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Reese Witherspoon Empowers Women to Be the Hero of Their Own Story

Reese Witherspoon doesn’t dislike the word likable. The actress who started making movies when she was 14 and won an Oscar when she was 29 just considers herself to have closed the door on roles where she is mostly sunny and likable.

“I felt very lucky to be in the room and to be in control to a certain degree of the characters I was playing,” Reese, now 42, told the audience of 7,500 at the Texas Conference for Women in November. “But as I got older, I had enough of staying in my lane, in a place that felt comfortable for everybody and was someone else’s definition of what makes a woman likable. Women are complicated. They’re complex. They’re dynamic. Those are the women I want to see on the screen.”

On the other hand, a word that Reese is embracing more and more these days and thinks all women should, too, is ambition. 

“Ambition is not a dirty word!” she said. “We have to reframe this idea that ambitious women are selfish. They aren’t out for themselves. They are out for their family, their community, their schools, businesses that help those areas, government—that’s what ambition in women is.”

Here, more highlights from her conversation on the main stage with “60 Minutes” correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi:

Becoming an entrepreneur and self-funding her company for the first five years

“It was terrifying. I had to go out and find people who would sit down with me and help me put together a business strategy and hire the right people…. But women are natural leaders and organizers and they don’t even know it. I didn’t know what my skills were till I had to dig deep and employ them.”

How women should be more like LeBron James

“It’s interesting how even accomplished women learn how to tone it down. [Unlike us,] LeBron James doesn’t say, ‘Sure, I’m good at dribbling, but I’m only okay at scoring.’ He says, ‘I’m the greatest!’ That’s the attitude women should have.”

Breaking stereotypes and being the hero of your own story

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who hasn’t been told they couldn’t do or accomplish something because of x, y or z factor—and they did it anyway… In real life, when there is a crisis, how many of you have turned to a guy sitting next to you and said [like in the movies], ‘What do we do now?’ Women are leaders. We are problem solvers. We are who need. We. Are. Who. We. Need. And we just don’t know it.”

Helping other women

“When we do lift ourselves up, we have to lift up women with us. If she can’t crow about herself, you crow about her.”

Looking out for boys and men

“I think we are the generation that Oprah raised. I went through a divorce, I read every single book Oprah told me to read, I laid on the floor, I cried, Oprah made me feel better, I went out and got all her favorite things…. Oprah is really that wonderful. But my greater point is, who is the spiritual leader for men? It’s important for men to have those leaders, too. We have to help facilitate that, we have to support them, encourage them.”

Moving the needle on equality

“I have so much respect for the women who came before me, the ideas that got us to where we are. They fought so hard for the privileges and freedoms I enjoy. Now it’s our job to push society forward. We are our mother’s children and our grandmother’s children, but it’s our world now, to give to our daughters and our sons. We get to define what that looks like—what is a woman now.”

How she came to lead the Time’s Up movement

“I was sitting across from Shonda [Rhimes] at one of our meetings at the beginning of Time’s Up. We were going to raise money and help with lawsuits and amplify women’s voices, and I said to her, ‘I don’t know who’s going to do it.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Reese, you have to do it.’ It was such a huge moment for me. I thought, ‘OK, you’re right. I’m the loudest one in the room. Instead of complaining, I gotta do something about it.’”

Advice for working parents

“Somebody gave me a really good piece of advice when I first had kids: Make sure when you come home every day that you say one positive thing to the kids that happened during your workday, even if you had a crummy day, because we tend to go, ugh, I hate work.”

The power of being a woman

“Don’t forget that 83 percent of consumer spending is women. Globally, women control so much money and spending. If you are a business owner or have patients or clients, you have a unique skill set in that you are a woman. You know how to speak to them. Don’t ever diminish what is special about you. Always remember that. Write it down. Have your girlfriend tell you. Remind yourself before you go into the room that you are there for a reason. Even if it’s a mistake, you are going to make the best of that opportunity. Because this is it. Somebody can open the door for you—or sometimes you have to kick the door—but it’s what you do once you get in that door that matters.”

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