Claire McCaskill

Women, Leadership and Politics: Taking Risks is 'Ladylike' - March 28, 2014

Claire McCaskill
March 28, 2014— Ames, Iowa
Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics
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Sen. McCaskill spoke at Iowa State University as the Spring 2014 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.

Thank you, all. It is terrific to be here. It is an honor. I am particularly pleased at the size of this crowd, knowing what today is. I know the Cyclones have a big game tonight, and I understand bracket-mania. I am absolutely in shock that so many of you could tear yourself away from the excitement of Sweet 16 to be here today. I am going to be cheering for you tonight. Go ‘Clones - Beat U-Conn!

The words still ring in my ears … ‘Claire, you talk too much. You are too bossy. You come on too strong. Young men will never be interested in you. And besides, it’s not ladylike.’ Those were the words of one of my teachers when I was in the 8th grade. I thought she was a terrific teacher, and her words stung me and stuck with me and gave me an impression that somehow when I spoke out, and when I was opinionated, I was doing something wrong. In fact, she was the one that was wrong. We need to speak much different words to young women today. Today we should be saying to young women and young girls, "Speak out. Be strong. Take charge. Change the world." And by the way, all of that is very, very ladylike.

Women have stepped out of the shadows since the days of Carrie Chapman, and they are making a difference. In 2012, if only men had voted, Mitt Romney would be president. More women voted in the presidential election than men, and they have done so consistently since 1980. More women are running and being elected, which sometimes causes good problems.

Now, when I came to the United States Senate and got my orientation, I was led to the women’s bathroom right off the senate floor. Keep in mind this bathroom was cobbled together by Nancy Landon Kassebaum and Barbara Mikulski back when it was just the two of them, and the size of the bathroom reflected that. There were two small stalls and then a small sink. Maybe two people could stand in front of the sink, but they would have to really like each other. So, I was in our bathroom after the election in 2012, and two of my colleagues were in the stalls – I won’t say whom because that’s TMI – and I was standing in front of the sink along with—I believe Susan Collins was in there, I know Amy Klobuchar was there—there were three of us, I believe, trying to stand in front of this sink. Then in came, through the door, Deb Fischer, a brand new woman senator. I said, "Oh, hi, Deb, so good to see you." Then right after her in—or who tried to come in—was Elizabeth Warren, the brand new woman senator from Massachusetts. I left the bathroom that day, and I tweeted, "We’re going to need a bigger bathroom." In fact, we now have a bigger bathroom. We actually, the 20 of us, joined together and said, "You’ve got to figure out a way." We stole some space from an office behind the bathroom and made it a bigger bathroom.

It’s progress. The 20 women of the Senate are making a mark and making a difference. We have been stuck in this ridiculous gridlock, as you all painfully have watched, and it has been forever since we’ve gotten a budget done, forever since we’ve gotten an appropriations bill done. But yet in the period of three months, we got a budget bill done the old fashioned way with compromise. Then we turned around and less than a month later we finally passed an appropriations bill. Then less than a month later we finally passed a farm bill. Now, let me see … The new chairman of the Budget Committee was Patty Murray. The new chairman of the Appropriations Committee was Barbara Mikulski. The chairman of the Agricultural Committee was Debbie Stabenow. Do you see a pattern?

I really do think that women are making a difference in the Senate as we try to collaborate and find consensus and find the compromises that are so elusive when you do have a divided government. We are working hard to pave the way for other women, but we are not the first that have done that. Many strong women have inspired us, like Mary Louise Smith, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, Barbara Mikulski, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. So many women have made it easier for young women to see themselves with a political life, a life of public service, running for political office.

The woman who made it easier for me was my mom. My mother, while she worked very hard trying to improve her community, she didn’t have a paying job outside the home. So I grew up listening to her on the telephone arguing with, cajoling, encouraging everything from voters to local school board members to mayors to—yes—even calling and yelling at the governor. Many times I heard those conversations after she had forced me, my two sisters, and my brother to sit around the kitchen table with a game she had. The game was a race … Who could stuff and seal the most envelopes? Whoever won didn’t have to wash dishes for a week. I have no idea how many candidates I helped elect with child labor. But there were a lot of candidates my mother worked for and cared about. Like Mary Louis Smith, she was a powerhouse of organization and a powerhouse of passion for what she believed in.

