I've interviewed Rice and Lagarde, and young women (including those who disagree with them) have much to learn from these leaders.
FORTUNE — Condi Rice didn’t shy away from tough war-on-terror talk when I interviewed her on stage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in 2009. She pointedly warned congressional Democrats calling on President Obama to bring US troops home: “If you want another terrorist attack in the U.S., abandon Afghanistan.”
Most of the women listening that day were skeptical—and some downright hostile–to the Iraq war and other foreign policies pursued under Rice. And it’s a safe bet that her blunt Afghanistan declaration would not have survived an up-or-down vote with this crowd.
But when Rice finished, some 400 of the most successful women on the globe rose to their feet and gave her a standing ovation. Moral of the moment: Truly influential people aren’t afraid of opposing views.
It’s a moral that ambitious students on today’s elite campuses should consider. How tragic that graduating students at Rutgers University, especially young women aspiring to break career barriers, won’t hear Rice’s advice on Sunday. Protesters labeling her a “war criminal” put a stop to to that.
Likewise, this week IMF chief Christine Lagarde—who shared her own remarkable rise at the Fortune MPW Summit last October—pulled out as Smith College’s commencement speaker when faced with a growing protest from students and faculty.
Both Lagarde and Rice said they didn’t want to mar the celebratory spirit of graduation day—in other words, ceremonies with heckling protestors trying to shut them up. Earlier this spring, Brandeis University’s president took the initiative himself—reneging on awarding an honorary degree to Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman’s rights activist critical of fundamentalist Islam.
Thus, three of the most remarkable women alive—each of whom applied personal courage, resilience and vision to reach unexpected heights—have been muzzled by today’s college PC police.
Rice, a black woman who grew up in the segregated South, applied relentless personal discipline to reach the top of government. She also became a concert pianist who would go on to duel musically with Yo-Yo Ma and play solo for the Queen of England. Rice’s nuanced war-on-terror views, moreover, run deeper than just deploying American military power. “I think societies that treat women badly are dangerous societies,” she told Fortune in 2009.
The Smith College students who don’t want to hear Lagarde in part because the IMF supposedly “represses” women will miss the life advice she loves to offer young people. That advice grows out of her own arduous rise to power. As a young law school graduate, doors were closed to her. “We’ll take you as an associate,” she recalled being told by one firm. “But don’t expect ever to make partnership…because you’re a woman.”
Lagarde, whose dad died when she was 16, had taken up synchronized swimming in the late 1960s when an earlier generation of protesters closed down French schools. The competition served her well in life: “On sert les dents et on sourit,” she likes to say. Bite the bullet and keep smiling.
“If you fail somewhere,” she explained during our interview, “bounce back, get on with it. Have a few drinks or whatever. But move on. Don’t feel sorry about yourself. Don’t lose confidence.”
In her Brandeis speech, Hirsi Ali had planned to explain a jihadist mentality that led to last year’s Boston Marathon bombing. That was a message that the university administration – under pressure from 87 faculty condemning her views as “virulently anti-Muslim”–didn’t think its students could handle.
I haven’t interviewed Hirsi Ali, but I’ve met her and read her books. What stands out more than anything: Guts. As a girl, she was brutally beaten by a religious instructor, survived female circumcision, and escaped an arranged marriage. She went on to become a Dutch legislator, drawing death threats for criticizing a brand of Islam she once devoutly embraced. Are her views on Islam controversial in religious-tolerant America controversial? Yes. Do she deserve a hearing? Yes. Does her difficult triumph over tragedy offer lessons for today’s (by contrast) mostly coddled college students? Absolutely.
Lagarde has a saying she likes to share with audiences that include young women: “Dare the difference.” By that, she means don’t try to be like men. Be a woman, and be comfortable in your difference from the norm. Campus censors would do their students a favor by applying the same motto to speaker invitations.