Lessons from 100 Years of Women in Congress

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) • April 2, 2017

Every Member of Congress remembers the day they put their left hand on the Bible, their right hand in the air, and swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

It’s a moment that marks a new journey, with immense responsibilities to your country and to the people who elected you to represent them.

For Jeannette Rankin, the oath of office also marked a new beginning for the United States.

100 years ago today, Rankin became the first woman to ever serve in the United States Congress, shattering a proverbial glass ceiling in the Capitol for the more than 300 women – myself included – who served after her. The gentlewoman from Montana, who previously called my district in Eastern Washington home, was elected to Congress prior to women having the right to vote, and helped western states lead the nation down the road to universal women’s suffrage. She wants to be remembered, she said, as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.

This milestone anniversary, to me, is a reminder that the People’s House, the heart of our representative government, functions best when everyone has a voice. 100 years later, women continue to break down barriers every day. We have 104 women serving — more than any other point in history — and three women serving as committee chairs, eight as subcommittee chairs.  Women have marked a number of firsts over the past century, and it’s an honor to serve with these talented, passionate leaders.

Reflecting on this centennial, I’ve also been thinking back on my own journey as a woman in Congress and all the moments in life that led to where I am today. I’ve learned quite a bit while serving the people of Eastern Washington, and as a woman leading in an environment known for being an “old boys club.” Here are the four biggest lessons I’ve learned while leaning in:

#1: Be Authentic

When someone very important to me encouraged me to run for a position in Republican leadership, his advice to me was “just be yourself.”

Those three words can be a tremendous challenge for women, especially for women in fields dominated by men. We are often our own worst critic.

But women bring a unique perspective to policy making, and possess many of the qualities people seek in their elected officials. We’re seen as better listeners, trustworthy, problem solvers, and willing to work across the aisle.

Why are you involved? What are your passions? Let that guide you more than self-doubt or how you think you should be.

#2: Mentors Matter

With each new opportunity comes an even greater opportunity to seek out talented women and empower the next generation of leaders to step up. This is one of my top priorities. I want to pay it forward, because my own mentors helped me get to where I am today.

I’ve been fortunate to have people along the way who tapped me on the shoulder, telling me to be bold. And I had the leadership of Jeannette Hayner, the courage of Jennifer Dunn, the faith of Elisabeth Elliot, and the indomitable spirit of Margaret Thatcher to guide and motivate me as a young woman.

Not everyone has those cheerleaders or role models, and we risk losing the valuable input of remarkable women. The onus is on us, and I’ve challenged my colleagues to join me in this effort, to see the potential in others and encourage women to seek leadership positions.

#3: You’re Not Here Because You’re a Woman

You’ve probably never heard of the 1958 “Coya, Come Home” letter directed at the late Rep. Coya Knutson, the first woman to represent Minnesota in Congress. The letter, in which her husband “compels” the Congresswoman to go home and fulfill her obligations to her family, is a stark reminder that women’s representation in our government wasn’t without its challenges these past 100 years.

Stereotypes and double standards exist, even in the 21st Century, and the best way to challenge them is by encouraging women — and focusing on their merit, not their gender.

Take Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, for example. She was the first female fighter pilot after the ban on women was lifted. She often talks about how she was frequently the only woman in the room, and not everyone wanted her to succeed. But she worked hard, reached her goals because of her leadership skills, and was awarded the Bronze star, among other commendations.

While women are often trailblazers for sitting at the table, our input and presence isn’t important because we’re women. We’re here because our experiences, skills, and ideas are valuable, and should be shared with the world.

#4: All Issues are Women’s Issues

We bring this perspective to all that we do, which is why I get a kick out of the phrase “women’s issues.”

Women aren’t a single-issue or even a couple-issue voting bloc — we’re a serious economic force. It’s disappointing at times when well-intentioned people narrow the policy field for women to only a handful of issues. Family leave, equal pay, and health care are all important, and Republicans have actively been involved in the national debate, but despite the “women’s issues” moniker, they aren’t the only issues we care about.

When it comes to advocating for a better future for women and all Americans, our Republican Conference takes every issue and diverse opinions into account. We care about taxes, education, and national security. We worry about rising health care costs, a healthy environment, and the future of our businesses. We want to see a better future for our children and our children’s children in all areas. It’s not their access to free birth control that keeps us up at night. Republican women are on the frontlines on budget reform, tax reform, health care, and national security issues.

100 years after Jeannette Rankin, women in Congress continue to change the world. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but we stand there to lift the next generation higher than ourselves. We stand there so that every woman has a voice, and has an opportunity to be legendary.

Together, we’re focused on a bright future where every American – especially women – live courageously, follow our hearts, see potential, believe in ourselves, take risks, and keep making history for years to come.