Since ‘72 when she first took office, EBJ has gone on to craft policy with impacts that can still be seen today. Of her many accomplishments, she claims the most impactful piece of legislation to date was during her time in the Texas House, where she carried a mandatory free breakfast program in public schools as long as it was supported by the federal government.
But long before her career in office started, Johnson was just a young girl watching her parents engage in her community, whether it be through church, or neighborhood organizations. She says she was first exposed to politics at age 7, by watching her parents participate in the democratic process. She specifically looked up to her mother.
“As far back as I can remember, there was an awareness of the responsibility to be engaged...there was never any conversation about running for office, that was not even thought about...But there was lots of conversation of the responsibility to be involved in your community.”
The ‘Run for Office’ conversation didn't come until later. When asked what moment she realized she wanted to pursue a career in office Johnson simply said, “The moment I was asked to consider running.” Involved in various organizations in the city of Dallas, Johnson explained how she didn’t come up with the idea alone. She was approached by the spouse of congressman and former mayor of Dallas, Earle Cabell, who urged her to run saying “Now is the time that women are running for office, and you should be one of them.” Johnson says she just kind of laughed it off, but the second time she was called to service was a different story. She explains how Sarah T. Hughes, a Federal Judge at the time, gathered some women and started encouraging her to make a run for office. The support of her fellow women drove her to accomplish something that had never been done before...the rest is history.
It didn’t come easy, though. Women running for office at this point in time were not commonly heard of. “As a matter of fact, there were alot of African American women who said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? This is thought to be a man’s job…’” Johnson says, “...It was all new territory.” She explained that because there were no African American women elected in Dallas ever before her, courage and confidence to run had to be gained through personal experience rather than being inspired.
“I left Waco, Texas at the age of 16 and went to South Bend, Indiana to go to college because I wanted to be a nurse, and there was not an institution of higher learning in Texas that I could attend that was nationally accredited.” EBJ told the story of a family friend who attended Notre Dame suggesting she attend St. Mary’s. After passing the test she rode on the train there alone. She credits this as that initial source of courage, saying “I think just that experience gave me confidence that I would be able to achieve things if I tried.”
The experience and confidence evidently paid off, as Johnson has been in public service for over 45 years now.
When discussing what advice she would give to young women thinking of pursuing elected office, EBJ said first you must really declaring interest, then gain a good education; reminding us that women of all professions are needed in office. “Your value is increased when you know what you’re working for. When you feel it in your gut of what is better, and what works for people…” Johnson says, “You have much more to offer than being a piece of furniture.”
She shared some of the issues she has faced during her time in office, stating that two things she will never be able to outgrow is being both an African American and a woman. She explained how she overcame this, by standing firm and “always demanded the same respect as any man.”
As a final piece of wisdom Congresswoman Johnson stated, “Every issue is a woman’s issue; you have to feel it inside, and fight for what you know is right...” she went on, “...and if there is one thing this constitution guarantees, it’s that everybody here is equal.”
Author: Tori Zander
Contributor - Central Texas