Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, First Latina Elected to Congress
With humor and optimism, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen shares her difficult journey from Cuban refugee to becoming the first Latina Congresswoman in the U.S.
MAKERS: Women in Politics
GERALDINE FERRARO: When I got off the phone, I opened the door to my hotel room, where I had taken the call quietly, and said to a staffer who was sitting outside, David, we're making history.
I remember, I was riding with Tip O'Neill, and we were going to the convention center. And the crowds were huge. And I said to him, God, who are they all here for? And he said, for you. The convention is something that I will never forget as long as I live.
My fellow citizens, I proudly accept your nomination for Vice President of the United States. Looking down in that audience, I was absolutely stunned. The whole place was almost all women. People would interrupt me with applause and shouting. It was unbelievable.
There was an elderly woman leaning on a walker. And she leaned into me, and she said, you know, I never thought I'd live to see this day.
I look back, and I think, it did make a difference. We pulled down the sign from the door of the White House that says, male only. If you can take that sign down from the door of the White House with a candidacy, is there any job in this country, or in the world, that any woman would be told, sorry, we're not hiring any women this year. Or any job that she can be told, you just can't make it. There isn't one.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I have to pinch myself whenever I see that dome lit up. And I think, they let me in here, and they let me vote. This is just incredible. For me, being born in Cuba is not just an interesting place on your passport. It's given me an understanding that comes from losing your homeland, seeing a communist tyranny take over, and understanding how fragile democracy is. It really left an impression on me. And I still have it with me today. I never would have thought in a million years that I would be in Congress.
I always wanted to be a teacher. My family started a private elementary school. And getting to know the parents of the school and getting to know the problems they had with immigration, social security, Medicare-- one day, I just thought I could actually be the person making these incredible, crazy rules that no one can understand. And I could maybe write them in a way that people could understand them. And that's how I got the idea of maybe running for office.
I really wanted to make a difference in the realm of foreign affairs. So I said, this is my passion. I'm going to run for it. There were about 13, 14 candidates for this slot. And I just told each one of them, do whatever you're going to do. But I'm going to run and I'm going to win, because you will not outwork me.
That election night was crazy. It was not until about 3:30 in the morning when I found out that I had won. And then the "Today" show calls me up. And they say, how does it feel to be the first Hispanic woman ever elected to Congress? And I said, what? I had not even realized it.
Is this a great country or what? I mean, to think that a Cuban refugee would come to the United States not knowing a word of English-- because I didn't know a thing. Nada. And I'm now the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of Congress. I'll always have that little niche in the history books. I'll be a small footnote, but a footnote nonetheless.
HILLARY CLINTON: If the 19th century was about ending slavery and the 20th century was about ending totalitarianism, the 21st century is about ending the pervasive discrimination and degradation of women and fulfilling their full rights. My father was a rock-ribbed conservative Republican. One of the worst things that you could say in our house was anything positive about any Democrat. And when I went to Wellesley, I initially was the president of the college Republicans. And then I got to thinking, you know, I'm not sure I really agree with what the Republican Party was standing for.
I get a little annoyed when people denigrate the 60s and kind of characterize it as drug, sex, and rock and roll. It laid the groundwork for the success of our civil rights movement, for the continuing equality of women. It was about human empowerment and freedom. After graduating from law school in 1973, Hillary Rodham began making a name for herself in Washington, working in children's rights and government. Career opportunities were opening up for her and other women as a result of the women's movement.
It was exhilarating. It was also somewhat torturing, because we were breaking new ground. We were trying to figure out, you know, how you balanced what you wanted to be individually, with being in a relationship. I certainly fell in love with an extraordinary, complex, dynamic human being. Now, there were many friends of mine who helped me pack up and drove me to Arkansas, who all along the way was saying, do you know what you're doing? Do you know what you're getting into?
I didn't know. I couldn't have sat there and said, oh, yes, I'm going to go to Arkansas, and eventually I'm going to marry Bill Clinton, and eventually he's going to become President. No. I mean, I did it because it felt right for me. I continued to work when I was the first lady of Arkansas. And I had been my husband's partner on really significant policy efforts on education and health care and children's welfare and the like. After her husband was elected President of the United States, he appointed her to lead an initiative to reform healthcare. Opponents dubbd it "Hillarycare."
