Everything You Didn’t Know About Samantha Power AKA The Coolest Irish Woman You’ve Never Heard Of
Next week, Samantha Power will take to the stage of the Abbey to deliver a lecture on TS Eliot. Sophie White explores the myriad ways she inspires us (and makes us feel ever so slightly inadequate)
If I didn’t loathe the phrase girl crush I might employ it here, I even played with some variations for the occasion of fawning (in writing) all over former US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power. She’s our latest Fem Fancy? Woman Want? Wow Woman? Look, she has a damn Pulitzer, I’m under a lot of pressure here.
Power was born in 1970 in Dublin before emigrating with her mother, a medical doctor, in 1979. The nine-year-old Power settled in to her new life Stateside and in the four decades since has risen through the ranks of American cultural and political life to become one of the most powerful women in the early 21st century.
The accolades are numerous and top shelf. Time named her in the top 100 influencers in the world in 2004 after the publish of her first book A Problem From Hell which saw Power win the Pulitzer at 33 years of age.
Her ascent appears to be motivated as much by a drive to excel, as a need to do good in the world. After completing her studies at Yale university in the early 90s, Power became a war correspondent, reporting on the Yugoslavian conflict for The Boston Globe, The New Republic and The Economist during her 20s.
In conversation with the actress Amy Adams she explained how she came to then study Law at Harvard Law School.
“It seemed to me that it maybe would be more efficient to be inside the institution trying to secure those better outcomes, those more noble outcomes than to be on the outside throwing darts at US officials which had been my tendency.”
Her work as an academic and activist meant that Power could offer insightful perspective of the problem of genocide and America’s response to such events. Her first published work which she edited and compiled in 2000 after achieving her JD was called, Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact and highlighted Power’s ongoing engagement with activism. Her first book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, grew out of a paper she wrote while attending law school. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize in 2004.
In 2005, Power began working in the office of then U.S. Senator Barack Obama as a foreign policy fellow and adviser to the senator.
“When I met Barack Obama, I felt here was a real kindred spirit. When I met him and began working with him I had no idea that he’d be the president, ever. I just thought he’s be a great thought partner. He was very creative and prepared to break with taboos in the US foreign policy establishment. I ended up inside the White House and then inside the American Cabinet advocating many of the same positions that I advocated from my career as a human rights advocate and as a writer.”
As a staunch early supporter of Obama, it was no surprise that Power became a big player in his 2008 presidential bid acting as senior foreign policy adviser before having to unexpectedly resign when unfortunate comments she made ‘off the record’ about Hilary Clinton became public knowledge.
“She is a monster, too — that is off the record — she is stooping to anything,” she told the Scotsman in March 2008. “If you are poor and she is telling you some story about how Obama is going to take your job away, maybe it will be more effective. The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive.”
Power publicly apologised and after Obama’s presidential win, appeared to bury the hatchet with Clinton, working closely with her as a part of the State Department Transition Team.
That same turbulent year, Power married the Law professor, Cass Sunstein in Waterville, Co. Kerry and went on to have a son, Declan born in 2009 and a daughter, Rian in 2012. Just one year after the birth of her second child, Power became at 42, the youngest person to be appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
During her tenure with the UN, Power soon emerged to be a creative and passionate force in the world of diplomacy and human rights.
Power, describes in a Time interview with actress Amy Adams, taking 17 ambassadors –a mix of representatives from progressive nations and some from countries who criminalise homosexuality – to see Fun Home, a Broadway musical about a woman coming out. “How do you cross boundaries that seem impenetrable and how do you make people forget that they are a country and remember that they are a person?” she ponders, describing the power that storytelling sometimes holds over traditional diplomacy, in helping people to identify with the issues affecting others.
In the same interview, Power also describes the pressure to appear composed even when describing the atrocities facing so many around the world.
“How do you keep your emotions in check? It’s not my strong suit!” jokes Power, in what is possibly a rueful allusion to her past outspoken tendencies.
“As a woman there’s a real premium on keeping your emotions in check. A plane gets shot out of the sky, as happened in Ukraine and these kids are on board, caught up in someone else’s war and I get choked up about it. My thought bubble is ‘ugh don’t do that, you’re the only woman on the security council, the one thing you can’t do is cry.’ But then part of me is like ‘why is nobody else crying?’”
“My style in diplomacy is my style as a human being—I’m very direct and very honest,” she told the Atlantic.
Power is also a mother of two young children. Balancing motherhood with a job that concerns global events must be incredibly difficult, but Power says it informs her work in meaningful ways. “It’s not ideal to always be one eye on the blackberry, and two arms around my children,” she says. During her tenure in the UN, Power used her time in the mornings to connect with her children, reading Harry Potter in the car during the morning drop off and generally aiming to focus on the positives of her career. “For the sake of mothers out there who don’t have the blackberry but do have the children and are hoping someone will be raising their voice on their behalf, it’s a great privilege. It’s a 24/7 job and the privilege of a lifetime.”
Since concluding her role with the UN, the Trump circus has exploded and Power has returned to Harvard to resume her lecturing and is working on another book. In a recent interview with the Irish Times, Power was her usual straight-talking self:
“To have such power in the hands of somebody who seem[s] so uncurious about the world around him and so lacking in empathy… People said during the campaign – he used to be a Democrat, he doesn’t really believe [in these things], he’s just a hack, an actor, a performer . . .but he is way more divisive and more of a purveyor of hate towards different groups and trying to pit different parts of American society against each other than I expected.”
With the world’s superpower becoming ever more disintegrated and divided, it seems we are as in need of Power’s unflinching honesty, intellect and compassion as ever. At 47, surely running for public office wouldn’t be out of the question? Watch this space, perhaps.
Visit The Abbey Theatre for more information on the T.S. Eliot Lecture with Samantha Power, with introduction by Bob Geldof and Q&A afterwards with Fintan O’Toole.