By Rep. Donna Oberlander
Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to make my own way in the world and be my own person.
I was an independent, entrepreneurial young lady. From a young age, I sold hand-crafted bird houses door-to-door with my younger brothers before opening a little convenience store from my desk at school. Later, I owned and operated a textile-printing company for more than 20 years and always felt a sense of pride every time I would see one of “my” t-shirts worn by someone in our community.
Little did I know it then, but those lessons in entrepreneurship — hard work, determination and keen observation — prepared me well, in business, government and life. Those were important lessons because I had never considered that being a girl could — or ever would — hold me back. My family instilled in me from a young age that I could do anything I wanted, and that continues to be true to this very day.
It wasn’t until I worked for a government contractor outside Washington, D.C., where I saw that women needed to work extra hard to succeed and I continued to put those lessons to use. For so much of my life, I considered myself to be “Donna” — not a woman and certainly not someone who needed special treatment to succeed. I — like so many other women – just wanted to be treated fairly.
Early in my career, I was a certified finance professional, and I worked with economic development corporations, businesses and government to help spur economic activity in my rural area. In that capacity, I also saw firsthand how much harder female entrepreneurs have to work to get a fair shot in the world.
Part of that is the reason why during my time in the state House, I authored Act 171 of 2016, legislation that requires the state Department of General Services to establish a process to formally recognize all Pennsylvania-based minority-, woman- and veteran-owned businesses. This isn’t asking for special treatment, but for fairer treatment. Simply, this law makes sure that they are considered as part of the state procurement process by ensuring a level playing field. That’s all we ask.
When I first ran for county commissioner in 2002, I wasn’t the first woman to run and hold that office but I was the youngest. I never believed my gender would hold me back, even when others may have. I was the first woman to win for the 63rd Legislative District when I ran in 2008, and five years ago, I became the first woman from that district to earn a spot on the House Republican Leadership Team. And earlier this year, I became the first Republican woman to hold the spot of Majority Whip.
In the spirit of fairness, I’ve never believed in identity politics, and I don’t want to achieve any role simply because I am a female. Likewise, women shouldn’t vote for us because we are women. Everyone should focus on the unique qualifications and perspectives that women bring to the table. Their voices should be heard within their communities and at all levels of government.
Women not only express their views because they are women but because they are also mothers, wives, sisters, aunts and nieces. We understand what it takes to run a business; care for our families; and struggle when times are tough. We women are creative problem-solvers, hard workers and busy task masters. If the recent pandemic has taught us anything about the female spirit, we really can do it all.
That’s why I believe it is so imperative to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and earning that long-cherished and hard-fought right to vote.
By celebrating the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, we are showing the world that we value the contributions of women and we recognize they have a valuable role to play within our government and society. In order for those contributions to grow and succeed, we must encourage every single woman to exercise their right to vote.
I also hope that when women head to the ballot box and choose their candidates for local, state and national offices, they may also get the idea that they too can be even more a part of the process. They too can choose to seek elected office; they too can bring their unique skills and perspectives to the political process; and they too can be leaders.
When I look back on the critical role women have played in my life and have shaped who I am, I need only walk into my grandmother’s kitchen every Sunday, give her a big hug and simply say, “Thank you.”
Rep. Donna Oberlander represents Pennsylvania’s 63rd House District, which includes Clarion County and parts of Armstrong and Forest Counties. She serves as Pennsylvania’s first female House Republican Whip.
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