Strictly Business — Women of Influence
As a former two term District Attorney of Middlesex County and two term Attorney General of Massachusetts, Martha Coakley has held powerful and prestigious positions throughout her career, but she is first and foremost an advocate.
Throughout her legal career, Ms. Coakley has tirelessly fought to protect the rights of Massachusetts residents while holding each of them accountable for their actions and choices.
“ We used to argue a little bit about whether we wanted to cover the news or be the news because we had great hopes for women having careers .”
As Attorney General, Ms. Coakley faced a number of difficult decisions; she passed laws that guaranteed representation and protection for the state’s most vulnerable residents and unified the Commonwealth through the de facto motto: “Never Give Up.”
Martha Coakley possesses an advocate’s most crucial skill — listening intently. While interviewing her, she made each of us feel like we were the only person in the room. We felt that our independent and collective voices had a platform for making change and that in her we had an advocate who will always fight for us.
Our first question: Considering your career and academic background, we are curious to know what drove you to choose law?
Okay, I’ll give you a bit of background. I don’t know how much you’ve heard about me or my background but I think you’re absolutely right that where people have been also can dictate where they go and what choices they make along the way. I was born in 1953, I am what I call a Korean War baby because my parents got married after World War 2. There are five children in my family, I was the third girl of four girls and a younger brother.
My parents believed in education for us. We grew up out in Western Massachusetts, right near the New York border which is why I pronounce my R’s by the way. We were closer to Albany than Boston. Some people think that I am from Upstate New York, but I actually grew up in Western Mass.
I went to Catholic School for 11 years, as did my two older sisters had. Both of my two older sisters went to girls Catholic Schools, one went to Regis college which is in the area here and one went to Trinity College which is in Washington D.C.
My junior year of high school, and I had been very active in high school debate in speech, we didn’t have much by way of sports for boys or girls. We only had a boys’ basketball team but we were very active in debates, speech contests, memorized oration and extemporaneous news oration. I like to talk and I like to argue.
By the time I became a junior, the parish had been losing some funds and was not able to carry on that program and I transferred my senior year of high school to Drury High School, which was the public high school in my city — we had a Catholic high school and a public one.
That senior year, there was an announcement that Williams College was going to be co-ed. It had only admitted men, but in the fall of 1971 when I was to go to college, they were accepting women entering their freshman year; so it really was a big opportunity for me. I didn’t really want to go to an all-girls college.
While I was in college, one of my best friends was a journalist and I worked on the newspaper and the radio station. We used to argue a little bit about whether we wanted to cover the news or be the news because we had great hopes for women having careers, going to medical school, going into business or staying home and having kids, if that’s what we chose.
“She went off to Columbia School of Journalism”, and I thought — you know — the thing that will really give me the tools that will help me have a good career — one that will let me do different kinds of things, be in a courtroom or work for a company or be in the house — would be to get a law degree.
That’s really what made me decide to go to law school and I don’t regret that. It was a long three years but I enjoyed it and it taught me how to both think and write and frankly, to be an advocate. That’s really what lawyers do really, is speak for other people. Sometimes they’re people in trouble, in the criminal system. Sometimes they’re businesses who hire you.
“So I think people elected me as the DA because they thought I was a good lawyer as opposed to “oh, let’s make history.”
It was a time when we started to see a larger number of women going into law school. In fact, 40% of my class at BU Law School that graduated in 1979 were women. BU has always been a bit ahead of the curve on matters of diversity. It’s where Martin Luther King got his PhD.
They’ve always been good at admitting larger numbers of women and sometimes populations that haven’t had access to that kind of education before. That was the question right? Why did I go to law school?
Yes. My next question is did you feel any sort of pressure as the first female attorney general to set a sort of precedent?
Actually not. I’ll tell you why. I had been the first female District Attorney in Middlesex County. We are all in Suffolk County, which includes the city of Boston. Middlesex County is actually a big chunk of Massachusetts, it’s 54 cities and towns. It’s Cambridge, it’s Lowell, and it goes out to Worcester County.
By the time I became an Assistant DA, and then ran for office, there were many women who were working in the courts, starting to go on the bench, and although I was the first female DA, I think at that stage people recognized that some of our biggest problems were around child abuse and domestic violence and women attorneys, both for prosecutors and defense counsel, were making a big difference on prevention issues.
So I think people elected me as the DA because they thought I was a good lawyer as opposed to “oh, let’s make history”. Then when I ran for Attorney General, it was really “okay, you’ll be the first female Attorney General, but we think that you will be a good Attorney General.” There really was less of “you’ll be the first here in the U.S.” It was actually a bigger deal running for Senate when I ran against Scott Brown and frankly, running for Governor, but not for running for Attorney General.
You’ve had many powerful positions, the first woman Attorney General, Women of the Year in 1998, and President of the Women’s Bar Association. Did you face any opposition as a woman in such places of power and authority? If so, how do you think you handled it?
There’s two parts to that question. When you look at the Women’s Bar Association, one of the great strengths was that it was mostly women working with each other to provide leadership and for older attorneys to work with younger attorneys.
For those of us who were still in the minority of the profession, it provided the kind of support networks for handling family and work, for instance. Men don’t really ever say: “Am I going to have a career or am I going to have a family?” Women do that. Women were still in smaller numbers working in government and in firms and we pushed, for instance, to have better parental leave policies.
We called them maternity leave policies at the time, but they’re really parental leave. We banded together as women to work for women in the profession — [to support] the advancement for women as lawyers — but also for women who then made and still make less money, or women who more often get a tougher jail sentence.
“But it is — and I will say to all of you — easier to be the critic and it’s easier to stand on the sideline and be critical of everything. It takes a lot more strength — it takes a lot more power — [to stand up], and that’s true whether you run for office or start a new business.”
If women got into trouble, they were more likely to go to Framingham State Penitentiary, as opposed to houses of correction around the state where men had access to families and support. There were a lot of issues that we thought, as lawyers, we wanted to advance so that we could advocate for other women.
Within that organization, it was pretty collegial. People got in line, you could move up the ladder not that competitive, which is very different when running for office. Now — running for Attorney General or for DA — these are the jobs where there is always a lot of competition and so they were tough battles, but it wasn’t necessarily because I was female.
I think in some instances because I had such a good record on child abuse and domestic violence and prevention of crime, that was a strength, actually, of running for Attorney General.
Look, I’ve never been afraid to take on a tough fight if I think it’s the right thing. I lost a race to Scott Brown for Senate. I was the Democratic Nominee and after I lost, you’d think I was the worst person in the world. There were a lot of reasons I lost that race, but it was easier for a lot of people to blame me, which they did. I thought about running for Governor and I said [to myself]: “Look, you might not win”; but I said, “This time, I’m going to fix some of the mistakes we made in that race” — and I think I can be a good Governor — and enough people also believed in me and said I should run. It made a big difference. Even though we lost, I didn’t get the same reaction in this race that I did when I lost to Scott Brown.
I think people recognized that politics is tougher in Massachusetts. I was still the first woman, not to be a nominee (we had Democratic nominee Shannon O’Brien earlier and we had Jane Swift, who served as an acting Governor), but the first woman to be a Democratic Nominee for the U.S. Senate. That was a tough race, both in the primary and in the general election — so I’ve been a little bit of a ground-breaker, though I’ve had women ahead of me and with me along the way who’ve been supportive.
As a woman, did you worry that you would have to be harder on crime to not come off as soft or weak or feeble?
That’s a good question. I think that is typically an issue for women, as — for instance — it was for Hillary Clinton when she ran for President. Is she going to be tough enough in foreign affairs? Will she send people to war if we need to go?
In the DA’s race, I think people felt that I was tough, but fair. I do think, in general, it can be an issue for women and ironically, I think what happened was that being tough enough, was not the issue. When I ran for Senate it was, oh well you’re too tough. Where’s your softer side? We want to see somebody who’s nice and warm and friendly and cuddly. That is a bigger problem for women sometimes — trying to convince people that you are competent and you’re tough, but that you also have a heart.
It became a little more of an issue in the Governor’s race. Our now Governor Baker had to make a big effort to show people that he had a big heart because people said he’s a good manager, but does he really care about the people that he’s going to serve. I think he took that to heart. [In fact] there were a couple of incidents, including the time he cried on TV about some fisherman who he hadn’t really ever met. That’s another story for another day.
“In today’s world, if you don’t fix things that are wrong or you don’t push back, they become accepted.”
In a way it was progress. Right now, people are now demanding that male and female candidates must be smart, and you also have to be empathetic and you have to have feelings for people. You have to care about people. You have to really care about them. You can’t just pretend you care about them.
I have your next question. This actually has two parts. The first part is, how do you deal with public criticism in the print or in social media?
Much better than I used to, is the short answer to it. It is funny because I ran for DA and then for AG and then for the Senate race and then for the Governor in a relatively short period of time and if you think of the changes, particularly in social media, it’s not so much the headline but it’s the people who can pile on and make comments afterwards and you knew that some of them were working for the other team. They stung nonetheless.
I’m used to getting criticism, but some of the attacks were so personal and so nasty that you just can’t listen to them anymore. I think that social media and the newspapers have gotten a little better. They don’t let people do it anonymously. At least they know who the people are and they strike a lot of this but in the early days of Facebook and online comments, it was just bizarre.
I mentioned that my husband and I got married when we were older, so we don’t have children, but it’s such a nasty climate out there. I would think long and hard about running for office again with kids, particularly teenagers. I have a tough hide but it was harder on my husband in some ways than me to hear these comments. That is something also that I think women, maybe more so than men, [to hear these comments] take all that to heart and need to develop a little bit of a tough hide.
That is, when you’re doing well and you’re successful, people are going to criticize you, not always for the right reasons. I think in retrospect, there were a lot of people who were fine with me being DA or Attorney General. They didn’t necessarily want me to be a Senator or a Governor and can make some pretty nasty personal attacks against you. That happens to men, obviously, too.
“It’s important for women to stand up for other women.”
If women are going to be successful in business, in politics, in government, you have to understand there are always going to be people who are willing to criticize. But it is — and I will say to all of you — easier to be the critic and it’s easier to stand on the sideline and be critical of everything. It takes a lot more strength — it takes a lot more power — [to stand up], and that’s true whether you run for office or start a new business. Everybody in life has tried things that don’t work and I think sometimes, because of television shows and the way we all are brought up, it’s like everything has to be a success all the time. It isn’t. The most successful people are ones who tried things that failed including Bill Gates who dropped out of Harvard to try his new idea.
For all of the success stories, there are a lot of people who tried things that didn’t work the first time, the second time, and the third time. Every very good politician with character has run races they did not win, so I just stress that you don’t grow if you don’t challenge yourself. You try some things. You’re not always successful at it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
That’s good insight. Thank you. To add onto that, could you say how and if you dealt with these issues, it affected how you dealt with future policies, decisions, and initiatives?
I think it’s something that you learn to live with and it’s important to have a good team with you including people who advise you on policy, people who advise you on — you know — if you have a horrible story in the Globe, for instance, you have to decide if this is just the usual give and take and do we let it go, or is this something we have to fight back against?
Because we’ve seen some stories where the people running against you call up the editor and say, “Oh, you should take a look at this thing that my opponent did two years ago,” or “check out here…” I’m just making some of this up obviously. They’d find it and make a big to-do — and there is the story. They’ll write the story because it sells a newspaper. Sometimes you’re better off just to let it go; but sometimes, you have to fight back if the story’s inaccurate or if the spin on it is wrong. [Because then] if you don’t, then people accept that it’s true. In today’s world, if you don’t fix things that are wrong or you don’t push back, they become accepted.
What I’ve found is running for Attorney General, if you lose a case, for instance, they will go back and say, “and she also lost this case and this case and this case.” You kind of have to push back sometimes on that.
But, you also can’t let it drive your policy. If you run your office or you run your life worried about what the newspapers are going to say, you won’t have a very good life and you won’t do very much because the newspapers, no matter what you do, are going to find a way to criticize you for it. That’s how they sell papers.
I have an additional question. I have heard you speak before at the 2015 Harvard Model Congress as well as at the Kennedy School where I went on a field trip with Miss Hamilton. Both times you mentioned human trafficking, so I was very curious if, as the Chairman for the Human Trafficking Task Force, you could elaborate a little bit more on the importance of addressing the lack of representation of human trafficking in media — an issue that involves so many women, especially in Boston?
Yes and thank you for that. Let me try and make a very long story as short as I possibly can, because I think it’s a good one and it’s an important issue for me and why we need more women in medicine, in law, as prosecutors, as defense lawyers, and as politicians. I first became aware of young women, particularly, who were being sold on the street in Boston, in Cambridge, in Lowell, in Middlesex County.
I served as Chief of our child abuse unit and we had young victims of sex abuse. Some [abuses] were by their families — young, young kids and some were 12, 13, 14 — often a family member or sometimes a mother’s boyfriend. We found young women were coming into the criminal justice system mostly because they’d been charged with a crime. They had been charged with selling sex or using or selling drugs. Those were the two main ways.
Then I started to see that for many of these young women, they got pulled into this life of crime — if you want to call it that — not through any fault of their own at 12 or 13 or 14, but through a boyfriend or sometimes a family member. They were introduced to alcohol and drugs and they were sold for profit in a hotel room, on a street.
It’s an ugly, ugly story and one people don’t want to hear. They don’t want to think it happens. Massachusetts was one of three states that had no anti-human trafficking laws, not because we’re in support of it but because people just had denial — that if you can’t see it, then it isn’t real.
Flash forward. I had seen some of these girls who had come into the system because they had committed a crime, but they also disclosed that they had been raped by a boyfriend or by their handler on the street — their pimp. They had a record. They didn’t trust anybody. They often were abused again in the criminal justice system by the male parole officers. It wasn’t fair to the girls — and girls, this is the group that had no advocates and no one who saw the problem, who was willing to talk about the problem.
Frankly, there were a few people: when I became Attorney General, Swanee Hunt had started [to talk about the issue], because it’s a national issue — the sale of women for labor and sex — wholesale. We asked, “Why don’t we have this here in Massachusetts?” Because — although we may have some of this international trafficking — I knew from my experience that we have young girls and women who are sold in Massachusetts. With the exclusion of online services and the Phoenix, which is a paper that closed and made most of their money from advertising adult companionship, basically prostitution. Mostly women, but not exclusively women. Some of the work that Swanee Hunt did was about saying, “Wait a minute. Who’s the victim here and who should we be going after?”
What other states had done led me to believe that in Massachusetts we needed to change our law so that we would prosecute people who bought sex, the men, by and large, and the people who profited from it.
This is a big business. If you think about it, if you have guns or drugs that you sell on the street, they’re gone. You have to get more to make more money. If you have a group of people, you can sell them 3 or 4, 10 times a night. It became big business for organized crime. It became a problem for runaway kids, kids who didn’t come from stable families, kids who’d come from other States and had no supports here and all of the sudden they find they’re on the streets, they’re being used. They often get a criminal record. The people who run them say, “No one will listen to you.” Unfortunately, that can be true. You had an invisible population that nobody had connections with or cared about.
These weren’t kids that someone out in Minnesota was saying, “Oh, I need to find my daughter.” They had been written off as lost. I’ll tell you exactly what happened. I was sitting at a Missing and Exploited Children’s day with then Senate President Therese Murray who is a big advocate for women, and we saw all these pictures from Molly Bish’s mother — Molly Bish was kidnapped and murdered from Cummings Pond almost 10 years ago now. It’s a while ago. A 16-year-old lifeguard just kidnapped — lost and never found. Who kidnapped her? Who killed her? They found the body and the bathing suit but they never found her murderer. Her mother and father have made it their work to try and end this exploitation.
On that day, there were all these pictures being flashed up there, 12-year-old girls, 14-year-old girls, white girls, Latino, African-American and Terry just turned to me and said, “Where are these girls?” I said, “Terry, some of them are being trafficked.” She said, “Right. We’re going to pass that bill.” I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it was really just getting people to recognize that here is a group of people that have no one to speak for them and they get into the system. They’re exploited. They’re often exploited again when they’re in the criminal justice system and I was trying to do something. Now, we still have work to do. We passed the statute, but bringing the cases [to court] are hard and we often have people now at 26 or 27 [years of age]. People say, “Why don’t they run away? Why don’t they escape?” They have nowhere to go. They don’t have families. They don’t have lives. They don’t have identities. They’ve been stripped of that. It’s a really, really horrific crime and it’s something I’m convinced that unless women and men join us in this fight to say, “We shouldn’t be buying people!” — then we’re going to continue to have this problem.
I know that’s a long answer, but it’s really important that people who care about other people — who understand what happens — particularly to women who, again, often don’t get the education, don’t get the resources, and who get treated doubly bad in the criminal justice system — it’s important for women to stand up for other women.
