Trailblazing Women You May Not Know (But Should): Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Each week, the Lean In tumblr will spotlight women who made a lasting mark on the world — yet didn’t always end up in the history books. This week we celebrate Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina elected to Congress.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, born in Havana in 1952, fled Castro’s Cuba with her family when she was eight. “For me, being born in Cuba is not just an interesting place on your passport,” she told MAKERS. “It has given me an understanding that comes from losing your homeland and seeing how fragile democracy is.”
Her family settled in Miami, where “we didn’t have much. When you’re poor, everyone works. We didn’t have a maid or a gardener. We were the maids, we were the gardeners! Everybody had to carry their weight.”
Ros-Lehtinen earned an Associate of Arts degree from Miami-Dade Community College in 1972 and began teaching at the elementary school owned by her family. “I was inspired to enter public service by many of the parents and students, to fight on their behalf,” she has said. “I thought to myself, ‘I could be the person who actually makes these rules.’”
Ros-Lehtinen entered the race for the Florida House of Representatives in 1982. "There were about 13 or 14 candidates for the spot and I told them all, ‘I’m going to run and I’m going to win, because you will not out-work me," she said. She won — and won again in her race for the Florida Senate in 1986. She was the first Hispanic woman to serve in either body.
Now in her third decade in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen is Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and a vigorous national defense advocate. This week she delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in Spanish.
She hopes her presence in Congress will inspire little girls to lead across the country. "I think that every woman in elected office should think of herself as a feminist," she told MAKERS.
"To think that a Cuban refugee could come to the United States not knowing a word of English and is now a member of Congress…is this a great country or what?”
Editor’s note: This feature highlights the stories of women who succeeded against the odds and blazed a trail in their fields. Lean In does not run these posts as endorsements of specific policies or individuals. Lean In encourages everyone to support changes that help all women to succeed.
(Photo source: Congress.gov)