The keys to their secrets

In Rep. Kay Granger’s (R-Texas) political career, one day sticks out to her. She was the mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, and — dressed in a navy-blue business suit — she was preparing to receive then-Gov. Ann Richards (D) for a private reception of the city’s business leaders.


“The first thing Gov. Richards said to me was, ‘Don’t ever wear that suit again,’ ” Granger recalls in the new book, Secrets of Powerful Women: Leading Change for a New Generation.

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“I was crushed,” Granger says. “She told me to look around — a roomful of men in navy-blue suits!”

Richards explained to Granger that women in politics hold a secret advantage over men: They can grab the attention of everyone around them by wearing a colorful outfit.

“I haven’t owned a blue suit since,” Granger says.

The book, by Lifetime Networks CEO Andrea Wong and actress Rosario Dawson, reveals what several female members of Congress consider their keys to success. In it, several themes emerge: that many women in politics rely on “power dressing,” maintain a trustworthy community of family and friends and work hard to control their own image to advance their professional goals.

The book, compiled from the talks lawmakers gave to a group of high school girls at the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions, also includes passages from women who aren’t members of Congress, like actress Fran Drescher and Vermont’s first female governor, Madeleine Kunin (D). But nearly all of them note that when women surround themselves with supportive colleagues, they’re more likely to take on bigger challenges and, consequently, more likely to succeed.

In this vein, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) shares a story about Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that gets past the confident veneer Pelosi normally maintains.

“Nancy is one of the most powerful women in the world, and her colleagues had to talk her into her running for leadership,” Sanchez says in the book. “We had to paint the picture for her.”

Other female members of Congress have said it’s precisely that outer image that has counted most in their political successes. In an interview with The Hill, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said one of her methods for success during an especially trying period of her life was to control how the public and her colleagues viewed her.

In 2008, Wasserman Schultz underwent multiple surgeries to combat breast cancer while balancing her duties as a lawmaker and a leading campaigner in both the congressional and presidential races.

It was not until the spring of 2009 that Wasserman Schultz announced her battle against, and ultimate triumph over, the cancer. She said her primary motivation was to protect her three children from public scrutiny, but she also did not want others to dictate how much she should be working.

“A man is perceived to have natural strength that women aren’t automatically perceived to have,” she said in the hallway outside the Speaker’s office between votes. “So I wanted to control my life. I didn’t want well-meaning people saying, ‘Oh, she has breast cancer, you shouldn’t ask her to do that.’ In the campaign I wanted to be the judge of how much I was comfortable doing and not have everyone else try and tell me how much I could do.”

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Other female lawmakers have focused on how to meld their role as mothers with their professional pursuits. The book points to this balance as one of the biggest challenges for some members of Congress.

 Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), one of Congress’s newest mothers, agrees. She said in an interview with The Hill that a woman’s natural instinct to hesitate and consider all of the ramifications before entering into a campaign may prevent her from getting a head start on a male opponent who may not have the same reservations.

Linda Sanchez was wheeling her 8-month-old son Joaquin out to the Capitol parking area after an evening vote last week to load him in the back seat of her silver Chevrolet Impala. With her husband out of state on work and childcare ending at 5:30 p.m., she often has to bring Joaquin with her to the chamber.

“I’m lucky in that way,” she said. “A lot of women can’t bring their kids to work. I prioritize more and use my time more wisely, because I don’t have a lot of it to waste.”

Yet it’s that very skill set of forethought and multitasking that gives women an upper hand when it comes to politics, Linda’s sister Loretta says in the book.

“Do you think that guys know how to plan a party or a reception? Book the venue? Plan the menu? Keep it under budget? Do you think they can manage these details? No,” Loretta Sanchez says. “They ask the women to put it together. Women are doing the work to get men elected. We need to get ourselves elected.”

Other female lawmakers agree that they should not only celebrate but leverage their differences from men to find success. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) was recently caught on video saying healthcare reform would have been done already if women had been in charge.

“We go to the ladies’ room — the Republican women and the Democratic women — and we just roll our eyes at what’s being said out there,” she said at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last month. “And the Republican women said, when we were fighting on the healthcare bill, ‘If we sent the men home, we could get this done this week.’ ”

Women, Shea-Porter said, have taken care of their entire families, which gives them a unique insight into healthcare reform that men don’t have.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) — who opts to be called “Congressman” instead of “Congresswoman” — speaks of these female characteristics, too, recalling a time she stopped at a diner in rural Tennessee while on the campaign trail in 2002.

At the diner, she introduced herself to a “crusty guy” sitting at a nearby table.

“Hi there, sir, I’m state Sen. Marsha Blackburn and I’m running for the U.S. House of Representatives,” she recalls in the book. “I would appreciate your vote.”

Blackburn handed him her card and he looked up at her and said, “Little lady, what qualifies you to run for the U.S. House of Representatives?”

Blackburn looked back at him and said, “Well, you know what, I’ve been the three-year-old choir director, the room mother, the room-mother chairman and the Girl Scout cookie mom, and if you can handle those jobs, you can handle the U.S. House of Representatives.”

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