Marianne Schnall—author (What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?), founder of feminist.com, and accomplished interviewer—sat down with Senator Kelly Ayotte to help Levo uncover what will encourage young women to get interested in politics as a career choice. Here, their conversation.
Kelly Ayotte is a New Hampshire native who has devoted her life to public service—first as a long-time prosecutor and now in the United States Senate. A prosecutor at heart, Kelly was named New Hampshire’s first female Attorney General in 2004 and is the youngest of the 20 female senators.
The mother of two young children, Kelly, like many women, knows firsthand how challenging it can be to balance work and family. She recognizes that these challenges often give women a unique talent for multitasking, which is an important strength they bring to their careers. She says, “I do think that in our daily lives, women in public office, we’re multitasking, we’re solving problems, and it does give us good experience to be able to reach across and have that collaborative effort of trying to get things done for the country.”
Marianne Schnall: This series is really aimed at encouraging young women to consider politics as a career path, and of course you are a very inspiring role model that we can learn from. So just starting there, tell us about your own journey. What inspired you to get involved in politics?
Kelly Ayotte: I had the privilege of serving as the Attorney General of our State and through that experience I realized that my passion is helping people, being engaged in public policy to make a difference, to solve problems, and improve our quality of life. So that’s really what got my interest in politics, because through elective office you have the opportunity to make a difference for people [and] to grapple with the challenges facing our country. [It] is worth all of the difficulties that anyone has running for elective office.
MS: You did talk about how challenging it can be to run and in some ways that prospect that can hold women back. Did you have a network of supporters, did you have mentors—where did you draw support from?
KA: People always ask me, how are we going to get more women to run for office? And I think there’s an important piece of that in that women often need to be asked. I like to kid around that often some of our male leaders will look in the mirror and they’ll instantly see a U.S. Senator. Sometimes for us, as women, people need to say to us, “Listen, I think you can be a U.S. Senator,” and then we’ll consider it. How do we let other women know that yes, we think you can do this and here’s how I think you can do it?
When I decided to run for the Senate, there were people that urged me to run, and that made a difference for me, including my predecessor in office, Judd Gregg. I had people from Washington that had urged me to run. And you can imagine—having never run for political office before—what it takes to put together a political campaign for the U.S. Senate. And also, I’m not independently wealthy, so think about the money you have to raise to get your message out. It can feel very daunting. So I would start with the principle that there are a lot of capable women out there. Sometimes we just have to ask them and say, “This is something we can see you doing.” That is important. And then also building a network of people—both men and women—that can help you, people that you’ve already interacted with your whole life. That’s the interesting thing about running for office. Someone said to me the other day that essentially I’ve been running for office since I was in high school. The reason I say that is that all those people that you have met over your life are a network that you don’t even think of, and contacts that can actually be there to help you as you form the basis for a campaign. Because the contacts you make in the business community, in your daily life, through school, through education—that becomes your network. And I also think that reaching out to current leaders is another way to build your network and to tap into their networks, too, which is what I had to do because I had to put together a campaign for the first time, which was no easy task.
MS: I’m sure! Do you have guidance or advice, if there was a young woman who was considering running for office, any overarching wisdom that you would share?
KA: Number one, it’s a highly competitive environment. Don’t let people tell you what you can’t do. If it’s something that you really want to do, you’re going to have to have the fortitude to just know, even when there are naysayers, that you’re not going to listen to them. I would also say that relationships very much matter, so using the relationships you’ve developed throughout your entire life, and thinking through them to be able help you build your network—it shouldn’t be underestimated. I had never raised money before, my husband and I sat down and we thought of 100 people we knew that we thought would give me $1,000.That’s how we got the first $100,000, and then branched out from there. I think people would be surprised if they thought through all the interactions they’ve had in their life, that they have already started to build a network for political office.
Also, if I were thinking of running for office as a young woman, I would reach out to other women in public office to get their advice. I think we’re quite willing to sit down with women who are thinking of running, just to give them our thoughts and advice. I also would not limit it to just reaching out to women. The reality is that there are only 20 women in the Senate, there are only four Republican women. If I limited myself just as reaching out to women, I don’t think I would maximize my opportunities to engage people that could give me not only good advice, but also good help in succeeding. So I would reach out to men, too, who have been successful, who you believe can be helpful and can be mentors, and seek not only their advice, but ask people for help. The worst thing anyone can say is no. Often I think you’d be surprised at how many people will say yes, because they’re glad to be asked, they’re complimented by being asked by someone who is thinking of this, as a young woman, and they’re complimented for being asked for their advice. Women often need to be just as aggressive as men in asking people to help us with what we need to succeed.
MS: You highlighted the fact that there are only 20 women in the Senate—and of course we celebrated that because it was a milestone—and yet, obviously 20 is far from parity. Why do you think there are so few women? What do you think we can do to change that, and why is it important?
