Episode 59: Politics is power

March 23, 2015

"It's a very fine line...between how people want to agitate for women's rights and women's advancement and how much there can still be a backlash against those types of issues." - Megan Murphy

"You have more resources within you than you think...try to believe that you can actually make a difference, that your voice counts." - Madeleine Kunin

29 minutes.

Megan Murphy

Countries like the US and UK may thrive in many areas, but not when it comes to women in politics. The US Congress is about 20% women and in the UK, Parliament is 23% female. Yes, it's an improvement on former decades, but in 2015 why aren't more women holding power at a national level?

We have two fantastic, outspoken guests on today's show: Megan Murphy, the Financial Times Washington bureau chief, and Madeleine Kunin, former (and first woman) governor of Vermont. Madeleine KuninWe discuss the landscape for women in politics today, what life as a female politician is actually like, and why it's so important that more women go into politics in the first place. 

This is the third in a series of podcasts I've produced in partnership with the Financial Times. Check out their coverage of women in business at ft.com/women (I read it every week) and when you tweet about the show, please use the hashtag #FTwomen.

Further reading: I took the line 'politics is power' from the end of Madeleine Kunin's book, Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead.

Inter-Parliamentary Union site, Women in National Parliaments (Rwanda comes top - its parliament is majority women).

Rutgers Center for American Woman and Politics

The Quota Project - info on which countries use quotas to get more women into parliament.  



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, women in politics…from someone who covers them…

“Hillary Clinton in her emails...obviously this discussion about her emails and if they were kept on a personal server is an important one. Does it require 500,000 articles in the past week in and of itself? One has got to question that.”

To someone who spent much of her adult life as a politician…

“It was a test. Sometimes I felt it was a test every day. But every time I passed it I felt exhilarated.”

And she wants other women to follow in her footsteps.

Coming up, politics is power – so why don’t more women enter the arena?


This episode of The Broad Experience is produced in partnership with the Financial Times. And my first guest is the FT’s Washington bureau chief Megan Murphy. Megan recently moved back to the US after 12 years working for the FT in London. I wanted to hear how she thought life for women in politics differed in each country. Now neither country scores high when it comes to the numbers of women in parliament or congress – the UK is number 57 in the world and the US is number 72.

Megan says for one thing in the US a politician can still run on a platform of so-called women’s issues – and that isn’t the case in Britain. In the UK relatively few people dispute that abortion should remain legal. Here in the US abortion is a raging debate. Many Americans think it’s downright wrong and want to ban it.

“You cannot underestimate if you’re a European viewer or you’re an Asian viewer of this sort of issue that how much abortion still looms large and that’s largely because so many senior Republicans feel that they simply cannot move aware from that because it’s so important to the party’s base. But also, you have to look at it in terms of, and this is where it does sort of dovetail with the UK, but the wider debate I like to say about feminism, and whether embracing feminism is a good thing or can be perceived as a bad thing, and you get shunted into this shrill woman screaming about women’s rights issues. That is still a very debate in the US and the UK. We saw recently with Harriet Harmon taking a pink bus around in labor’s early election efforts.”

Harriet Harman is deputy leader of the UK’s Labor Party. This winter she set off on an election year tour of Britain in a bus emblazoned with the words ‘woman to woman’ – it was bright pink. She came in for quite a bit of flak.

“It’s a very fine line, still, between how people want to identify and are agitating for women’s rights and women’s advancement and how much there still can be a backlash against those types of issues among voters, among middle of the road voters, among swing voters, it’s sort among the two at play, and that’s one of the interesting things about name brand candidates in the US, so many of them actually have chosen to make advancement of women and children’s rights, women and girls’ rights, a priority simply because you can still make serious headway in the US identifying yourself as a champion of women’s rights, I mean we’ve gotten to a point where you’d think most politicians would be champions of women’s rights just as they are champions of men’s rights, champions of people’s rights. But this is still a very, very live issue here, it plays through abortion, it plays through gay marriage, it plays through a variety of different debates here.”