When I was 7 years old in 1960, mother made sure that when I said trick or treat that I had an additional part to the script. I had to say, "Trick or treat, and vote for JFK." She refused to let me play Barbie Queen of the Prom game. I don’t know how many of you are old enough to remember Barbie Queen of the Prom game, but the way you won the game was by getting a dress and a boyfriend. My mother refused to allow me to play it, as she muttered under her breath, "Wrong values, wrong values, wrong values."

Then she did the horrific thing of getting elected to the city council. She did this in a time in my life when mothers were just generally embarrassing, much less one that was on the city council in Columbia, Missouri, a college town with a decent journalism school that had about 7 journalists for every member of the city council. So she got a lot of coverage. She was colorful. In fact, she began her tenure on the city council, and I can even remember where I was sitting in the room. I even remember what the room smelled like. It’s so vivid in my memory. She had a brown paper sack with her when she got to

get sworn in that night. She wouldn’t tell any of us what was in it. My sisters and my brother and my dad, we were sitting in the back row, and Mom went up to her new place in the city council and put this brown paper bag on the dais in front of her. She sat down and then slowly, as the ceremonies began, she began pulling things out of the paper bag. The first thing that came out was a vase of flowers. She was the first woman ever elected to the city council. The next that came out was a picture of her children. Once again, the first woman, or mother, ever elected to the city council. I am just going, "Oh my God, I am so embarrassed." Then when it was time for her to take the oath, she reached in the bag and pulled out an apron and tied it on. Now, I was mortified. It was beyond embarrassing. But I now realize how smart she was. She wanted a moment of symbolism. She wanted a moment that people would remember, that there was a crossing that had occurred with her taking a seat on the city council, that her perspective was going to be a new perspective, a different perspective, but a very, very important perspective in terms of city government.

It took me a while to see the lesson she was teaching me then. But now that I have been doing this over 30 years, I have learned many lessons from her and from many others. In fact, lots of them I have learned the hard way. Since you’re in the Sweet 16, I am going to try to give you the Sweet 6 … the six lessons that I have learned over the 30 years that I have been running for office. I hope that it will help some of the young women in the room find their way towards filing for office, running for office, and holding office in this great, grand and glorious democracy that we are so lucky to live in.

Number one … stay grounded and don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s hard sometimes because when you’re running you get to feeling that you’re important. When you hold office, you really get to feeling you’re important. Having something that keeps you centered and in touch with the people that you work for is incredibly important. If you have children, this is taken care of because children will, in fact, keep you grounded. This is one of my very favorite true stories under the category of children keeping you grounded. When my son was in the second grade, he had an assignment—"What does your mother do during the day?" He came home and asked me, "What do you do during the day?" I was the prosecutor of Kansas City so, of course, I was all puffed up. "Well, son, I am the number-one prosecutor for the whole place that we live. I put bad guys in jail. I have lots of people who work for me. I am the biggest and best prosecutor in Kansas City, and I think that you can write about being a prosecutor. You know, how you see on these TV shows with prosecutors? Well, that’s what your mother is." So off he went to his Big Chief tablet and worked on his paper. About two weeks later I got a note home from the teacher, and it was sealed and marked "Personal." Now, that’s never a good sign if you’re a mother. So with trepidation, I opened the envelope and there was my son’s handwriting on his Big Chief paper and a note from the teacher that said, "I thought you might want to keep this for the scrapbook." The title said "What My Mother Does During the Day." The first line of the paper read, "My mother is the best prostitute in Kansas City." Talk about staying grounded. We had to have a long conversation.

The second lesson … it’s okay to be offensive. Be grounded, and it’s okay to offend people. There is no way to get anything done if you are making everyone happy. If

you’re not making somebody mad, you are not accomplishing anything. There is a tendency, I think—and I suffer from it—I want everybody to be happy. I want to appease everyone. I want to make sure that I please everyone. I am a terrible pleaser, but I have learned the hard way that doing that when you’re trying to be a leader is a recipe for failure. Take that deep breath and realize that you can’t make everyone happy. If you want to walk a mile in my shoes, just read my Twitter feed - lots of hate. Hate, hate, hate. I’ve offended plenty of people, but it’s okay. For young women, do not worry if you are stepping on toes. Somebody’s toes have to hurt in order for you to walk the mile you need to walk.

