Department: The Feminist: Marjorie Margolies

After smashing through barriers in politics, TV news and the adopting of kids, after surviving a Congressional defeat and her husband’s humiliating fall from grace, after becoming Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law, Marjorie Margolies has just one thing to say: What’s next?

The seeds of WCI were planted in 1995 in Beijing, at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. Margolies led the U.S. delegation; then First Lady Hillary Clinton was honorary chair, and gave her famous speech declaring, “Women’s rights are human rights.” “It became very clear by the end of the conference,” Margolies says, “that we had to start getting more women to the table.”

 

Much of her job involves begging for stuff. WCI is funded mostly by federal government contracts, which in 2008 accounted for just over $1,800,000 of a budget of almost $2,200,000; the remainder came from corporations, foundations and individual donors. Projects tend to be small-scale, but every once in a while, “Something spectacular happens,” Margolies says. “You can tell. You can feel it.” She was at a training session in Sarajevo a few years back when a Serbian woman stood up and said, “I know someone in this audience killed someone in my family. Someone in my family killed someone in your family. Your husband killed my husband, or my husband killed yours. But if we don’t say we don’t want our children to die, this isn’t going to end.” Or this: “Callista Chimombo, the First Lady of Malawi — we got her elected to Parliament,” Margolies says. “Then she became part of the president’s cabinet, and then she married him! Is that trajectory?”


MARGOLIES CUT HER TEETH on trajectory. One of two daughters of Herbert Margolies, an RCA executive, and his wife Mildred, an artist, she did it all as a child — ballet, sports, cheerleading, the honor roll. The Philadelphia native finished junior high in two years and high school in three, and whipped through Penn’s College for Women a year early, too.

Then — boom! Job as an Emmy-winning TV reporter, for CBS in Philly and NBC in New York. In 1970, when she was 28, she worked on a story about hard-to-place adoptive children and decided she wanted one. Because she wasn’t married, she was told she couldn’t adopt: “I would have taken a hard-to-place American kid, but all I could find was a Korean group.” She became the first single American ever to adopt a child from overseas: Lee Heh, then six years old. A second six-year-old, Holly, joined them four years later, from Vietnam. Marjorie wrote a popular book, They Came to Stay, about the girls. “Even today,” she says, “a month doesn’t go by that somebody doesn’t ask me, ‘Whatever happened to Lee Heh and Holly?’” (Short version: They’re both happy and married, with five kids between them.)

Even if you lived through the ’70s, it’s hard to remember what a heady time it was for women. Margolies was a pioneer at putting the theory we could have it all — rewarding careers, happy home lives, perfect families — to practice, and like any pioneer, she had to hack through the underbrush. She wasn’t daunted. Washington-area attorney Nancy Chasen, Margolies’s friend for almost 40 years, says, “Margie has always had three balls in the air and two more coming at her. She likes to be in the mix.”

Marrying Ed wasn’t exactly taking the easy path, either. True, he was the heir to a family grocery-store fortune, and in Congress was on the Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach President Nixon. But he was newly divorced when the two met, and the father of four girls. Still, Marjorie told a friend that same day that he was The One. They wed five months later, in 1975.

After he lost a reelection bid the following year, the couple moved to the Main Line. Ed worked for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights; Margolies commuted to NBC TV’s Washington affiliate. Life at their Narberth mansion — it had six bedrooms, five baths, a four-bedroom carriage house, a pool and pool house, a greenhouse and a ballroom — has been variously described as charmingly hectic and chaotic beyond belief. In addition to the two sons they had together — Marc and Andrew — Ed’s four daughters and Marjorie’s two, they took in three more boys from Vietnam, and sponsored whole families of immigrants as well. “Things were never out of control,” Lee Heh says. “There were just a lot of moving bodies at all times.” A visitor installed by Ed in the pool house once found a family already staying there; moved to the main house, he was walked in on by Marjorie, who thought he was one of the kids. If Holly happened on someone she didn’t know at home, she’d ask, “Are we going to adopt them, too?”

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  • Teresas

    Marjorie has been a great influence in my life. I met her in 2002 when I went back to grad school at Penn. She was my teacher. She is supportive, passionate and a great champion of women. She encourages her students to have an opinion. I wrote a paper on Geraldine Ferraro for one of her classes and Marjorie sent it to her. This is the type of teacher she is. She cares. The work she does with WCI is making an impact in the communities and its because of Marjorie’s leadership and vision.