Now any politician in any country is in the image business. But if you happen to be female, you know you’re judged on your appearance and the way you speak far more than any man. Megan says the public obsession with female politicians’ looks isn’t reflected among actual politicians in Washington…

“However, where it becomes a public factor is when people are trying to score political points in the media. So, it’s a big difference. So among friends we could say, or when these ideas are being discussed or when policies are presented, when people are formulating policy platforms, you rarely see those gender stereotypes as an issue. Where you do see it is when Nancy Pelosi makes a statement and then someone alludes to rumors that she’s had plastic surgery. Or when Hillary Clinton steps up to a press conference and everyone says oh her hair looks nice. This goes on I think on both sides of the Atlantic. It is I think very similar and it’s just on what people think will play to their particular base at any moment, and that will some women in politics until we have a much greater number of senior women in politics if that makes sense. It’s about attitudes shifting from the ground up from staffers and voters, that it’s an unacceptable form of discrimination...it’s too strong a word but gender stereotyping that no longer has a place in this political environment. I mean that is sort of a very long way to go from those easy cheap gender shots to go. If we do see a Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016, brace yourself for exhaustive coverage of her hair stylist her shoes her fashion.”

I spoke to Megan the day after Hillary Clinton held a press conference to discuss the use of her email accounts. This has been a huge news story – and most people thought she’d come off badly in that press conference. But I asked Megan, as someone who covers the political scene in Washington, what do the women who are in Congress right now – what do they say about it? About what it’s like to work there, and to be in such a minority? Especially given how stuck in the mud the political system is right now. 

“So I was at dinner, a roundtable of senior women in politics, congressmen, to the Obama administration, senior female reporters, political pundits. And what I think is interesting, is when you look at the American political landscape now is the frustration with the sheer inability to get anything done. What I always pick up from female politicians – more so than male ones, is just how dysfunctional this system has become. In part there is still a belief that this is because the system is still controlled by older white men who have been willing to see the system be polarized. This is frequently talked about as, oh, if it was Lehman sisters - Lehman brothers – the bank wouldn’t have failed. Some say women are more pragmatic or better at shepherding things through, so I don’t think it falls into that cheap gender stereotype. But there is this feeling that this larger slice of women at the highest levels of American politics would diffuse some of the rancor that you see and some of the really petty partisan politics you see in Washington right now. The biggest surprise coming back over and being gone as long as I have, everyone warned me how bad it was going to be – in terms of the gridlock in Washington. It’s actually 100 times worse than I expected it to be. We see government shutdowns threatened on any little thing. It’s embarrassing - as an American frankly – it should be embarrassing to every American voter, the system they’ve got here now…and I do pick up on more of that immense frustration among women politicians and a willingness to vocalize a need for structural, systemic change – change in how people work together, how people identify common ground, how people push ideas forward and generate bipartisan support.”

So that’s one thing she’s noticed – this willingness by women politicians on both sides to actually work together to make things happen. And then there’s the feeling that things have changed for women in Washington, but not enough…

 “That this glass ceiling is chipped - not broken. How to smash it? Is it simply a woman in the White House? Maybe. Maybe not. Is it getting more quality candidates put forward at a grassroots level? Maybe, again. 

But I think there is also recognition that gender equality both in the business and political worlds is the product of so many other much longer-term initiatives.

And I think that there is a recognition that we can talk a lot about a woman in the White House and we can talk a lot about the number of women on the Supreme Court right now. Those are all great, very public things. But the change that we need to have to fundamentally change American political discourse relates more to initiatives that will take decades and that are really about empowering women from everything from economic empowerment, social empowerment, political empowerment, and that its a multi-pronged program and steps that need to occur before we see true gender parity.”

Speaking of gender parity, I wanted to talk about Republican women. Hillary Clinton is the most famous woman in American politics today. She talks about women’s rights all the time – and she’s a Democrat. And when you look at the breakdown of women in Congress – it’s about 20 percent – you notice most of them are Democrats. So what about Republican women?  Do they even want to speak for women as a group?

