casting the decisive vote on Bill Clinton’s budget to adopting five children, Marjorie Margolies has lived her life unafraid.
The former Pennsylvania representative and 1963 College graduate currently co-teaches the “Conventions, Debates and Campaigns” class at the Fels Institute of Government. She also devotes much of her time to the Women’s Campaign International, which she founded in 1998 and operates out of the International House.
The nongovernmental organization seeks to bring more women to govern in North Africa and the Middle East.
“Women are much more willing than men to move to the center — and are willing to sit down at the table and negotiate,” Margolies said.
While WCI is not an advocacy organization, Margolies is outspoken about the need to improve the attitudes and education of women worldwide.
“If there’s one constant that we’re seeing globally, it’s ‘educate your girls,’” she said. “Educate your girls. Period. It’s so important to educate your girls. It changes the equation completely.”
However, Margolies’s passion for women’s participation internationally has not compromised her ability to stay active in United States politics. Although she served in Congress almost 20 years ago for Pennsylvania’s 13th district from 1993-95, her connections with the Democratic Party remain strong.
“I would say she’s a working member of the political class. She has an extensive network of friends and colleagues in politics and I think she is very well-regarded both for her knowledge and for her personality,” said Executive Director of the Fels Institute David Thornburgh, who co-teaches the “Conventions, Debates and Campaigns” class.
Cathy Zurbach, the vice president of WCI and a close colleague of Margolies, affirmed this notion. According to Zurbach, she still frequently attends luncheons for former Congress members, keeps up contact with current members and still has a Congressional parking pass.
“She has a lot of hats that I think she likes to keep,” Zurbach said.
Her domestic political connections were strengthened recently when her son, Marc Mezvinsky, married Chelsea Clinton in 2010. She speaks positively of the Clintons but consistently refrains from discussing the relationship in any greater detail.
“My relationship with the Clinton family is a good one and as you can understand I don’t discuss it,” she said.
Margolies also stays attuned to the situation of women in the United States. She said the dialogue on women in the lead-up to the November elections has been “surprising and shocking” to her.
Margolies believes double-standards still exist for men and women in the U.S. When her husband became the subject of a scandal in 2000, male colleagues advised her that it would be difficult for her to remain in politics.
“If you are a woman and get in trouble and you’re in politics, your husband is not painted with the brush. If you are a woman in politics and your husband gets in trouble, you are really painted with the brush,” she said. She recalled that this advice influenced her decision to pursue options outside of politics.
Margolies started her own professional life in an unlikely place. After graduating from Penn, she worked as a high school teacher and later as coordinator of a working youth program. She became a television journalist for CBS and later for NBC. Zurbach notes that Margolies’ roots as a journalist have served her well in her capacity as president of WCI, which regularly entails acting as a spokesperson.
“Having her journalist background certainly makes her crave information. And she can really present issues and information,” she said.
After several years working as a journalist, she was encouraged by other female leaders to run for Congress. In her own words, she “rolled the dice” when she left her job at NBC to toss her hat in the ring in 1992.
She made another gamble a year later when she changed her position at the eleventh hour to cast the decisive vote for former President Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget. This vote likely cost her the bid for re-election in her hotly contested suburban Philadelphia congressional seat the next year.
Following her congressional career, she led the U.N. delegation at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women. Although she started WCI three years later, Margolies said her passion for women’s issues developed over a long period of time.
“I covered stories [as a journalist] that reinforced my interest in women and family issues. I wish I could point to one specific incident … but I can’t,” she said.
While Margolies had a long-standing interest in improving the lives of women and families, she chose a nontraditional path for women of her time.
“I grew up when I was being told that you … get married, have kids, stay home,” she said. “It never even entered my mind to do that. But most of my friends were doing that.”
Margolies distinguished herself from other women of her generation in many other ways. Before the days of Title IX — which increased athletic opportunities for women — she tried out for the Olympics, albeit unsuccessfully. She also became the first single woman in the United States to adopt a foreign-born child.
“I was always a wanderer and an adventurer,” she said.
Margolies’ colleagues understand her to be more than just pioneering and note that she is very personable.
“Marjorie’s a team player,” Zurbach said.
Thornburgh agreed that Margolies’ ability to connect with people is exceptional.
“She’s really a delightful person — very positive, encouraging, and I think those are qualities that her students value in her,” he said. “Marjorie’s glass seems, if not half full, then sometimes overflowing.”