I was first elected to public office in 1998 as a wide-eyed freshman in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The halls of the state capitol were the ultimate good ol’ boys club, and its members went to great lengths to protect their own.
It didn’t take me long to realize that, while I may have had the same title as every member of our 99-person chamber, I wasn’t always afforded the same respect. It was a constant fight to show that I was every bit as capable as the rest of my colleagues and that my ideas deserved a fair hearing.
One of my greatest frustrations at the state legislature was the fact that Republicans, the minority party at the time, refused to even nominate a candidate for Speaker of the House. We knew that Democrats had the numbers to hold the Speakership, but year in and year out, we conceded the battle without even mounting a fight. In fact, I was told that, not only would I vote for the entrenched incumbent Speaker, but I would also help pay for a gift to congratulate him upon his certain reelection.
It made no sense to me that representatives elected as Republicans would head to Nashville and cast their very first vote for a Democratic Speaker. So I urged some of my more senior male colleagues to come forward as a nominee.
When no one took the bait, I decided to do it myself. The words of the first female British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher echoed in my ears: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
The opposition to my decision was fierce, even from fellow Republicans who were worried about losing goodwill.
I specifically remember one member of our party leadership who called me into his office and told me, “You’ll learn how to operate once you’re here for a while, but for now, let us take care of this.” The subtext of his words was clear: Sit down, be quiet and know your place.
I hadn’t spent a lifetime in the political system like many of my colleagues. I left a fulfilling career in nursing to serve in the legislature, so I reasoned early on that, if I wasn’t going to make a difference, there was no reason to stay. With that in mind, I ran for Speaker of the House…and lost.
Read more: 8 Ways Leaders Spend Their Time After Hours
It would be another decade before Tennessee finally elected its first woman to that position, but I soon learned that what felt like a defeat at the time would pave the way for success later on. The Speaker race gave me the confidence needed to take on another incumbent, this time running for state senate, and later, to serve as the first female Senate Republican Caucus Chairwoman in the state’s history.
Today, I’m proud to help lead women’s engagement efforts for Congressional Republicans. As part of that responsibility, I have the privilege of identifying, recruiting and mentoring conservative female candidates. We’ve got our work cut out for us; women make up more than half of the American population and vote at a higher rate than men, yet they still account for less than 20% of the membership in Congress.
In my conversations with prospective candidates, I often remember that talking-to I received in a back office of the state Capitol all those years ago, and I remind women, “Don’t let anyone tell you no.” If we do, we risk denying ourselves an important opportunity.
Congressman Diane Black is a registered nurse of more than 40 years and a current member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Tennessee’s 6th district. She serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and Budget Committee.