At KU, Elizabeth Dole reflects on career and society’s progress toward first female president

Elizabeth Dole responds to a question Sunday from Bob Dole Institute of Politics Director Bill Lacy at the institute named for her husband. Dole's appearance marked the inaugural presentation in the Elizabeth Dole Leadership Lecture series at the institute.

The United States is “very close” to electing a woman to the Oval Office, one-time presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole said to a full-house audience Sunday at the Dole Institute of Politics.

Dole launched the Elizabeth Dole Women in Leadership Lecture series at the institute named for her husband with a 90-minute presentation. Her appearance included a conversation with Dole Institute Director Bill Lacy and an audience question-and-answer session. Dole shared stories of her courtship, marriage and political partnership with her husband, Bob Dole, and memories of her own career of firsts for her gender, which include serving as a senator from North Carolina, a cabinet woman to have cabinet positions in two separate administrations as Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan and Secretary of Labor for George H.W. Bush, a Federal Trade Commission commissioner and president of the American Red Cross since its founder, Clara Barton.

Even as she recounted her challenges and accomplishments in those positions, Dole recalled “that was how it was then” memories of those who discouraged her career ambitions. Among those were her parents, who expected the young 1958 Duke graduate to settle in her hometown of Salisbury, N.C., and get married. She “marched to a different drum” and wanted to see more of the world. She took a job in Boston, which opened other opportunities that didn’t thrill her parents.

“They didn’t understand at all,” she said of her decision to go to Harvard University Law School. “I think my mother thought she was losing a daughter.”

She found at least one of her Harvard Law School classmates even more blunt about her ambitions.

“My first day of law school, one of my male classmates came up to me and asked, ‘Elizabeth, what are you doing here? Don’t you know there are men who would give their right arm to be here? Men who would use their legal education,'” she said. “That man is now a senior partner in a Washington law firm, and every now and then I tell that story about him. In fact, I love to tell that story about him. Men will call up and say, ‘Tell me I’m not the one.’ I’m going to let them all sweat it out.”

Dole put those experiences in perspective with the observation that it has been less than 100 years since women won the right to vote in the United States and only 38 years had passed since the 19th amendment was approved when she graduated from Duke.

“We are making progress,” she said in response to a University of Kansas student’s question of when the country would elect a woman president. “I think it will be very soon. Hillary (Clinton) worked very hard in her campaign. I see so many talented women who are going into the workforce now, but we still face subtle discrimination.”

In a critique of her own 2000 presidential campaign, Dole said it suffered from a late start.

“I was third in the Iowa straw poll and out-polled Al Gore in 1999, so maybe if I had started earlier,” she said.

Dole said she had to prove herself to a skeptical campaign adviser as a viable political spokesperson in her own right when her husband was the 1976 GOP vice presidential candidate. That was partly because she was “policy wonk” and not a political person before that time, she said.

In recalling her and her husband’s courtship before their 1975 marriage, Dole said the Kansas senator waited until a third long phone conversation to ask her for a date.

“I loved that because you knew he was a little shy and not some man chasing women around Capitol Hill,” she said.

National politics needed more men like her husband now, who were both principled and willing to work with members of the other party for the good of the nation, Dole said. She decried the current atmosphere in the Senate, in which one member would call another senator a “liar.” Bipartisanship was a hallmark of her and her husband’s careers in the Senate, she said.

“We loved being bipartisan,” she said. “You are not going to get anything done unless you find that common ground.”

She’s witnessed bipartisanship and across-the-aisle friendships paying off since she’s left political life, Dole said. Democratic U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been very supportive of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which was founded in 2012 to aid the “hidden heroes” of caregivers for wounded veterans.

“She’s been there whenever we need her,” Dole said of Pelosi.

The foundation commissioned the Rand Corporation to document the depth of the caregiver crisis, Dole said. It found 5.5 million caregivers perform such tasks as dressing, feeding and bathing wounded vets, and that 1.1 million of those are caregivers of those wounded in conflicts since Sept. 11, 2001, she said.

Dole said she was thankful for the city of Lawrence’s decision to become a “Hidden Hero City,” and committing to identifying wounded veteran caregivers, the resources available for them and gaps in needed services.