Sen. Claire McCaskill: Why Women Should Embrace Their Ambition

In a new memoir, Plenty Ladylike, Claire McCaskill shares the story of her life as a senator from Missouri, a wife, and a mother. McCaskill recently visited campus as a guest lecturer in the Authors@Wharton series. While she was on campus, Laura Huang, a Wharton management professor, spoke with McCaskill about the ambition that has brought her to where she is and the challenges she faced along the way.

An edited transcript of that conversation appears below.

Laura Huang: Claire, welcome….I really enjoyed reading this book. What brought you to write a memoir?

McCaskill: My 2012 reelection really had a national profile, because my opponent [Todd Akin] was the lamebrain who said that the woman’s body has a way of shutting itself down if it’s a “legitimate rape” [to prevent pregnancy]. The race got a lot of attention, and I had engaged in some really high-risk strategy in that race that I think represents what more women should do in their careers, and that is, take risks. I wanted to write the book about that campaign and the strategy I embraced. Once I got into it, the publisher said, “Well, your whole career has been full of owning your ambition and being risky. Why don’t we tell more stories than just the campaign?” It’s really for young women. It’s for women who aren’t comfortable saying they are ambitious. It’s for women who feel that security is more important than getting ahead. It’s for women who are facing that moment where they don’t know if they should take a risk. This is supposed to be a gentle push to get more women to be risk takers.

Huang: One of my favorite anecdotes is from one of the earlier chapters, where you talk about how a failure to make a cheerleading squad then launched you into one of your first campaigns. Can you tell us a little about that high school campaign that you underwent?

McCaskill: I had been a cheerleader since junior high. I thought it was everything. I didn’t make it on the squad my senior year in high school, and I thought the world was over. So I began a stealth campaign that I’ve never talked about until this book. Because what I decided was, I could be homecoming queen. I describe in the book how I went about campaigning for homecoming queen. I did the math. I figured out that the homecoming queen every year was the girlfriend of the quarterback or the co-captain. Well there are only a couple of those. But there are a lot of linemen. There are a lot of tackles and guards and linebackers and guys in the secondary. So I began making friends with the people who weren’t the quarterback.

As it turned out, it worked. They ended up voting for me for homecoming queen. I was, of course, embarrassed, and am still kind of embarrassed that I did that. But I wanted to tell the story because I thought it was an example of how you can embrace a strategy and get something done, and in the process, I made a lot of friends I wouldn’t have made otherwise. So it ended up being a win-win. A lot of those linemen are my friends to this day, but I also figured out how to do the math in a political campaign.

Huang: That kind of illustrates one of the book’s themes. All through your career there have been … these incredibly high highs, but also these incredibly low lows. As you read the book, everything seems to build on each other. Is this something that you really thought about, in terms of your career?… Or is this something that you pieced together in this very cohesive narrative more in retrospect?

McCaskill: At the time, I don’t think I thought of it as ups and downs. I was very focused on a goal. I was just driving toward that goal. Every problem I encountered, especially some of the sexism I encountered early in my career, when I went to the state legislature in my 20s, I used that as fuel, rather than confront it, perhaps, as I should have. I internalized it, and said, “I’m gonna show ’em. I’m gonna show ’em. I will be better than they are. I will go farther than they’re gonna go. I will achieve” what I thought was going to be my ultimate accomplishment, which was governor of Missouri. As it turned out, I lost that race. But because I lost that race, I went on to win the Senate seat. Of course, I put all my personal stuff in there: my divorce and the problems with my first marriage. So it does have the ups and downs. But to me at the time, it was just me headed toward something I wanted very much.

“Most people who go into politics really want everyone to like them because they’ve chosen a career where you put yourself out for public acceptance or rejection every two, four, or six years…. But you can’t get anything done if you don’t make somebody mad.”

Huang: Let’s talk a little bit about that fuel…. You had said at one point in the book, “I managed to achieve a delicate balance of being tough, but with a softer approach.” Then you said, “I’m used to people approaching me to talk not about my job, but how I look.” Talk to us a little bit about that femininity … and how you balance that with your ambition.

McCaskill: I say in the book I’m not sure I did it right. That’s one thing I want to stress. There are way too many women who write books who have accomplished things in their lives who do it almost looking down, like, “This is how I did it all.” But I don’t get it right every day. I didn’t get it right in my life, many times.

