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TRINITY Magazine 2006 | Q&A with Kellyanne Conway ’89

Kellyanne Conway ’89

You dedicated this book to your mother.  Is she your greatest female influence?

Yes, my mother has had a profound and indelible impact on me, mostly through the way she has lived her life rather than based on any one piece of advice or specific experience. She was married at 21, had me at 23, and was divorced by 26. I literally don’t know how she did it. But God has blessed me abundantly in the strong-women-as-role-models department: My two grandmothers were ladies and nurturers beyond compare. They both wore hats to my graduation from Trinity, a memory which remains with me. My three aunts are like mothers and my cousin like a sister.

Was there anyone specific, at Trinity, who influenced your feelings on women’s roles or the lack thereof?

Trinity is teeming with unique women who have survived and succeeded according to their own individual paths, goals and timelines. Sr. Margaret Claydon and Sr. Seton Cuneen devoted their lives to Christ yet have the hipness and energy of cosmopolitan women. Dr. Kathleen McGinnis and Dr. Susan Farnsworth led successful careers and became moms later in life. Dr. Ira Reed is a selfless champion of women whose student-centric way of teaching left an impression. And Pat McGuire is the champion of single-sex education. She is indefatigable, has vision, and does it all not only because she is a woman, but because she believes in women. Then there were my friends and peers at Trinity. We stood shoulder to shoulder and matured into full-fledged women together and continue to share life’s most essential moments. I love and respect them enormously.

How do you describe yourself: A “feminist?”  A “conservative?”

Like 80% of America’s women, I do not consider myself a feminist. This is a decidedly post-feminist era where women eschew labels. Philosophically, I am more a conservative than a Republican. I was raised to be a conservative without anyone in my household ever uttering the word. In fact, we never talked politics. The walls were adorned with pictures of the Pope and the Last Supper, not Presidents Kennedy or Reagan. But we were taught about self-reliance, and the primacy of faith, family and freedom.

You are generally a Republican, yet you collaborated with a leading strategist for the Democratic Party, Celinda Lake.  What was your collaboration experience?  What did each of you offer the other?

Celinda is incredible. She works harder and complains less than almost any woman I know. Over the years, we had been invited to speak on panels together to offer distinct viewpoints or “against” each other in the soundbitten world of television punditry. Yet often we found ourselves nodding in agreement on the data. Data are objective and scientific; where we differ is on strategy and interpretation.

One of our favorite stories is that four years ago, Celinda Lake and I were hired by the Casey Family Foundation to conduct a national survey on attitudes toward foster care. The work was in conjunction with the release of the film, The Antwoine Fisher Story, and a piece of federal legislation co-sponsored by the unlikely duo of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Congressman (and then-Majority Leader) Tom DeLay (R-TX). In collaborating on this book, Celinda and I figured if Hillary Clinton and Tom DeLay could join forces, we certainly could.

What important lesson did you learn from someone “across the political aisle?”

That the word “partisan” has received a bad rap. Celinda and I are “partisans” in that we are true believers. To be a partisan means that one has passion and is loyal to an ideology and perhaps to the issues and individuals who protect and promote that ideology. Thomas Jefferson said “opinion is power” and he was correct.  I may disagree with some of Celinda’s beliefs but I respect her and the honest way she has come to those beliefs and seeks to further them through her professional skills.

Was there one dataset where your beliefs were at odds with Lake’s interpretations, or was it strictly a statistical evaluation?

Datasets don’t lie, but sometimes the people charged with collecting or reporting them do. This is why it is so refreshing to work with Celinda.  Any differences center on the relative importance of any one dataset, or in the “what does it all mean in the bigger picture” context. And those are more a matter of degrees than disagreement.

If women were in control of governmental spending, how would our tax dollars be spent?

Women in the U.S. control 81% of all consumer household decisions; many know how to stretch a buck and search for value. At the same time, women make impulse purchases, donate to charity and in recent years have become even more financially sophisticated, from their stewardship of kitchen table economics to their increased activity in investments and ownership.

If this were translated to the public policy realm, women might spend more of our tax dollars on (to use an old phrase) “butter rather than guns.” Social programs would be well-heeled, perhaps to the detriment of defense spending, but it is dangerous to generalize; it really depends on the women. It may be difficult for some of these women to reconcile their natural proclivity to fund care for the young, elderly, disadvantaged with their reluctance to saddle future generations with costs.

