ORANGE, Conn. — Margaret Novicki is a 22-year veteran of the United Nations, having served in various regions in Africa and as the director of strategic communications at UN headquarters in New York. Upon her retirement in 2017 at age 62 from an eventful, complicated career at the UN, Novicki, an American, ran as a Democrat for first selectman of Orange, Conn., the mayoralty post of her small hometown in New Haven County and long held by a Republican.
It was a grueling experience, she easily admits, that did not succeed, yet her first taste in running for office has invigorated this next phase of her life and could inspire other women to compete in politics.
“As a woman, I was a bit nervous and thought I might not be up to this challenge,” Novicki told PassBlue. “But I found that indeed I was, and that I was more than able to handle it. The campaign helped me define where I might want to go from here, and I am still very intrigued by the possibility of political office.”
Novicki spoke with PassBlue in her home about her career as a journalist and with the UN as she raised a child in the United States and Africa, and the dawning of her political career amid the worldwide quest of women running for office, expressed through such social media hashtags as #runasyouare, #electher and #womeninpolitics.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Q.: Tell me about your career as a woman with the UN in Africa and in New York.
A: I started working at the United Nations in the mid-1990s, after working as an editor of a magazine on Africa, called Africa Report. Kofi Annan of Ghana had just become secretary-general, and I had spent a lot of time in and writing about Ghana. I was just fascinated by the country. So I applied to work at the UN information center [there] and got the job. We tried to promote the UN in Ghana and welcomed the secretary-general to be honored at an exhibition on Ghana’s participation in UN peacekeeping.
But at that time, Sierra Leone and Liberia were in civil wars. When the UN set up a peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, I was asked to help set up the information office there. It was only supposed to be a couple months, but it ended up being two years. I had a small child, a son, living with me and my husband in Ghana. And I didn’t want to leave my son, Thomas, behind. But peacekeeping missions are nonfamily duty stations. After a year, I got permission to bring my son, and he went to an international school that had just opened up.
Family issues are always extremely difficult quandaries for professional women — especially in the international arena. It is difficult to choose between making sure your family will be cared for and taking a job that means you have to leave them behind. After two years, I returned to my original post in Ghana. I was then offered a post in New York with the special representative [SRSG] of the secretary-general for children in armed conflict. I was torn; I didn’t want to move back to New York. But the SRSG felt I had a lot of experience working with child soldiers in Sierra Leone, so I took the job for six months. I uprooted my son and we moved to New York but returned to Ghana after six months were up.
The civil war in Liberia had gotten intense, and it seemed there would soon be a UN peacekeeping mission there too. So I was called to attend the newly appointed special representative of the secretary-general to Liberia for his initial visit. Once they authorized the peacekeeping mission, I was asked to set up the public information component. Again, I found myself torn. My son was in school, and I could not have brought him to Liberia because the situation was too dangerous. I had to choose between going and leaving my son in Ghana or not going.
I went initially for a couple months, to lay the groundwork and be the spokesperson. But time flies in a volatile situation. Everything is urgent. Before I knew it, I was there for a year and the situation had become untenable for me. My son needed me to be with him and I could not bring him to Liberia. So even though I loved my job and peacekeeping and I found the work so challenging and rewarding, I gave it up. My son was the most important thing to me and I needed to be with him.
After working in Ghana for a few more years, I became director of the UN information center in South Africa. It was wonderful to go back, because in my early days as a journalist I had covered the end of the apartheid period. It was so rewarding to serve in the post-apartheid period and see South Africa develop as a multiracial democracy.
Two years later, I got a call from headquarters about a post in New York. But I was enjoying my assignment in South Africa, and my son was very happy there. But my boss was anxious to have me come back. She thought I had the right skills and asked me to apply. I got it, and we moved to New York in 2008, where I stayed until I retired in 2017.
Q. Growing up, did you know you wanted to travel and work abroad?
A: My sixth-grade teacher at the public school in my hometown of Orange, Conn., had traveled all over the world. When there was a major world event, like a moon landing, she brought a television into the classroom so we could watch. She had a bowl of coins on her desk that she had collected on her trips. And if you did a good job on something, she gave you a coin as a reward. But you had to learn about the country the coin was from. She made me aware that there wasn’t just my town or the United States. There was a whole world out there that was interesting and fascinating and I wanted to know more about it.
But in my family, boys were favored over girls. My father was a dentist and encouraged my two brothers to go into medicine. I was very happy for them, but for me and my sister, he just expected us to get married. At that time, girls aspired to education or nursing. In high school, I was very good at languages. So I thought I would study that in college. I found Georgetown University in a catalog and read about the School of Foreign Service. I decided I wanted to pursue an international education and career.
But my father felt I didn’t need to go to such a good school like Georgetown. I had applied to other schools, such as the University of Connecticut, that were far less expensive. He was away when my acceptance letter came. My mother was a traditional housewife. And she knew going to Georgetown was really my heart’s desire. So she did something unprecedented in that age. My mother wrote a check and sent it to Georgetown without my father’s knowledge or permission. When he found out, it was a huge argument, and he told me I still couldn’t go. In the end, I did go, because of my mother’s courage. And of course, on graduation day, my father was super proud of me.
