From left: Managing Editor of TIME Magazine Nancy Gibbs and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill take part in the TIME And Real Simple's Annual Women & Success Event at Park Hyatt Hotel New York on Sept. 17, 2015 in New York City.
Michael Loccisano—Getty Images for TIME and Real S
By Charlotte Alter
September 18, 2015

“I. Am. Ambitious. I have been ambitious for as long as I can remember.”

That’s how Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) answered her first question from TIME managing editor Nancy Gibbs at the Real Simple/TIME Women & Success event Thursday night.

McCaskill said she’s never struggled with the idea of being ambitious, only the practicality of achieving her goals. “It needs to be ladylike to own ambition,” she said, which is the point of the title of her new memoir, Plenty Ladylike.

“Can you imagine a panel of men with the same level of accomplishments struggling over owning that word?” said McCaskill, referring to an earlier panel featuring The Today Show host Savannah Guthrie, author Margo Jefferson and Goldman Sachs Foundation president Dina Powell with Real Simple editor Kristin Van Ogtrop.

“I got news for Savannah Guthrie: She is totally ambitious,” McCaskill said of the anchor’s comment that she hates the word. “She has one of the best jobs in national media, you don’t get there by accident.”

When Gibbs asked what McCaskill would tell her younger self if she could go back in time, the Senator said she would allow herself to show a little more vulnerability. “I think I tried way too hard early in my career to always try to be the smartest and the most prepared,” she said. “I didn’t realize that sometimes I was not slowing down to be vulnerable, and therefore I alienated people at times that it really wasn’t necessary.”

When Gibbs opened up the floor to discussion, one young woman, who identified herself only as a Goldman Sachs employee, stood up to ask a question. “I’ve never said this out loud before,” she said, “but I want to be president.” The woman said she felt embarrassed to tell people.

McCaskill immediately embraced the idea, warned her about some of the drudgery (“You have to call complete strangers and ask them for checks with commas in them.”) and encouraged her to go for it, even offering her own support.

“I want young women to see themselves as candidates,” McCaskill told her. “All you have to do is figure out what you’re going to run for first, and then what you’ll run for next, and then next, and then you’re president of the United States.”

Check out this week’s issue of TIME to read more poll results and insights from successful women on how their own ambitions have changed over time.


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