Perhaps when I was confronted, especially with some of the cruel sexism early in my career, it would’ve been better for me to brave enough to be more confrontational. At the time, I thought it was going to hurt my career. So instead, I used a sense of humor. I became very good at self-deprecating humor. I became very good at laughing with my male colleagues, even though sometimes those jokes were at my expense. I was willing to endure that because I thought if I came on too strong, it would limit my effectiveness, especially in a legislative body. How you get along with others is very important in terms of your ability to accomplish the goals that you set out to accomplish. It really was this mix of spine of steel, but a big smile, and willing to laugh, sometimes even at jokes that hurt.

Huang: That whole time you really stressed being prepared and working hard. I noticed throughout the book how hard you actually worked. It was almost a crash course in politics because I didn’t understand how much went into these campaigns and how much work went into a lot of the investigative things that you had done. In terms of preparation, talk to us a little bit about how you prepare and how you’ve prepared throughout your career, and what hard work means to you….

McCaskill: Well, it’s interesting. I don’t know that it’s as much as a challenge for young women today because there are more women. There are more women at Wharton. There are more women in law school. There are more women in med school. There are more women — although, still not enough — in boardrooms … and who are CEOs. There are role models out there. When I began in politics, when I began in the prosecutor’s office as a trial prosecutor, there were really no women around to speak of who I could see as my role models.

So it really was trying to go along to get along. But I was always sure that if I knew more that I could have credibility. So the fact that I was a prosecutor, the fact that I knew my way around a courtroom, that I had tried a lot of criminal trials helped counter the fact that I had long blonde hair. When I came to Jefferson City, that gave me credibility that women sometimes hadn’t had coming to Jefferson City, perhaps replacing their husbands who had died or even coming from a more traditional female career. I came with a background that really helped me establish myself as someone who was very knowledgeable in criminal law. That, I think, very much helped me get over the hump of being taken seriously.

Huang: And even roles you had later on. There’s this famous earmarking speech that you gave, where [New York Sen.] Chuck Schumer said it was one of the top 10 speeches that he had ever heard. That was behind closed doors. Can you give us a little bit of insight into that speech?

McCaskill: The short definition of earmarks is congressionally directed spending. The longer definition was that senators and congressmen would go behind closed doors and sprinkle fairy dust to decide where we were going to spend money. It was usually based on how senior you were, what party you were, what committee you served on. So I was sitting in caucus one day, and someone was with righteous indignation saying how great earmarks were, and I’d just had enough…. I just stood up and said, “Hey, all you appropriators love them because you get most of them.” I just basically did five minutes of me going off, in a passionate way, about all the flaws of the earmarking system, and how it wasn’t based on merit and how in many ways it represented the worst of what Washington does because it’s all about who you know, not the merit of the project.

Every problem I encountered, especially some of the sexism I encountered early in my career, when I went to the state legislature in my 20s, I used that as fuel.”

After that speech, our caucus decided to not do earmarks.

Huang: That’s a great example of you really being you, being true to yourself, being really authentic. You said in the book, “I’ve seen people go to Washington and lose their sense of purpose and their sense of self.” That’s very easy to do. You’re facing lots of constituents. You have internal, external people that you’re dealing with…. How were you able to manage this very fine balance?

McCaskill: You gotta get comfortable that everybody is not gonna like you. I talk about [that] in the book’s … last chapter, The Disease to Appease. Women have a much more serious case of the disease to appease, sometimes, than men. I want everyone to like me. Most people who go into politics really want everyone to like them because they’ve chosen a career where you put yourself out for public acceptance or rejection every two, four, or six years. It’s hard to get used to the fact that people don’t like you. But you can’t get anything done if you don’t make somebody mad. It’s impossible to get anything done without angering someone. So you’ve just gotta get comfortable.

When I gave that speech, there were people in my caucus who were furious: “Who does she think she is?” Probably some of ’em think that to this day. But that’s OK. You don’t have to have everybody like you. Obviously you need to take care of your family and your good friends and try to make friends, but it shouldn’t be an exercise where you’re trying to please everyone all the time. That’s why people are so sick of Washington….

Huang: Why do you think it’s so difficult for women, especially, to be OK with that?… Why do you think there is this gender difference?

