Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Gender and Executive Leadership: Are We Ready for a Woman President? - March 29, 2006

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
March 29, 2006— Ames, Iowa
Mary Louise Smith Chair
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Kennedy Townsend spoke at Iowa State University as the Spring 2006 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.

I’m really just totally thrilled to be here. I want to first thank the president telling everybody that he would vote for me. I’m deeply grateful. Thank you very, very much. We did work together. He was a wonderful provost at the University of Maryland, and you’re very, very lucky to steal him away here in Iowa. He’ll do a terrific job.

This is a very special evening for me for a number of reasons, one of which that I’m very lucky to be back in Iowa. As you probably can guess a member of my family comes here every four years. So it’s nice to be here in an off-year election. But actually one of those years I came with my Uncle Teddy, who was running for President in 1980, and I brought my daughter who was then 6 weeks old, and I was nursing her but I wanted to win so I tried to juggle work and family here in Iowa and I brought my daughter who was at that point 6 weeks so I could nurse her every morning and evening. And she told me to say hi to Iowa again. She actually called me when I arrived on the soil here in Iowa. The other reason I’m happy is that one of my great heroes in my life is here tonight, Michael Gartner, who I just think is one of the fabulous people and can you stand up, Michael, because everybody should know what a wonderful person he is. He’s the chair of your Board of Regents. And he’s great to talk to, and he’s really fascinating and challenging and I think I just really like him a lot, as you can tell. And the other reason I’m happy is I’m starting to work at Lehman Brothers and my great aide de camp at Lehman Brothers actually is from Iowa, and her mother is getting her graduate degree here at Iowa State. So, Mary, will you stand up because it’s nice to have a student, who is the mother of somebody. We believe in mothers. She’s also a teaching assistant, so clap loudly if you’re in her class. And thank you, Dianne, who picked me up at the airport and got me here and has set up a wonderful opportunity for me to talk about something that I really love, which is politics and women and what we can do.

This is a very exciting time. If you think about what’s going on in the world, the 21st century it seems to me is a marvelous moment, and can be a marvelous moment for women. It can be the century of the woman. The last month I thought was so exciting to see a woman being elected the President of Chile. A woman was elected President of Liberia and Africa, first time that’s ever happened. A woman was elected Prime Minister of Germany, and I was just invited yesterday to the inauguration of the first woman Prime Minister in Jamaica. So it’s very exciting. That’s the good news. We have a ways to go. I think we only have 11 women presidents out of 193 in the world, so we have a ways to go. And in the United States we have one on television and she did win a Golden Globe. But clearly, I think all of us are here in the hopes that we will do more than just win on television, but that we can win here in this country. And that’s the great challenge.

If we look at politics, you mentioned, Diane, all the women who are running this year. When I was here in 1980, there were not as many women doing well in politics as there are today. We’ve got 67 women in Congress. We have 14 women in the Senate, and there are 8 women governors, so that’s the good news and that’s very exciting. I remember when it was different. In 1991, for instance, there were four women lieutenant governors. The year I ran, 21 won. It was a quick turnaround.

So politics and the acceptances of women can change quickly. But the fact is, there’s a question of what’s really what’s going on in the other states and whether we are hitting a plateau, because after 9/11 the number of women in statewide offices actually went down. We went down from 28 percent to 25 percent. In large part, I think we went down because our belief of what a woman leader is, what a leader looks like changed. It was easy in the 90s when we were having big economic growth to see women being recruited into firms, doing well in law, doing well in business, doing well in politics because our vision of what a woman leader looked like was of somebody who could get the job done, had good communication skills, was good at teamwork. But when we looked and thought of ourselves as being at war, our vision of a leader looked differently and we thought we need somebody who was militaristic, somebody who was strong in defense, somebody who could stand up. Therefore we elected, actually we didn’t really elect but he got to be president. And he stayed president because he was reelected, in large part, because that was an image of what leadership is, and in fact that’s happened not just in politics, but really in the world, in other parts of the economy. If you think of law, ten years ago thirteen percent of the partners in major law firms were women, and if you looked at the trajectory we should be much further but this year we were only seventeen percent so we didn’t climb very much over ten years; to grow by three percent is not very much. Half the people in the workforce now are women, and yet only eight CEOs are heads of the Fortune 500 companies, and there are 90 Fortune 500 companies which had no women officers at all. None. Zero. Zip. So that’s not positive. If you look at what happens to women when they go into the workforce—47 percent drop out. Get on what is called the off ramp, twice as many as men. And if you look at morning talk shows, which are supposed to be the great leaders, the great thinkers of the country, only fourteen percent of the guests on those talk shows are women and 56 percent of the time there are no women at all.

