Welcome to the inaugural edition of HERSPECTIVE, my new quarterly blog series featuring insight and wisdom from influential women leaders in government and business. The series kicks off in March, Women’s History Month.
I didn’t have to ponder long to decide who I’d approach first. As mothers with three young children, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and I were both diagnosed with breast cancer in our 40’s. With daughters at risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancers, I applaud and appreciate her legislative work to educate young women at risk. We both share a core belief that women can do and be anything they set their minds to. The Congresswoman is a rising political leader in the Democratic Party and her influence as DNC Chair seeps into every crevice of our country, whether we realize it or not. I may not agree on every position she takes, but I have tremendous respect for her passion and commitment to improving the lives of women and children. I was fortunate to meet the Congresswoman in December 2013 when she spoke at our local JCC about her new book, For the Next Generation. From that experience I decided to launch HERSPECTIVE. Women have come a long way baby, but we still have a long way to go. HERSPECTIVE is my contribution to helping empower women in what remains traditionally a man’s world.
NER: As breast cancer survivors, we both know proportionately, young women do not survive the disease at the rates of older diagnosed women. Tell us why the Early Act, your legislation that was signed into law as part of the Affordable Health Care Act in March 2010, is significant for young women at risk of breast cancer.
DWS: Despite the perception, young women can and do get breast cancer and the result can be devastating. In the United States, women have a 1 in 8 chance of developing invasive breast cancer during their lifetime, and a 1 in 35 chance that the disease will take their life. We have renewed hope for improving survival rates as we conduct new research and discover new treatments. We must work together to help educate more women about the importance of knowing their bodies and understanding how early detection could save their lives.
As one of the 2.5 million breast cancer survivors living in our country today, I wanted to use my own experiences with breast cancer to help other young women deal with the pain and difficulty of diagnosis and treatment. That’s why I introduced the Breast Health Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act of 2010 – or the EARLY Act – which helps young women learn more about their bodies and their risks. The law works to educate young women and certain groups, such as African American women and Jewish women of Eastern European descent, who are disproportionately at risk for breast cancer at a young age. Together, we can save more of our moms, sisters, grandmothers, daughters and sister-friends. We must give more women the power to stand up, the power to speak up and the power to survive.
NER: In your book, For the Next Generation, you share a story about a female opponent, who criticized your ability to balance work and motherhood during an election campaign by commenting that during a debate you didn’t have a pen handy and instead took notes with a crayon you had in your pocket. Why do you think it’s important for a mom, or any person charged with caring for young children, to never be without a crayon(s)?
DWS: When my kids were young, it was not uncommon to find crayons in my purse! Spending meaningful time with my children is the most important priority for me as a mom. So it’s no wonder that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and advocating for policies that will help provide families the opportunity to succeed both at work and at home.
NER: Why are female members in Congress and the Senate, from both sides of the aisle, better able to work together, than their male counterparts?
DWS: Women bring an undeniably unique perspective to politics, and our democracy suffers when women’s voices are excluded from the dialogue. We have a different way of looking at policy, but also at approaching the obstacles before us. In my experience, women are especially effective at working across party lines, building consensus, and coming up with creative solutions to problems.
NER: Which do you feel is the greatest challenge facing American women: legislation that restricts our right and access to comprehensive reproductive health care and reduces our ability to provide economic sustenance for ourselves and our family, or the ongoing gender bias in executive suites and boardrooms impeding many women from breaking through the glass ceiling?
DWS: That’s a good question, and there are many challenges facing American women that need to be addressed. That’s why we must work to increase the number of women who run for office – and to remember that when we achieve something great – whether it is elected office or the corner office – we must reach behind us and extend a hand to the next generation of women. As a mother of two young girls, this concept is paramount for me. My daughters don’t think twice about their mom being a Congresswoman; after all, I’ve been in public office since before they were born. I have made it a priority not only to encourage them as young women in their own right, but to share the stories of the women who came before them, the women who made it possible for their mom to run for office and serve as the first Jewish woman to represent Florida in the U.S. Congress.
NER: Which experience did you find more difficult, your breast cancer survivor/ovarian cancer previvor journey or the government shutdown?
