March is Women’s History Month, which honors and celebrates the struggles and achievements of American women throughout the history of the United States. Since 1917, when Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to serve in Congress, 313 women have served as U.S. Representatives, Senators or Delegates.
Many Americans might assume that their congressional representatives come from exclusive and rarified backgrounds. Well, my story could hardly be less rarified.
As a child, my family’s home didn’t have electricity or running water. My parents, while dedicated and hardworking, were poor with little formal education. Girls with my background weren’t likely to end up in Congress.
Fortunately, I was pushed by the right people – teachers and administrators who wouldn’t let me settle for less than my best.
In the mountains of North Carolina, I learned firsthand the power of education and its vital role in the success of every American. Although it took me seven years while working full-time, I became the first in my family to go to college and earn a degree.
In the 1970s, I was a member of the League of Women Voters. Through the League, I attended school board meetings in my county as a public observer to encourage accountability of elected officials. I went to countless meetings, many times as the only person representing the general public.
During one meeting of an all-male school board, a local reporter leaned over and said, “These guys are incompetent. Why don’t you run for the school board?”
My instinctive response was, “I’m not qualified,” and I think many women can fall prey to this attitude of self-disqualification and underestimate their abilities. I took another look at those board members and changed my mind.
Although I’m now serving in my sixth term as a representative from North Carolina, I’m still really a teacher at heart—having spent the lion’s share of my life working as an educator and administrator in North Carolina colleges and universities. And I believe confronting the challenges facing America’s schools and workplaces is critical to providing opportunity for every individual to get ahead.
That’s why, as the Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce, I have led efforts to modernize and reform the nation’s workforce development system.
In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act was signed into law. This bipartisan, bicameral compromise between the SKILLS Act that I authored and the Senate’s Workforce Investment Act of 2013 streamlines and improves existing federal workforce development programs and fosters a modern workforce that American businesses can rely on to compete.
House Republicans also have fought to limit one-size-fits-all federal dictates that hamper innovation and limit the ability of states and local schools to address their students’ needs.
Last fall we passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which reverses Washington’s micromanagement of classrooms and gives parents, teachers and local education leaders the tools they need to repair a broken system and help all children reach their potential.
Unfortunately, many Americans still struggle to realize the dream of higher education, because our current system is expensive, inflexible and outdated.
The United States is the world’s summit of opportunity, and we have a responsibility to act now to preserve that role. House Republicans are pursuing reforms that will help all individuals – regardless of age, location or background – access and complete higher education, if they choose.
While Women’s History Month celebrates the incredible accomplishments of women throughout America’s history, the most lasting tribute we can pay is our efforts to improve this nation for the next generation of women. Rather than simply being discouraged by the many problems facing our country and our world, I’ve learned to work to be an agent of change focused on the problems that can be solved and the people who can be helped.