You are the CEO and President of the polling company™, WomanTrend, and one of the most quoted national pollsters.  You are currently on the board of five organizations, and are raising 18-month old twins.  How do you have time for a blog?

The blog, “Reconcilable Differences,” is a labor of love because my husband and I do it together, and for the web site of one of my favorite publications, National Review. It is not a blog in the conventional sense, in that it is not a running commentary or collection of daily musings. I post sporadically and only when I feel I have something valuable to contribute. I’m not a big fan of the blogs that seem more like “A Diary of My Day” as if people should care about what I had for breakfast or if my plane was delayed or my baby potty-trained. The larger question of time management is a vexing and universal one, since time is the most precious and scarce commodity for many women. I have found that if you invest most of your time on the people you love and doing the things that you love, rather than spend it on collateral matters, gossip, distractions and the most ironic time-drainer these days – complaining about not having enough time! – there is plenty of it.

Spoil the ending for us; what is your three sentence finding or summation of the book?

Women are so busy running the day-to-world that they have no idea how powerful they are. Any three women think they could get more done together in a day than Congress can in a year, and they may be right. Women do not view themselves and their lives through a political prism, so these people and processes that try to appeal to them based on “right versus left” rather than “right versus wrong” don’t get it.

The three biggest conclusions from the book are:

  •   Unmarried America will continue to explode, as more women remain single longer out of choice not circumstance. They are deferring marriage and motherhood into their late 20s, 30s and even their 40s and some of them are deleting it from their “to-do” list altogether. Yet, single women are the fastest-growing buyers of homes, technology and other “big-ticket items” that were once reserved for marriage. For some of these women, marrying later allows them to focus on their education and careers and to choose a mate wisely. They are deferring marriage not because they do not take it seriously, but precisely because they do. They would prefer to do it right and do it once, or for some, not at all.
  • Female entrepreneurship is growing at a dizzying pace. Women-owned businesses total in the millions, and this number will continue to increase as many women, finding the traditional workplace to be inflexible and searching for greater fulfillment in their careers, create parallel tracks by hanging out a shingle and setting up a web page.  In our book, 46% of women told us that they would like to own their own businesses. That figure was at or close to two-thirds among younger women, single women and black women. Entrepreneurship is the modern version of the American Dream for many women.
  • “Generational compression” is a term we use to describe a phenomenon in which women are living their lives in a less conventional, linear fashion and more self-designed and mosaic. Take three women who graduated from Trinity 25 years ago. At 47 years of age, one may be a first time grandmother, another may have a child in kindergarten and be pregnant with her second, and the third woman may be single and without children, but with living parents and wildly successful in her career (and generously spoiling everyone else’s kids).  If Madison Avenue or Capitol Hill tries to market to them as “47-year old women” they may miss out on all three. Their choices and situations are distinct. So, rather than view them through a narrow lens based on age and gender, one must take stock of their respective stations-in-life to truly understand and appeal to them.

What message would you like to convey to twenty-something women who feel the glass ceiling limiting them in some way?

Ladies, there has never been a better time to be a woman in the United States of America. Lucky you. We note in our book that the so-called “glass ceiling” has been smudged more than shattered and frankly, in some industries it seems more like unbreakable Plexiglas. Additional laws or cleverly written chapters in company handbooks would eliminate the people who try to put you down, so respond by leaving or outsmarting and outworking and outclassing those few.

We are counting on these young women to help create more “open-collar” workplaces, where the emphasis is placed on completing tasks rather than actually sitting in a cubicle. The traditional workplace is losing women temporarily to motherhood, but permanently to entrepreneurship. In a recent poll of Generations X and Y that we conducted for Lifetime Television, young women said that they believed that a “lack of flexibility” was a more serious obstacle to women in the workplace than “deliberate discrimination.” And with technology as a native tongue, these 20-somethings are our nation’s greatest hope to forging creative alternatives to a 9-5 (now 8-6, really) grind like telecommuting, job-sharing and the like.

