Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill shared her hard-earned advice and opinions about women in politics and leadership positions during a lecture on March 28, at Iowa State University.
McCaskill said she was aware of the polarized opinions regarding women in politics from a young age beginning with an eighth grade teacher she admired who tallied the aspiring politician’s faults.
“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,’” McCaskill recounted her teacher’s words. “It gave me an impression that when I spoke out and had an opinion that I was doing something wrong. In fact, she was the one that was wrong.”
McCaskill said she was also strongly influenced by her mother, who she described as a politically-minded “powerhouse of passion for what she believed.”
McCaskill recalled the time her mother was sworn in as the first woman elected to her home town’s city council. McCaskill said her mother toted a brown paper bag to the front of the room and produced a vase of flowers to show how she was the first woman elected to the city council. During the proceedings, McCaskill said her mother pulled a picture of her children out of the bag to illustrate how she was the first mother to be elected, as well.
“Then when it was time for her to take the oath, she reached into the bag and pulled out an apron and tied it on,” McCaskill said. “She wanted a moment of symbolism [to show] that there was a moment of crossing. Her perspective was going to be a different perspective but a very, very important perspective.”
McCaskill said recent actions in Congress have occurred because of compromise and work from the women who are chairs of the boards which have recently passed positive legislation. She also said that she has learned through her experiences that the skills women of power possess are valuable, not shameful.
“Today we should be saying to young women: speak out, be strong, take charge, change the world. And by the way, all of that is very, very ladylike,” McCaskill said.
Jo Ann Zimmerman, Iowa’s first female lieutenant governor who attended McCaskill’s lecture, said she also learned early in her career about the importance of women in the government while an undergraduate at Drake University where she monitored the transportation committee composed of a group of men.
“The second time I went back to monitor it, there was one woman there: whole different discussion. It was holistic, not just about what happens on main street. It was about schools and children and families and how that particular issue would affect them. I thought ‘boy, do we need more women here,’” Zimmerman said.
One of McCaskill’s main tips for aspiring woman politicians is to lead through adversity.
“Victims use their experiences to empower them to be great leaders as opposed to just being a victim,” McCaskill said about successful women politicians. “Do I complain or do I push through? Do I make an issue or do I go on?”
McCaskill said she experienced many moments of sexism and bigotry from the public and peers at the beginning of her career as an assistant county prosecutor through her position as a state senator.
Zimmerman said she as well had many negative experiences during her career serving Iowans.
“When I was at the capitol, I called the security people every once in a while because I got these phone calls that offered to come up and rape me and kill me because women were not supposed to be in control, and I was president of the senate [at the time],” Zimmerman said.
Despite the lack of support, both Zimmerman—who started the Democratic Activists Women’s Network--and McCaskill said they made it a goal to bring more women into the politics and positions of leadership.
“Finally women are thinking about this, not just as something to do later in their lives. It changes because women think about the whole community and not just the pocketbook,” Zimmerman said. “I realized that the only way to make a real difference was to have a woman at every table that had a discussion--hopefully half the table.”
McCaskill, who championed many issues relating to the abuse and health of women and families, and Zimmerman said they have seen their work pay off.
“We didn’t have discussions about rape,” Zimmerman said about the past, male-dominated Iowa government. “My first time that I was overseeing an emergency room and a young woman came in and she obviously had been severely abused, the first thing out of the intern’s mouth, ‘well, you must have asked for this.’”
Zimmerman said she is thankful to see such issues handled differently due to the changing government that is empowering more and more women.
“The only true way to have security is through power. That’s how we make sure that you can get access to birth control. That’s how we make sure you can get safe and affordable day care for your children. That’s how we can make sure that your children can afford a college education,” McCaskill said.
I want you to know that things are better.”