Oh my goodness. It was just such a firestorm. And I really understood that, to some extent, it was because there were greater concerns about the influence that the first lady might exercise on policy. And I think that you know, it was a great lesson for me. The First Lady moved on from the healthcare fight, but continued to work for children's and women's rights at home and abroad.
Human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights once and for all. What seemed to me to be a common sense statement of values has become a rallying cry. In 2002, Hillary Clinton became the first former First Lady to win a seat in the US Senate. In 2008, she became the first woman in serious contention for the US Presidency. Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it. A month after Barack Obama won the Presidency, he named Clinton as his Secretary of State. She set up the first Office of Global Women's Issues, and within two years had traveled more miles than any of her predecessors.
There's a great hunger for women to look for examples, role models, mentors, even someone all the way across the ocean. You know, the recent Nobel Prize winner from Yemen, this incredibly brave woman, had a picture of me on her mantle. And I cannot even tell you how honored I was that she would look to me to try to give her courage when she is on the front lines of bullets and clubs.
I want to see more of the reality of women's lives changed, in however much time I've got left on the earth, so that I don't continue to cringe at women denied the right to be whoever god meant them to be.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: When you have hearings in Congress about contraception and when the first panel doesn't have a woman on it, women's voices really aren't being heard.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: When I was practicing law, Secretary Clinton gave her famous speech in Beijing. And I remember her standing on that stage and looking out to the world and saying, women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights. And I thought about myself, and I thought, I'm not accomplishing anything here. I'm not making a difference. I'm not helping people, and it really inspired me to try to focus my career more on public service.
And so I was at a speech that Andrew Cuomo was giving for a woman's group I had joined called the Women's Leadership Forum. At the time, I just tried to enter into public service three different ways and failed. And so I went up to him afterwards, and I said, well Mr. Secretary, I loved your speech. I agreed with everything you said, but what I'm finding is public service and politics really is an insider's game. I don't know how to get from here to there.
And so he questioned me, and said, well, what do you do? And I said, I'm a senior associate at a big New York firm, and he said, well, would you consider moving to Washington? And so I called up Secretary Cuomo the next day, took the offer, went down to Washington. And I decided, if I wanted to do public service, I'd probably have to run for office.
And so I came back to New York and started having a long conversation with my then fiance, and I said to Jonathan, you know, I'd really like to run for office. How would you think about raising our family perhaps in upstate New York and maybe running for office from where I grew up? And Jonathan's been a wonderful blessing for me, and he said, yes.
In 2006, a number of senior political figures said to me, Kirsten, this should not be your first race. This is not a good race. Your opponent is known to be a bit of a bully. You really should think twice, and we heard later that his strategy in the campaign was to take my legs out early.
Oftentimes, male opponents won't attack a woman directly. Sometimes, they'll attack all the men around her. So whether it's your husband or father or father-in-law or brother, they will direct attacks there, as if the woman does it merit an attack herself. It really spurred people's interest.
They said, why is he attacking this unknown, young mother who wants to run for Congress? What does she stand for? What does she care about? Let's hear more. And so it actually backfired, because I became relevant. Whereas, if he ignored me, I might not have been relevant.
So we ran the race, and we won. It was such a long shot that even the New York Times called me a dragon slayer, because we'd been able to win in very Republican districts. I really spent the next two years focused on trying to be the best representative I could be. When Secretary Clinton was elevated from Senator to Secretary of State, there were a lot of news articles about who might be considered, and I was often listed at the bottom of these articles.
And when I interviewed with the governor, I focused on two things that I thought mattered. I represented upstate New York. I knew a lot about what does it take to make a rural economy grow, But I'd also lived in New York City for a dozen years, and I knew a lot about financial regulatory reform, because I had been a securities lawyer.
I think it was really important that he appointed a woman. I think he liked the balance of having somebody who was from a different part of the state, which had been so rare in our representation of the state. And so I worked very hard, getting to every corner of the state, traveled in all the 62 counties, spent time there, listened to people, created a very strong legislative agenda. Helping to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell and helping to get the health care that our 9/11 heroes deserved. And I was able to win my first election with 63%.
