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McCaskill Talks Ambition and Sexism with Harvard Democrats

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill Talks “Plenty Ladylike”
Missouri Senator Claire C. McCaskill speaks to Harvard College Democrats on Wednesday evening at Winthrop House. While sharing her campaign story, she encouraged students considering running for office to do so without fear of making enemies in politics.
U.S. Senator Claire C. McCaskill of Missouri spoke candidly about ambition, sexism in politics, her marriage, and her new memoir alongside her husband Joseph Shepard at a small event at Harvard on Wednesday.

The discussion, held in the Winthrop House senior common room and moderated by Harvard College Democrats president Jacob R. Carrel ’16, was one of several “Conversations at Harvard” events this year.

McCaskill’s famous candor stood out as she kicked off the discussion by describing shotgunning a beer with her family after finding out that her 2012 Republican opponent, Todd Akin, had won his primary, a result she had famously orchestrated. The title of her memoir, “Plenty Ladylike,” is a dig at Akin’s comment that she was not “ladylike” enough.

“If you don’t redefine [‘ladylike’], and you allow the word to be signaling that someone is demure and deferential, then you’re denying a huge swath of amazing women their full femininity,” McCaskill, a Democrat, said after the talk. “I feel very feminine, and I’m proud of being a woman, and not for a minute do I think that my outspokenness or my ambition or my strategic mind takes away from my femininity.”

McCaskill began her political career at age 28 by knocking on more than 11,000 doors to campaign for the Missouri state legislature. On Wednesday, she described snide remarks thrown her way by male colleagues and a particularly memorable moment when a constituent told her to abandon campaigning and go find a husband, slamming the door in her face.

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Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill speaks to Harvard College Democrats
Happy Yang ’16 asks Missouri Senator Claire C. McCaskill about her tendency to be frank in politics. While sharing her campaign story, she encouraged students considering running for office to do so without fear of making enemies in politics.
“I laughed it off and used humor to deflect what they were saying and doing. But I used those things to kind of fuel my fire,” she said. “I probably should have confronted more of it, but I wasn’t brave enough. I think young women today are braver; at least, I hope they are.”

McCaskill encouraged students in the audience, particularly young women, to run for office, offering to help them strategize and campaign. “That’s the main reason I wrote this book: to inspire young women to own their ambition,” she said.

The event also focused on the challenges of high-profile political marriage. Shepard recalled friends, colleagues, and a St. Louis newspaper warning him not to marry McCaskill 14 years ago, but he said ambition has fueled the couple’s strong relationship. When Carrel apologized to Shepard for not giving him more of an opportunity to talk, McCaskill said, “Bless his heart, he’s used to it.”

Both McCaskill and Shepard said their marriage has remained an important source of support personally and professionally.

“It’s easier when you’re both strong and successful,” Shepard said.

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