So the question before all of us is, is the glass half empty or half full? Part of the answer I believe has to do with what women themselves demand and want because the studies have shown and the statistics have shown and my own experiences has been that one of the real challenges to women succeeding and to women being leaders is women. What do we want for ourselves? What do we think is good for ourselves and why and how do we judge other women who are trying to achieve? When Hillary Clinton, for instance, ran for the Senate one of the biggest stumbling blocks was women who stayed at home, and when I looked at my own numbers of my own campaign I found the same thing, because there are women who are suspicious of other women. They are making choices that I didn’t make. In fact, there’s a woman running for senator from Minnesota this year recalls how a number of the women said to her, how can you run for office? Why aren’t you staying home and taking care of your kids like I did? So we’ve got a challenge, and part of that means that we women have to find within ourselves a way to articulate our ambition and to make it clear that we can be leaders, and that we have to gather other women in that process.

So what I’d like to do because I think that that’s one of the challenges that Hillary Clinton clearly faces. She would be a great President. She’s smart. She’s knowledgeable. She knows what’s going on. Michael Gartner reminds me that Governor Vilsack might also run for president, so I should remember where I’m standing as I speak tonight. But the fact is, and he is a great guy and he’s been a terrific governor so I want to underscore that, but I think if we’re talking about women she would be fabulous, but she faces some challenges. When we look at what happens with how the Republicans are going against her. Remember what Carl Rove said—she’s angry. Now what is the last thing people want? An angry woman. It’s so different when I was growing up. I remember when my father was running for President, he used to quote this, it was part of his stump speech: on the walls of the pyramids there was a saying that said no one was angry enough to speak out, and he was trying to stir up the country in saying there is injustice in this country. We have to be angry. We have to awaken to what’s going on, and yet what are they doing against Hillary Clinton, they’re saying she’s angry. And then you see David Brooks, New York Times columnist, wrote a column about her and how she had—this is about the Dubai ports—she put down her pitch fork. Somebody told me tonight that their relatives were in the Salem witch trials. What a relative to claim. But the point is, it reminds me of the pitchfork and the witch. The witches are putting down their pitchforks. These are terms, these are images that we’re painting about women, so we in this audience and we who are part of the women’s studies and who are thoughtful about women have to say to ourselves, how do we fight that prejudice? How do we create a different myth about who we can become?

One of those issues, very frankly, is to deal with the idea that women can be ambitious. They can want great things. That they can go for the stars. And that’s really a challenge. I remember when I was lieutenant governor, I had a young woman come and be an intern for me. She was very smart, very bright. She was going onto Columbia, not bright enough to go to Iowa State but she was going to be doing well, she had been working for me she was going to go to Columbia and major in political science, so I said to her, hey well are you gonna get involved in politics? And she said, oh no that would be too ambitious. We’ve got to teach young women and all of us women to be ambitious. This isn’t just true with her. I spoke to a group of Harvard students and I wanted them to get involved in politics, and they said, oh it’s too difficult, it’s too tough. Part of what we have to say is life is tough, get involved, get engaged.

Now I’m going talk a little bit about my own experience of how I think on the one hand we have to set our ambition and the other hand we have to change the culture that says we can be ambitious. As some of you may know, I grew up in a political family. Just don’t want to know how awake this group is. And when I was growing up, I had very successful people in my family. You know my uncle was president, my father was the Attorney General, and other uncle was a Senator from Massachusetts, and my other uncle had started the Peace Corps so they were not doing so badly. But none of the women ran for political office. On the other hand, what the women do is also a little intimidating, having eleven children. So it was not an easy choice. Although it was never clear to me that I would run for political office, it was always clear that I would get involved in some sort of public service try to make a difference. That was a very strong message that I definitely heard from my family. For instance, when I was four years old and when other kids would be taken to the playgrounds where they could swing on the swings and play in the sandbox, my mother took me to the Senate Rackets Committee hearings, where some of my first words were, I refuse to answer that question on the grounds I may tend to incriminate me. As I sat around the dinner table, when other kids might be asked by their parents how did you do today, my mother and father were saying we’re going make sure that each of you know current events. And of course if you have a family of eleven children it’s really important where you sit at the dinner table so you know I’d always sit at my mother’s right. I just had to read the front page. You go around, you really had to know what was going on. When we got to be 12, my parents thought you should know three current events, we were promoted to three current events, and then on Sunday we were required to either do a report on somebody in history or recite a poem. It was a great family. My mother thought this was such a good idea. I actually have to tell you my father thought we should be quizzed not only on current events, but on history and so let’s see how you would do at our dinner table. So where is the battle of Bunker Hill fought? Did somebody say Breed’s Hill? You’d pass the test. But clearly we were tested. My mother of course thought this was such a good idea that whenever she did the carpool she insisted that all the people in the carpool recite current events. And you can hear them say, oh no, Mrs. Kennedy is driving. What happened today? So was this real sense you’d better get involved.

