OPINION: Women in the White House, Spotlight on Elaine Chao

    Pictured: Elaine Chao being sworn into her position as the Secretary of Transportation by the Vice President, Mike Pence. Her father, James S.C. Chao, and her husband, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), are by her side.

    The Real Truth

    Just so it is clear, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign loss doesn’t mean that there isn’t a strong female representative in the White House.

    In fact, had Hillary Clinton not run at all, Americans would still have accomplished and ambitious female leaders in Washington advocating on their behalf.

    For example, there’s Rep. Barbra Comstock (R-VA), who sponsored the original INSPIRE Women Act, a piece of legislation that compels the director of NASA to encourage females to pursue education in STEM fields. President Trump signed this bill into law in February of this year.

    There’s also Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). Murray’s Senate career began in 1992 and a large part of her legislative focus surrounds the environment. In 2008, Murray cosponsored bills that allowed for the expansion and preservation of wilderness areas in her home state. She also serves on an Appropriation’s subcommittee for Energy and Water Development.

    The list could go on and on, but her influence in Congress is beside the point. The real focus of this piece is the White House, and more specifically, a heroine of the current administration.

    That woman is Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

    For someone whose story did not even begin in this country, Chao was able to ascend the ranks of major political and business institutions in order to better the communities around her and achieve the American dream.

    Some of her titles include the U.S. Secretary of Labor, U.S. Secretary of Transportation and Director of the Peace Corps, and it is inspiring to see a female representative in such influential ranks. She not only has an inspiring story to share with other women, but she is also a standing figure in the Asian community. When looking into Chao’s background, it is not hard to predict that her work ethic would be the impetus to all of the success that she has obtained.

    Where it all began…

    Born in Taipei, Taiwan on March 26, 1953, Elaine Lan Chao is the eldest daughter of six children. Her parents, James S.C. Chao and Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, founded a shipping industry and worked as a historian, respectively. Elaine Chao immigrated to the United States on a freight ship when she was eight years old in 1961.

    When Chao arrived in the United States, she knew very little English and relied heavily on her father, who had been living in the country before her, to help assimilate into American culture. At one point, eating with a fork and knife was troubling for her, as all that she had ever known was eating with chopsticks!

    Whether it was learning how to use cutlery, mastering the English language or trying to find the point of high school dating, Chao did not let the culture shock get to her. She handled it all in her own way, never losing sight of her academic goals.

    In an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, Chao recalled the times of her high school dances. “I didn’t understand the significance of it. I never went to my senior prom, I never went to my junior prom. Nobody asked,” she said.

    There’s no need to feel bad for Chao’s experience though. The time she could have spent with friends or boyfriends, Chao spent studying, and in the end it all paid off. Chao was accepted into Mount Holyoke College and received an Economics degree in 1975. Then in 1979, she earned an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. While enrolled, she was a member of the finance club and elected as the first female class officer.

    Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

    After Harvard, Chao was ready to take on the corporate world, heading straight to San Francisco, California to work for Bank of America and later Citicorp. Everything would change in 1983 when Chao received a White House Fellowship with the Reagan Administration. This put her on the path that started her impressive career in government. Three years later Chao became the Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration and in 1989, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to be the Deputy Secretary of Transportation. 1992 was the year that she became Director of the Peace Corps and Chao was able to establish Peace Corps programs in places such as Poland, Lithuania and Estonia.

    During the Clinton Administration, Chao took a break from government work, but returned for George W. Bush’s time in office. Chao served as the Secretary of Labor for the entirety of his presidency, becoming the longest serving Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins in 1945. She was also the first Asian-American woman to enter a presidential cabinet position.

    While in this role Chao was able to accomplish many goals. A statistic by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration stated that under her leadership both the workplace fatality rate and the workplace illness and injury rate dropped to all time lows. She also guided the U.S. Department of Labor to reform the protection of workers’ health, safety, wages, and retirement securities by recovering back wages for pension plans. The agency was also given a “green” level rating by the Office of Management and Budget for the department’s superb practices in budgetary managing.

    Now when talking about Elaine Chao, it probably won’t take long for her husband to also come up in the conversation. Currently, Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). They have been married since 1993 and together they are known as one of the strongest “power couples” in Washington D.C. A library at the University of Louisville opened an archive in their names.

    Working with Trump

    For the Trump Administration, Chao works as the Secretary of Transportation. She was confirmed on January 31, 2017 by the Senate with a vote of 93-6. During the announcement of Chao’s nomination, Trump noted that Chao has “an amazing life story” and praised her for her “extensive record of strong leadership and expertise.”

    In her position Chao has been working to help President Trump achieve his visions for the Department of Transportation. One of those goals is to privatize the air traffic control industry. Chao has said that making this change would increase efficiency. For example, airlines would be able to use updated satellite technology, increasing the amount of direct flights for pilots, thus saving more money.

    A Message from the Heart

    Whether it be through her dedication to serving the country, her ability to bridge gaps between cultures or simply sharing her life’s story, it is clear that Elaine Chao has made a difference in this world. From her interactions with presidents and by working in the White House, it is likely that she will serve as an inspiration to many different people for generations to come–an inspiration that encourages others to fill themselves with the same sense of purpose that her own work has done for her.

    “Pursue your life’s passion,” Chao says. “Do what you really love and the rest will unfold.”



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