In this country that we’re so blessed to call home, every woman, no matter their background, can be the next “first.”
After growing up on a small farm in rural southwest Iowa, I had the honor of serving in the U.S. Army Reserves and the Iowa Army National Guard – a historically male field. After returning home and serving in the Iowa state senate, I was elected the first female combat veteran to serve in the United States Senate and was the first woman to represent the great state of Iowa in Congress.
Now, just six years later, women make up a majority of the Iowa congressional delegation. Our state is also blessed with a fierce female governor in Kim Reynolds and some extremely talented and strong women leaders in our state legislature. In Congress, there are over 140 women serving—more than ever before in U.S. history.
This didn’t happen overnight.
Because of the suffragettes and so many other determined women who stepped up and broke the barriers society placed on us, female trailblazers across this country are writing new pages in history books every single day. Women have made strides in the boardroom, on the playing field, in the military, and through elected office.
But there’s still plenty of work to do.
This pandemic has been disproportionately damaging for women in the workforce – threatening to derail the progress we’ve made. Before COVID-19, women made up the majority of the U.S. workforce, but just one year later, women have lost over two million jobs – nearly one million more than our male counterparts.
Two of the most important factors for this have been closed schools and a lack of access to child care. While moms and dads are equally stressed by these tough times, moms more often act as the caregivers in the family, and with schools using remote learning and child care centers closed, working moms have been forced to serve as teacher, coach, and guidance counselor, all while working a full time job. That’s why I’ve been focused on two commonsense solutions to get women back into the workforce and on their feet: first, safely reopening our schools, and second, expanding access to child care.
Recently, I helped lead an effort that would require schools to provide an in-person learning option by the end of April. And last week, I introduced a bill that would require regular public updates on the reopening status of our nation’s schools and accountability for how the hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money that is going to the federal Department of Education for COVID relief is being spent.
I’ve also continued to support access to child care in our state and worked with other female members of the Iowa congressional delegation. This week, I teamed up with Democratic Congresswoman Cindy Axne to introduce a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would increase the amount of tax-free dollars working families and their employers can set aside to use toward child and dependent care expenses. I’m also working with Republican Congresswoman Ashley Hinson on an effort to increase the availability of federal funding for child care development—allowing communities and public-private partnerships to use grants through the Department of Commerce to bolster access to child care.
Women across this country have overcome significant obstacles—particularly this year. They’ve had to take on new roles as teachers, while caring for the family and juggling a thousand other responsibilities. At the federal level, I’m going to keep working with Democrats and Republicans to ensure my fellow female leaders continue to have opportunities to succeed.
It is my hope that each and every young woman – no matter their hometown or background – will see the potential that lies ahead and will always be grateful for the trailblazers who have gone before us.
Joni Ernst, a native of Red Oak and a combat veteran, represents Iowa in the United States Senate.