“The conversation at the time was the same as the one today,” renowned journalist Soledad O’Brien told a gathering of about 250 girls ages 13-22 and a few women about the difference between the campaign to give women the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. “Who is an American, who can vote?”
These are the same questions being debated today, O’Brien explained, presumably eluding to recent voting rights policies and judicial rulings in this lead up to the 2020 presidential election. “We don’t really give people unfettered access to vote,” adding, “We should have a national holiday to vote,” which others have suggested as well.
O’Brien, former anchor on CNN and MSNBC who now has her own production company, Starfish Media Group, spoke at the culmination of the Girl Up Summit at the National Archives last night at an event commemorating the Archives’ exhibit “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” on the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. She was interviewed by Eva Jones, of Hood River High School in London, England who is a Girl Up advisor. Girl Up was founded by the U.N. Foundation.
“Someone has to be first” to clear the way
When Jones asked O’Brien about Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and the women running for president today, O’Brien said, “It always takes somebody to be first, to go through with a machete and plow the way…clearing the land behind them,” adding, “I don’t think you would have a Kamala Harris if you didn’t have a Hillary Clinton first.”
The women running today also learned from Clinton’s experience on the campaign trail, including what she did and did not do. For example, O’Brien makes a deliberate effort to connect directly with the audience and be more accessible, hence you see Warren doing her own social media, including with her dog and doing everyday stuff unscripted.
“Women are leveraging their power today”
In the past, O’Brien said, women did all the work and yet still had to rely on other people, for example, on men to vote for them until the 19th Amendment became law, or relying on the media to cover the work women were doing, neither of which happened. Today, “women are leveraging their own power.”
Women are not being given enough opportunities to lead, O’Brien stressed, including in journalism, which is borne out by the data from the Women’s Media Center’s Status of Women in the Media 2019, which found that Men receive 63 percent of bylines and other credits in print, Internet, TV and wire news. Women receive 37 percent.
As she talks about the need for more voices to be heard, O’Brien decided to track the diversity of the guests on her current show, “Matter of Fact” on Hearst TV, and noticed that tracking made them intentionally book more guests from divergent backgrounds and points of view.
“You can’t run around feeling discriminated against”
Giving advice to the girls about how to deal with discrimination in the workplace, O’Brien said, “you can’t run around feeling discriminated against” and get anything done. Instead, she told them to “put on your steel face, gird yourself and do the best job you can.” This applies to women at any career stage as well.
She also advised the girls to focus on what they can do, not on what they cannot do, and to find workarounds to the obstacles. This is a characteristic of all the women innovators I’ve interviewed for my podcast and/or this Forbes blog, including O’Brien. They find another way, which increases their ability to innovate.
Work where people “see a vision for you that you see”
O’Brien’s parting advice to the girls in response to their questions, O’Brien shared her own experience when she realized she had to leave CNN.
Being told by the new CNN president that there was no longer a place for her there as the anchor she had been for years was both painful and refreshing, she explained. It was refreshing because the new president was being honest with her instead of dragging her along under false pretense, she explained, as is typical.
From that experience, she learned that, “You never, ever, want to work in a place where people don’t see a vision for you that you see.” She left CNN and formed her own production company with her husband.
One of most poignant moments was when she talked about learning from her guests. She said she has learned to “make space for people and really listen to them.” She said it’s important to let people talk uninterrupted, “that’s where the nuggets are.” That’s where the connection is too.