Sandra Day O'Connor and Madeleine Albright in conversation

March 29, 2013

“I’m not one of those people who thinks the world should be run entirely by women. If anyone thinks that, they’ve forgotten high school.” - Madeleine Albright

On being the first woman on the Supreme Court:

“Well, you don’t want to be the last!” - Sandra Day O'Connor

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor does not suffer fools. Or journalists, who, to her, are probably the same thing (just ask Terry Gross, or mock-journalist John Stewart). Or, sometimes, Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was leading last night's conversation with O'Connor and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the New York Public Library. Questions are often irritating to this veteran of the Supreme Court, to be dealt with in as few words as possible.

Who could resist an evening with two such distinguished women, moderated by another impressive woman now probably more famous for her Atlantic article on women not being able to have it all than she ever was for her work at the State Department? She was, by the way, a great moderator (with an excellent radio voice - well, I would notice these things, wouldn't I?)

The evening started with Slaughter asking each woman a little about their respective books. Justice O’Connor has one called Out of Order, about the history of the Supreme Court, and Madeleine Albright’s latest book is Prague Winter, a remembrance of her war-torn childhood, which began in Czechoslovakia. Pretty early on you got a sense of each woman’s personality. O’Connor is extremely businesslike and happy to talk about the Supreme Court and its workings, but her answers on most things are short and to the point. She's not one for introspection. She was not to be drawn on issues like what difference it made to be a woman on the court when it came to making decisions, even when Anne-Marie Slaughter prodded her gently to expand on her answers. O'Connor conceded that perhaps it made a difference when the decision had to do with women’s lives (she did not elaborate) but that, no, on the whole she did not believe a man or a woman made different types of decision because of their sex. Nor was she to be engaged too deeply on her family. Slaughter asked what part family had played in each woman’s career. “Well, they didn’t play any part in my career,” O’Connor replied with a hint of exasperation. But, she added, they had played a big part in her life. “They are my life.” She talked about how devastating it was to see her husband of many decades succumb to Alzheimer's. "He was so funny," she said. "He made us laugh every day, and then...this terrible disease." Turning to the audience, she said, "Don't get it!"

Madeleine Albright was much more expansive. She called herself a feminist, and talked about the role reversal that had happened when she became Secretary of State in the late 1990s and started traveling extensively. She handed care of her bills and home afffairs to one of her three daughters, who then started grilling her mother on her purchases.

  • She thought women were good diplomats because “women are better at putting themselves in others’ shoes”. On the flip side, she said “women take arguments personally”. Not a helpful trait in this line of work. Or, you might argue, any other.
  • On her rise to Secretary of State, she said she had far fewer problems with men in the rest of the world and their perceptions of her than she did with those in Washington DC. She put this down in part to the fact that these men had seen her come up through the ranks over many years, and even remembered her from her 'car pool' days, so for them, her appointment prompted whispers of, 'How did she get to be Secretary of State'? I'm sure this is familiar to many women: you're still seen by some as the thing you were, not what you've become.
  • On being a female diplomat, she recalled, “I’d say, ‘I feel we need to do this,’ and the men would say, ‘What do you mean feel?’”

The evening almost came to a premature end when, suddenly, Justice O'Connor announced, "Anne-Marie, we've run out of time." This prompted laughter from the audience and discombobulated Anne-Marie Slaughter for a good few moments, as Justice O'Connor insisted that if she didn't believe her, Slaughter should consult her own watch. Slaughter ascertained from library staff that she did in fact have ten more minutes, recovered herself, and continued. Hats off to her for conducting a fascinating evening with two distinguished, and occasionally intimidating, guests.