It’s been two months since the country’s longest serving congressman, Michigan’s own John Dingell, passed away. 89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry sat down with his wife and the person who currently holds that 12th District Congressional seat Debbie Dingell for an honest and emotional conversation about community, civility, and healing.
In Part One of this interview, they focus on the changing roll of women in the workforce and what impact social media is having on society.
Lisa Barry: Women’s history just behind us and the two month anniversary of the passing of John Dingell. I came across this quote: “Change like healing takes time.” This is Lisa Barry and joining us now on 89.1 WEMU is someone who might appreciate that quote, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell. Hello, Congresswoman.
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell: Hi Lisa, how are you?
LB: I’m good. You know when thinking about local leaders and female role models, of course, Debbie Dingell comes to mind as one of the most powerful and impactful women in Michigan. So here you are on your fifth year in Congress and yet just under 24 percent of congressional seats are held by women. Which granted is an improvement ,but do you feel like things are improving for women?
DD: There’s some days that we’re making great improvements, and there are others days that I feel that we are going backwards. We’ve come a long way, and I say to people that I’m not old, but I am seasoned. But it’s really not that long ago that I entered the workforce. And when I interviewed for my job at General Motors, I got asked why would a woman want to work at General Motors.
LB: How many years ago was that?
DD: Like it wasn’t that long ago. I mean, you know, it was 30 years ago. But that’s not long ago. And, you know, I was one of the few women of my class at Georgetown, one of the few women when I first started working at General Motors, and now there’s a woman CEO at General Motors. So, you know, we’re certainly making progress but we don’t have pay equity yet. We do have more than 100 women in the House of Representatives this year and they’re a very diverse group; they’re not a monolithic group. Just because you’re woman doesn’t mean even I think the same let alone everybody. But we got progress still to make, and we’ve got to work together, and women need to support each other.
LB: We’re on our second female governor in the history of Michigan, and I’ve spoken to Governor Gretchen Whitmer as part of Women’s History Month and asked her about if she thought about if women are where they need to be in 2019. We did discuss the equal pay thing. How is that still happening?
DD: Well, you know, I can remember a very long time ago a man saying to me: “You know, I would like to hire more women, but they get pregnant.” And I doubt that’s no longer politically correct to say. But if you talk to people in the tech world it’s really real. You don’t see women in the tech field. You don’t see it if you talk to people starting businesses and you’re looking at venture capital. It’s the same thing. But I’ll tell you something else: we’re problem solvers, we’re used to having multiple balls in the air, being multitaskers who are figuring out how to get it done. Quite frankly if there were more women, cause we’re more focused on the end goal of getting it done, I think we’d solve more problems.
LB: I feel that it’s important also to remind women that we’re not competing with each other that we should be empowering each other.
DD: One of things I’ve said repeatedly and I’ve said it since I really entered the workforce: when I was younger and I saw decades ahead of me many women felt that if one woman got ahead it would be to the detriment to that woman. Women did not help each other. I think that’s still true today. The old boy’s network is alive and well. They help each other, they support each other. By the way some of those boys help women too. I’ve been helped by men along the way. But I don’t think that women are as good at supporting each other as we need to be. I am where I am because of the women that went before me. They open the doors wider. They put a hand down and they helped me climb those stairs. All of us need to understand that. We need to help each other.
LB: How do you, Debbie Dingell, balance being such a powerful member of our government and really being so open and down to earth?
DD: Well, I mean, that’s who I am. I think I’m better and more effective because I do listen to people. I love my staff, I have a great staff, and they really help people. But I don’t like going to events staffed because I want people to be able to talk to me. I like working side by side with people to get things done. And if you do that you understand what the challenges are. You know I’ve had a really hard few months, a few years, as a caregiver and navigating the healthcare system. But I’ll tell you what: I’m much better at understanding how broken the healthcare system is because I’m hands-on tried to navigate it and hit my head against wall a whole lot of times. I think we need more people that understand the problems that we’re working on in order to try to solve problems.
LB: You think that’s the norm though in government?
DD: Ten years ago, people measured their words while I think a lot of people still measure their words and they’re careful about what they say. I always say that it was good that I was elected when I was, because I’ve never been someone that doesn’t just say what they think. It got me trouble at work. When you do all of those personality tests, my Myer-Briggs, I was like in less than one percent of what people are, but I say what I thought in the room and I say what I think in Washington. And at least my words are my word and nobody wonders where I stand, nobody wonders what I think, I say what I think. If I anger some people, I’m sorry, I try to bring people together.
LB: Do you get much pushback from the community? You know social media can be not so pretty sometimes.
DD: This is one of my real bugaboos right now. Social media was started as a means to unite community; to bring people together. And I think it single handedly contributing in destroying community. The rhetoric, the hatefulness, the vitriolicness of some of the things that are said are unforgivable. It doesn’t matter what I say you’re going to get people with hate on social media and I think it’s making people anonymous and its making people say whatever they want. And I think that our kids are growing up with harder hearts. Everybody likes to blame somebody else. Every last one of us has the responsibility to stand up to that kind vitriolic rhetoric that you find on social media, that you find in your community, when you find somebody talking about that hatred we all have that responsibility to start pushing back. In March, after the horrific shooting in New Zealand, I was at one of the vigils and talked about what I’m saying to you. I’m not going to stop talking about it because all of us has the responsibility. It’s too easy to duck it and blame it on somebody else. An Imam came up to me and said that he agreed with what I had said. He said that he had taught in school and that he was also worried about the video games that the kids are playing, and the movies, and the books that they’re reading. That the violence in them and the personal attacks on people and the bullying is hardening children’s hearts too. We need to teach kids about caring. You know I was raised, you know I have parents, by nuns instilled in me very early that I was part of a community and I had a responsibility to that community as part of it. I am very grateful to those nuns because that’s what made me tick throughout my life.
LB: You mention video games and movies, and I think some of them are pretty intense. Do you think that’s desensitizing people to a sense of humanity?
DD: I do. I think we got a responsibility as parents, as family, as just members of the community to remind each other that we have a responsibility to each other that people have feelings; that they care and that they hurt.
LB: Is that something that Congress can do? Or perhaps the president? Or our government leadership?
DD: Well… I’d say I think we need to all take responsibility for that. It’s not something that can be legislated. It’s something we have teach, act, and feel. I’ll post on my own Facebook, I do my own Facebook on my personal page I do all the posting, and I say to people if you something mean to say, I don’t want to hear it today. I try to never to take a comment down because social media is supposed to be where you can say anything. But I try to push back on people who are really hateful, and really bigoted, or really vitriolic.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this conversation in which Congresswoman Dingell discusses her stance on gun ownership and the life she shared with her late husband, John Dingell.
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