Womenâ€™s History Month gives us an opportunity to reflect on the countless women who built this nation â€“ women who pioneered advances in health and medicine, fought for equal voting rights, defended our nation, and charted the course to a brighter future for our children. Our country is stronger because they worked so hard to overcome the barriers before them.
Our government is stronger because of their service as well. Thatâ€™s why I wanted to use this celebration to reflect on just a few of the many prominent women, in each branch, who have paved the way for those of us who serve the American people today.
Women in Congress
In 1916, when Jeannette Rankin won election to the United States Congress as a representative from Montana, she reportedly said, â€œI may be the first woman member of Congress, but I wonâ€™t be the last.â€
She was right. Since Representative Rankin walked into the chamber of the House of Representatives, 312 women have followed in her footsteps. Today, 84 women serve in the House, and 20 women serve as Senators. And each of them owes a debt of gratitude to this fearless woman â€“ committed to social welfare and pacifism â€“ whose strong voice opened debate in 1918 on a constitutional amendment to grant universal suffrage to all American women.
Women on the Supreme Court
Despite impeccable legal qualifications, despite having graduated in the top of her class at Stanford Law School, Sandra Day Oâ€™Connor still found it difficult to find a job as a lawyer in the 1950s. In fact, she refused to take a paid position as a legal secretary and began work as an attorney for the county attorney of San Mateo â€“ for free. Her first promotion was to deputy county attorney.
Sandra Day Oâ€™Connor would use that same tenacity and strong will as the United Statesâ€™ first female justice on the Supreme Court. She served for more than 24 years, and today is a relentless advocate for helping young people get involved in civics and government.
Women Cabinet Members
Many women pioneers in the Executive Branch have called the Department of Labor home. Frances Perkins became the first woman Cabinet Secretary when President Franklin Roosevelt nominated her to serve as Secretary of Labor. And she was one the two cabinet members who served throughout his entire presidency, fighting for new labor rights and the New Deal for over 12 years.
The Department of Labor also was home to the first female Asian American Cabinet Secretary and the first female Hispanic American Cabinet Secretary. Elaine Lan Chao was appointed by President George W. Bush, and Hilda Solis was appointed by President Obama. They both left a strong legacy for the current Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez.
And I am proud to say that it was a woman, Oveta Culp Hobby, who organized the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which became HHS. This wasnâ€™t even her first rodeo â€“ we were the second new government agency she had organized.
Oveta Hobby built a strong department. She even approved Jonas Salkâ€™s vaccine for polio while serving as Secretary. And five women have succeeded her since, including Patricia Roberts Harris, the first black woman to serve as Cabinet Secretary. It was during Secretary Harrisâ€™s tenure that we officially became the Department of Health and Human Services.
The strong impact of these women stands the test of time. And their work is an inspiration for every young girl today who aspires to lead, and aspires to serve. Because of them, we all can make our nation even stronger.