White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway discussed her thoughts on women’s equality and what it’s been like to work for President Donald Trump during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday.
Conway sat down with conservative commentator Mercedes Schlapp for a question and answer session during the first day of the annual gathering. While 2016 made Conway the first woman to run a successful U.S. presidential campaign, she said she does not consider herself a feminist in the “classic sense.”
“It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly seems to be very pro-abortion. I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion,” she said. “There’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices. Mercedes, I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances. And to me, that’s what conservative feminism is all about.”
Read Conway’s full remarks below.
CONWAY: Good morning.
Well, I thought this was going to be an intimate conversation between you and me and over thousands of our closest friends. Thank you all for being here. We're just so honored to have Kellyanne Conway come join us today in this very special CPAC.
And I want to start by sharing a little bit about yourself. You started picking blueberries in a farm in New Jersey, raised by these incredibly powerful women, your mom, your grandmother, your two aunts.
SCHLAPP: Then you become CEO of a polling company, you worked with Republicans across the board, conservatives, then you become the first successful campaign -- female campaign manager and now counselor to the president.
... what drives you? What drives you?
CONWAY: First of all, everything that you've just said is complete and absolute blessing. You know, women in this country work so hard and not all of them get their shot. And I feel like I worked hard, but I also got my opportunity, which puts in a different category of blessings. I was raised in a house -- I call it South Jersey's version of "The Golden Girls," with the house coves (ph) and everything.
Nobody ever had a single political conversation, by my mom, her mom, two of my mother's unmarried sisters. My father left when I was very young, we have a great relationship now and he certainly does with my four children. But I was raised to be a very strong and independent woman without anybody ever saying the word feminist or having any political conversation.
We just were -- we were taught to...
... be free-thinking, independent, to look at your goals. And that old saying, you could never go home was never true in my community. We always felt like we could go home. And I -- I believe that Donald Trump is someone who is not fully understood for how compassionate and what a great boss he is to women. He has been promoting -- he has been promoting and elevating women in the Trump Corporation -- in the Trump campaign, in the Trump Cabinet, certainly in the Trump White House. It's just a very natural affinity for him. And I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity late in the campaign to work with an incredible team -- I mean, really an incredible team -- to be one of an incredible team, to help him get elected, particularly against a female candidate. And Hillary Clinton should be applauded for her willingness to serve publicly, but I thought it was very telling this year, Mercedes, that many women looked past the commonality of gender and were looking for what they shared in terms of issues, ideology, vision and just what they want out of their futures for themselves.
The work life balance that we all talk about...
CONWAY: ... is not elusive to me. And I don't have any special advice for America's women, except to know who you are and to put your priorities in order and to not worry about the naysayers and critics say. I mean, nobody understands your life, but you. And really struggling as to whether or not to go inside the White House are to stay out. My children were first and foremost part of that decision. They are 12, 12, 8 and 7, four terrible ages.
SCHLAPP: She's got twins, I'm telling you. Twins.
CONWAY: And my 7- and 8-year-old are here somewhere. They're visiting from (inaudible).
SCHLAPP: They're right there. And they're so proud of their momma.
CONWAY: But it -- but what I decided ultimately, is that I work for a man in the White House where that work life balance is welcome. I do think that many of my male colleagues, or all of them don't -- they appreciate the fact that they were raised by moms who either worked or didn't, or worked inside the home or are married to women at the same ilk. But at the same time, it is different a set of considerations for women, and you have to -- you have to put yourself last.
CONWAY: They come first obviously, but they're also so attuned to politics in a way that I never was when I was their ages. They think about -- they think about not just politics, but public policy. They think about their role in the world.
CONWAY: And I would tell my three daughters and your daughters, or you, that the job for first female president of the United States remains open, so go for it.
SCHLAPP: Fair enough.
So there was this big women's march, the Democrats all claim that all women pretty much should be Democrats. I think one of the things you've done very effectively is explain how women belong in the conservative movement. That actually there are -- what I would call, conservative feminism. How would you explain that?
CONWAY: Well, I believe this generation, particularly the younger people don't really like labels. And we don't -- we're not necessarily joiners or liking to label ourselves. And I -- that -- that's great in its own right.
So I don't know about calling yourself a feminist. I also, for me, its difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion in this context. And I'm neither anti-male or pro- abortion, so.
There's an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices. Mercedes, I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances. And that's really clearly...
... what conservatives, feminism, if you will, is all about. My mother didn't feel sorry for herself, she was left with no child support, no alimony at a very young age, with a child to raise, a high school education and she just figured it out. She didn't complain, she didn't rely upon government, she relied upon her own skill set, her own self confidence, her own drive in moxie and her own duty to me and her and she relied upon her family and her faith.