McCaskill: I think we’re natural negotiators. We have strengths that men don’t have. We are more conciliatory. I give speeches to men sometimes, and I [ask them], “When have you ever had the nerve to punch somebody? When have you had the feeling you’ve wanted to punch somebody?” It’s surprisingly common among men. It’s not that common among women. There’s not that combativeness that sometimes gets in the way with men. I think women can be hyper-competitive. But I think there is a desire to sugarcoat it and say, “Oh, I really want you to get it, too.” Or, “I want you to be my friend,” and “Ooh, I want us to get along.” Instead of powering through a situation and trying to just get something done, even if it means stepping on toes.

Huang: One of the things that I reflected on as I was reading your book was the number of times where you were able to remain calm and have grace under pressure…. Now that’s really difficult to do. How have you been able to do that when you are faced with these extreme pressure situations, where you just want to explode? How do you actually step back and calm yourself down?

McCaskill: I don’t know. I think it’s probably how goal-oriented I am. Part of that is owning your ambition. Because I was ambitious and comfortable with being ambitious, everything was about, “Will this help me reach my goal?” I’m not saying that you have to be the Iron Lady, or not have feelings. Frankly, being vulnerable is part of being a more attractive candidate — especially for bigger jobs in politics. So people can relate to you. But you also have to be careful that you don’t allow the emotional moment to get in the way of your ability to communicate. At the end of the day, if you fail to communicate, especially if you’re in political office, then you fail at your job. Twitter 

Huang: Speaking of vulnerability … what still gives you the jitters, that you feel like you have to do that extra preparation for, that really makes you nervous going out to do?

McCaskill: When I’m speaking on behalf of others… I did a lot of work for Barack Obama when he ran for President. I debated Carly Fiorina on Meet the Press [when] she was representing John McCain, and I was representing Barack Obama. I’m trying to help Hillary Clinton right now.

It’s one thing when I’m speaking for me. But when you’re trying to represent a candidate you believe in, you want to be extra careful and cautious that you don’t end up making a gaffe that hurts them. That probably is where I try to be — not too careful, because then you’re not authentic — but careful that I don’t mix that I’m speaking to help another candidate, as opposed to necessarily trying to push my own agenda. That’s hard, but I really have gotten to the point now that I don’t mind making mistakes. I’m comfortable making mistakes. My mouth has gotten me in trouble so many times.

Huang: Speaking of which, has Hillary forgiven you? [In 2006 McCaskill said on Meet the Press that former President Bill Clinton was “a great president, but I don’t want my daughter near him.”]

McCaskill: Yeah, we’re fine…. I apologized for saying a comment that was gratuitous and painful and hurtful to them, which I shouldn’t have done…. I try not to make mistakes, but if I do, if you say you’re sorry and you’re genuine about it, people are pretty forgiving.

Huang: The last question I have for you is really in terms of balance and authenticity. What is your philosophy on motherhood? You’ve raised three children, you have stepchildren and you have lots of grandchildren. Are you a strict mother? How have you really balanced this in terms of your career and being a mother, your other important role?

McCaskill: I want women who are working to get this [from the book]: Mothers who don’t work outside the home are not perfect, and mothers who do work outside the home are not perfect.

There are too many women that shy away from politics because they are worried about having a family and what they see as the dirty, rotten world of political life.”

There is not a perfect mother. Mothers are like snowflakes. They’re all different. What you do is you prioritize your children in ways that are meaningful. For me, I manage my guilt by really not sweating the small stuff. I forgot about the dust bunnies under the bed, even though my mother-in-law would tsk-tsk when she came over. Sometimes my kids’ clothes weren’t pressed like mine were when I was a little girl. But that’s OK. I asked my kids when I was writing this book, “How did you suffer because of my work? Tell me when I failed you. I want to know now that you’re grown what hurt.” Lily, my youngest child says, “Well really, Mom, the only thing I remember is that I always had Lunchables for lunch, instead of a homemade sandwich.”…

Now, I’m not sure if that’s true or if she was trying to make me feel good…. But either way, I figure the parenting turned out OK. Because either she wanted to make me feel better, which means she [was raised] with the understanding of how other people feel, or the Lunchables weren’t that big a deal. Politics has a lot of flexibility for women, in terms of their schedules. There are too many women who shy away from politics because they are worried about having a family and what they see as the dirty, rotten world of political life. I hope this book tells some young, aspiring women politicians that they can be great moms and have a full personal life, and also go out there and get some stuff done in the public sector that needs to be done.

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