As part of my goal to get more women in Congress and more women's voices being heard, I've created a campaign called Off the Sidelines, and I'm asking women who are on the sidelines to come off. If we're going to change the rules of the road, we have to be stronger advocates. I want women's voices to be heard, because if they're voting, if they're holding their elected leaders accountable, if they're being heard in these national debates, we can change the landscape. We can change the rules of the road.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: My parents had me absolutely convinced that, even if I couldn't have a hamburger at the Woolworth's lunch counter, I could be president of the United States if I wanted to be.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s, the most segregated big city in America. My parents believed education was really the great shield against racism. I had piano lessons and I had ballet lessons and I had French lessons, every lesson known to humankind. But of course, you couldn't completely shield your children from the ugliness of segregation.
We actually felt the bomb go off that Sunday morning.
Suddenly, it was very personal, because Denise McNair had been in my father's kindergarten. I remember as a child just not understanding how people could hate us that much, and for the first time really being pretty scared.
From as long as I could remember, I was going to be a concert pianist. And then, in the spring quarter of my junior year, I wandered into a course in international politics taught by a Soviet specialist, a man named Josef Korbel, who was, ironically, Madeleine Albright's father. And Josef Korbel opened up this world to me of diplomacy and international politics and things Russian. And all of a sudden, I knew what I wanted to do.
We met Gorbachev, and President Bush turned to me and he said, this is my Soviet advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and she tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union. And Gorbachev said, well, I hope she knows a lot.
I actually had a Russian general say to me once, what's a nice girl like you doing interested in these military affairs? But over time, you realize that if you become known as capable at what you're doing, those prejudices tend to go away.
You think about the momentousness of what happened, that, on your watch, the territory of the United States had been attacked. We had to try and protect the country. We were certain that there was a follow-on attack coming. For us, every day after September 11th was September 12th, over and over and over again.
You have to learn with criticism that it comes with the territory. If you aren't prepared to be criticized, then you're probably not prepared to take hard decisions.
Immediately after the election, I walked into the Oval and I said, congratulations, sir. And he looked at me and he said, you know I want you to be Secretary of State.
The advice I give to all young people is don't let anybody else define what you're going to be because of your gender or race. If you decide that you are interested in the Soviet Union, you may be female and black, but you're interested in the Soviet Union. And it's worked out pretty well for me.
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I learn to be a feminist from being black. I learned to be a feminist from being denied my rights as an African-American. I'm a third generation Washingtonian, born in a city where residents had no vote in Congress, no vote for president of the United States, paid federal taxes, and had segregation in all of its facilities and schools mandated by the Congress of the United States. That didn't sit well with my parents.
By the time I got to Yale Law School, I knew exactly what I wanted to do all right. Remember there was no civil rights movement. So if you wanted to do something that helped move black people out of their virtual apartheid state, being a lawyer seemed to make good sense. Black women were initially perplexed about how they should respond to the Women's Movement. Its first face was a white face. That meant white privilege.
How are we to respond? Well, some of us felt pretty clearly how to respond. For that you can be both female and black at the same time. And if you didn't think you could, you are. You need to come to grips with that. I literally had to go around to women's organizations and I said, why is it that only blacks file complaints before my commission. I remember that I was so frustrated that I had the first comprehensive hearing on women's rights. It was a part of consciousness raising so that women would have, in fact, do something when they found themselves in the workforce treated equally.
When President Carter appointed me to chair to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the problem really stemmed from certain kinds of complaints. What complaints we saw work horrendous. Sometimes I wouldn't call them sexual harassment. I would call them sexual assault. And we issued the first sexual harassment guidelines. They were later affirmed by the Supreme Court. Then women began to come forward.
The women in Congress met on the floor, and we decided that some of us had better get over to the Senate or this was going to be a done deal.
Now I do not believe that Professor Anita Hill should be left to stand alone without being heard. We knocked on the door of the Senate. We were not let in, but television cameras had followed us and they knew they had to do something.
ANITA HILL: There's no motivation that would show that I would make up something like this.
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: There's no question that Anita Hill will inspire others to come forward. But Anita Hill did something even larger for women. There developed the year of the woman, and that's when we got the first African-American woman in the Senate and a group far larger than usual elected to the house.
Every new group has a moment which is legitimately called a revolution. Once that first burst, in fact, breaks through, that revolutionary moment may be gone, but the notions, the movement, the energy continues.