And I believe those are timeless lessons and timeless opportunities for all women in -- in similar circumstances and situations. And I would just say, I mean one thing that's been a little bit disappointing and revealing, is that I hope will get better is, turns out that a lot of women just have a problem with women in power.
You know, this whole sisterhood, this whole let's go march for women's rights and, you know, just constantly talking about what women look like or what they wear, or making fun of their choices or presuming that they're not as powerful as the men around.
This presumptive negativity about women in power I think is very unfortunate, because let's just try to access that and have a conversation about it, rather than a confrontation about it.
SCHLAPP: Now, I will tell you, the conservative women and men in this room, we support you. We support you.
We've got your back, Kellyanne. We've got President Trump's back, as well. Now, you spent time privately with President Trump. We see this public persona of our tough president. How is he in private?
CONWAY: Well, most of the strength and the leadership skills and the decisiveness, the resoluteness that I think this country was craving from its president, from a leader, is the same in public as it is in private.
I find him to be very kind and generous. I find him to have a great sense of humor. I'm genuinely interested in everybody's lives, their own families, their own pursuit, their background, their knowledge.
He's a man who just absorbs information and people and experiences. And I've witnessed him firsthand with his five children, his 10 year old son, his wife Melania, who's just an incredible first lady for all of us, amazing.
God bless her, we're all very luck to have her leadership, as well. And I've witnessed him with his four adult children and his eight grandchildren. He's a family man. He is happiest when he's with his family and that's his -- that -- that really is a happy place for him to be with his family. And so he's very generous, very kind, funny, compassionate.
And people should really think about when they see President Donald Trump, they should think about all the places that he was and could be. All the things he could be doing. The political motivators for many typical politicians of which he's not one, Mercy, money, power, prestige, fame, he had all of that.
And he and his family have sacrificed mightily in those categories for him just to serve. And the idea that he is there because he wants to be there, because he believes in this country, he believes in its people. He believes in its promise, is very liberating and you see that when you're with him privately, you see it publicly. But I find him to be incredibly gracious, energetic, I mean the greatest compliment you can get from Donald Trump is not hey, that's brilliant or that was really smart or great job. It's you're really high energy.
At the campaign, I would tell the young staffers, if you see him coming around the corner, just start doing jumping jacks because...
SCHLAPP: So you're saying if -- so you're saying if they say low energy blank, that's a bad thing, right?
CONWAY: It's a bad thing.
SCHLAPP: OK, got it. We'll just keep out the name.
CONWAY: But he works harder than anyone and he is just -- he's smarter and works harder than any of us and its -- that's very uplifting. You really wanna up your game when you're around him and do your best for him.
And that goes for so many, if you look at the folks in the White House and I know you and your husband served in the White House, met in the White House...
SCHLAPP: It's very romantic (inaudible).
CONWAY: I remember you being pregnant with Viana who I just saw was -- is going to high school. But if you -- if many who work in the White House, you know, so many were faring at gold mines and giving up their own businesses or own lives or privacy, because you want to serve this president and this country at this time, which is very fraught, but it's also very promising.
You know, I try to look at it through the positive side of the ledger. So much is negative these days, its so much as automatic, what can I find wrong in this and a bunch of trouble makers. Frankly, I just think if they looked at it more positively and look at all the promise and the opportunity we have for this country, people feel really optimistic many places where we go.
SCHLAPP: So lemme ask you, how do you believe President Trump has impacted the conservative movement?
CONWAY: Well, I think by tomorrow, this will be TPAC when he's here, no doubt.
You know, every great movement and which the conservative movement is, of course, every great movement ends up being a little bit sclerotic and dusty after a time and I think they need new fusion of energy. And in the case of Candidate Trump and President-elect and Nominee Trump, he went right to the grassroots and brought you along. He -- he made people feel from the beginning, they were part of this movement.
And being part of a movement means you're not just witnessing a campaign externally, which is why I think a lot of activists felt over the years, a different -- a different period of time which is that they're just witnessing history rather than being a part of it.
People felt really fully engaged, they felt like they had a seat at the table from the beginning. And I believe because it was such a tough competition in the Republican primary, he had 17 candidates, most of who made their way through CPAC over the years, that he earned the nomination in a way that was bottom up, instead of top down.
He really replaced this fiction of electability with this revelation of electricity and brought people in. Also, I think Donald Trump because he's not a legacy candidate, he's not a Bush or a Clinton, he's sort of the first candidate of his type that non- politician, true outsider, was coming to shake up the system...
That seems to me to be very relatable and resonant with CPAC, because CPAC you know, the courage that so -- so many of you show in your communities, in your places of work and your places of worship, certainly on your college campuses where you definitely feel like you're in the ideological minority, that -- that that kind of courage, that outsider status, is very much who Donald Trump is. And I believe how he got here and I personally, wanted to come here today as counselor, but also, really as the former campaign manager to thank you for everything you did, for the courage you showed, through the activity...
