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Former Ambassador Samantha Power On Women's Suffrage And Her New Memoir

United Nation Photo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Flags of member nations at the United Nations Headquarters.

One hundred years ago, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution aknowledged women's right to vote. Over the next year, until August 2020, states including Colorado will commemorate the women's suffrage movement with community engagement, outreach, dialogue and educational events. 

History Colorado is leading the initiative in Colorado, which includes a speaker series called "Bold Women. Change History." Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power will speak as part of this series on Monday, Oct. 7.

KUNC's Colorado Edition reached Power by phone to talk about the meaning of the anniversary, and the importance of women having a seat at the political table. 

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Erin O'Toole: What does the centennial of the 19th Amendment mean to you? 

Samantha Power: First of all, the fact that women have the vote didn't come about by accident — and it's a reminder that when power gets dispersed, or more equally shared, it's usually clawed for and fought for. And so, one thing it means is just a lot of women put an awful lot on the line; a lot of men as well, in fact, supporting those women to make it happen.

And I think it's a reminder today that we have to work for the change we seek. A lot of people are despairing about different aspects of our present and I think there are some lessons we can learn from the people who came out, and just didn't give up. 

What do you see as the importance of women being in the political sphere, and having a seat at that table? 

I had the experience at the White House of being in the minority, and then getting to the U.N. which is one of the most male-dominated institutions in the world. But in both environments, one can create a critical mass of women working on particular issues when that happens.

For example, at the U.N. Security Council I was often the only female ambassador among 15 ambassadors seated on the Security Council. Through rotation at one point, I became one of six women ambassadors, the most in the history of the U.N. Security Council and the most in 70-plus years.  Six out of 15 was the record — I mean, that's not saying all that much. 

But when women were concentrated, and when we were together, I think it changed the tenor of our debates. Not because being a woman dictated our national position, ultimately that's decided by your head of state or by your minister, but because I think we put the talking points aside, there was an authenticity to the debates, there was a tendency to refer back to the comments of other ambassadors – not just other women. And I think we were, maybe, more inclined to emphasize the human consequences of the decisions that the Security Council was making.

And so, I can only speak for my experience; it is just really important, it stands to reason, that 50% of the planet should be represented in all the highest decision-making bodies. It stands to reason that they will then be able to look out for the welfare and the very gender-specific needs of women and girls, they just might have more insight into that than some men. But also there are just qualities that you can't really over-generalize, but that can actually create more inclusive, more respectful, and more productive debates and decision-making. 

What are your thoughts on the current state of diplomacy under President Trump? 

The state of diplomacy under Trump is downright alarming. We have seen some of the most talented professionals in the American foreign service, in our diplomatic corps, leave the government.

I tell the story in my book of a meeting I had, a kind of town hall with my civil servants and foreign servants and other staff just after the November 2016 election. I had expected to be offering them consolation and a morale boost, but instead, what one after the other said to me is ,"Don't worry about us. Yes, we may have been involved in negotiating the Paris agreement on climate change, which we know Trump may soon unravel; yes, we may have been involved in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has pledged to rip up.

But we want to serve our country, and even if Trump appears to be hostile to diplomacy and to international agreements and to peaceful resolution of disputes and to global cooperation generally — we're sticking it out, because we're Americans. We served George W. Bush and we served Barack Obama, and now we intend to serve the future president, President Trump."  

And it has been so heartbreaking for me to see these same determined patriots reach their breaking point. For some it was six months in, for some it was a year and a half in, for some it was just in the last couple months. But the constant disparagement of what President Trump calls the "Deep State," which is so unfair to these very technical, country-specific experts, functional experts, who comprise the ranks of the bureaucracy — to be ridiculed like that, but also just to be excluded, and for their voices and their perspectives on countries, that some of the political appointees know almost nothing about — it just gets to be too much.

Not least, then the insults of our allies, going ahead and ripping up all of these international agreements which are so important to our security and the security of our kids and grandkids. I think some of them just couldn't take it anymore. So, the ranks have been depleted.