“So this is a really interesting and tough issue I think for many senior Republican women. I think one of the most interesting women on this issue is Carly Fiorina, who’s the former boss of Hewlett Packard, and who is going to probably mount a 2016 presidential bid on the Republican side. The reason I think Carly is particularly interesting on this because she has willingly accepted the mantle of being the Republican standard bearer for saying “We are actually the party for women’s rights.” 

She’s anti-abortion. She says she has a personal stance on the issue because she couldn’t have children herself. And she says a hawkish foreign policy helps women. She’s adamant the Republican party is the better party for women.

“You know, look, it’s not an easy message to make and people recognize that and senior Republican women, they recognize that. They recognize that when members of their party make statements like, ‘Your body can involuntarily terminate a pregnancy if you’re raped.’”

So a couple of years ago a Missouri congressman made an infamous gaffe.  Republican Todd Akin told a local TV station if a woman was quote ‘legitimately raped’ her body could, and I’m quoting him again, “shut that whole thing down”. Many women in the Republican party were just as turned off as a lot of other people… 

“But that being said, there is no crisis of conscience, for lack of a better word, among Republican senior women - they believe first and foremost in the merits of a conservative government, they believe in the merits of smaller state, a smaller federal presence, curbing welfare entitlements – that is their driving principle. But they do absolutely want to see the party move forward on its approach to women and how it handles women and celebrates senior women and recognizes the contribution that women make.”

Now back in the 2008 election there was a Republican woman whose fame at the time rivaled Clinton’s – Sarah Palin, who was John McCain’s running mate. She garnered acres of media coverage. She was conservative, good looking, feisty, a married mother of four, and a lot of people thought, wildly inexperienced and ignorant about world affairs. But Megan says no matter what you thought of her proposed policies, Palin broke new ground for female politicians…

“People were really drawn in by this hockey mom narrative. And I find her, I recently saw her in Iowa, and that speech she gave in Iowa I think she would even admit was fairly incoherent, and sort of a ragtag of lines she’s trotted out before, but there is something about her that really strikes a chord among people who love the fact that you can have someone with kids and a gun and who drives a jeep pointing at Russia and Alaska, I mean it really struck a different kind of narrative about women, and I’m not sure everything about Sarah Palin, despite the fact she’s not nearly as prominent as she was, was necessarily a bad thing. I think it broke down at least some of the stereotypes about what women in politics should be, so I certainly think it was an interesting moment for women in American politics.”

My next guest is a Democrat. Madeleine Kunin was the governor of Vermont from 1985 to 1991. She went on to work in Washington as under-secretary of education in the Clinton administration. Then she became US ambassador to Switzerland. She’s the author of 3 books including Pears, Politics and Power.

Kunin actually grew up in Switzerland till she was 6. Her family was Jewish, and the Nazis has started rampaging through Europe. Her widowed mother was worried about what might happen next. She emigrated to America with Madeleine and her brother.

When Madeleine was young she worked as a journalist, but not for that long. She says there was so much prejudice in those days – one editor at the Washington Post told her she was still in the running for a reporter job she’d applied for – only to call her back later that day and say, “I gave the job to a man.” She married in her mid-twenties and she and her husband had 4 children. She’s now 81.

So what induced her to enter politics in her late thirties?   

“I was always intrigued by the suffragist movement and part of me wished I lived in that time, I admired the heroes of that period, the passion, the unfairness of women being denied the vote and then getting the vote. That was story I would have loved to have lived. With the birth of the women’s movement, I felt I had the chance to do it. I had 4 children, I was a doctor’s wife at that time. I felt too confined in that role. Typical doctor’s wives then sacrificed their own careers, I never felt I fit into that picture the way they did. The women’s movement said you can do it, go out into the world and fulfill your own ambitions. Of course it turned out to be much harder than that but, I always wanted that as a goal.”

Her career happened in stages, as most do. She’d been in politics for more than ten years by the time she became governor.

