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July 10, 2013

Being First: Sandra Day O’Connor and Madeleine Albright in Conversation

Ann Farmer

“It’s nice to be first, but don’t be the last,” said Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court (1981−2006), during a conversation she recently had with her friend, Madeleine Albright, the first woman U.S. secretary of state (1997−2001). “You actually want to do it better than anybody else,” responded Secretary Albright. “I think that’s a really important point. You don’t want to screw it up for everybody else.”

Both of these women made history when they toppled the gender barrier in their respective professions—something neither could have predicted. O’Connor grew up on the Lazy B, a remote cattle ranch near Duncan, Arizona, and initially struggled to land lawyer job interviews because she was a woman. Albright survived an unsettling childhood as a Czech refugee—first fleeing the Nazis, then communism. She was teaching at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and 55 years old before she received her first diplomatic post as ambassador to the United Nations in 1993.

Both have written memoirs about their lives’ unexpected twists and turns. It was the recent debuts of O’Connor’s latest book, Out of Order, and Albright’s memoir, Prague Winter, that spurred their dual appearance on March 28 at the New York Public Library for a discussion moderated by Anne-Marie Slaughter, international lawyer and president of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. Slaughter also happens to be the first woman who served as director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State (2009–2011).

As the author of the controversial Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Slaughter couldn’t resist asking these heavy-duty role models what it was like to juggle family life, along with questions about their respective professions and how it felt to be first.

Slaughter: Did you experience [being the first] as something you had to live with continually on the Court?

O’Connor: Oh, absolutely. I had never been a law clerk on the Court. I didn’t know how it worked. . . . I had never drafted an opinion for the Court. So it was a major learning curve. And it was very exciting to have the privilege of working on issues that had come all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s a thrill for someone who has studied the law and who cares about it. I’d served in all three branches of Arizona’s state government. But that’s vastly different than our federal level.

Slaughter: When you thought about writing opinions, did you think, “I am the first woman justice”?

O’Connor: No. How should this case be solved? And how can I do it in a way that’s persuasive? I needed at least five votes on the Court for a holding of the Court. So that’s your first goal. Get five at least. And I’m one. So that means four others. But it’s heaven when you get nine. That’s really exciting. The Court has a lot of divided opinions, as you know.

Slaughter: But you must have been aware that you were a constant role model.

O’Connor: I just knew that I had to do the job well enough that it wouldn’t be a source of concern for the Court, for the citizens of this country. You wanted to do things persuasively and well. I’m sure you had the same feeling (turning to Albright). Here you are, head of the Department of State. And I’m sure you had the same feeling—that you wanted to do things well so that our citizens would be proud of them and it would inspire them. And that’s what you hope and want.

Albright: I think it is kind of a mixed feeling. . . .You actually want to do it better than anybody else. In my case, and I’m sure this was true for you also, people didn’t think that a woman could be the judge. And, in my case, when my name was floated around, that a woman couldn’t do the job because Arabs wouldn’t talk to her. So what happened was that the Arab ambassadors at the UN said we’ve been dealing with Ambassador Albright. We wouldn’t have any problem with Secretary Albright. . . .

Then what happened was I did become secretary of state. And, by the way, the reason I did was because of Hillary Clinton. And the reason I know that is because President [Bill] Clinton said so publicly. We were traveling abroad and we used to do this thing where I would introduce her and she would introduce him. And he would say that she said, “Why wouldn’t you name Madeleine? She is the one who really agrees with your views and expresses them better than anyone else. And, besides, it would make your mother proud.”

But I didn’t have any problem with foreigners. I mean I did arrive in a country in a very large plane that said the United States of America. I had more problems with the men in our own government. And not because they were all male chauvinist pigs. Because they had seen me in this very, very long process in getting there. I had been the car pool driver. I had been a friend of their wives. They had been to my house for dinner. I had been a staffer. I had made an awful lot of coffee and a lot of Xerox copies and everything. And they thought: How did she get to be secretary of state?

Slaughter: Actually, Secretary Albright, as I listen to you, I realize in many ways your experience is relevant again to those women who have been talented lawyers or foreign policy people who are taking some time out—if they are taking time out to be with their families—who now need to get back in.