But what I also learned was not just from my own immediate family. We would also write my grandmother letters when we were young and she would always write back. She’d send them back redlined, correcting—I kid you not—spelling, grammar, and diction. I didn’t actually have a really warm relationship with my grandmother when I was young. I didn’t really think, how lovely, oh that sweet grandmother. I don’t know where that image came from. When she became 75 my grandmother started to slow down, so we would spend our summers together, and she’d always like to take walks. She’d take two-mile walks in the morning, she’d take two-mile walks in the afternoon, and one of the grandchildren was always recruited to walk with her. I was the oldest of all the grandchildren so I often walked with grandma, and it was interesting. I can tell you a lot of interesting stories, because she’d walk and then we’d talk about the history and that she’d go up and study her French and German lessons. You know why she’d study her French and German lessons? Because she said—she did this till she was 94—she said because you’ll never know who will come to visit you, and you’ll have to talk to them. That’s what she would say, but the fact is why she really studied them is because when she was in high school, she wanted to go to Wellesley College, and to get into Wellesley you had to know two languages and her father didn’t let her go to Wellesley. He wanted her to go to a convent in France. She never got to go to college, and this is a woman who raised very successful children, but till the age of 94 she was still studying her French and German records to prove she could have gotten into Wellesley. If only her parents. I think it’s a funny story, but it’s also a poignant story about how women’s sense of self come not just from your children, but from what you do and this is a woman who raised very successful children. But when I walked with her, all those walks, she often talked about her childhood, her interest in art, her interest in current events. She almost never mentioned her children, and I think that says something about where people’s fulfillment comes from. She also taught of great belief in God, which was when times are tough she went to church. In fact she used to go to daily mass, which my mother thought was good for us so we went every morning, 8 o’clock in morning. I know this is a religious community and I shouldn’t say this but all the other kids were sleeping. We were getting up to go to church every day of the week, and then my grandmother went twice on Sundays.

The other thing my parents taught, even though I wasn’t necessarily run for political office, was to know what was going on and to not just know it at the dinner table, but to get involved. I remember when my father went down to Mississippi and was having a hearing on hunger, and he came back and it was a spring day. It was a warm Saturday and he walked into our dining room, which is you can imagine was a lovely dining room, beautiful crystal chandelier, linen on the table, and said I’ve just come back from Mississippi and I’ve met a family who lives in a room the size of this room with children with stomach extended because of hunger and with sores all over them. Do you know how lucky you are? Do you really know how lucky you are? You should do something for this country. So that was always a message of getting involved. One of the most extraordinary things I think about is that when my Uncle John Kennedy died, on the day he was buried, my father wrote me a letter that said, “Dear Kathleen, as the oldest of grandchildren I think you understood that Jack was buried today. And you understood what happened. Be kind to John, which my cousin and my brother Joe. Be kind to others and work hard for your country.” Which is a stunning thing to be able to say when you could be bitter or sad or angry, to say get involved, make a difference, help others.

Even though I wasn’t told I was going to get involved with politics, there was a sense that you had to make a difference. When I think about the way you do that, you get young women to say they can make a difference and you teach them they can do it. With what I’ve found as a woman, what I needed to do is not just rely on my family but find friends who could help me so that when I listened to my father give a speech once about how there were problems on an Indian Reservation it was my pal who said, Kathleen, let’s go. Let’s go work on the Indian Reservation because it wasn’t just going to come from me. It was friends who would say it and friends who saw strengths in me that I didn’t find in myself. This is one of my big lessons of the evening, and actually somebody said this before the dinner, she was thinking of running for office but she didn’t really think of doing it till five of her friends said you can do it. Some of the problems with women, if we don’t find the strength in ourselves, get your friends to run for office because they want to maybe but they need you to push them.

The other thing that’s helpful to have is a lot of guts and imagination. I’ll just tell you one story. When I was in college, I had a crush on my teacher. I know you’re not supposed to do that, Mr. President. He actually thought it was wrong. You know I would say, don’t you think we should meet more often? He said, why? And I said, oh you know, to discuss poetry or something. Anyway he would have nothing to do with me, and also he had a girlfriend which made it even more difficult. So I thought, well, I’ve got to do something about this. We were reading a book called “Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi” so I said, hey well, why don’t we build a raft and float down the Mississippi? So we did. It was 12 feet by 24 feet and we went from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, not so far from here, to East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, and we just celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary. So, imagination. Think outside the box if you want something.