The third … it is very difficult to be a victim and a leader at the same time. You have to lead through adversity. If you are so focused on how you’re being mistreated, it is very difficult to change anything because you’re too focused on how you have been mistreated. That is not to say that there haven’t been victims of all different kinds in our society that have become amazing leaders, but they have used their experience to empower them to be leaders as opposed to continuing to try to take the posture of just being a victim. Talk to any female politician and they will have a list of moments where they had to make one of those split-second decision. Do I complain or do I push through? Do I make an issue or do I go on, keep my head down, and do my work? I have so many of these moments, in fact, I could talk all afternoon and we wouldn’t get through the first three or four years I was in office. Many of them I cannot tell in mixed company. But I will tell you the one story that is true. I was a young assistant prosecutor, and I was assigned a rape case. The lawyer in those days did cases by yourself. Any of you who are prosecutors or who have been prosecutors know that most of the time now there are two lawyers that handle a case together, a second chair. In those days, it was just me, and it was time for the victim’s deposition. I found out the morning of the deposition that the lawyer for the defendant was the former prosecutor. I don’t mean an assistant prosecutor, I mean the boss. I mean the guy who held the big job, the guy who would run for office, the guy that everybody knew in the courthouse. Larry Gepford was the lawyer. It would be like going against … in my world, this was going against a titan. This was going against somebody who was intimidating and, frankly, a little scary for me. So I walk in the room for the deposition, and the victim was there. In comes Larry Gepford. He sits down across from me. He said, "Honey, I need a yellow pad. I need a sharpened pencil. I need a red pen, a blue pen, and I would like a cup of coffee. I take sugar and a little cream." Now, I’m sitting there with the victim, and here is this prosecutor telling me to do this. It was one of those moments. Do I say to him, "Who in the hell do you think you are?" Do I get on my high horse? Do I need to put on a show for the victim? What do I do? In that split-second, I made a decision. I internalized. I got up. I got him his pad of paper. I got him his pens. I got him his pencil. I got him his coffee just the way he liked it, and I said, "Here you go, Mr. Gepford." We proceeded to take the deposition. For the next six weeks of my life I worked as hard as I ever worked on that case. When we got to court that day, the victim was fine with me succumbing to Mr. Gepford’s wishes because we kicked his tail all over the courtroom.

In that moment, I made a decision to not be a victim but to power through it. Now, every situation is different. There are times that I did speak up and I did do things

to make sure people understood. But by and large, I tried to stay focused on doing the work, being prepared, being really good at my job. Because by doing that, it was much more powerful than me just saying, "Mr. Gepford, you are speaking to me in a way that is disrespectful. I am your peer, not your assistant."

The next lesson … take risks, sometimes great big risks. This is one that we really are bad at. We are really bad at this. It’s hard, especially hard, when you win a race and you think, "Okay, I’m in this office, I can stay in this office. Why go for something else? This is comfortable." Or, "I’m in this job; I’m comfortable with this job. By the way, I’m counting the days to retirement, but I’m comfortable in this job." Or, "I’m in this organization and it’s not doing what I want to do, and I really should quit. But I have been in it so long..." It can apply to anything, but it certainly applies to politics. Why take a risk? Just let things go.

The biggest risk I took was a complete disaster. For most of my childhood, from the time I was about 13 years old on, I had gotten messages directly from people and indirectly from people that it would be a great idea that I would be the first woman governor of Missouri. I took that to heart. I began focusing on that goal when I was really about 14 years old. I decided where I would go to college based on that goal. I decided where I would go to law school based on that goal. I worked on campaigns preparing me to know how to run for office. I knew that I would run for office at a fairly young age. All of this was focused toward the goal of being the first woman governor. My father encouraging me to do debate, my mother encouraging me to do speech contests, all of it.