“What are the tools you have to change the world? I would argue particularly that artistry is one. That you also can be advocates or send a message, create beauty and speak in ways that politicians rarely can or [can] very well.”
I want to know what your next step is. I know that you’re at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I was wondering if you were going to stay there or if you were going to use your experiences to help and train the next generation of politicians/lawyers.
So, a timely question. I’ve actually finished my semester at Harvard. I was there as a fellow for three months. It was a terrific experience and I worked with students and others on — my topic was — how to affect change. What are the things that you need to do to make change? Is it creating legislation? Is it electing people? Is it running for office yourself? We picked a different topic every week and I brought guests in to talk about it. One was marriage equality and I brought in Barney Frank who talked about the battle to get people aware of the unfairness and the discrimination around the lack of marriage equality. Our office played a big role in challenging that in court.
We did a session on raising the minimum wage, which is also a women’s issue since women make less money and women are often the ones who have those low pay jobs and who are also trying to raise families on not much money. And this was not the Governor and it was not the legislature [that made this happen]. It was a grassroots effort that put this on the petition to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts.
We talked about human trafficking, about changing that lens when people saw adult women as consenting adults who chose this as a business to saying, “Wait a minute. These are kids at 12 or 13 who get brought into this life. By the time they’re 27, they’re not really consenting adults. They don’t really have any choices.” It was a terrific opportunity to explore that and get the next generation of college students thinking about what they might do around a whole range of issues.
What are the tools you have to change the world? I would argue particularly that artistry is one. That you also can be advocates or send a message, create beauty and speak in ways that politicians rarely can or [can] very well. I’m glad that you all are doing artwork. As one of my friends said, “If life were simple, we wouldn’t need art.” It’s complicated.
But, it’s a way you all can express ideas, emotions, and it’s so important that we have as many languages as possible to reach people and to give people creative ways to express their ideas.`
I also was working for Channel 5 as a commentator on the two big trials that were going on, the bombing trial and the Aaron Hernandez murder trial. Both those trials are finished, semester’s finished. Actually I’m just starting a new job at a law firm on Tuesday — I’m going to be of counsel at a firm called Foley Hoag and I will do a variety of things. I will be a lawyer and hope to do some more litigation. I like being in court. Some of it will be civil. Some may be criminal.
On the other side, maybe defending people charged with crimes. I hope to teach at BU Law School in the fall. I haven’t figured out exactly what my curriculum will be, but I very much want to stay in law with the next generation of young people — on these ideas about ‘how do you affect change’. How do you stay engaged? How do you bring your community in? There’s a variety of ways you can. Obviously politics is only one way. I came late to politics. I never necessarily thought I would run for office but I wanted to be the DA, that’s the only way you get that job, which is why I ran for that.
I would argue that the world gets change as much by a great poem or a book or an article or a news report or a painting, as it does by all the politicians in the world giving all the speeches that they can give.
There’s other ways — through social media, through communication and civic engagement that I’m excited about bringing people in because this country and this democracy is not going to succeed if people don’t feel that they own it, that they don’t have responsibility for it. That means getting people to either run for office or vote or care about it. Who’s your school committee? Who’s going to be your mayor? Who is going to be your attorney general? Not just President of the United States and the Senate. They’re not doing very much these days from what I can tell. But some of you could move to Medford and run for mayor of Medford. We need a new mayor there.
There are lots of different ways that you can stay engaged and stay involved. That’s what I hope to do as a lawyer and maybe as a TV commentator through working at the law school and just keeping my connections to the Kennedy School. I’m excited about it. I think it’s going to be fun. It’s good to try new things. It’s good to take on new challenges.
I knew I wasn’t going to be the Attorney General again. I had hoped to be Governor and I thought I would be a good Governor, but I’m not so I don’t stay home and cry over spilled milk.
“ I don’t come from a political family. I didn’t have a political party behind me, but I was able to run because people had seen me try cases on television and thought that I was good. That was democratizing.”
We have brought a lot of seniors into our studio in Graphics and we are going to take them to register to vote because they didn’t really know where to go or what to do, so we’re actually going to make a field trip out of it. We’re going to go and have them register because to affect change, you have to be able to — first of all — step up to be able to vote. People I think forget that it’s their duty and their right.