Albright: Well, I’ll never forget this: Carla Hills, when she was [U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Ford administration] and she was a mother [of children] in the same school that my children were in. And she called me up all of a sudden—I think I was working on the Hill at the time—and she said, “Madeleine, can you do something about the car pool?” And I said, “What in God’s name does a woman have to be so that she doesn’t have to worry about the car pool?” (Audience laughter) Really, it was kind of a stunning lesson. So I do think it’s not simple—the going in and out—and the only thing that I disagree with you on (turning to Slaughter) is that I do think women can have it all, but not all at the same time.

Slaughter: Both of you have written about your families. . . . I want to ask you about the strength you’ve drawn from your family.

Albright: (to O’Connor) Can I prod you in a story about your early life? Because I was just watching a rehearsal of a play at Georgetown University. Anna Deavere Smith was doing you.

O’Connor: Yes, she can sound more like me than me.

Albright: But you have to tell the story because it shows the role that your family played.

O’Connor: Yes, well, we were cattle ranchers in a very remote area along the Elo River in Arizona and New Mexico. And the life was tough. There was a lot of work for everybody to do. And you couldn’t go to town. We didn’t have telephones. . . . One day my father had asked me to take the lunch out to a group of cowboys who were rounding up in a very remote place on the ranch that day. I mean really a tough place. . . . And I said, sure, I’ll take it out. My mother helped me. We got the lunch ready and I was on the road [alone] to take the lunch by about 10AM because, you know, this was early stuff. They were starting before daylight. And I started up this road to get to this remote place, and thump, thump, thump. Something was the matter. I got out. I had a flat tire. I was in a pickup truck that was unfamiliar to me. And I went looking for tools so that I could jack up the wheel to get the tire off. And, I mean, it was a nightmare. It had never been removed from the pickup. And I was all by myself.

Albright: How old were you?

O’Connor: Twelve or 13. But I had to do it. And it was really impossible. And I finally get the lug wrench on the bolt and then I had to jump on it to get the thing to come loose. And I had to do that with all the bolts on that tire. I then had to move the car enough to get to the next one. I can’t tell you how hard it was. . . . And I got up, finally, to this remote place where I could see the cowboys in the distance and the herd of cattle they had. . . . And I could see my father. But he, obviously, was mad at me ’cause I was late. . . . And finally he came up: “Well, where were you?” And I explained that I had a flat tire and I had trouble getting it changed. “Well, you should have started earlier.” And that’s just the way it was out there. It was tough duty. And I never did get any sympathy for the late lunch delivery. But you had to learn on the ranch to do things and to do it right and do it well and start it early.

Slaughter: We see that having women and men brings something to our institutions that just men, or for that matter, just women, wouldn’t. And I wonder, is the Supreme Court a different place from when it was just you and Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg and now three women Justices?

O’Connor: It’s amazing, first, of course, to see that many. And I don’t think that a talented smart woman is going to write a better or a worse opinion than a male colleague. But it ought to be encouraging to the public, which the Court serves, to see both women and men on the Court. They both do decent jobs writing opinions and working on the Court. That’s a good feeling, I think. And I hope that it helps. I think it does.

Slaughter: So you don’t think that women bring particular perspectives that men don’t?

O’Connor: I don’t know whether they do or not. But I think that a smart woman or a smart man is going to reach the same decision on some case in the Supreme Court dealing with some proposition of constitutional law. I don’t think it’s a gender-based decision.

Slaughter: You don’t think the different experiences that women have had might lead them to some of those issues differently?

O’Connor: It could on some issue affecting some law or rule about women and their rights. But that’s very seldom. I think, by and large, you wouldn’t see a difference.

Slaughter: We’ve had three very different women as secretary of state. . . . But, in your experience, did you or your predecessors see foreign policy issues differently in ways that were informed by your prior experience as well?

Albright: I do think we all come with our own experiences. And I do think having women at the table makes a very big difference. One of the things, when I was secretary, there were not a lot of other women foreign ministers. There were 13 others at the time. Before that, when I was at the UN, there were only six other women permanent representatives out of 183 countries at that time. . . . And we lobbied to have women judges on the war crimes tribunals because, in fact, a lot of the crimes had been committed against women in the Balkans. . . . Thanks to you (referring to O’Connor), I am running something at the State Department which is called Partners for a New Beginning, which are public/private partnerships in Muslim majority countries. Part of what we do is get women and youth involved. So I do think women go about things somewhat differently.

