National Mentoring Month: Congress Has Mentors, Too

January 30, 2013

When we talk about mentoring, I think we have a tendency to assume that mentors are for people who are young and new to their careers; we make the mistake of thinking that eventually you “outgrow” the need for a mentor. But one thing I’ve learned from my time in Washington, D.C., is that the people I look up to have mentors of their own — and political leaders are no exception.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) frequently talks about outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Gillibrand replaced as New York’s junior senator, as one of her mentors (Gillibrand made the relationship Twitter-official on Clinton’s most recent birthday). Gillibrand is now one of 20 female U.S. senators — a record number. And on both sides of the political aisle, they all clearly value mentoring. When the women senators sat down for a group interview with Diane Sawyer earlier this month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) talked about how retired Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) volunteered to be Klobuchar’s “Republican mentor” when she first came to the Senate. Now Klobuchar is returning the favor by mentoring newly elected Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE).

At a time when bipartisanship seems rare, what strikes me is that women legislators in both parties acknowledge the need for mentors throughout their careers and encourage other women to become mentors as they advance. The same is true in the House of Representatives. In Secrets of Powerful Women: Leading Change for a New Generation, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) is clear on this point: “Be a mentor. Find a mentor. Get out there and make a difference,” she declares. Later in the same book, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) defines a mentor as “somebody who commits to walk with you and help you become the very best person you can be. … Someone does this for you, and you do it for the next person.”

We also see this theme of passing the torch among female legislators at the state level. At a recent event celebrating New Hampshire’s all-female congressional delegation, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who previously served as New Hampshire’s first female governor, talked about one of her mentors, a female Republican state senator — now Shaheen mentors the woman’s daughter, newly elected Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH).

At AAUW, I am fortunate to work for one of my own mentors, AAUW Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Lisa Maatz, who also shares her story in Secrets of Powerful Women. And I am proud that through Elect Her–Campus Women Win, AAUW and Running Start connect college women who are thinking about running for student government with role models in their communities, whether they are women who have run for local office, communications experts, or current members of the college student government. As National Mentoring Month wraps up, I encourage you to take inspiration from this proud tradition of women mentoring women in politics and think about the ways you can find and become a mentor. If members of Congress can do it, so can we!

Deborah Swerdlow By:   |   January 30, 2013

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