Six Senators’ Unconventional Paths to Politics

While today many younger women are starting their political careers in college, our current generation of senators didn’t grow up thinking that was an option. As Elizabeth Warren puts it, if girls did well in school, they could aspire to be nurses or teachers. 

While that perspective means these women started their careers later in life, their diverse experiences show that a political career is possible at any age. You don’t have to be sixth grade class president to eventually run for Senate, or President of the United States. These six Senators found their way to politics via high-powered lawyer jobs, military command, and campaign management. If you eventually want to run for office, let their stories assure you: as different as it may be, you’re probably on the right path.

1. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was a senior associate at a law firm in New York. She tried to get into public service three different times and failed. Then at the request of Andrew Cuomo, she moved to Washington, D.C. to learn about public service before running for office as a representative. She then leveraged her experience as a rural representative and urban lawyer to be elected Senator. 


2. Elizabeth Warren says she “sure didn’t set out to be a politician.” She got married at age 19 and started law school when her first child turned two. She went on to become a law professor for the next 30 years, including 20 years at Harvard Law. She researched the economics of America’s families, and she eventually ran for Senate because she thought, “Why not?” She realized she could make a bigger difference by fighting for America’s families on a national stage as Senator of Massachusetts.



3. Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono became interested in politics when she protested the Vietnam war in college. She then spent 10 years running other people’s campaigns while getting her law degree. She served in the state legislature for 14 years then Lieutenant Governor for 8 years before running for governor in 2002. She lost, but she says that race taught her “how to win.” She ran for U.S. Senate, and became Hawaii’s first female Senator in a landslide victory.


4. When Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison graduated from law school, Houston firms weren’t hiring female lawyers, so she became Houston’s first female TV news reporter. Then, at age 28, she ran for the Texas state legislature and won. She later became State Treasurer before running for national office.  



5. Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski was a social worker in Baltimore, helping at-risk children and educating seniors about Medicare. In 1971, at age 35, she ran for Baltimore City Council, where she served for five years. After 10 years in the House of Representatives, Mikulski ran for Senate and became the first Democratic woman Senator elected in her own right. In her lifetime, the number of women in the Senate has gone from two percent to twenty percent. 


6. One of the newest Senators, Joni Ernst served in the military for 21 years, as a lieutenant colonel in the logistics branch and then the commander of a Combat Sustainment Support Battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard. She spent 14 months in Kuwait as a company commander between 2003 and 2004. After serving on the Iowa State Senate for three years, she was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first female veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate.