Even before she became the first black woman to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Patricia Roberts Harris was well known around the capital for her keen intelligence, strong opinions and sharp tongue. Because of her formidable reputation, it will come as no surprise to official Washington to learn that her husband serves her breakfast in bed.
Bill Harris, in fact, has been bringing Pat her soft-boiled eggs and toast almost every morning of their 23-year marriage. He’s quite precise about how she likes them: “three to three and a half minutes, although I’ve found the exact cooking time depends on the size of the egg.”
But this is no case of a henpecked husband; role reversal in the Harris household begins and ends there. By all counts Madame Secretary and William Beasley Harris, 63, an administrative law judge at the Federal Maritime Commission, enjoy one of the most openly affectionate, relaxed marriages in the often uptight, image-conscious capital city.
Judge Harris is wholly unthreatened by the fact that his wife is not only higher ranked in protocol and better known than he, she takes home a bigger paycheck. Of their combined federal salary totaling over $106,000, Pat, who is 10 years Bill’s junior, earns $66,000. What disturbs His Honor is not the difference but the “idea of comparing what couples make who work for the government. I just don’t think it’s anybody’s business,” he says. “Either you have qualified people working or you do not.”
Pat Harris is a case of status finally catching up to qualifications. She was the first black woman to be appointed an ambassador (to Luxembourg in 1965), the first to serve as a law school dean (at Howard University), the first to take a place on the boards of the Scott Paper Co., IBM and the Chase Manhattan Bank.
In one sense Pat’s drive is a testament to anger. She has always reacted “furiously” to being a victim of twin discriminations—against blacks and women. She was born in Mattoon, Ill., the daughter of a Pullman car waiter whose family, she says, had white forebears. Her kin “were probably the freed children of a white slave owner.” As a schoolgirl in Chicago, she refused to take courses in typing or education “because being a secretary or teacher were the things you expect a black woman to do.”
Pat graduated summa cum laude in government and economics from Washington’s Howard University in 1945 and worked for the YWCA and similar organizations. She wanted to go on to law school but delayed for 10 years—until after she met a Philadelphia-reared, Temple University-trained attorney named Bill Harris, who was then practicing in Washington and teaching at Howard.
Introduced by a mutual friend, they had an awkward first date at a double feature. She wanted to see both films, but he was so busy grading exam papers he met Pat in the theater lobby between movies and they sat together for the second. She also paid for her own ticket. Three months later they were married; Pat, who has never learned to drive, arrived 45 minutes late with her bridesmaid chauffeur.
With Bill’s encouragement, Pat enrolled in George Washington University Law School, finishing in 1960 at the head of her class. By 1964 she was already a well-known civil rights activist and involved enough in Democratic politics to be picked to second LBJ’s nomination at the Atlantic City convention. Her reward after the election was the Luxembourg appointment (and a simultaneous job as alternate delegate to the U.N.). Bill went along to Europe as both the ambassador’s husband and a State Department consultant.
After Pat’s return in 1967 to teach law at predominantly black Howard, she had a brief—and bitter—term as dean of the law school. She found herself a target during a campus protest for student power and quit in less than a month. Confronting a student picket demanding her ouster, she reportedly snapped at him, “I didn’t stop being the white man’s nigger to become a black man’s nigger.”
Work at Sargent Shriver’s blue-chip Washington law firm sustained her until she was nominated to the Carter Cabinet. At the time, there was some criticism that her experience had little connection with housing or urban development. She squelched it with the observation, “I have, you know, done a few things in my life.”
Pat is defensive about her reputation for having a short fuse. “Maybe people find me abrasive because they don’t expect a woman or a black to be quite so outspoken,” she says. “I’ve discovered that people who discriminate can take anger. The only thing they can’t take is discomfort.” Husband Bill soothes, “What prompts the description ‘abrasive’ is Pat giving a straightforward answer that doesn’t satisfy what somebody thinks should be coming forth.”
The Secretary rates herself a good boss. “I always know when I do badly. It’s almost impossible for somebody to tell me a mistake I made that I don’t know about.” Harris has instituted collective decision-making among those in policy positions at HUD. “Everybody,” she explains, “meddles with everybody else’s program.” Adds Bill supportively: “Pat is a team player. Even if she were not my wife, I’d trust her with my life because she is fair.”
At home their relationship is interdependent. “We’ve coined a phrase ‘chances go round,’ ” Bill says. “It means that maybe I help you today and you help me tomorrow.” They share the cooking (except breakfast) and the chores. Once avid theater-and concertgoers, they have lately become stay-at-homes, favoring books and TV. “Actually,” says Pat, “what my husband has been doing since I took the HUD job is watch me come home and collapse.”
The Harrises are childless, although Bill has one grown son from a previous marriage whom he rarely sees. “It would be great if there were some little kid carrying on Pat’s brain,” he says. “We just never had any, and we’ve accepted it.”
Bill insists there have never been any real disputes between them, but Pat disagrees: he was once a Republican. At first she didn’t mind, because at the time District of Columbia residents could not vote. But in 1960 she discovered that he had contributed $10 to the GOP presidential campaign. “I didn’t mind his freedom of thought,” she says with a laugh. “But giving his money to Richard Nixon was something else.” He has since converted to her political persuasion.
Yet Bill Harris generally sticks by his own counsel. For nine years Pat has lobbied for some development of their own housing—specifically, a two-room addition to their 14-room house near Washington’s Rock Creek Park. The judge is still deliberating.