Slaughter: In my experience with foreign policy, not as a matter of biology, but as a matter of experience and as a matter of perspective, I definitely saw real differences between the way men and women see security issues, see the mix of different kinds of issues in foreign policy.

Albright: I think that anybody who says that women cannot do the hard security decisions [doesn’t] understand that women actually deal with more security issues on a daily basis at home in some form or another. I really do believe that.

Slaughter: Who was the best oral advocate [before the Supreme Court] you saw?

O’Connor: I don’t know. I’d have to give that some thought. And if I said, I’d learn to regret it. (Audience laughter)

Slaughter: You said Chief Justice Roberts had a particular. . . .

O’Connor: He was terrific. John Roberts, who is now the chief justice, was an oral advocate at the Court in many cases. And I heard him on many occasions. And he was as good an oral advocate as we have. He really was marvelous. So sometimes I advise law professors if they want to train young people how to be better oral advocates, to get a tape of one of his arguments and play it and they’ll learn a lot.

Slaughter: Secretary Albright, when you are secretary of state, you don’t get any training in negotiating. . . . Did you think to yourself, “Gee, I wish I had some background in how to negotiate”? Or do you just take yourself in there and be who you are?

Albright: . . . I think also being a professor made me a better secretary of state because it made me listen in a way and also to be able to explain myself in some fashion that somebody could understand. What I do find—and this is a woman thing—is I had people in my office and I would say I feel we need to do this. And the men would say, what do you mean, feel? (audience laughter) . . . And then, all of a sudden, I was at the Helsinki [summit]. And at that stage, Tarja Halonen was the foreign minister of Finland. She was sitting across from me. I had my delegation, mostly of men, and she had hers, mostly of men, and she all of a sudden said, I feel we need to do this. And my guys were kind of, what is going on here? . . .

You do have to go in and explain what the position is. And one of the things that I would try always was you begin with pleasantries. And then I had this line. I would say, I have come a long way, so I must be frank. And then you get at it. But I do think there is a female talent which I think we are better at: putting ourselves into the other guy’s shoes. And I do think that is an essential part of being a negotiator, being able to understand what the other side is trying to tell you.

Slaughter: And there are actually a lot of corporate books on leadership now. The different ways you lead in a network rather than a hierarchy is emphasized very much: empathy and putting yourself in the other’s shoes.

Albright: The other part that I think may be true just generally—being secretary of state is not always being abroad; it is being in the Situation Room at the White House where you have to argue your point with the secretary of defense and the other national security advisors, etc.—is not to take arguments personally. Women are much more likely to do that than men. They argue and then go have a beer. But we think, “Oh, my God, he doesn’t like me.”

Slaughter: So let me end the evening by asking a sartorial question. Justice O’Connor, you had very little choice in your professional garb. You put on your robes . . . .

O’Connor: A black robe. That’s the best part of being a Supreme Court Justice. You don’t have to worry about your wardrobe.

Slaughter: That is not so true of being a secretary of state. And if any of you can’t see, Secretary Albright is wearing an absolutely stunning pin—a Phoenix or a peacock it may be. But I’d love to close by having you talk just a little bit about how you used something that frankly only women can use as secretary of state with your different pins.

Albright: I teach a course called the national security toolbox. It doesn’t normally have jewelry in it. But that is what I did. And I would not have my pin collection if it had not been for Saddam Hussein. What happened was, I was at the United Nations as an instructed ambassador. It was right after the Gulf War. And the ceasefire had been translated into a series of sanctions resolutions. And my instructions were to say perfectly terrible things about Saddam Hussein constantly—which he deserved. He’d invaded Kuwait.

So all of a sudden a poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad comparing me to many things—among them, an unparalleled serpent. And I happened to have a snake pin. So I wore the snake pin when we were talking about Iraq. And you know how all the ambassadors go out in the end and they talk to the press? And they zeroed in and said why are you wearing that snake pin? And I said because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent. And I thought, well, this is fun. So I went out and bought a lot of pins that, in fact, signified what I thought we were going to do on any given day. So on good days, I wore flowers and butterflies. And on bad days, a lot of insects. And when they asked, what are we going to do today?, I said: Read my pins. (Audience laughter)

Ann Farmer

Ann Farmer is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist who covers breaking news for the New York Times and contributes stories on culture, law, crime, and other topics to publications including Emmy, DGA Quarterly, Budget Travel, and others.