“I was in the legislature first, for three terms. That was a very seminal experience. Probably the most important part of that experience was I learned to deal with the budget. That gave me an entry into knowledge of all state government and also made me feel confident. When the governor criticized me or attacked me for some of decisions we made I could fight back because I had lots of ammunition by that time.”

AM-T: “I was at an event at Barnard…where this topic of confidence came up…you don’t just ‘get’ confidence, you achieve it over years of doing things that you maybe never thought you could do.

“Absolutely. I tell that to students all the time, to take risks, to step out to the edge of the precipice…you might be scared. I was very nervous when I was appointed chair of the appropriations committee which controls purse strings of the state basically. One of the old time lobbyists stopped me in the hall and said ‘we’re going to be watching you.’”

She says there’s always a lot of scrutiny that comes with being the first anything. And then of course there were a lot of people who just weren’t used to a woman being the important person in the room. At a White House reception one politician went to shake her husband’s hand, assuming he was the governor…

“Even with the New York Times I was invited to a meeting with the editorial board…we entered through the side entrance, as we were told, and the security guard, and…I was with my state trooper who was in civilian clothes and in his early thirties, and again he just reached for him and said, ‘Welcome to the Times, governor.’ So the phenomenon of the unexpected presence in a new role is very strong.”

Still, she did think a lot more women would become politicians after women like her – and she’s stuck by the relatively low number of American women who do. Now no one knows better than her how intimidating it can be to run for office. Then there’s the issue of young women just not seeing enough women politician role models. She says these turnoffs are why she started an organization a couple of years ago called Emerge Vermont – it trains Democratic women to run.

“And you might ask why do we need this special training for women to get into politics when men don’t need to? We teach public speaking, how to campaign, how to raise money. Women still feel need to be credentialed. Maybe it’s because we’ve been such good schoolgirls. If you get A on your test then you succeed. And then when we grow up we find out the boys who got the worst marks are the CEOs or senators or leaders in so many fields…so I think women still need to feel they’ve passed a course to run for office.”

For her book, Pears, Politics, and Power Madeleine talked to Hillary Clinton. In that interview Clinton revealed that when she was first asked to run for senator of New York – even she balked and said she wasn’t sure she was up for it. Madeleine says she was just thinking like so many other women…

“Again it goes back to our education, we think we need to know the correct answer to every question. And it’s true when a woman doesn’t know the correct answer she is criticized more than a man. But we can also say, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ I met someone the other day who said I’ll always vote for you, whatever you do. I said why. (He told the story of how she got back to him.) It took me a long time to figure out, you don’t have to give the exact answer…to the question. You can change the question and talk about what you want but that is a learned skill, which probably frustrates journalists.”

It does.

And what about that other aspect of life that may put a lot of women off politics: family? These days a growing number of women politicians have young children. That wasn’t so common 30 years ago. When Madeleine became governor her three eldest children were in college, and the youngest was in high school. And she had a supportive spouse.

“So it was a little bit easier. But you know when I wrote my first book, Living a Political Life, my editor at Knopf said, ‘You’ve got too much guilt in here, you’ve got to cross some out.’ So I think every woman who has other responsibilities feels torn. You can’t do it perfectly but I guess I can look back now with some sense of equilibrium that my children turned out all right – in the sense that they are happy with their lives. Whether they were traumatized at the time only a future therapist will find out.”

AM-T: Well it’s great that you think they can look back with equanimity on that time…

“Yes, at least as far as I know. We’re a pretty close family, which is a great joy at this stage of my life.”

AM-T: “When you look back at all your years in politics how do you view that time? Was in enriching and frustrating and many more adjectives as well, how do you look back, with satisfaction?”

“I do look back with satisfaction, of course the further it is from my present experience the rosier it looks. But it was a test. It was a test every day. Every time I passed it I felt exhilarated. There were failures. I’m grateful to people of VT who elected me. They took a risk. It was a huge growing experience. The idea that you can have ideas, that you can have thoughts, about what to do to improve the wellbeing of people, and you can act upon them, you don’t have to be knocking on the door from the outside, you can actually be at table from the inside – as governor you can propose the agenda, it may be modified, it will be changed, but you lay down the first marker, is very exiting and very satisfying.”

