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Women of the Year: Lawmakers, space walkers share which women inspire them

From left, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, astronaut Anne McClain and Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson will appear Monday night at a Northwest Passages event at the Bing Crosby Theatre in Spokane to celebrate this year's Inland Northwest Women of the Year.   (Staff)
From left, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, astronaut Anne McClain and Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson will appear Monday night at a Northwest Passages event at the Bing Crosby Theatre in Spokane to celebrate this year's Inland Northwest Women of the Year.  (Staff)
From staff reports

From staff reports

Powerful Washington women have plenty of trailblazers to thank, and colleagues that continue to inspire them.

Ahead of a Northwest Passages conversation Monday night in downtown Spokane, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, astronaut Anne McClain and Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson shared their sources of inspiration from both the past and present.

The Spokesman-Review asked each woman to identify their mentors, the women from history they most admire and the advice they offer to women hoping to follow in their footsteps, whether it be in politics, science, civil rights, activism, equality or in another pursuit.

Who are the women who offered you important guidance or were important mentors to you as you learned the skills you needed for your career?

Maria Cantwell: Former Washington state Rep. and King County Executive Audrey Gruger. – Audrey coached me on how to hit the ground running in the Legislature and to get on the right committees.

Aileen Hernandez. Aileen played a leading role in the National Organization for Women (NOW). She came to Seattle to tell women that they shouldn’t wait for women to bestow on them, they should just take. No one is handing out power.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers: I’ve had a few important mentors in my life. First and foremost, my mom, who has believed in me through the mountains and valleys of life’s journey. I’m also grateful for Eastern Washington State Sen./Majority Leader Jeannette Hahner from Walla Walla, as well as State Rep. and Majority Leader Barb Lisk from Zillah, who blazed the trail for women like me to serve as the 200th woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Finally, Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn from Washington state, who had two pieces of advice for me upon getting elected to Congress: 1) Don’t wait too long to get married because Congress can be a lonely place, and 2) Don’t forget there is life after Congress, and it is good.

Anne McClain: When I was growing up, there was only one woman who had done what I wanted to do – Army officer, helicopter pilot, astronaut – and that was Nancy Currie. There were also only a handful of men that had taken that path, like Bill McArthur and TJ Creamer. So I knew it was possible. But my mentors were always those closest to me – my parents and my teachers growing up, then my West Point instructors and commanding officers in the military.

A child or young adult can have an abundance of big picture role models, but it does no good if the people closest to them don’t foster their belief that they can get there. No one thought to tell me that I probably would not be an astronaut, so I always believed I could be.

Betsy Wilkerson: Of course my mother, Louisiana, who was a trailblazer, and two church ladies who have gone to heaven: Mother Hamp and Mother Earthman.

Who are the women in history you most admire?

Cantwell: Patricia “Pat” Harris. As a young woman, seeing Pat on TV had a big influence on me. She was secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1977-79) and, later, secretary of Health and Human Services (1979-81). She broke barriers. She was the first Black woman ever to serve in a presidential cabinet. She was also the first Black woman to be dean of a law school, and she was the first Black woman to serve on the board of directors of a Fortune 500 company. She was a role model for women in leadership positions.

Lise Meitner. She discovered nuclear fission in 1938 with her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch. Albert Einstein called her the “German Marie Curie.”

Women voters in the 2022 election.

McMorris Rodgers: The women I admire most in history are the pioneers and trailblazers who imagined what was possible and worked hard to make it happen. As we recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in 1920, I find inspiration in the suffragettes who led us to a more perfect union conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition all are equal.

McClain: There are a lot of women who were born with the same dreams that I had, but they were born at a time when they were not allowed to pursue those dreams. But instead of accepting the status quo, they pushed back – a little bit at a time. They did not accept a “no,” they fought to enter educational programs or military branches that had been closed to them. And because all these women before me each opened the world up a little bit more, when I was finally born in 1979, I had the privilege of only focusing on the task at hand: to be the best engineer I could be, the best Army officer, the best test pilot and now the best astronaut I can be.

I did not have to expend an ounce of energy to fight for a spot at the table. I deeply, deeply admire the women before me who fought these thankless battles. Those whose passions were derailed by being forced to protest, fight, file, testify, sue and otherwise make space in the world for themselves and those like them. My career is their triumph.

The fight is not over yet. There are still marginalized groups who are excluded from the table. For our society to be the best it can be, we need the best from every citizen. And we need to realize that exclusion normally comes from our own fears, not from any actual threat. All anyone wants is an opportunity to be their best and to be part of the team. So it is important that all of us fight for inclusivity in whatever circles we are in – sports teams, schools, companies, clubs and churches. Diversity is naturally occurring – so if our circles lack diversity, then there are barriers to entry that we need to dismantle.

Wilkerson: Two women from history are Mahalia Jackson and Harriet Tubman, but I have to mention Michelle Obama.

What advice do you offer women today as they enter the workforce?

Cantwell: Speak up. Believe in your capabilities. Don’t undercut yourself.

McMorris Rodgers: Be a trust builder. Work hard every single day to be someone your family, friends, coworkers and neighbors can count on. Do everything you can to be prepared and earn new opportunities. Above all else, persevere and don’t ever be afraid to get back up when you fail. My passion and commitment has been driven by a desire to make a difference for everyone, and my path has been one step at a time. That’s how yours can start, too. I dare you to be bold, dream big, and don’t be afraid to take that first step.

McClain: Experience is that thing you get right after you need it. To really get a leg up, you don’t have time to learn all of life’s lessons through trial and error – you have to truly learn from other people’s experience. And learning means changed behavior. So when you go into a new job, find the person or people who are most respected and capable, then listen to them and learn from them. When they give you advice, take that advice and put it into action, even if you do not quite see why yet.

I really think geniuses become so because they don’t start where everyone else starts – they observe, reflect and learn from others such that they start where others left off. (And yes, this includes learning from our parents! Gosh, they know more than we ever gave them credit for, don’t they?)

Wilkerson: Don’t lose yourself trying to fit in. And use your own yardstick to measure your success.

Tickets for Monday’s event at the Bing Crosby Theatre, 901 W. Sprague Ave., are still available. They can be purchased for $7 at spokane7tickets.com.

Editor’s note: Answers were lightly edited for style and clarity.

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