Q. How hard was it in the 1970s and ’80s to break into the male-dominated field of foreign affairs and did you experience sexual harassment?
A: I was assistant editor at the African-American Institute’s magazine, Africa Report, for a couple years, doing the work of the editor because he traveled around Africa often. When he left, I went to interview with someone at the organization that ran the magazine, and I told him: “I want the job. I’m qualified and I can do it.” He looked at me and said, “Well, you’re certainly not lacking in self-confidence, are you, young lady?” I got the job.
There weren’t many women doing foreign reporting in those days, at least not in Africa. I traveled often by myself around the continent to cover summits. I would be the only female reporter, sometimes there was another woman who worked for Le Monde. I was quite shy, and it was difficult for me to speak up in that environment. At press conferences, fighting your way to the front, you’d get pushed and shoved and manhandled in more ways than one. I dealt with quite a lot of sexual harassment over those years. I interviewed so many men. All men who were in power. I can say from the heads of state on down, I was sexually harassed on many, many occasions. Some quite seriously. When I reflect on these moments in the current climate, I can certainly say, “Me too.”
In retrospect, I was pretty brave. I didn’t let those things stop me and I didn’t shy away from any challenge. I did intrepid reporting — I was one of the first American journalists to go to Angola on the government side during the civil war. All the other journalists were on the rebel side, because that’s who the US government was supporting. I went 2000 feet down in a gold mine. I covered Mozambique during the civil war and went to rebel-held territory. I did all kinds of really crazy, daring things. But the subtext of it all was the challenge of being female in this male-dominated field. I was fortunate to have gotten some outstanding jobs and did not feel my gender was a limitation at the UN.
But I do feel that the overwhelming atmosphere in the UN is not gender equal. I’m glad our secretary-general [António Guterres] is serious about it, considers himself a feminist — that’s a first. Women experience gender discrimination at the UN every single day. Many of my staff would come to me about issues with their co-workers. I was an investigator on cases of sexual exploitation and abuse of authority, so I heard stories from across the UN of women who were sexually harassed, some by people in positions of authority. It’s taken too long to have a secretary-general who is committed to gender equality. I am still disappointed we don’t have a female secretary-general, but Guterres is sincere and doing the best he can.
Q. When you retired from the UN in 2017, you launched yourself into a political campaign. Why?
A. When I was nearing my last months at the UN, I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy putting my feet up. I thought about teaching, nonprofits . . . but politics especially. I was quite disheartened when Hillary Clinton did not get elected. But it’s not enough to just put up one woman as presidential candidate. We have to start building our strength as women from the grass roots up. There are not enough women in this country in positions of political power. We need women at every level — Congress and the local levels, not just the presidency. I wasn’t sure how, but I wanted to make a contribution to strengthen women’s role in the political process in the United States.
By happenstance, I was reading our local newspaper and saw an ad from the Orange Democratic Town Committee saying they were looking for candidates for the November 2017 election. I met with the chairperson, talked to a lot of people in town, and the more I thought about it, I thought I could make a difference in this town, as a Democrat. Orange has had a Republican male first-selectman for 12 years. That’s a long time in local politics. I felt my commitment to public service, social justice and experience with managing a large team and budget qualified me. I was still intimidated, but I thought it was a challenge worth tackling. So I threw my hat in the ring.
Q. Although your campaign for mayor was unsuccessful, what are your biggest takeaways?
A. Running a campaign is a tremendous amount of work. You have to keep your morale up, and every day is like running a race. It was extremely scary and intimidating, and I questioned myself. I had never been in politics. It was a complete mind-shift for me. I had to put myself out there and talk about what I believed in for this town and this country. I went door to door to probably thousands of homes. It’s not easy to knock on somebody’s door and say you want to talk to them about why they should vote for you. But I did. And I did three debates against my opponent. He’s run this town for 12 years and he knows the issues. I studied really hard and talked to a lot of people about the issues. I held my own.
In the end, I think the town’s conservative character and lack of voter turnout contributed most to the outcome. However, I did pick up 500 more votes than the last Democratic candidate [and she raised $20,500 to pay for the campaign]. So I feel I made an impact. But low voter turnout continues to be a problem in local elections. People aren’t inspired, and that is unfortunate. If you want change in this world, you’ve got to participate in the process. It’s your civic duty.
My personal takeaway is that I could do it. I was exhausted after the election, and it took me a couple of months to recover from the physical, emotional and mental strain of the campaign. I also walked away knowing there were a lot of people in this town who share my views and dedication and concern. It also helped me define where I might want to go from here. I’m still very intrigued by the possibility of political office.
My colleagues in the Democratic Party here are hopeful I will consider running again for first selectman in two years. Other offices are up for grabs this year at the state level and above. I’m not sure whether I want to do that but a whole new world of opportunities has opened up for me that I didn’t imagine existed a year ago. I was worried when I retired whether I would find something that would be as rewarding as my UN career had been, but I think the political arena might be that area.