Of the 12,000-plus people who have served in Congress over the years, only 2% have been women. Startling numbers to reflect on during Women's History Month. For Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the most senior ranking Republican woman in Congress, this is a problem. And it's one that can and should be solved. Through mentorship, through leading by example, and in some cases, through legislation that gives women the time and flexibility to thrive at work. Tucked in the hideaway of her office in the U.S. Capitol, she tells us, "I make it a priority to tap other women on the shoulder and encourage them. Be the mentor. We need more mentors, and we need women to step up and believe in themselves, too."
The congresswoman from Washington is a trailblazer in many regards — the first in her family to go to college, the first in her family to go on to get an MBA (for which she's still paying off student loans, by the way), the fifth sitting congresswoman to give birth while in office, the second woman to ever hold the role of chairperson of the House Republican Conference, and the list goes on. But if you ask her if she ever feels exhausted having to push forward and claim her place as first or second or fifth, she's surprised to even hear the question. For her, the journey has been tremendous and she wishes more people could experience it. She says, "I have met some amazing people on the way and I just want more people to be able to have the experiences I have." That positivity and resilience are a huge piece of what shape McMorris Rodgers' worldview.
For instance, when asked about what she wants to say to young women who identify as conservative, but worry that the Republican party doesn't hear them or prioritize them, she simply says, "What I’m about and what my colleagues are about as Republicans is ensuring that every person in this country — no matter who they are, no matter where they come from — has the opportunity for a better life. And to make sure that they have the freedom and the opportunity to do that. I want to empower people. I want to empower individuals and their families and their communities to be trusted to make the best decisions. I get very concerned when so many decisions are being made here in Washington, D.C. with a top-down, government-knows-best approach, so the Republicans are about unleashing individuals to get out there and see what they can do and be a part of making history."
For the congresswoman, ambition isn't a dirty word, per se, but it's not the end game. Sitting in such a senior role in a party that isn't always thought to champion women in leadership, she says: "I define power as having influence so you can speak for people who cannot speak for themselves. For example, my oldest has special needs, and because of Cole (he’s now in third grade), I have lived the journey of having that diagnosis, going through early intervention, and having an IEP (an individualized education plan). And so, I can be a stronger advocate for children with special needs, for children all across this country." And she has been. She spoke with us at length about her pride in accomplishing what she did with the ABLE Act, a bill she worked on for years, which President Obama signed into law last year that "allows families who have children with disabilities to set money aside for later on in life."
But before considering power or ambition or influence, McMorris Rodgers wants women to consider possibility. Because, she says, "I think we’re just at the beginning of women really making history when it comes to serving in politics." Her strongest advice for any woman today is that they consider political office, and they put themselves forward. She says: "I would just encourage women to go for it. I was the 200th woman elected to the United States House of Representatives, out of over 12,000 people who have served. And today, there’s been about just over 300 women who have served — but [that] is only 2%, so we need more women to run. Nothing is handed to you, especially in this political environment. Whether you’re male or female. It’s not like you’re going to get a lot of favors. I would encourage them to step up. To work hard, persevere."
The Chairwoman considers hesitation to be the biggest obstacle that's stood in her way so far in her career. To anyone else struggling with the same thing, she says, "I just want them to believe in themselves. I want them to be risk-takers and dream big dreams and anything is possible."