The other thing that I found is helpful in politics and to doing well is building relationships, working with people. I’ll just give you one example. When George Bush, the father, became President somebody invited me to go to the White House, and I was having lunch with my pal he was writing his inaugural speech with Peggy Noonan, so I said, hello, how are you going, and will you please appoint my opponent who I’d run against for Congress to a job so I can run for that seat? I figure you got to ask. But after I saw him I had I sent him a t-shirt, because I wanted him to remember the kind of the work I was doing, which was getting kids involved in community service and this is a man who’s about to become president and he wrote me a handwritten thank you note. I thought it was pretty amazing the person about to be president has time to write thank you notes. Then the other day I had asked—I can’t admit that I acknowledge this relationship, but my cousin-in-law is actually the governor of California—and I wanted him to do something for my children’s school, so I asked him and then I got his assistant to send me something, and I wrote him a thank you note and then I wrote the assistant a thank you note. Afterwards I talked to a pal of mine who had been my assistant when I was lieutenant governor, hey did anybody ever thank you for all the work that you did, because people ask me to do things all the time, and she is the person who actually did it, right? I said, did anybody actually ever thank you in the eight years that you were with me? She thought about it and she said, yep, one person, Senator Kennedy. Grandma was really good at teaching about writing thank you notes. Part of this story is one of the things that we have to do in politics is write thank you notes, talk to people, listen to people, build relationships. Those are the good things about what you can do.

There are challenges, particularly for women, which I wanted to tell you about because it’s not just running—there really are challenges. When I became a lawyer I became a lawyer, I’d apply for a job and I talked to a law firm and I said, I would like to know about your depositions and what’s going on, but I would also would like to know if my child got sick what would happen. I asked all these questions and at the end of the interview, I didn’t get the job and the one woman partner in the firm said, well she kept asking about what happens with her children. That could be one of her priorities, but it couldn’t be her first. So there was a sense that you could not have children and really care about them and work in the law firm. Now that was 20 years ago and it might have changed by now, but that was real discrimination. I also went and I applied at Total Legal Services and I asked them, I have two kids, can I work part time? And the man said no. We are a very professional organization and you can’t. You have to work full time. And I said, but you’ve tried to help people and you’re trying to help women and I think it’d be better to be flexible, and he said no. Five years later he ran for Congress and became head of the Family Friendly Caucus. He’d always walk down the other side of the street whenever he saw me coming because I’d remind him of his bad past.

But part of that is to say things change. When I ran for Congress, I kept being asked about raising my kids. When I ran six years later, when all the 94 and the women won, nobody asked that kind of question. So part of the culture has to change, but part of that culture requires women to change. It means that when women get positions of power, they have to alter the power structure, not just fit in to what’s going on. I’ll give you two examples that I did as lieutenant governor. When I was lieutenant governor, the governor I was with was really focused on what are traditionally women’s issues—education and the environment—so I took on crime and economic development, and we did a lot of anticrime work. Michael Gartner pointed out I was not in charge of crime—I was in charge of anticrime. So we did that. But I also wanted to make sure because we had women legislators and women judges that we would focus on women in the prison system that nobody had ever focused on before. We were talking earlier that traditionally if you’re going to be the anticrime candidate or the anticrime governor or the leader, you wouldn’t focus on women in the prisons. It’s not as sex issue, nobody cares about it, you never hear about it. But if you’re a woman and you have a position of power, you have a particular responsibility to take on those issues and start opening people’s eyes even though it might not be popular to prison officials who have enough, they say, to do with all the men we wanted to take on women. The same when I was doing economic development. We did a lot on making sure that we started the first manufacturing plant, finally opening again in Maryland in 20 years, and biotech industry, but I wanted to make sure that we would have conferences on juggling work and family so that we had answers to that. I focused on—and this goes back to the crime domestic violence—but I realized that businesses could do a lot if you were going to focus on domestic violence by training the 911 operator so they’d answer the right way and the police officers who do the arrest and the police who go there and the prosecutors. You could train all people in the criminal justice system, but if you brought the person to trial, the jury—which is part of our great culture—would always vote not to convict. You had to change the culture. I had heard actually there was a good reason for this. The head of human resources at Polaroid had found out that many women miss Mondays because they had been beaten up over the weekend, and there had been a culture that said, you may put wear dark glasses, you may wear long sleeve shirts in the summer. It’s probably because you’re trying to cover up something—like you’ve been beaten—but it’s part of our culture, I don’t care what you’re doing. So they wouldn’t say anything, and we tried to change that culture, and say you have a big business in finding out somebody’s been beaten. We did a four-hour training of every state employee in Maryland, and we cut, just as they had at Polaroid, the lost days, the Mondays. Polaroid saved millions of dollars by making sure that we were involved in each other’s business in domestic violence and we in the State of Maryland tried to do the same things. If I hadn’t been a woman focused on this, it wouldn’t have happened. There’s this new study out describing what women who go to work are interested. It’s very interesting. I’m going to give you seven top things:

  1. They’re interested at work in good colleagues.
  2. They’re interested in being themselves.
  3. They want a meaningful work.
  4. They want to make a difference.
  5. They want to be able to juggle work and family.
  6. They want some recognition.
  7. They want to earn money.

Those are all very nice things and probably you can relate to them, but none of those things are saying I want to change the world. None of them are saying I want to blast through and make things different. They’re all kind of safe. They’re lovely. But they are not backbone-crunching, taking risks ambition to change the world. And right now that’s what we need.

We’ve got real challenges in our country and we’ve got challenges around the world because the leadership in this country is not doing a good job. And they’re not going do a good job unless we have a constituency that says we’ve got to change. Part of it means not just saying we want to be safe. Part of it is saying I want gutsy, tough women and men who are going to take on the powers that be. I like that. I think it’s good to feel uncomfortable. I think it’s important to say what’s wrong because I grew up in in a family that said it’s okay to be angry. You got to speak out. It’s not just enough to be nice and good and get along. Part of the problem for women is that what we have always been taught is to be nice girls, to be sweet, to be lovely, to keep our mouths shut—and it won’t work. It just won’t work. It particularly won’t work now. There is a fear of women. I think a lot of the issues that have been coming out recently are a fear of women, the backlash against women, the saying—if you look at the conservative talk shows—that women have much too much power, women who have destroyed us, or women who have hurt us. I think rather than just step back and try to do a good job, because what happens with women, which is very wonderful in an education setting—I will write a really good paper, I will study harder, I will try my best—is not the way to change history. The way to change history is to go out on the barricades, and right now that’s what we need. We need people to fight, to be articulate, and to make sure that they’re really saying what’s going on.

We’ve got to change our view of what it is to be a good woman. Close your eyes and think of the old view of a good woman—somebody who is nice, and sweet, and lovely. Now your new view of a good woman—what’s your new view? Somebody who is tough and uncomfortable and tells you the truth. That’s going to be very tough, because all we’ve seen in the workforce and in politics is we don’t want to be challenged. What we have to say to each of ourselves—we have to learn to challenge others and we have to get comfortable with being challenged, and that’s the only way we’re going to make the changes that are needed today. This is going happen in politics and it’s also going happen in work the workforce.

Let me just tell you about a friend of mine who’s just written a fabulous new book called “85 Broads.” She was on Wall Street. She worked for Goldman Sachs. The address was 85 Broad Street. She said they’re not promoting women. They’re not taking women in. They’re not being good to women. I’m going to start a women’s group. She did women in finance and she called it 85 Broad. She’d written this new book called “More Than 85 Broads,” telling the stories of women who have taken charge of their career, who are saying we can make a difference, and we can do it in all sorts of different ways. You can read it and you can buy it. She’s my pal. I have to support my friend. That’s one of the first things we do.

Remember—support your friends because if we don’t do that we’re going to be stuck here in 20 years, in 30 years and women are going be still taking care of the families, taking care of their parents, wondering how they’re not doing a good job of juggling work and family, being told you’re not being a real woman or a good woman, and the world—where kids are dying of hunger, where we’re not having healthcare for our families, where we’re not having good jobs for our citizens, are not getting the kind of America they need.

So here I am at the Catt Center started by a woman who followed Susan B. Anthony. Hallelujah. Here I am giving a lecture for a woman who was the first Republican. Can you believe I’m giving this lecture? And yet she was pro-choice, worked for Planned Parenthood, was at the end of her life not given credentials at the Republican Convention because of her positions. So the world can get worse. I said at the beginning of this talk that the 21st century could be the Year of the Woman and it can be around the world, but this country is the strongest, most powerful nation on earth, and if we don’t take charge the world will get lost. As Susan B. Anthony said, failure is impossible. Let’s get fighting. Let’s get going. Let’s elect women. Thank you very much.