In the fall of 2002, before the war in Iraq, I followed Condoleezza Rice into the ladies' room at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Summit. Rice was to deliver the keynote address, and I wanted a word with her, no matter the venue.
After an introduction, I told her how proud I was to have a woman in national security, and how concerned I was about what she was doing. She pleasantly and nondefensively asked why. I began my litany of concerns about war and terror, and she responded with confident, positive answers. I don't remember believing them, but I do remember a gesture she used at the end of each answer: She put her arm straight down and, as if smoothing a sheet with her hand, she calmly and intimately said, "You don't have to worry."
Those few words, and that relaxed motion, overtook her answers, giving me hope that maybe - just maybe - the military build-up was nothing more than a way to scare Saddam Hussein into obedience. Perhaps there was another plan, and she was signaling me in the only way she could. Her confident authority and reassuring manner took me in. I told my war-protesting children (who tried not to laugh in my face) about her gesture; I told a few friends. And while at some level I knew better, the memory of that reassuring hand and authoritative voice gave me hope.
Why was I so willing to give Rice the benefit of the doubt? Because I believe in the power of women to bring fresh alternatives to any table. I adhere to the philosophy of my colleague, Claudia Kennedy, retired three-star general and former head of Army intelligence: "Women don't just see things differently; they see different things."
Neither Kennedy nor I believe this out of some essentialist notion that women are kinder and more peaceful. We both know that women's difference is born of different experiences, and a different means by which we gain authority. And this difference is making its way into the fabric of world organizations. Both the European Union and the United Nations have quotas for numbers of women in peace-making and peacekeeping missions. Why? They recognize women as community builders who know the back door to peace, cemented by their bonds as mothers demanding a stable environment for their families. It was women who eventually brokered the peace in Northern Ireland. It is women who hammer away at the scary standoff between India and Pakistan. And as President Clinton said of the failed 2000 Camp David talks between Palestinians and Israelis, "If we had women at Camp David, we'd have an agreement."
President Clinton was right to emphasize the plural. It takes more than one woman to effect change. Without adequate numbers of us for support and innovation, it simply won't work. One woman - be it Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meier - has to "cowboy up," prove she's man enough for the job.
Now Condoleezza Rice has moved from security strategist to diplomat. At her confirmation hearings, she said she wants to be more involved in foreign policy and trade negotiations, that she wants to build and deepen our tattered relationship with our allies. Sounds good to me. Maybe she'll even try to broaden our country's notion about true security in this world - the means beyond bombs, such as education and job security and the eradication of poverty and disease. Maybe she should start by chatting with Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who said that although America's military experience is undoubted, "our ability to understand what exists before and afterward in low-income countries is nearly nonexistent... . We must have leaders who recognize that the problem of the poor aren't trifles to leave to do-gooders, but are vital strategic issues."
Rice will now be our next secretary of state. Wednesday morning, I saw again that reassuring hand, as she took the oath before her hearing. And as a daughter of the civil rights and women's movements, I am moved by her position. Still, I want her to make good on her promise to me. And I know how hard it will be because she is just one woman, surrounded by the manliest of men. This time, I worry.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World (Viking/Penguin, 2004).