The number of people taking the Foreign Service Exam also — so, the people who will replenish the ranks — that number has dropped precipitously. There are still more than 40 countries where the U.S. doesn't even have an ambassador, nearly three years into this administration. So, it's really going to be a very large hole that the next President will have to dig out of. 


The cover of Samantha Power's new book, "The Education Of An Idealist: A Memoir."

Your memoir is titled The Education of an Idealist. Why call it that? And would you still consider yourself an idealist?

I'm definitely still an idealist. I'm an unrepentant idealist. And I think in some ways, that question begs the question 'What is an idealist?' And for me, it has a couple of components.

One: do you like what you see right now? If not, if there's a set of standards and norms and principles that you think America should live by, at home and abroad — that's a set of ideals against which current conduct is measured. I think that's one form of idealism.  

And then the second step in a way is, if you don't like what you see, if your ideals feel like they're being violated or abandoned or breached in some way, do you feel that there's anything you, personally, can do about it. And I think everybody probably these days, or many people, would count themselves an idealist of the first kind.

The question a lot of people have is, "yeah, I would love to do something about it, but what can one person do, really?" I mean, next to the kind of inequality we face, the racial injustice, climate change, the 70 million people displaced around the world.  

And so, the reason I wrote the book that I did was that I wanted to describe my own evolution as I sought to project human rights and promote human rights inside the U.S. government, which — notwithstanding the fact that Barack Obama was the President — historically talks about human rights an awful lot but actually cutting off a government that's using U.S. military assistance to commit human rights abuses.

You know, that doesn't happen all the time. Promoting LGBT rights within the United Nations or looking at refugee applications with an eye to the kind of political or religious persecution people are experiencing and then moving expeditiously to help those people — that doesn't happen always as swiftly as it should, even under very principled leadership, like that which President Obama I think, by and large, delivered over his time in office.

And so, I wanted to show what I learned as I went about trying to navigate that difficult system, a system with a lot of inertia pushing back and a lot of gravity cutting in the other direction, but (trying) to make a difference.  

Even though my book inevitably talks about Boko Haram and LGBT rights and political prisoners in Syria — in other words, a number of foreign policy issues — the spirit of the book is really, one about citizenship as well. How do we conquer our doubts that we ourselves can exercise agency in a manner that makes a difference? And that applies locally; it does also apply globally.

But my own education and evolution was to, instead of wanting to achieve transformational change in an instant, it was to understand how important it was to secure small changes over time, and then to get others enlisted in that cause. So that's part of what I describe.  

I also write the book in a very personal way, describing my childhood in Dublin, my bad romantic decisions, my efforts to get help with my bad romantic decisions in therapy. It's got a lot of humor in it, and again, maybe TMI for some, but I did it that way because, when it comes to U.S. leadership in the world or even the cause of public service more generally, often it's the same kind of community of people talking to each other.

And in writing in a way that I hope is relatable for young people, or people who are young at heart, or people who are wracked by doubt about whether they can really make a difference but really want to, I try to open up my life and my story in a manner that makes that larger cause seem more relatable.

I had noticed when I came back to campus and began teaching again after being away for a decade, that suddenly people were treating me like I had been the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations — and I realized that when I would say, "No, you can do this or that," they would say, "Yeah, easy for you to say. you were in the President's cabinet." And so what I did in the book, is I went back and showed all of those other junctures where I was more similarly situated to the young people today who are thinking about what they do with their lives or what they do with their free time outside of their professional lives. 

They can relate to you as a human being… 

I hope so. I mean, the foibles are real, and they don't stop when you happen to get a fancy job. And the struggle also of being a parent and trying to raise two small children. I happen to be somebody who, when her son stomps off and complains that his mother is on a conference call and isn't paying enough attention to him — when he stomps off, he says "Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin," and that it needs to be "Declan, Declan, Declan instead of Putin, Putin, Putin."

But I think any parent can relate, man or woman, to that tension that we feel as we try to do our jobs right, but also try to be the kinds of parents and partners that we wish to be. A lot of those tensions are laid bare as well.  

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Oct. 7. Listen to the full episode here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.