Three women sat around a table last night in the New York Public Library and debated the hot and highly contested question: “Can women have it all?” These weren’t three ordinary ladies whispering upstairs in the reading room. They were on stage before an audience of more than 500. And the library’s auditorium was at maximum capacity with good reason. New Yorkers were there to see Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman on the Supreme Court) and Madeleine Albright (the first female secretary of state) in a conversation moderated by Anne Marie Slaughter (the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, but most recently famous for her controversial 2012 article in The Atlantic on the very question of having it all).
Slaughter seemed starstruck in the company of O’Connor and Albright. In the first minutes of the event, she told O’Connor that she kept a photo of them together on her desk, snapped when they first met in the mid-’90s. She also recalled growing up in Virginia as a student interested in foreign policy, at a time, she told Albright, when “it was almost unimaginable that a woman could be secretary of state.”
O’Connor, with white hair coiffed and wearing a purple blazer, was snarky and at times quite blunt. To the great surprise of the audience, she even interrupted Slaughter at one point, telling her they were out of time (which they weren’t). Albright, on the other hand, stole the show. Wearing one of her signature pins and telling colorful stories about her days in diplomacy and her path to the State Department, she was also considerably more forthcoming in speaking about what it meant to be a woman in government when there were hardly any.
“People didn’t think a woman could do it,” she said. “I did the carpool, befriended their wives, had them over for dinner, and [the men] thought, ‘Well, how did she get to be secretary of state?'” She also discussed the importance of women learning not to take arguments personally. “Men fight and they go have a beer,” she said. “Women think, ‘Ah, he doesn’t like me.'” Both women said that they had to be aware of their position as constant role models for women worldwide, and that they had to “do it better than anyone else,” as Albright put it, “so we didn’t screw it up for everyone else.”
So do they think women can have it all? Considering Slaughter’s article, the question was hardly surprising. Albright chimed in quickly, saying that she didn’t agree with Slaughter’s claim that women can’t. “I do think women can have it all,” she said, “just not all at the same time.” Though she spoke about the importance of her family, O’Connor did not answer the question.
But despite her reserved demeanor, the retired justice did seem fully conscious of the trail she has blazed. “I visited the court today, and I sit there and look up at the court and see three women,” she said, “and it takes my breath away.”