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International Women’s Day 2019: Women in Politics Share Experiences of Sexism and Offer Advice to Future Generations

International Women's Day marks a moment to pause and reflect on just how far women and girls around the world have come in the fight for equality—and how far we still have to go in the bid for equality for all. 

To mark International Women's Day, Newsweek asked a selection of women in U.S. politics—from senators to representatives and mayoral leaders—to offer their perspectives on a few questions: Have they have faced sexism in their own careers? What do they believe to be some of the greatest obstacles facing women in 2019? And finally, what advice they would offer to their teenage selves, as well as to women and girls around the world? 

Participants included:

  • Senator Tammy Duckworth, the Democrat from Illinois, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who has served as the junior U.S. Senator for Illinois since 2017 and has been an outspoken advocate for military and disability issues since serving in the Iraq War, which saw her become the first American female double amputee in the conflict after she lost both legs to severe combat wounds
  • Representative Deb Haaland, the Democrat representing New Mexico's 1st congressional district, who became one of the first two Native American women to be elected to the U.S. Congress, along with Sharice Davids, in November's midterm elections
  • Senator Tina Smith, the Democrat from Minnesota, a former businesswoman, who has served as the junior U.S. senator from Minnesota since 2018, filling the seat left vacant by Al Franken
  • Yorba Linda​ Mayor Tara Campbell, California's youngest-ever female mayor
  • Senator Maggie Hassan, the Democrat from New Hampshire, who has served as the junior U.S. senator from New Hampshire since 2016 and was the 81st governor of New Hampshire from 2013 to 2017
  • Senator Jacky Rosen, the Democrat from Nevada, who was the only House freshman to win a Senate seat during the 2018 midterm elections. 

What, if any, stands out as the worst experience with sexism that you have faced in the workplace?
Duckworth: There were still restrictions on which combat roles women could hold throughout my service. This antiquated and unfair policy wasn’t fixed until 2015, when Secretary [Ash] Carter announced that all combat roles would be open to women. I’m glad every American, no matter their gender, now has the opportunity to defend our nation.

Haaland: Because of colonization, Pueblo governments have largely excluded women from the governing process–even though we’re traditionally a matriarchal culture. It’s part of the reason why I could never run for a place in Pueblo government. Our communities need to think about the message that sends to women and girls.

Smith: The worst part about sexism isn’t always the extreme examples, which most everyone sees and notices. The thing that wears women down is getting talked-over, teased (“Can’t you take a joke?” “I was joking!”) and explained to. I’m a United States Senator, and I was mansplained just yesterday.

Campbell: I have not encountered much sexism, and I think that's because of the many women who have come before me and paved the way. I did have an instance when I was running for City Council, when an older gentleman asked what my husband did for a living. I shared that I wasn’t married. He followed up with, “Then how did you get this far?” I responded, “I worked hard, and that’s exactly what I plan on doing for our city.”

What do you believe is one of the greatest obstacles facing women in 2019?
Duckworth:
 Healthcare. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation to promote research on women’s health issues, expand coverage for breast cancer patients and survivors, address the maternal mortality crisis, improve VA care for female veterans and much more.

Haaland: Every issue is a woman’s issue—from job creation and equal pay to paid family leave, climate change, and quality health care. There is, however, a silent crisis that is not getting enough attention: Missing and murdered Indigenous woman. 

Young girls and women are disappearing from communities, and there hasn’t been a spotlight on this issue ever before. I’m working to create more coordination between law enforcement agencies, invest in infrastructureto ensure speedy reporting and investigation, and a hiring of more officers.

Smith: The way in which politicians, not our doctors, are determining the health care information women receive.

Campbell: Cost of living. The rising costs of housing and childcare, coupled with the increase in taxes, has put a strain on the choices offered to all residents, especially women.

What is the one thing that you would want to tell your teenage self, if you had the chance?
Duckworth:
Perfection isn’t what matters. It’s how you respond to hardship and failure that defines you. What matters is that you will never give up, never abandon the mission. That’s how you can make a difference in people’s lives.

Haaland: Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household, I never imagined a world in which I would be represented by someone who looked like me. I would tell myself to keep persevering and persisting and that you are good enough to run for office, you can create change, and you can be fierce.

Smith: You are stronger than you think, and it’s okay to let people see that strength. Also, what matters the most is not what other people think, but what you think.

Campbell: Everything happens for a reason. God has a plan.

What message would you like to send to women and girls everywhere on International Women's Day?
Hassan: International Women’s Day is an opportunity to honor and recognize the contributions women make to our economic and civic life. Today is also a chance to recommit ourselves to furthering the fundamental rights of women around the world and to ensure that they have the support they need to be fully included and treated as equals in society. I’ll keep fighting to ensure that women and girls around the globe have what they need to lead healthy, productive lives where they have the chance to get ahead and stay ahead.

Rosen: Every single day, women across the globe continue to make immeasurable contributions to all facets of our society. We must come together and recognize the struggle that women have faced throughout history, and commit to working together to achieve real gender parity. It’s up to those who hold power to encourage women to step up and lead, and that’s what I plan to do.

Duckworth: What I want girls to learn today is that they can be anything, and they can do anything. It’s all about how much hard work you put into it and your gender should not stop you.

Another thing the women in my life who have influenced me have shown me is the value of overcoming obstacles. It’s not about avoiding failure, it’s about continuing to try. You may try something, and it may not work out, but as long as you keep trying, that’s where the victories come.

Haaland: When I decided to run for Congress, many people said that I couldn’t do it. And when I asked why—they told me, because it has never been done before. But simply having the audacity to demand a place at the table led to two Native American women serving in Congress. I’m leaving the ladder down behind me, so young women and girls can reach beyond our wildest dreams.

Smith: Your voices are strong, but only if you use them. Be strong. We need you.

Campbell: So many women have come before us to fight for our Constitutional right to be an integral and equal partner in the future our Country; for us to be anything we dream of being. Make them proud, and achieve your dreams!

GettyImages-1048441634 Senator Tammy Duckworth (center) speaks with reporters with (from left to right) Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, Senator Cory Booker and Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin following the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol, on October 02, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

This article has been updated to include responses from Rep. Deb Haaland and Senator Jacky Rosen. 

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