The Feministing Five: Representative Jan Schakowsky

Rep. Jan Schakowsky represents Illinois’s 9th congressional district, and has been a member of the United States Congress since 1999. Schakowsky sits on the Committee on Energy and Commerce, where she’s the Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, and on the Intelligence Committee, where she’s Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Schakowsky got her first taste of politics in 1969, when she and a group of other homemakers led an effort for fresh products in supermarket –an effort that resulted in the now-ubiquitous “use by” labels we see on our food.

A strong supporter of women’s rights and a vocal critic of the anti-abortion Stupak-Pitts Amendment to last year’s healthcare bill, she is also the Democratic Vice Chair of the bipartisan Women’s Caucus. She is also an important ally on LGBT issues, serving as Vice Chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, where she works to pass legislation to ban workplace discrimination against LGBT employees and to repeal DOMA.

Last weekend at Netroots Nation, our own Miriam was able to get a few minutes with the Congresswoman, who was in town to speak to the crowd of progressive bloggers (for a live-blog rundown of Schakowsky’s speech, check out Dave Dayden’s coverage at FireDogLake). It is a pleasure and an honor to feature the Congresswoman here at Feministing, and of course, it’s a thrill to find out just which feminist she’d take to her desert island (hint: she’d have to fight about half our readership for the privilege).

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Representative Jan Schakowsky.

(transcript below the jump)
Miriam Perez: How did you get into politics?

Rep. Jan Schakowsky: Actually I never saw myself as really political but when I was a very young housewife a group of us got together because we wanted to know how old our food was. All the food in the grocery store was code dated, everytihing. And so the six of us called ourselves “National Consumers United” and we took on the food industry. In our high tech way in 1969. We pushed the stockboys against the shelves and made them come up with the codes. The we published and code book and not to our surprise we found things days, months and years beyond the date that the manufacturer or the packager said they should be there. We didn’t question the dates at all. And so we started doing something really subversive–store inspections. Two women together, even with kids in the cart, with clipboards was very dangerous. They would call our husbands at work and say “Do you know what your wife is doing?” We would take carts of the outdated food up to the manager, sometimes poke holes through the packaging and say this food should not be on the shelves. So sometimes they would even call the police on us so we’d say the kids have to get a nap and they’d let us leave. So we became shareholders, one share each, of the local food chains and go to the shareholder meetings. The rest is kind of history. Jewel foods in Chicago area started advertising come to Jewel we have freshness dates on house brands and Oscar Meyer, who had been a pretty big offender, actually the retailers didn’t get it off, they started putting clear dates on their food. And it snowballed. You can imagine as a very young woman what an empowering experience that was. But even then I didn’t know that that was going to take me to the United States Congress. But it did give me that tremendous sense of confidence. While it didn’t change the world, although it did change the marketplace, it absolutely changed my life as someone who felt I could really do something. So I mark that as the creation story, the beginning of my view of myself as someone who could be part of changing the world.

MP: Who is your favorite fictional heroine?

JS: Well I’ve always liked Pippi Longstocking. She you know is brave and crazy and innovative and has a very neat group of friends. So I like her although Ramona is getting new publicity now, my granddaughters went to see Ramona and Beezus this weekend and I can’t wait to see it because I like her too, although not with the same kind of superhero but you know she says what she means.

What recent news story made you want to scream?

JS: Well you know I’m still reacting to the Washington Post series, the use of contractors in the intelligence community. I sit on the intelligence committee and I’ve worked for a long time with Jeremly Schahill, the author of Blackwater. None of this came as a big surprise to me but the fact of what to do with this now the kind of the mainstream corporate media has made a problem out of it. How can we stop the CIA from another contract with Blackwater, and the state department, another contract with Blackwater and all of these more than a quarter of a million private contractors that have top secret clearances running around doing, well, do we know what they are doing? I’m on the oversight committee and I suspect we don’t know everything they are doing. So I’m trying to help use this as a catalyst to move this whole issue forward to have a wider discussion with congress and get better oversight over the intelligence community and the contractors.

MP: What’s the biggest challenge facing feminism today?

JS: Well I don’t know this may not be the politically correct answer but there was a study done at Brown University, Jennifer Lawless was one of the investigators that asked question of a 1000 men and a 1000 women all of whom were equally qualified by definition to run for office. The women were twice as likely as the men were to say about themselves that they were NOT qualified to run. So I’ve been looking at the barriers that we impose on our selves. You know there’s lots of things that go on out there that need to be changed, we got the Lily Ledbetter act passed, those kinds of things. But we also have to look at how do we support young women and how do we think about ourselves. The Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke today at the Netroots Nation and talked about her book, Know Your Power. I think we undervalue our own experience as women, we compare them against what is really a male standard as to what is really expertise, And so I guess what I am saying is that we have to have more confidence in our own experiences and expertise and just do it. You know the men in that survey who said they were qualified, trust me, all of them weren’t. But that’s what they thought of themselves and we need a little bit more of that and that’s what I want to say to young women. You are ready. You definitely know enough and we need you at the table and to take power.  And if you don’t know it know, you can know it tomorrow. But just step up right now and do it.

MP: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

JS: Wow, you know I have a crush on Rachel Maddow, she has to come with me. Food and drink. Well, I’m sadly addicted to Diet Pepsi, its with me, gotta bring it. But I love all food. Okay, I’d have to take my lox and bagel sandwich.

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