25 Famous Female Leaders on Power

“It’s not about equal rights, it’s about how we think.” —Beyoncé Photo: Getty Images

For many, Hillary Clinton’s loss will never cease to be devastating. She said it best in her concession speech: “I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling. But someday, someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.” While that truth is still painful to process, the good news is that a diverse group of female leaders did make history in this election — women like Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator; Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman with a seat in the House of Representatives; Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American legislator; Stephanie Murphy, the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress; and others.

Because a new kind of fight is just beginning, we looked to 25 women for thoughts on power — how to define, attain, wield, and share it. Read on for collected wisdom that seems even more vital now after the election — from Michelle Obama, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Condoleezza Rice, and more.

Condoleezza Rice

“Power is nothing unless you can turn it into influence. When people talk about management style, they’re really talking about how someone uses power. I’ve been in positions where I had to be heavy-handed, and I’ve been in positions where I needed to bring people together and persuade them …But sometimes you have to make difficult decisions, and you have to make them stick.” —Oprah, February 2002

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

“For both men and women, the first step in getting power is to become visible to others — and then to put on an impressive show. The acquisition of power requires that one aspire to power, that one believe power is possible. As women then achieve power and exercise it well, the barriers fall. That’s why I’m optimistic. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be even more women out there doing things — and we’ll all be better off for it. Certainly today women should be optimistically encouraged to exercise their power and their leadership skills wherever it might take them.” —The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, April 2004

Oprah Winfrey

“The truth is, I try not to let other people define for me whether I have power or don’t. I ended the show, and then there were a whole bunch of people who said, ‘Oh, you don’t have power anymore.’ But the truth is, I know who I am, and the thing about power for me is that it’s connected to a source that’s obviously greater than myself. Any time you can connect to the source and understand that that’s where all of your energy, your creativity, your joy, and your triumph come from, I consider that to be authentic power.” —Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, February 2013

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“People ask me, ‘When will you be satisfied with the number of women on the court?’ When there are nine. For most of the country’s history, they were all white men.” —CBS Sunday Morning, October 2016

Indra Nooyi

“Just because you are CEO, don’t think you have landed. You must continually increase your learning, the way you think, and the way you approach the organization. I’ve never forgotten that.” —Fast Company, April 2011

Madeleine Albright

“When I was secretary of State, there were only 13 other women foreign ministers. And so it was nice when one of them would show up. For instance, she is now the president of Finland, but Tarja Halonen was the foreign minister of Finland and, at a certain stage, head of the European Union. And it was really terrific. Because one of the things I think you’ll understand. We went to a meeting, and the men in my delegation, when I would say, ‘Well I feel we should do something about this,’ and they’d say, ‘What do you mean, you feel?’ And so then Tarja was sitting across the table from me. And all of a sudden we were talking about arms control, and she said, ‘Well I feel we should do this.’ And my male colleagues kind of got it all of a sudden. But I think it really does help to have a critical mass of women in a series of foreign-policy positions. The other thing that I think is really important: A lot of national-security policy isn’t just about foreign policy, but it’s about budgets, military budgets, and how the debts of countries work out. So if you have women in a variety of foreign-policy posts, they can support each other when there are budget decisions being made in their own countries.” —TEDWomen 2010, December 2010

Emmeline Pankhurst

“Women are very slow to rouse, but once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible. And so this ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ which is being used against women today has failed.” —“Freedom or Death,” November 1913

Elizabeth Warren

“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu. Washington works for those who have power. And no one gives up power easily, no one … Nobody’s just going to say ‘Women have arrived and let’s just move over’ …We have a chance but we have to fight for it.” —Mother Jones, September 2014

Nancy Pelosi

“When I decided to run for leadership, people said, ‘Who said she could run? Maybe you could just tell us some of the concerns that women have and we’ll make some changes around here.’ And I thought, You’re not catching on … Power is not influence. You have people that’ll have these magazine articles that will say ‘The 100 Most Influential People in the World’ and I’ll look at it and think, That’s interesting. That’s influence. That’s not necessarily power. Power is when you have the power, the ability to make change. Influence is important in making change, but power is where you have the tools and the capacity and the opportunity to do so. So being Speaker of the House, that’s real power.” —The Washington Post, July 2016

Sheryl Sandberg

“I know that for many women, getting to the top of their organization is far from their primary focus. My intention is not to exclude them or ignore their valid concerns. I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all. More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women.” —Lean In, March 2013

Gloria Steinem

“We’ll never solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinity of wealth.” —The Chicago Tribune, April 2003

Mary Barra

“Wherever you are in your career — your first position, or a manager, or even an executive — you have to be ready to stand up for yourself. But, it should be done in a firm but respectful way. Always remember, respect is earned. Learning to read the situation is also important. Most of all, never waver on integrity. If someone calls you bossy because you didn’t let them push you around, so be it.” —Refinery29, February 2015

Anna Wintour

“It’s very important to take risks. I think that research is very important, but in the end you have to work from your instinct and feeling and take those risks and be fearless. When I hear a company is being run by a team, my heart sinks, because you need to have that leader with a vision and heart that can move things forward.” —WWD CEO Summit, October 2013

Amy Poehler

“I have these meetings with really powerful men and they ask me all the time, ‘Where are your kids? Are your kids here?’ It’s such a weird question. Never in a million years do I ask guys where their kids are. It would be comparable to me going to a guy, ‘Do you feel like you see your kids enough?’” —Fast Company, June 2015

Tina Fey

“Well, trying to be a leader in a sort of very atypical workplace like Saturday Night Live forces you to realize that no one wants you to be their leader. If you can help them get their thing on TV or whatever, they want that. But no adult is looking for a role model … I learned, if you are ever in a position where you are asserting yourself as the boss, you’re dead. It’s like, if you’re ever in a restaurant saying, ‘Do you know who I am?’ No. The answer is no. ‘I’m the mom!’ Like, no. You’re already dead in the water.” —The New York Times, April 13, 2011

Shonda Rhimes

“I’m in a position of power where I run this world and handle this situation … If I’m going to make a crazy decision, then I better be damn sure. Because it’s not like anybody’s going to tell me, ‘You can’t do that.’” —The New York Times, May 2013


“Women have to work much harder to make it in this world. It really pisses me off that women don’t get the same opportunities as men do, or money for that matter. Because let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define our values and to define what’s sexy and what’s feminine and that’s bullshit. At the end of the day, it’s not about equal rights, it’s about how we think. We have to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves.” —Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream, February 2013

Melinda Gates

“To me, empowerment means if a woman has her voice and her agency. Can she say what she thinks needs to be said in any setting? Does she have the agency to make decisions on behalf of herself and her family? If you sit on a corporate board and you don’t think you can voice what you’re seeing on that board or in that corporation that is wrong, then you don’t have your voice … When a woman in the U.S. gets on a corporate board, when there’s one of her, she’s not going to make a change. When there are two or three, then she has agency and she has her voice because there’s a power in the collective. Then they get the other men on the board with her who are also saying, ‘Hey, we’re seeing the same things,’ and they come forward as a group. There’s a power in the collective of the group. Men have had these natural networks for a long time. Women have tons of social networks, but it’s not until you get them together, and get them together in the right way, that they give women their voice and their agency.” —The Cut, May 2016

Michelle Obama

“For me, this issue has always been personal. See, back when I was a girl growing up in a working-class neighborhood, most of the folks I knew — including my parents — didn’t go to college. But with a lot of hard work — and a lot of financial aid — I had the chance to attend some of the finest universities in the country. And I can tell you that education was everything for me. It opened doors. It gave me the confidence to pursue my ambitions and make my voice heard in the world. For me, education was power.” —Playbill, November 2016

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

“I have a style that is Sonia, and it is more assertive than many women are, or even some men. And it’s a style that has held me generally in good stead. There’s nothing wrong with being a little bit quieter than me or more timid than me, but if you’re doing it all of the time and not waiting for the moments where you need to be more assertive and take greater control, then you won’t be successful. And I don’t think I would have been successful if I didn’t know how to soften myself and tone it down at important moments.” —Der Spiegel, April 2014

Yuri Kochiyama

“Remember that consciousness is power. Consciousness is education and knowledge. Consciousness is becoming aware … Consciousness-raising is pertinent for power, and be sure that power will not be abusively used, but used for building trust and goodwill domestically and internationally. Tomorrow’s world is yours to build.” —“Consciousness Is Power,” November 1995

Malala Yousafzai

“Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward. When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” —The Boston Globe, September 2013

Loretta Lynch

“I think sometimes women face the very real risk of not being seen, and not being heard, and so that’s why I always tell young women, make yourself seen, and make yourself heard — this is your idea, this is your thought. Own it, express it, be the voice that people hear.” —The Washington Post, September 2016

Christina Tosi

“I have worked my way up in the food industry being strong and steady about who I am as a person, first and foremost, as a chef and professional, and certainly as a woman. It’s great to see the females on the show light up when they see a female judge walk in, but I’ll tell you, I’m just as tough on them in the kitchen as I am on any male home cook, that’s how I lead at Milk Bar and my view as a chef. Skill, technique, humility, and integrity as a person is what will get you anything and everything you strive for in life.” —Elle, April 2015

Toni Morrison

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’” —Oprah, November 2003

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