We had an incumbent governor that had very, very bad numbers who was very unpopular. Here I was at the moment of deciding, "Do I run against a governor of my own party and all that goes with that?" In case you don’t know, it’s hard because the contributors are very uncomfortable about giving against an incumbent governor. The party structure is the governor’s party structure. But I made up my mind that the governor was not going to be reelected. I thought the values and priorities we shared were too important to allow the other party to take the governor’s mansion. So I did. I ran. It was hard. I won. I won decisively in the primary. Woo-hoo! I’d done it, right? It was great. I had won. The guy running in the general was really young. He was Roy Blunt’s son. He was a really young guy. I knew everything about state government. I had been the state auditor. I had been prosecutor. I could talk about how we could save money. This was in the bag. I got so caught up with the fact that I had achieved that—taken the big risk—that I didn’t pay close enough attention, and I lost that race. The first race I had ever lost. It was a 2-point margin, but close only counts in hand grenades and horse shoes. It didn’t matter whether it was 1 point, 2 points, or 10 points … I lost. I was absolutely desolate. I laid on the couch while my husband tried to console me – Joseph, who is here today. I couldn’t go anywhere without a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies. I gained about 15 pounds in about 90 days. I was depressed. But I will tell you that, because of the support of my husband and because of the urging of other people, I decided to get up off that couch and take another big risk and run against an incumbent U.S. senator. I know I’m crazy. After running against an incumbent governor, I turned around again two years later

and ran against an incumbent U.S. senator. But this time I learned from taking that risk. This time I knew things I didn’t know the time before. This time, against all odds (and frankly surprising a whole lot of people) I beat the incumbent U.S. senator. All of you that have heard your mother or father say to you—all of you students— "When one door closes, another door opens…" I used to say, "Oh, be quiet. Yeah, right." But as it turns out, it’s true. If I had not taken the risk of running for governor, I would never be a United States senator. Don’t be afraid, embrace it. Go for it. It’s the only way you’re going to accomplish your dreams … the only way.

Number five … don’t be hypercritical of other women. We’re hard on each other, aren’t we? Yeah? Don’t you say stupid stuff about other women sometimes that, if you really think about it, it’s kind of unfair? We don’t have as many queen bees as we used to have when I first came into politics. There used to be more women who liked that there were so few of them. They really weren’t excited about a whole lot of people joining the party. So they weren’t as warm and welcoming as I think we are now. We, all of us in the Senate, we really get along, all of the women, we get along very well. We’re all close friends. We all work well together. We do try to help each other and lift each other, all of us. I’m going back to St. Louis tonight to host a fundraising event for two women who are running for United States Senate. There are moments when we are hypercritical of one another. We need to be kind to one another.

I’ll tell you another fantastic, true story. When I was in the state legislature, back in the 80s, I would go down … this is back in the days that we all had to wear floppy ties and khaki suits so we kind of tried to look like them. There wasn’t much red or blue, it was a whole lot of brown and khaki and a lot of floppy ties. I came home, and I was single, and I had a date on a Friday night. My date and I went down and had dinner. Then after dinner we stopped at a party. A friend of ours, a young lawyer who lived near where we had gone to the movies, was having a party. We go into the party. I had on, I will admit, a leather skirt. It wasn’t that short, you guys. It really wasn’t. It wasn’t short like you guys do short. It was above my knee but not that much above my knee, and I had on a mohair sweater. I had lots of hair then, lots of blonde, curly hair. The next morning after the party, the host called me. He said, "Claire, I’ve got to tell you what happened when you walked in. This woman was standing next to me and said, ‘Well, who is that?’ I said ‘Well, that’s a state representative.’ She said, ‘Well, he didn’t have to bring a tramp with him.’" That is a great example of how mean we are to each other. Don’t be a mean girl.

The next lesson is the shortest lesson of all. It’s a very simple lesson, and it’s, "Be authentic." If someone wants to give you advice and say, "If you just changed your hair…" By the way, people have told me that. Speaking of Hillary Rodham Clinton, isn’t she a saint for how much she puts up with about her clothes and her hair? "You have to change the way you talk. You talk too fast. You really need to be careful about how you say things. You can’t be as forthright. Why don’t you just shave things more often and not take a position?" That’s not who I am. I need to be who I am. Now, that may mean that I offend people. That may mean that I don’t win elections, but I guarantee you one thing, very few people win elections that are not authentic, that are trying to be something

that people have told them to be. Resist the temptation for a makeover. If you decide that you want to go into public office, makeovers don’t work except on the flat magazine page. You can, obviously, change your haircut if you want to. You can change your style of clothing with whatever you want to wear, but don’t do something because somebody tells you that you have to to get elected. Be who you are.

