When Mrs. Smith went to Washington
By U.S. Senator Deb Fischer | December 9, 2013

The following essay is part of a series in which dozens of women will reveal what women they most admire. The series is part of “Women Rule,” a unique effort this fall by POLITICO, Google and The Tory Burch Foundation exploring how women are leading change in politics, policy and their communities. See more essays here.

“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A high school valedictorian at just 15 years old, Virginia Dodd drew on these words from Longfellow in what would fittingly become her life’s motto. Nearly 65 years later, she would complete her eight-term tenure representing Nebraska’s 3rd District in 1991 — the first and only woman from that state to serve a full term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

During the Great Depression, Virginia attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she pursued a degree in agriculture and met her husband, Haven Smith. To earn and save for tuition during these difficult times, the couple took a temporary leave of absence from school to move out west to Chappell, Neb., a town with a population just shy of 1,000. The work on Haven Smith’s family wheat farm was hard, but it gave Virginia Smith a chance to get her hands dirty.

After two decades of experience with agricultural organizations, boards and commissions, Smith took the risk of a lifetime and made a run for Congress. Her first congressional race in 1974 was a tough one. She faced a packed GOP primary and a well-known Democratic opponent. And she was, of course, a woman — and no woman had ever been elected to represent Nebraskans in Congress.

Smith’s campaign strategy in this tight race relied on one of her greatest skills — making friends. Everywhere she traveled, Smith had the uncanny ability of connecting with people through mutual acquaintances. A lifetime of community involvement allowed Smith to develop relationships with Nebraskans across the state. She was, in every sense, a force of nature.

I witnessed her power of personality firsthand when I met Smith in a restaurant in my small town of Valentine, Neb. She visited our community of 2,800 people, one campaign stop among the hundreds scattered throughout the state. I fondly remember her visit with my mother-in-law and me. It didn’t take long before Smith discovered a mutual friend with my mother-in-law.

Part of Smith’s success was that she was simply relatable. She shared the same roots, knew the same people and did the same work. She was one of us. Her conversations with Nebraskans came easy; they were natural. Her straight talk and focus on relationship building helped her win the tight race, and they served her well in Washington.

Smith won her first race in 1974 by less than half a percentage point. Two years later, she won reelection with 75 percent of the vote.

Although some recall the 1970s as an age of progress for women, Washington was still an unwelcoming place for female legislators — particularly a conservative woman. The adversity she faced because of her gender, though, was a secondary concern to Smith’s focus on how to best serve her constituents. Instead of making excuses or alienating herself from the “boys club,” Smith sought to win over her colleagues with her unyielding and distinctive charm.

Her ability to connect with her colleagues quickly landed her a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. She had no interest in pork, only the high national priorities of her constituents. Several political commentators at the time, including author and founder of National Review William Buckley, took notice and remarked on the congresswoman’s unwavering defense of critical farm programs.

Her accomplishments reached far beyond her own district, even making an impact overseas. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, many Eastern European countries faced a food crisis during their transition under democratic rule. In response to the crisis, Smith promoted a deal that would establish agriculture trade with these burgeoning democracies and promote U.S. exports. She showed that the labors of a farmer in a small town like Chappell, Neb., could touch the lives of those halfway around the globe.

Smith helped to define what public service means to me. She worked hard for those she represented and she kept her promises. Her work made a positive difference in countless lives and brought real, tangible results to Nebraska’s communities.

Mrs. Smith may have surprised some in Washington, but Nebraskans knew all along they had a tenacious fighter in their one and only congresswoman. She was smart, perceptive and understood the powerful role that networking plays in getting things accomplished. She executed this political savvy throughout her career without ever losing her smile, graciousness or her Nebraska manners — all while outworking everyone.

As I reach the end of my first year in the U.S. Senate, I’m working to follow Smith’s lead by always staying in close touch with Nebraskans and building strong relationships with my colleagues to advance the interests of Nebraskans here in Washington. In doing so, I hope to honor the legacy of Virginia Smith — one of great heights reached by a great woman.

Deb Fischer is a Republican senator from Nebraska.


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