KA: I think there are multiple factors. Let me just put on the table one and that is children. I have a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old—his birthday is today! This demonstrates one of the things that makes it really difficult for women—I’m in Washington, DC, today, and my son is in New Hampshire and it’s his seventh birthday. Right? I think for women, as mothers, we have to acknowledge that it’s a great challenge to be a figure in public office and also to want to be the best mother that you can be. And I think sometimes, particularly for younger women, that’s what may cause them not to get involved when they’re young moms, and perhaps they may get involved later than someone like me. Because that is one of the great challenges that I have in my life: balancing and trying to be a good mom and be a good Senator, all at once. And be a good wife, too—I mean, we all have a lot going on in life.
I also think that what we see in public office is a reflection of the challenges that women also face in the business sector, where there’s clearly many more men who are CEOs of companies than women at this point. Now we’re seeing lots of great groundbreaking there, which is fantastic, but it’s still not at an equal rate in terms of our strength in the population. So that’s something that we’re dealing with, not just in public office, but as a society as a whole, and so that reflects itself on running for public office.
Now, finally, also things like raising money and the challenges of running for office, having those networks, having only 20 women in the Senate—women are probably newer to this in terms of building those networks that you really need to succeed, to be successful in running for elective office, so I think there’s a whole number of components to it. But if I could start with one, I’d go back to what I said earlier: let’s ask more women to run.
MS: I have two daughters and I know you also have a daughter, and it is about starting these messages early, I think. I wrote this book What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations about Women, Leadership and Power, and I interviewed a lot of your colleagues for the book! I heard you have a cute story about your daughter…
KA: I didn’t come from a political family, so my children’s experience with politics and public life is so different than my own, and my daughter came home from school one day and said, “Mom, I don’t want you to run for president.” And I looked at her and I said, “Well, Kate, I just got elected to the Senate, I don’t have any plans to run for president, but why do you ask?” And her response was, “Well, I want to be the first woman president!” And I just loved it, because I don’t think at her age I would have thought of that response, or looked at things the way that she looks at things. But think about it: she sees her mother as a U.S. Senator, as a leader, and her perspective on the world because of that is, I think, very different than perhaps what I would have had at her age. My mother is fantastic and I think she’s a role model for me, but my daughter seeing me in that role gives her a very different view of what she can do.
MS: It’s very hopeful. I see the same thing in my daughters. Now in terms of what women bring and why it’s important to have more women in Washington—and first of all, let me preface this by saying that I try to stay away from generalizations—but I did hear, especially in some of the interviews for my book, and both men and women said this, that, in general, women tend to be consensus builders. And I can’t help but think back to the bi-partisan effort of the female Senators in ending the government shutdown and about these dinners that the female Senators have. Do you think that there is an element of that, that there are special qualities that women would bring—again, steering away from generalizations—but that there might be some truth to it?
KA: I do think there is absolutely some truth to this. Why is that? Because men and women are different! So we bring different experiences to the table. Often we look at things differently, and I think it’s fair to acknowledge those differences and to understand that we have certain strengths. But I don’t want to over-generalize, because women are as individual as men, and obviously I think that those strengths and weaknesses can cross over any gender, but I do think that in our daily lives, women in public office, we’re multitasking, we’re solving problems, and it does give us good experience to be able to reach across and have that collaborative effort of trying to get things done for the country. And I was part of the group on the government shutdown, and we just, in that situation, realized that if someone didn’t urge the leadership and get involved and be vocal, then we could be left in this quagmire, which was bad for the country.
When I say multitasking, I just think about the things I have to do in my life. You know, I have to plan my son’s birthday party and make that all happen, while I’m working on an important issue for the country, and so just even to solve things in your daily life and with all the things going on, I think those are things you bring and understand that you have to work with other people to get things done. Now, that said, one thing I think is important to note is that women have strong ideological views and principles, as much as men, so I don’t think those are diminished, and you still have the partisan challenges that anyone has. So I don’t want to overestimate how much our collaborative tendencies can break through some of the challenges. I think we’re a positive force here, but we still are people that have to work through some of the partisan issues that the country has as a whole.
MS: It can look pretty dysfunctional in Washington right now, so sometimes it may not seem like an attractive tract to young women. What encouragement do you have—what are the joys, benefits, rewards? What motivation would you offer? Why should women want to run?
KA: Women should want to run because this is our future, and this is the opportunity to be a leader in this country, to have public policies in place that are going to shape the next century in this country. I think that having that voice is an incredible privilege, and despite all of the divisiveness and partisanship, every day I wake up with a sense of purpose, of knowing that it’s such a privilege and opportunity to get that chance to do something different and to change, in a positive way, the things that are happening in the country—to insure that when I think about my children, that they’re going to have not only the American Dream but, I’m hoping, better opportunities than I’ve had. So I think that’s such a great motivation, despite all the challenges. And by the way, it’s not just the big picture issues. What’s also been incredibly motivating to me is individual cases of constituents that I have been able to help, where I know that I’ve made a difference in their lives.
Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images