More than that, a lot of people say, “Well, I don’t like either of the two or three people running for office,” but that’s also what happens when people don’t get engaged. Other people don’t find support or your voice isn’t heard, particularly for your generation. You have an opportunity to make some real changes in our communities. What we do about the environment. What we do about being fair to people on low incomes. Why should CEOs make all the money and nobody else make any? It’s not immediately by casting your ballot, but people who run for office pay attention to who votes and I’ll tell you, if you don’t vote, you lose your right to complain about politics. It’s true.
There are countries where people don’t get to vote, where they get killed for trying to vote. If you haven’t seen the movie Selma, you should. It’s a very impressive movie about what happened in the South because white politicians knew that if black voters got to vote as opposed to just on paper, that they may not have the power they had. It’s a very good movie, very moving movie.
The other movie I recommend for all of you is called Iron Jawed Angels. It’s an HBO about women suffragists who … Women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920 in this country. Your husband could vote. You couldn’t own property. In fact, this is 2015. In five years we’ve got the hundredth anniversary of women’s right to vote. There’s a bunch of us who started five years ago — on the 90th anniversary — doing something every year to kind of call attention to it and we showed the movie, Iron Jawed Angels. Women were put in prison because they were marching to get the right to vote. Civil disobedience.
Same idea as in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s for voter suppression and obviously before that.
Women couldn’t own property, couldn’t vote. I say this. I may have said this to your class when you came in that the Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal which means all white men who own property were created equal. When, in the country, you couldn’t vote if you didn’t own property. That is the key. This is the reason why we believe in public education, right?
We want to educate people to read and write so they can be good citizens, so they can understand how to vote and how to make decisions about how communities should be run and how the government should run. If we don’t do what we should do for education, we’re also not going to have a good democracy.
There are terrific books about this, but those two movies are very, very good and very impressive if I think about the ways in which having the right to vote and using it is really key to what this country’s about. It’s the only place in the world really, that allows everybody, by and large, to vote. It doesn’t depend on who your parents are, what color you skin is, what your gender is. It’s not perfect, but this is a country where if you work hard, you still have the opportunities to try and make the most for yourself and your family.
“ So in this day and age where everything is talk, tweet, don’t neglect your writing skills. They’re hugely important. ”
Since we’re all young people and some of us are registered to vote, some us are going to be registering to vote, do you have any advice on…there’s so many resources and Internet and Twitter and all of these things to find your information to vote. There’s TV and the news. Where do you find reliable information about candidates and about issues?
No, it’s a very good question though because one of the problems is there’s so much information out there and it’s not all equally accurate. Just because you read it on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true. On the other hand, a good place to start is with candidates’ own websites. Now, they are going to be advocates for themselves, but at least you get the background on the person delineating what they’ve done, who they are and some of their policy positions.
One pretty reliable source is the League of Women Voters. They’re neutral and they cover candidates, women candidates regardless of party. That’s fine. You may be democrat, you may be republican, I don’t care as long as you vote. You don’t always have to vote for the same party. A lot of people do pick the person that they want to vote for.
Interestingly, there were more women Republican and Democratic governors voted in this last election. Maggie Hassan and now Gina Raimondo are the only two democratic women Governors, but women have made strides, at the local level anyway, in the Republican party. We have one woman running for Governor on the Republican side who’s very accomplished, Carly, and of course Hillary’s running on the democratic side. Carly isn’t polling high right now, but she’s a serious candidate. She’s run before. She ran for governor of California and that’s progress I think. It’s still tough at the Governors level. We still have a smaller percentage in our state legislators and in our Congress and our Senate than we should.
To your question, you have to pick and choose a little bit. I don’t find TV as a very good source of much anymore except reality shows.
But I think, it’s shows like Stephen Colbert that went off and then on HBO there’s a guy named John Oliver. I think he does the best reporting of issues, government overreach and giving people $1,000 tickets for speeding five miles over the limit. He did a great piece recently on how America’s so far behind other countries in providing paid parental leave. He does good reporting. He does it with a sense of humor. He’s very funny. He has this English accent so when anybody speaks with an English accent they always sound smarter than anybody else who’s able to do that.
