Stephanie Grace: Lindy Boggs’ influence needed today

I have a confession: In my earliest days as a political junkie, I didn’t give Lindy Boggs much thought.

Sure, I took a particular interest in the careers of the women who were starting to crack the glass ceiling and make it big in Washington and statehouses across the land. But it was the scrappier, more outspoken types, the Geraldine Ferraros and Ann Richards of the world, who captured my imagination, and who fit my stereotype of what a modern-day women leaders should be.

Which brings me to the second part of my confession: I really should have known better.

Long before the warm and gracious, and yes, truly accomplished and influential former congresswoman and ambassador died Saturday at the age of 97, she proved that there were all sorts of ways for women to make their voices heard — for other women, and for anyone looking to the federal government to help level the playing field.

Raised on a rural Louisiana plantation, Boggs used to say that she learned about woman power from the nuns at St. Joseph’s Academy. There were no jobs they didn’t perform, she said, so it never occurred to her that women couldn’t do whatever they chose.

Boggs may not have kicked down doors or unleashed stinging one-liners, but she proved just as effective as those who did, if not more so. She persuaded, cajoled and charmed her colleagues, whom she used to refer to as “Darlin.” She gave others their due, and let them take credit for hers. And when the situation demanded it, she cheerfully shamed her colleagues into doing the right thing.

To those who’d already figured out where Boggs was coming from, it must have come as no surprise that her most famous act of legislative prowess came on a measure that significantly empowered American women.

It was her first term in office, and the House Banking Committee was preparing to vote on a bill to forbid the denial of credit based on the applicant’s race, religion or age. Boggs, a Democratic committee member, quietly wrote in two additional categories by hand, and passed out her amendment.

“Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do, I’m sure it was just an oversight that we didn’t have ‘sex’ or ‘marital status’ included,” she recalled saying, according to her 1994 memoir “Washington Through a Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Public Woman.” “I’ve taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee’s approval.”

What man would dare to strike her words out after a masterful maneuver like that?

And thus the landmark Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 guaranteed women, married and unmarried, the right to obtain credit cards and take out mortgages on their own. That seems like a given now, but it’s still jarring to think that, in my lifetime, women on their own weren’t allowed the basic tools of financial independence.

Imagine how it must have felt for women who’d been blocked from borrowing without a man’s signature to actually see that right enshrined in federal law.

During her husband Hale Boggs’ career in Congress, and when she took over his seat after the small plane in which he was traveling disappeared in Alaska, Boggs was an equally committed advocate for civil rights and social programs such as Head Start, which promotes school readiness for low-income children.

She likened those causes to the battle for political reform, saying in 1990 that “You couldn’t want to reverse the injustices of the political system and not include the blacks and the poor. It was just obvious.”

You’ve got to wonder how an outlook like that would go over in today’s coarse, confrontational Congress, which seems wholly incapable of tackling real people’s needs, no matter how obvious.

J. Bennett Johnston, the longtime Democratic U.S. senator who served with Boggs, recalled that she was so beloved by members of both parties that “almost anything she would ask for, she would get on the House side.”

He said it made him think that if she were there today, “She would have been able to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats.”

It’s hard to envision anyone pulling that off these days. But then, it’s fun to imagine Lindy Boggs roaming the halls, quietly, gently teaching today’s members how to take care of business. Or if all else fails, shaming them into doing so.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.