She says you have power in the true sense of the word – not power over people. She knows a lot of women feel uncomfortable with that skewed definition. But power to do things, to effect change. She hopes more and more women will start to look at politics that way.

Not that her career didn’t have bumps, of course. She says there were tense times. She had her share of failures. And it was tough to be criticized…

“And the reality that you cannot satisfy everybody.  Which women still like to do more than men I think because sort of our motherly instincts – we should be able to make everybody happy. But you can’t. And I think that’s the hardest pill to swallow. There are times when half the people think you’re right and the other half think you’re wrong.”

AM-T: “You just alluded to this – there will be failures. And obviously there will. And I think a lot of women are also worried about the ability to bounce back. Can you talk about one and how you coped with climbing out of that?”

“I guess the biggest failure was when I lost the first election for governor. It was a very public failure. It was a tough campaign.”

When she first started campaigning the longtime governor, Richard Snelling, had said he would not run for another term. But then he changed his mind and leapt into the race. Most Vermonters voted for him.  

“The morning after I lost I thought this is the end, it was a very tough day, didn’t want to talk to or see anybody except my family.”

A year or so later she got a call from a friend…who told her this time Richard Snelling really wasn’t planning to run for another term this time round…

“And I put down the phone, thought about it for an hour and an hour later I said, I’m in. And I don’t know what gave me the courage to take the risk again. I did know a two-time loser would be a real loser. But I thought that I had to try again. I didn’t want to go down in history as the first woman who ran for governor and lost. I didn’t want to be role model for my children. I wanted them to learn that you could get up again. And of course I was very fortunate because I did win…but I don’t want to ascribe things to luck. It was hard work.”

She went on to win another two terms as governor.

So I said to her, passionate politician that she is…what would you say to a woman who is interested in working in politics but they want to help someone else win, to stay behind the scenes. She said sure, all campaigns need dedicated, motivated, enthusiastic staff. But…

“If you have real passion for change, something you see that is not right that you feel should be changed, don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there. You can really do things you never thought you could do…I was v afraid of public speaking. The first time I spoke in the Vermont legislature was on the resolution to support the equal rights amendment, and I didn’t think I could speak on it but I followed a woman who spoke against it, and I was so incensed that a woman could oppose the equal rights amendment that I jumped out of my seat and gave my maiden speech. You have more resources within you than you think – the most important thing is not exactly tactical, it’s what you have inside you. Listen to your own voice and try to find some optimism in this pessimistic word. Try to believe that you can actually make a difference, that your voice counts – and then test it, test it and find out.”

These days Madeleine is a professor at large at the University of Vermont. She teaches a course on women, politics and leadership among other things.

Megan Murphy of the Financial Times is also a big proponent of women getting into politics. Despite everything she sees in her job, the relentless press coverage…the lifestyle…

“…the travel, the incessant focus on stuff that does not matter. I mean Hillary Clinton and her emails...obviously this discussion about her emails and whether they were kept in a personal server is an important one. Does it require 500,000 articles over the past week in and of itself? One’s got to question that. This 24-hour media cycle is incredibly grueling. You are never out of the spotlight. You are subjected to intense scrutiny of your family, of your background, of your appearance.  It’s an incredible mountain that people may not want to climb. But at the same time, having just had a little girl myself, it is incredibly important to have women, visible women, out there as role models and to have their faces and their ideas and their names and everything else out there as we all move forward to gender equality and to having it just not being a big issue that there is a woman in the White House, that is I think the goal of everyone, where having a woman as president will just be the same as having anybody else in the White House.”

Megan Murphy. You can read Megan’s articles at FT.com and check out all their coverage on women in the workplace at FT.com/women.  And if you do tweet about this show, please use the hashtag #FTwomen.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. You can see photos of my guests and comment on this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page.

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Thank you again to April Laissle for her help with this episode.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.