Also, I would advise that they look for fairness rather than equality. Fairness is a process; equality a result. The former allows a woman the freedom and self-governance to fashion a result of her own doing, rather than demanding a specific outcome. It is much more rewarding to make your own way.

What surprised you the most from the research you did on stereotypes for What Women Want?

Women are more similar than different in their behaviors, beliefs and aspirations. This is not to say they are monolithic; the book shoots that down as silly and shortsighted. But it does mean that they tend toward consensus and compromise. This could have a positive impact on public policy.

Another big stereotype about women that our data refuted (Celinda is pro-choice and I am pro-life) is on the issue of abortion. It is nearly conspicuous by its absence when women are asked to cite what they feel are the most important issues or challenges facing women. You’d never know that from watching judicial confirmation hearings, listening to candidates, or reading media coverage of politics or public policy. And if too much attention is focused on abortion, it insinuates the women can ONLY focus on their reproduction rather than the myriad issues. It connotes that we can’t do the math so don’t bother to explain your tax and spending philosophy or that foreign policy or prescription drug coverage is too complex for dainty minds so revert to the one thing we might understand. The very prominence of abortion in politics is insulting to women. And the data findings for the book confirm this. There is a difference between caring about an issue, which many women do, and obsessing over it to the exclusion of other concerns, which most women do not.

Did some of the stereotypes you investigated turn out to be surprisingly correct (generally)?

Yes, despite their loose network of support for each other, many of the women in the research seemed to reinforce rather than revolutionize traditional gender roles. They were much more likely to prefer a male boss over a female boss and were more supportive of a female president of the United States in theory than in practice.

And sadly, the notion that women are obsessed with looks and weight was credited through the research. We asked women if they would prefer to be thinner or younger and they chose thinner. In a later survey, I asked women if they would prefer to be younger, prettier, and smarter or thinner, and again, weight tipped the scales. I hope it is because women already believe they are already smart, but the gazillions of dollars we spend each year to lose those last 10 pounds (or is it the Freshman Fifteen?) tends to belie that romantic notion.

Would you like to send your twins to single-sex schools or single-sex colleges?

This is an excellent question that many new parents are grappling with in urban and suburban areas.

Our first preference would be to send George and Claudia to Catholic school. A REAL Catholic school where the children say prayers, are permitted to celebrate Christmas rather than just winter, and learn the type of respect, discipline, community, and self-reliance that such an environment provides. I was “Principal for a Day” at a Catholic school in Manhattan once and I saw one crucifix for every six belly rings in the classroom. Bibles were nowhere because the school did not want to “offend” the non-Catholic students. Hello???

Single-sex education in recent years has received increased attention and credibility because even the most androgynous-thinking parents recognize – drum roll, please – that boys and girls are different. And different hardware and software demands different environments. It allows each to flourish at his or her own pace and according to their individual predispositions and preferences. To anyone connected with Trinity, the merits of single-sex education for women are obvious. A debate on how it helps young boys has emerged, where some experts and parents say that boys who are sometimes told they are too rough or too immature in a mixed-gender environment suffer academically.

Not to rush you, but are you working on another book the world can look forward to reading?

Most of what I write are analyses for clients, but I would like to pen another book. This one will center on how polls are sometimes used to create and manipulate public opinion rather than to measure and reflect it. The examples are hilarious for their obtuseness. And there is a danger, since public policy may be made based on people misled by shoddily constructed and scientifically questionable research. Let’s rip off the secret curtain and instruct people on the good, the bad and the ugly of some polling.

Then, perhaps I might write a sane woman’s guide to an enjoyable pregnancy. It is meant to be humorous. Some in the medical community are driving women nuts about what should be an incredible experience and what is one of the most natural undertakings for women.  With all the tests, classes, warnings, joy has been replaced in part by fear. And if I see one more otherwise sane and intelligent woman take out her Palm Pilot to schedule a C-section that is not otherwise medically necessary… and her doctor book his tee time for right after…

What is on your reading table right now?

The Other Boleyn, Parents’ Guide to Private Schools in Manhattan, Miles Gone By, and at least 10 past issues of The New Yorker and The Economist that I need to finish.

Lastly, what predictions can you leave us with?  How will the roles of women have changed by the year 2025?  Will we see a woman president in the next twenty years?

You must read the book!

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