U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill shared the “sweet six” lessons she has learned throughout her 30-year political career to inspire women to file for, run for and hold a public office during her lecture, “Women, Politics and Leadership: Taking Risks is ‘Ladylike,’” on March 28 in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union.
McCaskill was invited to Iowa State University’s campus by the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics as the spring 2014 Mary Louise Smith Chair in Women and Politics.
“Senator McCaskill’s speech was well-received by the audience as she provided practical, yet inspirational, advice on how to become more involved in the political process,” said Catt Center director, Dianne Bystrom. “Her comments were especially targeted toward the young women in the audience to get involved and make a difference. We’ve received much positive feedback about her remarks.”
McCaskill is the first woman elected in Missouri to serve in the U.S. Senate, after defeating a male incumbent in 2006. She was re-elected in 2012, defeating her opponent by more than 15 percentage points – the largest margin for a Missouri Senate candidate in nearly two decades. Prior to her service in the U.S. Senate, McCaskill was the first woman elected as Jackson County prosecutor, served six years in the Missouri State House of Representatives and was Missouri state auditor for seven years. She also defeated the incumbent Democratic governor in the 2004 primary, but lost the general election narrowly to the Republican candidate.
Currently, McCaskill is a senior member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. She has devoted much of her public service to targeting fraud, waste and abuse within federal contracting as well as curbing domestic violence and sexual assault in the military.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 300 people – most of whom were Iowa State students, faculty and staff as well as Ames community members – McCaskill began the first of her “sweet six” lessons: stay grounded while holding a political career.
“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,” McCaskill said. “Having something that keeps you centered and in touch with the people that you work for is incredibly important.”
While most are hesitant about managing a political career and raising a family at the same time, McCaskill insisted that it was her children who helped her remain centered.
McCaskill’s second lesson was “don’t be afraid of being offensive.” She said this lesson is often the most difficult, as many women want to make everyone happy. “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,” McCaskill said.
Third, she emphasized leading through adversity. “It is very difficult to be a victim and a leader at the same time. You have to lead through adversity,” she said.
To reinforce her point, McCaskill shared a story about herself as a young assistant prosecutor when she was asked by the opposing male attorney to serve him coffee in a pre-trial conference. “In that moment, I made a decision to not be a victim but to power through it,” McCaskill said. Instead of retaliating, she focused her energy on doing the best job that she could for her client and, ultimately, on the day of the trial “kicked his [the opposing attorney’s] tail all over the courtroom.”
Her fourth lesson was “take risks, even great big ones.” “If I had not taken the risk of running for governor, I would never be a United States Senator,” McCaskill said. “Don’t be afraid, embrace it. Go for it. It’s the only way you’re going to accomplish your dreams. The only way.”
McCaskill’s fifth lesson was to be kind to other women. “There are moments when we are hypercritical of one another. We need to be kind to one another,” she emphasized. She exemplified this lesson by sharing the strong relationships between the 20 women now serving in the U. S. Senate, despite holding differing political views.
“We do try to help each other and lift each other, all of us,” McCaskill said. “I’m going back to St. Louis tonight to host a fundraising event for two women who are running for the United States Senate.”
Finally, McCaskill advised all women to take pride in being authentic. She warned of outside pressures to change oneself and one’s image while running for a public office. “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,” McCaskill said.
McCaskill’s simple, yet straight forward, lessons earned her several laughs during the noon lecture. She answered several questions from members from the audience after her public lecture and more questions during a private meet-and-greet with Catt Center students and alumni, where she promptly snapped a picture and later tweeted “Good questions and great conversation.”
MaryAnn Gibney, a senior in communication studies, attended the lecture and the meet-and-greet as part of the Catt Center’s community leadership and public service certificate program.
“I really enjoyed hearing her personal stories that have shaped her into the woman she is today. From talking about the tiny bathroom in the Senate chamber to funny stories about her childhood, she was an incredible woman I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet,” Gibney said.
The Smith lecture series was announced by Iowa State in October 1995 to honor the Iowa native and longtime political and civic leader, Mary Louise Smith. Smith – the first and only woman to chair the Republican National Committee – was a mentor, friend and role model to many in the world of politics and civic, government and community affairs.
The purpose of the chair is to bring nationally renowned political leaders, scholars and activists to Iowa State to enrich the experiences of students and educate citizens about the role of women in the political process.
The Committee on Lectures (funded by the Government of the Student Body) cosponsors the lecture series through publicity and organizational support.