Editor’s Note: Our series returns after a midterm election that delivered historic numbers of women to Congress.
Their energy, perspective and determination will reshape one of the power centers in a man’s town.
These are the stories of Badass Women all around Washington.
— Dana Bash, Bridget Nolan, Rachel Smolkin & Abigail Crutchfield
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was Cathy McMorris when she was first elected to the House in 2004.
Thirty-five years old and single, she headed to Washington for a new powerful job as a Republican congresswoman from Washington state – and didn’t know if having a family would happen for her.
“I expected finding a husband, finding a partner would be even more difficult with me in this position,” McMorris Rodgers remembers.
To be sure, not all women are looking for a partner. Not all women want to have children. But McMorris Rodgers did. And like so many working in any profession – never mind in Congress – she worried that adding mother to her title could pass her by.
The reality of a woman’s biological clock is a theme we unwittingly began exploring with this series, after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao bravely admitted to us that she felt as though she missed out on having children, and often tells younger women not to make the mistake she did of not thinking it through.
But that is not McMorris Rodgers’ story. During her first term in Congress she met now husband Brian Rodgers at a barbeque back home in Spokane.
“I so admire Brian,” she grins, speaking with CNN for a recent interview. “He is confident in who he is. He knows what’s important to him, and he’s comfortable with me, and he supports me wholeheartedly.”
History Making Mom
Cathy McMorris Rodgers is now the only woman in history to give birth three times while serving in Congress. In fact, she was the first to do it twice as well.
She still remembers telling then-House Speaker John Boehner that she was pregnant with her third at age 44.
“He looked at me, and he’s like ‘really?’” she says with a laugh.
“I’m just so grateful it happened, I’m grateful to be a mom, and I feel like I came very close to missing on that,” McMorris Rodgers says. “And in some ways it’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done and yet I think it’s the best thing that I have done.”
Her first pregnancy was easy, until the end. During a routine ultrasound doctors spotted a blockage called “duodenal atresia” and McMorris Rodgers was warned that one out of three babies with that disorder is born with Down Syndrome. Her son Cole was part of the one in three.
“When I got the news it was tough, it’s just not what you expect and in that moment, it’s overwhelming, and part of it is just the fear of the unknown,” McMorris Rodgers explains. “And I wondered how I would ever talk about it even, and yet today I’m grateful, I am grateful for Cole. He brings me such joy, I am grateful for the influence that he’s had on my life.”
Having a child with disabilities has opened her eyes not just as a mother, but a lawmaker. She has worked to pass legislation like the so-called ABLE Act, which allows people with disabilities to open tax free savings accounts to help pay for their care.
“It’s given me a whole new purpose and a passion for what I do on Capitol Hill and I find a lot of fulfillment in just knowing that I’m making a difference, not just for Cole, but millions of others who just happen to have a disability,” she says.
Back into the fight
She says her husband Brian sometimes acts as a boxing coach, which can come in handy in Washington.
“I’ll retreat to my corner, and he’ll clean me up and encourage me and then send me back into the fight,” she says.
Her most recent fight? Seeking re-election in her eastern Washington state district, which was harder this time around than it had been for her in the past (CNN projects she won with just over 55% of the vote).
And the House Republican Conference Chair – the highest ranking Republican woman – made the decision not to run again for Republican leadership, after Steve Scalise announced he was going to run for House minority whip, a position McMorris Rodgers had been considering seeking. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming ran unopposed for the position McMorris Rodgers held for five years. McMorris Rodgers has since said she’ll pursue a top position on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Still, as we walk through her neighborhood in Spokane, she talks about growing up on a farm in Kettle Falls, Washington, where no one in her family had attended college. She was the first.
And McMorris Rodgers remembers her 25-year-old self – who had to be prodded to run for office in the first place.
“I had a lot of doubts and like a lot of women I told myself every reason why I shouldn’t do it,” she remembers.
“Some individuals who encouraged me, who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself and tapped me on the shoulder and say, ‘Cathy, we think you should do it, we think you have something important to offer,’ and I’m grateful for that,” she adds.
She is hardly alone. Women, whatever their profession, tend to have a harder time feeling ready for a job, even though in most cases they are more than prepared.
“I think there’s something in us that … sometimes we’re our own worst critic and instead of really focusing on what we have to offer and celebrating who we are, and our strengths, we can get caught up on the things we shouldn’t be focusing on,” she notes.
McMorris Rodgers is trying to make sure the new generation of women running for Congress has the help and the nudge that she appreciated so many years ago.
“I have made it a priority especially since I’ve been elected to Congress to reach out to other women and to do likewise because in recruiting women to run for office I hear them saying the same thing that I told myself,” she says. “And yet it’s very important that they be encouraged to take that step.”
How do you do it all? When will we stop asking?
McMorris Rodgers often is asked how she does it all. A key answer is that her husband, a retired naval commander, is now a stay-at-home father.
“He’ll tell you it’s harder than anything he did in the Navy,” she says with a smile. “And yet, I’m so grateful that he’s doing that for our kids. He is carrying that load and being with them day in and day out. I mean it puts my heart at ease, those times when I am away longer than I would like to know that the kids are with Brian.”
She is happy to serve as a role model for working moms, and hopes her story can inspire other women to follow in her footsteps.
“Whenever I talk to another woman whether they’re married, or not, have kids, the first question they asked me is ‘how do you do it?’ And it’s a lot of other people that make it possible, but if I can do it other women can do it,” she says.
But McMorris Rodgers looks forward to the day when women like her aren’t asked that question: how do you do it all?
“Men have done it one way and we become accustomed to the way that men may approach serving in Congress, having families, doing their roles. And women are going to do it a little different, and so it’s still somewhat new,” she explains.
“Sometimes we get caught up in how someone is doing it rather than just being focused on, wow she’s she’s getting it done, she’s making a difference,” she says.
She’s admits – that may take some time.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify when Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers decided not to seek another term in a House Republican leadership position.