IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Top White House adviser: 'You can have it all'

Valerie Jarrett believes women can have it all.
Mika Brzezinski speaks with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, Feb. 20, 2014.
Mika Brzezinski speaks with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, Feb. 20, 2014.

Valerie Jarrett believes women can have it all.

“You can have it all, but not necessarily at the same time,” she told me.

We’re sitting around a table in New York, talking about politics, our families, our daughters, and our careers. And like many women, we’re fixating on trying to juggle it all at once.

As President Obama's senior adviser and a mother herself, Valerie knows this struggle well.

“When I was a young adult, I thought that the women who came before me and fought for equal rights did so that I could do everything that men do and everything that women do traditionally. And that is impossible,” she said. “I spent many-a-days just like barely hanging on by my finger tips!… With maturity, comes the realization that you can’t necessarily do everything and that that doesn’t mean that you’re sacrificing."

And it doesn’t mean Valerie isn’t still doing what seems like everything at once.  She’s out the door at 5:15 a.m.  She arrives at the White House at 5:22 a.m. and hits the gym (where she assures me she watches Morning Joe!) before meeting with the rest of the White House senior staff at 7:45 a.m. on the dot.  She tries to get home before 10 p.m.

“I have to force myself to go to bed and I jump out of bed in the morning, which is a good sign, I think,” she said. “You always have to pursue a career that you care passionately about so that it will not burn you out.”

As a trusted longtime adviser who helped launch Obama's political career back in Chicago, Valerie is known for being a force of nature when it comes to advancing the president’s goals. But she’s more than that: she’s a single mom, a friend, and a mentor who empowers women. 

“When I was a young lawyer, there weren’t very many women who were in the position to be my mentor and so I ended up with men as my mentors,” she said. “I love nothing more than mentoring other women because I didn’t have that.”

Just two years ago, in the president’s first term, a photo of the senior staff adorned the front of the New York Times. Critics lashed out: Valerie’s leg was the only sign of gender diversity.

Now, half the senior staff are women. And as many of my past profiles have shown, there are many talented women in the wings, too.  As a mentor, Valerie works to elevate them.

“There are so many women in the White House who don’t get public attention and recognition for the value they provide the president and the team,” she said. “Throughout my entire life, I have noticed that women never blow their own horn. They just wait to be recognized for their value and they’re busy working hard and doing their job and assume if they do that, that someone will notice.”

Even those who learn to toot their own horn, as Valerie advocates, still struggle with how they’re perceived because of their gender.

I reminded her of the sexist remarks critics have been throwing at Hillary Clinton—the fact that they even think Clinton’s much-litigated affair with Monica Lewinsky would bring Hillary down when they haven’t brought him down.

“The reverse would never happen,” Valerie said. “You take a woman who has proven her own merit time and time again, she should be judged on her own merit…[but] don’t you think that has tended to backfire? I think most of the American people have moved beyond that and they see that women are half the workforce. Women are graduating from college at the same rate as men. They’re graduating from graduate school at a higher rate than men!”

In previous columns, I’ve asked our Women of Value to ‘Pass It On’: to name the woman each would have profiled in their stead, to lift up another. It wasn’t a hard question for Valerie, who came characteristically prepared for the assignment.

“Lynn Rosenthal. Lynn is the first ever point person in the White House whose sole job is to work on eradicating sexual assault. Lynn and I are co-chairing a task force looking at how to end sexual assault on college campuses,” Valerie explained. 

Alright, Lynn, I’m coming for you! 

"Women of Value" aims to profile and lift up some of the incredible women who work in the White House. You can read previous profiles here.