As a celebration of International Women’s Day this Sunday, March 8, I wanted to write about the mentor, friend and woman (besides my mom) who most influenced me—Liz Carpenter (1920-2010). Liz was a women’s rights pioneer, author, humorist and lecturer. But she was probably best known as the former press secretary toFirst Lady Lady Bird Johnson and special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Liz wrote the words that then Vice President Johnson delivered to a grieving nation:
This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God’s.
I met Liz in the October 1995. I had just come back from living and working in the film business in Los Angeles, and I was glad to be back in my hometown. My friend Paula introduced me to Liz one afternoon because she was looking for someone, preferably a writer, to live in her guesthouse on her property which had a panoramic view of downtown Austin. I was extremely nervous, but we immediately hit it off. Initially, I thought I was only going to stay for a few months, but I lived there for a little more than four years. To me, my experience with Liz was more valuable than a PhD. She became my surrogate grandmother.
The first time I ever visited the White House, Liz and I were staying with Betty Friedan. As a young feminist, I felt like I was in a dream. Just the night before, I had a place at dinner with Liz, Betty and former Texas governor Ann Richards. At that dinner, I remember saying to these extraordinary pioneers, “Thank you for everything you have done for women. I am so grateful and so humbled to be here.” And then Ann said, “Jennifer, we didn’t do it for you. We did it for ourselves because life was hard for us.” And she winked at me. I remembered that because it reminded me that women are so programmed to do for others, and not for themselves. The lesson was that the greatest thing you can do is to realize your own full potential and the world will benefit. The next day, Betty called President Clinton’s office to ask “is he around today?” We were immediately invited to stop by two hours later to sit in the oval office and watch him deliver his weekly radio address. Afterwards, we received a personal tour of the back office. I told the President, “Thank you so much for allowing us to come today.” And he said, “Well, you can’t really turn down Liz and Betty.”
But for all the excitement around Liz, she was one of the most down-to-earth women I’ve ever had the privilege to call my friend. One night I had a terrible migraine headache. I was feeling very ill and no amount of pain medication could give me relief. I went into Liz’s bedroom and she could see I was in a lot of pain and she immediately got out of her bed, which was not easy for her with a weak ankle, and told me to climb into it. She scooted a chair up to the edge of the bed and began massaging my feet and saying things like “Imagine you are by a cool stream. Look at the clouds and watch the wind in the trees. Just relax.” And when she beganpraying over me and asking God to take my pain away I said, “What about Buddha?” And without a beat she replied, “Buddha can’t save ya now, honey.” She could always make me laugh through the pain.
Liz was a dynamo. After her stint in the White House, she became a VP at Hill & Knowlton in Washington D.C. When she returned to Austin, Liz published several books, and was a tireless mentor to young women. Earlier in her life, she was at the forefront of second wave feminism—a worldwide movement— with friends like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Betty Ford, Barbara Jordan and so many others. She fought hard for the Equal Rights Amendment, which we are still fighting for today. Liz was the consummate host and often entertained people in her home in Austin, Texas. Dinner parties might include Carol Channing, Bill Moyers, Mrs. Johnson, Helen Thomas, Walter Cronkite, Molly Ivins, Liz Smith, Candy Crowley and countless others. I’m grateful for never being excluded from these incredible experiences. Liz survived breast cancer and had trouble walking when she was in her 70s, but that never slowed her down.
I could (and probably should) write a book about my life with Liz. But in the meantime, here are a just a few things I learned from her.
- Work Hard: Liz grew up in the Depression era and deeply valued hard work. She admired people who were masters at their crafts. Even into her 80s, Liz was a disciplined writer and wrote every morning. She was an expert in checking off a “to-do” list and got more done before 11 a.m. than most of us could muddle through in a day. But she also knew that in order to work hard and be good at whatever makes you passionate about life, you had to schedule time for friends and life-enriching experiences.
- Stay Young: Even as the “elder stateswoman” of Austin, many of Liz’s regular friends were much younger than her. She made it priority to surround herself with young, idealistic women and was sincerely open to learning as much as she could about the issues facing them. Liz valued interesting people and had little time for pessimists and naysayers. She always told me to listen to young people and value their experiences. Youthful optimism keeps you engaged with life.
- Be Yourself: Whether she was in the White House or at an intimate gathering in Texas, Liz was always herself. With her endearing Texas drawl, humor and brightly colored ensembles, Liz engaged with students, political leaders, award-winning authors and neighbors in the grocery store in the same way—always with a quip and a smile. Up[ to that point, I had felt enormous pressure to wear a professional “mask” which was separate from my personal identity. After living with Liz, I came to understand the intense importance of being authentic in your everyday life. Authenticity attracts the kind of people and experiences you truly want in your life.
There are so many of us who miss Liz and wish we could listen to her stories or bend her ear. If anyone could make things happen, it was Liz. I take my young son to the Liz Carpenter Fountain where he can run through the water and play. I teach him about Liz (who loved him very much) and remind him that boys can be feminists too. And on this day of celebrating women, I remember my friend Liz.
Who is the one woman who has made the most difference in your life?