Well, I’ll tell you one quick story. One of my fellows was a comedian from Egypt named Bassem Youssef and he’s known as the Jon Stewart of Egypt. He’s a physician by training and during the revolution, the Arab Spring, he got on YouTube and he started making jokes and he became very funny and very popular. He also became very unpopular first with the military, the Muslim brotherhood and the military who came in. Very long story short, he and his family had to leave. They’re in Dubai, but he spent a semester at Harvard. His topic — mine was ‘how do you affect change’ — his was ‘the joke is mightier than the sword’.
He said, “In countries where they don’t have a first amendment, the ability to use humor and satire and sarcasm is the only voice they have. Someone asked him, “Can you go back to Egypt?” He said, “Yes, but I won’t be able to work again.” I hope he’ll be able to stay in this country, but you have people all over the world who yearn for our freedoms to say what they think and have these debates and clash and it’s pretty discouraging.
Most people can’t believe how low our voter turnout is when they live in countries like Egypt or other beginning democracies that say people are killed for voting. That’s a little bit of a long way around.
The good news about the Internet though is that you can do a lot of research. If you had a candidate, you can do the Google search. You’ll find articles that have been written about them, newspaper articles and other news sources that can be checked. There’s certainly a lot more information out there than there used to be. Frankly, 50 years ago before television, it was newspapers and it was the party that said if you’re a democrat, you’re going to vote for this guy or that guy. That’s really changed. It’s both opened up for other people to vote. I think it’s made it harder for parties to be consistent, but I think it’s made it possible for a Barack Obama to become president, or Hillary Clinton to run. Or frankly, even for me to run for District Attorney.
I don’t come from a political family. I didn’t have a political party behind me, but I was able to run because people had seen me try cases on television and thought that I was good. That was democratizing.
We are ending these interviews by asking, if you had one bit of advice to give these girls, collectively and individually, what would it be?
Follow your dreams. Actually, find a dream and follow it. Two parts, and this is the time to, and I’m so delighted, you are obviously following things here that you get excited about, but there are a lot of things that make your life complete and it can be literature or music or art. It can be working in a group. It can be running for office. Are all of you looking at going to school, those of you who are seniors? That’s a wonderful time to meet new people, try on new ideas even if you think you know what you believe about something. You’ve all gone to good schools and you’re used to doing that but you’ll have the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds who think differently. Some of them will be very tolerant of other ideas, but the toughest thing is to be tolerant of those who are intolerant. It’s very challenging.
People believe one thing only and it’s hard to be tolerant of that, but you have to at least keep an open mind. But then, you know, don’t be deterred by that. Build your own sense of who you are, your own character. I think you all have great opportunities. I’m hopeful. I’m more hopeful now than I have been in the last 20 or 30 years that there are opportunities now with technology, with recognition that men and women offer different kinds of things sometimes, but equally in that if you can work from home and have kids, you want to have a family, there are ways to do that that weren’t necessarily available to my generation and certainly my mother’s generation. My mother didn’t even have the chance to go to college. My dad worked his way through college, but my mother didn’t, but they wanted all their daughters to have an education.
As you all know, education access, those are huge opportunities that make the difference, so grab them and don’t worry if you get … That first semester in college I got a C+. I’ve never got a C on anything. I was like, “Oh my God.” Don’t worry. No one ever asks you what your college grades are. Don’t be afraid of taking a course or following something, particularly at the college level if you’re interested in it, even if you think it’s not your strength.
Sometimes I think people say, “Well, I have to go to medical school so I have to make sure I have an A average.” Don’t just follow things that are safe or that you know already. Obviously play on your strengths, but also challenge yourself and try on things. You’re all smart. You all have the opportunity to see what you like and what you don’t like. I wish you the best of luck.
I’ll just leave you with one word of advice because running for Governor, I was asking a lot of people, what are you looking for? Because I’m a big believer that computer science and those skills are important for girls too. You sort of are all digital natives, but people who don’t understand software — [for example] coding is going to be like the printing press was for the people who didn’t learn how to read. No matter what you do, a little bit of computer science is huge, just to understand it.
I was speaking to one head though of a technology company and I said, “What do you need? What are you looking for?” I thought she’d say, “Well, I need more engineers. I need more H1 visas, whatever.” She said, “I need people who can write.” So in this day and age where everything is talk, tweet, don’t neglect your writing skills. They’re hugely important. You could be the smartest geek in the world, but if you can’t explain to your coworkers or your boss what you’re doing, you’re not going to be able to communicate.