Senator Al Franken is a man who hardly needs, but certainly deserves, an introduction. Franken’s start in politics was purely satirical: After graduating with honors from Harvard, Franken moved to New York and joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, where he wrote and performed for fifteen years. As the years went on, he continued combining comedy and politics, writing several books including Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, and the New York Times bestseller Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.
In 2004, Franken launched his radio show, The Al Franken Show, on Air America. The show, which ran for three years, was inspired by Franken’s belief in the power of talk radio and his concern that the talk radio airwaves were dominated by conservative commentators. The Al Franken Show ran for almost three years, with Franken broadcasting for three hours a day, five days a week. On the final episode, in 2007, he announced his candidacy for the US Senate.
The 2008 election was a tight one, so tight that it wasn’t actually decided until June 2009, when the Minnesota State Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by his opponent and declared Franken the winner of the election that had taken place seven months earlier. He was sworn in July 2009 and now serves in the Senate alongside his fellow Democrat Amy Klobuchar.
Since taking office less than a year ago, Franken has shown himself to be a genuine feminist ally. Most notably, he took up the cause of Jamie Leigh Jones, a young woman who was gang-raped by her fellow KBR employees while working for the defense contractor in Iraq in 2005. Jones was unable to take civil legal action against KBR because her employment contract stipulated that the case – and any other sexual assault, harassment or battery cases – be heard in private arbitration rather than in the courts. In response, Franken proposed an amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill that would prohibit any contractor with such a policy from being granted a contract with the US military. The amendment passed 68-30 in October 2009, with all “no” votes coming from the Republican side of the aisle.
It was an honor and a distinct pleasure to be able to interview Senator Franken, who, as you’ll see below, is not a big fan of Xena, Warrior Princess, but who loves him a good stew.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Senator Al Franken.
Chloe Angyal: What made you decide to run for office?
Al Franken: I didn’t like the direction the country was going in and I thought I could make a difference.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
AF: First, let me say I was shocked at how difficult it was to come up with a good fictional feminist. I’m a reader, I didn’t think this would be tricky. I asked my wife and my daughter, male and female members of my staff (which includes a couple literature majors), I asked friends of all ages. And it was hard! Do you pick Anna Karenina or does the ending ruin her feminist credentials? What about Simone de Beauvoir’s fictional alter ego – is that really fiction? Do you want to count Hester Prynne? Is Xena really the best we can do? Eventually I decided to go with Jo March from Little Women. Or Ripley from Aliens. The point is this genre is sadly lacking. The feminist heroines who inspire us tend to be real-life women, which is wonderful. But shouldn’t some writers out there seek to fill this void? Let’s see what a feminist heroine can do when they’re not confined to non-fiction format. I’d read it.
As for real life heroines, I think of my mother-in-law. She was widowed at 29 when her husband fell asleep at the wheel after a shift at the paper mill. And she had 5 children – the youngest just 18 months old. She kept them all together and she raised them as a family. They didn’t always have food on the table, and they turned the heat off in winter sometimes, but they always saved money to buy the daily newspaper and she read to them about what was going on in the world every night. She taught them that education was the most important thing in the world and she made sure that, with the help of Pell grants and other scholarships, all four of her girls went to college. Her son joined the Coast Guard. Today, they’re all happy, productive members of society. Fran (my mother-in-law) became a teacher, putting herself through college with loans. She’s now retired, and her family is still incredibly close and supportive of each other. And she made that possible.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
AF: Let me tell you about one that made me want to scream, and then do something about it. I read about Jamie Leigh Jones, who was 19 when she went to work for defense contractor KBR in Iraq. When she got there, she was housed in a barracks with 400 men. She never saw another woman. She was immediately subject to constant harassment, cat-calls, inappropriate comments. She complained and was told, essentially, to get over herself. Just a couple nights later she took a drink, blacked out, and was gang raped by her co-workers, who then locked her in a shipping container without food, water, or the medical attention she badly needed. She finally got a phone from one of her “guards” and used it to call her dad, who called her congressman and got her out of Iraq. She just finished her last reconstructive surgery to repair the damage done that night.
Once Jamie Leigh got home, she learned a fine-print clause in her KBR contract banned her from taking her case to court. Instead, she was forced into an “arbitration” process that would be run by KBR itself. She was also required not to speak about the assault or the arbitration to any outside party. Jamie Leigh fought this clause in her contract for the last four years, before finally being awarded her day in court.
I was incensed when I heard her story. And I wanted to do something so that no one else had to go through what she did. So I wrote a piece of legislation that banned government funding of defense contractors who force employees into mandatory arbitration in the case of rape, assault, wrongful imprisonment, harassment, and discrimination. And I got it passed. Every Republican woman – and a few of the men – joined the Democrats to vote for it and now it’s law.
Jamie Leigh was sitting in the Senate gallery the day we voted. The greatest moment was getting to walk off the Senate floor and hug her and her mother. Too often, powerful interests silence the voices of folks like Jamie Leigh. But she was too strong for them. She spoke out and her story inspired real change. She’s one of the most courageous women that I have ever met. And it was an honor to be able to help her.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
AF: Keeping young women engaged is harder when progress is seemingly so good. But it’s the same problem we have with backsliding on reproductive rights – when we take it for granted is when we see them eroded.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
AF: The food would obviously need to be nutritionally balanced so I would stay healthy, so I’ll say a stew of some sort with lots of vegetables and meat. Hopefully, I could catch fish. Or the feminist accompanying me could. Once again on the health front, the drink would have to be water. Given the desert island part. So there you have it. Stew, water, and my wife, Franni.