Whether you stood in line, came to a rally, drove seniors to the polls, got people engaged in a conversation about public policy, we really owe it all to you. Those margins of victories were slim in some of those states. But to have carried states for the first time in decades, was truly remarkable and I think it's a combination of Donald Trump and Mike Pence as the best messengers quality candidates and really, the grassroots to helping deliver in that way.
I just wanted to comment personally, thank you.
SCHLAPP: You mention about the college students, there's so many college students here in this audience.
What's -- what's your message for them to survive in terms of being in these more liberal institutions? How do they get their message out?
CONWAY: Several different ways; first of all, don't live online, live in real time. I'm just astonished how many people live online.
On Facebook, Twitter, texting, e-mails, remember, it's a mode of communication, it is not communication. It's not real life. So step aside, make sure people see something other than the top of your head and live in real time, in the real world.
Have a conversation with people, engage other folks. There are so many people who are out there, who agree with you, or don't realize that they agree with you or want to learn more about repealing, replacing Obamacare or (inaudible) for what it means to have school choice and charter schools, et cetera.
So engage in those conversations. Also, know who you are and possess that confidence and just tune out the naysayers and the critics in a way where you feel like you possess a certain patience and perspective that many of us in the bubble lack.
CONWAY: And recognize also, that four years, eight years, is a long time, it's much longer than the first four weeks. So keep that perspective, join different clubs, start different clubs that don't exist. Go ahead and -- and be bold, write letters to the editor, become a blogger, make your voices known, and -- and be willing to -- to be willing to hear the word, no, more than you say it. You will be rejected, somebody else will -- will get the job you wanted or someone else will be the president of the club that you felt you deserved to be. But don't say the word no.
Opportunity does not always knock twice. You have to make some of your own opportunities and you have to go in and grab those. And also, because I see a lot of old timers like me in the audience, too, so I don't want to -- I don't want to give them short shrift. Thank you for sticking with the conservative movement. Thank you for believing in a set of ideas and principles that are timeless beyond politics, beyond any one political candidate or party, which is far less important, frankly, than the idea that you bring to bear.
Converse with each other, help each other out. I learned so much from our younger staffers, a great deal of technologies, their native tongue, they had these great experiences and great perspectives. And they learn form us. Go ahead and mentor folks and do that exchange of information and ideas. Be willing to have a lunch or a coffee with someone. Don't be too busy for other people is really what I would say, don't be too busy for each other because that is something also today that I -- I find to be incredibly unfortunate.
SCHLAPP: Wise words from the counselor to the president. Kellyanne Conway, we are so honored that she is with us again at CPAC, a regular visitor here.
CONWAY: One last piece of advice?
CONWAY: I have one last piece of advice for women just because I -- I want to tell a story that everybody always begs me to tell, I've been telling it for a long time, some of you may have heard it before. I often, in my career, literally didn't know how to express my value and ask for what I thought I deserved and I had earned. And so, this is a long time ago story that still is enduring to this moment. I remind myself of it almost every day. I was young in my career, my company was a year old. I was a CNN paid political analyst at the time. And somebody called from a speaking agency and said, hey, we have a request from this financial institution for you and Mark Mellman, Democratic pollster, obviously a man, to come and speak to us on September 28th, about the elections. And I said, OK. And the man said, it's September 28, you can each speak for 20 minutes, then we'll take 20 minutes Q&A preview, which we think will happen in the election, and talk to us a little bit about public policy.
I said, that sounds great. It'll be at the Mayflower Hotel, which I can see out my office window. I literally was a block and half from there. They said, what is your speaking fee? And I froze.
I completely froze because for me, even with my law degree at the time, for me free speech was not the First Amendment, it was let's go call Kellyanne, she'll come, she'll talk for free.
And I froze because I knew no matter what I said in return to the question of what is your speaking fee, what are you worth, what is your value to do this, no matter what I said I was going to undercut myself. I was going to be that self-denying girl who grow up in that house of all women, a giver not a taker, and so I froze and I thought, my god, what am I going to say. It's not his fault if I undercut my value. So, having no idea how to assess my value for that particular speech, I took -- I took a line out -- out of "When Harry Met Sally" and I said, I'll have what's he's having.
And the man said -- on the other line, he said 20 years ago, this is 1996, I was 28 years old. I'm 50 you don't have to do the math.
I just turned 50. 50's like the new 49 and nothing better, let me tell you.
I said, (inaudible). He said, excuse me? And I said, well, you said Mark Mellman and I were going to do the same thing, show up at the same time, give the same remarks, so I'll have what he's having. And the man said, in 1996 having never gotten a dollar to give a speech before, he said, well, Mark requested $3,500, would that be. And I said, that'll be fine.
And I hung up the phone and I fell to the floor. I was so excited. So, when in doubt, just say I'll have what he's having.
SCHLAPP: Thank you.