WASHINGTON - During the 2012 Missouri Senate race, Republican Todd Akin suggested that Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill wasn't being "ladylike" because she was "very aggressive" and "came out swinging" in one of their debates.
McCaskill is trying to help redefine what it means to be ladylike. In a speech Friday to college students in Iowa, she will tell women that speaking out, being strong and taking charge are all "very ladylike" attributes.
"We need to speak much different words to young women today," McCaskill will tell the Iowa students, according to an advance copy of her speech.
McCaskill's remarks, set to be delivered at Iowa State University, are part of a broader effort — led by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, who recently launched a "Ban Bossy" campaign — to encourage young girls to take on leadership roles.
McCaskill said Sandberg asked her to be part of her campaign to change the way Americans talk about young women and girls who might one day be corporate CEOs, political bigwigs or other kinds of leaders.
Sandberg has sparked significant controversy with her efforts. Her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, urges women to be more aggressive and ambitious at work — and not to pull back at the office when trying to balance family and a career.
Sandberg's latest campaign — "Ban Bossy" — seeks to stop negative messages that discourage girls from speaking up and leading.
That has sparked criticism from those who say being "bossy" doesn't equate with leadership. It's more a description of someone who is abrasive and dictatorial rather than someone who is strong or influential, sociologist and author BJ Gallagher argued in a recent Huffington Post op-ed.
McCaskill was eager to join Sandberg's effort. "I think what's she's doing is great," McCaskill said, adding that boys who are "assertive and aggressive get an attaboy," while girls are told they're being too "bossy."
She said her goal is to convey the message "that ambition and taking risks should be part of our feminine personality." She wants to encourage more women to run for public office.
In her prepared remarks, McCaskill doesn't refer to Akin's remark in 2012, which sparked outrage among female voters in that campaign. It was a similar comment from McCaskill's eighth-grade teacher that really stung, she says.
"Claire, you talk too much, you are too bossy, you come on too strong. Young men will never be interested in you," McCaskill says in the speech, recounting her teacher's admonition. "And besides, it's not ladylike."
Things are clearly much better today, McCaskill says, but girls are still discouraged, often through seemingly innocuous comments and chauvinistic perceptions, from becoming powerful players whether in business, politics or other arenas.
McCaskill offered up six lessons in her speech that she says "women need to take to heart" as they step into leadership roles.
Her tips include: Don't take yourself too seriously, don't play the victim, and don't be afraid to offend someone.
Too many women have the "disease to appease" and want to "make everyone happy," McCaskill says in the Iowa speech. "You have to be willing to offend in order to make progress."
She urges young women to be motivated by setbacks and insults, recounting a comment she got when she was knocking on doors in her first political race for the state Legislature.
After a man answered the door at one house and she delivered her campaign pitch, "he looked me up and down and then said, 'Well, you're too pretty, you're too young, your hair's too long. They'll eat you alive in Jefferson City. You should not be in politics. Go find yourself a husband.'" Then he slammed the door.
"That slammed door has been a huge motivation in my life," McCaskill said, urging her audience to "find your own slammed door that will push you to achieve great things."