DWS: No one plans for the day when your doctor tells you, “You have cancer.” I’ll never forget when it happened to me. My life and my heart were full — a wonderful husband, three great children, a fantastic job — but in just one day I went from being a perfectly healthy 41-year-old woman to a breast cancer patient. Believe me when I tell you, there is no way to prepare yourself for news like that. It was devastating.
Seven surgeries later, I am very proud to say I am now cancer-free. But getting the “all clear” call from your doctor is just the beginning. I’ll never be able to check the “no” box next to cancer on a health history questionnaire. My diagnosis will forever be a part of who I am. That’s why I am so thankful that because of the Affordable Care Act, the up to 129 million Americans living with a pre-existing condition will finally have the peace of mind knowing that we can’t be dropped from our insurance or denied coverage. We must do all we can to ensure all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care so that we can continue to build a strong middle class as we advance our economy and move forward.
NER: What is one of your most rewarding moments in your Congressional career?
DWS: Passing the EARLY Act certainly meant a lot to me. Another bill also stands out – the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Act. While South Florida is a wonderful place to work, live and visit, the region also holds one gruesome distinction – it is the epicenter of child drowning in the United States. Graeme was a 7-year old little girl who became entrapped in a hot tub drain, resulting in her tragic, senseless and entirely preventable death. Her mom Nancy committed herself to ensuring that this never happened to another child and embarked on a crusade to improve pool safety. She is one of my personal heroes for her never-ending tenacity to make the world safer for all children – even in the face of her own personal grief.
That’s why the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act becoming law was an important first step in taking on this crisis. It requires all public pools and spas have safety drain covers, and in certain circumstances, an anti-entrapment system. The goal of the law is to improve the safety of all pools and spas by increasing the use of layers of protection and promoting uninterrupted supervision to prevent child drowning and entrapment. We know that layers of protection are all part of the calculus to prevent child drownings.
NER: Mentoring or Sponsoring – which method is better to help women attain leadership positions in business and government?
DWS: We must encourage other women to step up to positions of leadership and work to recruit and elect more women to public office. We need women at the table who understand that the glass ceiling still exists in the workplace and in every aspect of our lives – and who are committed to helping us shatter that ceiling once and for all. But I know that taking that first step can be tough. As women, we face more obstacles than men. We face skepticism and doubt from others and from ourselves.
When my mentor and boss, Florida state legislator Peter Deutsch, encouraged me to run for the State House seat he was vacating, I was incredibly excited, but also uncertain. I was only 25 years old. My plan had been to take the path most women who run for office take: after our future kids were older, then it would be time to pursue my dream to run. But Peter pushed me to seize this rare chance for an open seat and asked me if I thought anyone running could do a better job than me. I thought about what inspired me to work in public service in the first place – wanting to help make others’ lives better, particularly young families, and how I wanted to work to improve education for our kids and expand access to health care for everyone.
It’s no secret that throughout life, people will always try to sell you on shortcuts and the easy way out, and as women, they will tell you what you cannot do. It was true for me, and it was true for all the women who came before me: There will always be naysayers. There will always be people telling you, and you may even think it yourself at times, that the timing just isn’t quite right, that the work just isn’t important, and that the voters just aren’t ready. But what we have to do is simple. We have to prove them wrong!
We have to show them that what we really need are more women from all backgrounds and experiences opening doors in every aspect of our society—more women practicing law, more women researching cures for cancer, more women in information technology, and more women in public office!
NER: On your FB page you share pictures of you with your son Jake at Grand Canyon National Park. What is one of your bigger concerns about climate change? What do you say to those who challenge its scientific proof?
DWS: As a mother of three children who love to be outside, I often find myself checking the weather forecast to see if it might rain. In all the time that I’ve done that, I’ve never looked at a forecast that said 97% chance of rain and thought to myself “Oh, there’s a 3% chance of no rain, so no need to pack an umbrella.”
I raise this because I’m perplexed by those who continue to deny that climate change is real or even something we need to proactively address. Simply put, 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming trends seen over the past 100 years are the result of human activity. Additionally, 18 leading scientific organizations have stated: “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.”
Climate change is real and we’re causing it, and without action, the potential effects are devastating. It’s time to stop questioning the forecast and pull out our legislative umbrella.
NER: In a box of Crayola crayons, which is your favorite color?
DWS: Whichever one is in my purse that day!