Don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t be afraid to step on toes, lead through adversity, take risks, be kind to other women, and, above all, be yourself. There is one other thing that I want to talk about before we take questions. That is, while women make great candidates, we still have progress to make as fundraisers and donors. I hate to bring this up, but I kind of have to because it’s a reality. I wish this wasn’t part of running for office in this country. I wish we had publicly-financed campaigns. I wish we had a campaign system that hadn’t spiraled out of control, requiring my elections for the U.S. Senate to—in grand total with all of the candidates and all the outside spending—top $75 million. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is. We have to learn how to do that. We also have to learn how to invest in candidates.

I was raised that it was impolite to talk about money. So imagine my surprise that I find myself in a profession where I call complete strangers on the phone and ask them for a check with a comma in it. It got so bad during my last campaign that people would come up to me in the parking lot of a grocery store and say, "Hang in there, Clarie. You’re doing great. I’m really for you. You’re going to get this. This is wonderful." I found myself thinking, "I wonder if they have any money, and I wonder if I can ask them for it right now." That is the kind of pressure you feel.

I think when we’re raised as women sometimes we see money as security. We don’t want to spend our money on something that is going to be frittered away. We know a good bargain. We know things like college educations and putting money in our house, and we know wise investments because we want to be secure. We want to be able to protect and take care of our family. We want that security. I think often times men are socialized to think that money is not security as much as it is power and a sense of self-worth. What I want to say to women is, the only true way to have security is through power. That’s the ultimate security. That is how we make sure that you can get access to birth control. That’s how we make sure you can get access to safe and affordable daycare for your children. That’s how we can make sure that your children can afford a college education. That’s how we can make sure that you have health care and that you have a secure retirement. So, find a candidate.

Now, I’m going to ask you to do something that I do when I speak on women’s issues, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years. All of us have been shopping, and we’ve seen a blouse on sale. It was really a good deal, right? It was such a good deal. It was marked down. It was two-thirds off, for gosh sakes. It looked like it was perfect, and there wasn’t time to try it on, but it was such a bargain. You just grabbed the blouse, right? You take it home. It’s in your closet with the tag on it. You try it on, and it gaps right here even though it’s the right size. Maybe the color isn’t what you thought it was, and for some reason that blouse stays in your closet with the tag on it. How many people

can identify with what I just said? More of you do. You’re just afraid to raise your hand. Take the amount of that blouse – for some of you it may be $15, for some of you it may be $179 – and find a candidate you believe in. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn’t matter if it’s somebody running for the school board or if it’s city council or for president of the United States. Find a candidate that you believe in and go on that fancy Internet and click and give them the price of that blouse.

The only problem with doing that is that if you do it on the Internet, you won’t have the ease of writing on the memo line the word "blouse." Because, in my campaigns, I still to this day get checks that say "blouse." Women all over Missouri know that I want them to invest a blouse. So, invest a blouse in what you believe in, in the ultimate form of security, and that is letting your powerful voices be heard by supporting candidates you believe in.

I want you to know that things are better. I want you to know that I have had a front row seat to the evolution of women in politics over the last 30 years, and it is better. It is better. There are more women. There are more women running, more women getting elected. They are more welcome. They have more positions of power. I think it is very, very, very important that we continue to work towards parity because we are not there yet. We’re all proud of 20 women in the Senate, but we aren’t going to be there until we have over 50 women in the Senate since that represents the number of women there are in our great country.

I will close with this because this was one of my biggest motivators: I ran for my first race in 1982. I was single and 28 years old. I was told that I had to knock on doors. I was motivated, so I knocked on doors. In fact, I knocked on 11,432 doors myself in 1982. At one of those doors, a man came to the door, he was in his late 50s, early 60s, and I gave him my spiel. I said, "Hi, I’m Claire McCaskill. I’m an assistant prosecutor here in Jackson County, and I’d like to be your state representative." He looked me up and down, paused a long time, to the point that I was getting uncomfortable, and he asked me, "Are you married?" I said, "No, sir." He said to me, "Well, you’re too pretty, you’re too young, your hair is too long, they’ll eat you alive in Jefferson City. Politics is no place for you. Get out of politics. Go find yourself a husband," and slammed the door in my face.

Well, I want you all to go out there and find your slammed door. I want you to find that piece of motivation that will allow you to draw strength, be willing to take risks, fight for what you believe in, and celebrate the fact that in America, any one of you can rise to a level in this country that you can make a difference in the way we live our lives.

Thank you very, very much for having me.