March is Women’s History Month, and one of the most prominent in Kansas history is our first female U.S. Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum. She was elected in 1978.
After spending 20 years in Washington, we caught up with her in the Heartland.
Kassebaum worked with several presidents and traveled the world, but home is where she is most comfortable: the Flint Hills of Kansas.
“Well, I always considered it home. Washington was never home.”
Kassebaum Baker now 86 lives out in the middle of nowhere near the tiny town of Lost Springs. Her house belonged to a relative she would visit in Council Grove as a kid.
“That’s where I saw my first movie. I still remember, it was Barbara Stanwyck.”
Kassebaum showed us another favorite, the Kaw Mission.
Kaw Indians attended school and church here, and like them, Nancy said teachers shaped her future. Her only elected position before the U.S. Senate was on the Maize Board of Education.
“Dad did not want me to run for the Senate, in fact, it was my mother.”
Her father was former Kansas Governor Alf Landon, and the key, many said to her victory in 1978, sworn in as the only woman in the U.S. Senate at the time.
“As everyone said, “You’re just riding on your dad’s coattails. I finally said, ‘Well, what better coattails to run on?'”
But Kassebaum was also well-connected with friends across the state, like former U.S. Senator Bob Dole campaigning for sometimes more than she did.
“I remember his calling the night before the election, and he said, ‘What are you doing?’, and I think I was watching “Sound of Music” on TV with the children!”
She later repaid the favor as Dole ran for president.
“For Bob, actions speak louder than words, and that’s just the way we Kansans are.”
Like Dole, Kassebaum proved she could work across the aisle to get things done. Though Republican, she’s pro-choice and an independent voice on many issues.
From overseeing elections in war-torn Nicaragua to fighting apartheid, Kassebaum did not shy away from conflict, even butting heads with former President Ronald Reagan over sanctions against South Africa.
“And I said, I just think we need this Mr. President to show we care about Africa.”
But her proudest accomplishment is close to home at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
“We worked a long hard time to get that included as part of the National Park Service.”
Kassebaum retired from the U.S. Senate in 1997, telling KSN’s Melissa Beck she wanted to enjoy being a grandmother but would still follow politics.
“I’m sure I’ll sit home many times and read the papers and think, what are they doing that for?”
True enough, Kassebaum shakes her head at the nastiness of politics today.
“It’s something that bothers me a great deal,” Kassebaum said. “How do we get back to a debate, instead of just tweeting?”
She blames both parties and doubts that a record number of women now in Congress will make a difference.
“Some of the young Democrat women elected in the House have gone off like fireworks.”
“It’s something that bothers me a great deal,” Kassebaum said on politics today. “How do we get back to a debate, instead of just tweeting?”
In Kansas politics, Kassebaum crossed party lines to endorse now Governor Laura Kelly over Republican Kris Kobach, not because Kelly is a woman, but because she and Kassebaum favor more school funding and Medicaid expansion.
“I think it’s just a shame that we as a state aren’t giving greater support for hospitals, particularly mental and behavioral health in this state.”
Kassebaum just returned to Kansas five years ago after the death of her second husband, former U.S. Senator Howard Baker.
After living in Japan where he was a U.S. ambassador, she’s learned not to guess what the future might hold.
“Well, you never know. I never thought I would marry again.”
But at age 86, Kassebaum is content in the country, back to her roots. She said she doesn’t miss politics.
“No. No, I don’t, and I haven’t been back to Washington for several years.”
But Washington is about to come to her.
Many of Kassebaum’s former staff members, including Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, are planning a reunion at her ranch this summer, a big project made harder because Kassebaum does not email, text or drive much, and she says that’s the way she likes it.