You have talked about your life as a series of second chances.
Yeah. My life has been a series of successes and failures. As much as I have succeeded, I have also failed. I dropped out of school when I was 17. And I had no hope for the future. My first job at that time was as a waitress at a Waffle House on the side of the interstate. My parents said if I was going to stop going to school, I had to start going to work. If I was going to live in their house, I had to live under their rules. I learned some very tough lessons during some very tough times. The reason I dropped out was because I was sexually assaulted by someone at my school. And I lived for a very long time with that ghost in my closet and could not talk about it to anyone for 25 years, essentially. Back in those days — that was the mid-’90s, and if you came forward with such an accusation, you were dragged through the mud. You were judged. It was a frightening, terrifying, traumatic experience — I was 16 at the time. And I refused to go back to school.
After dropping out of high school and working, you then applied to The Citadel, where you would be the first woman to graduate. That’s a massive challenge. How did you decide to do that?
I decided to go to The Citadel because I had something to prove to myself, personally: that I could face adversity, that I could face an obstacle unlike any other, and I wouldn’t quit. Because in high school I quit. I gave up on myself. I gave up on everything. Gave up on my future. Gave up on my friends, my family. I shut it all down. I was so angry at the time, and I knew I needed to channel these self-destructive qualities and turn that negative into a positive. And that, for me personally, no amount of therapy or medication would get me there. That I had to do it on my own. I was successful there. And that was the journey and the catalyst that brought me out of the darkness into the light.
I think it’s important to share some of those stories because, oftentimes, I think people are put on a pedestal, especially when you’re the first woman to graduate from The Citadel. And it’s, like: No, I’m totally imperfect. And so that makes me a perfect messenger for all of our failings as human beings, right? In a way, President Trump changed the paradigm in American politics where you could be more, I think, true to yourself and authentic. I mean, that’s important to relate to the American people, especially in times of struggle. I think people want to hear that honest voice. That rawness, that realness. No matter how flawed it is.
What was it that prompted you, after 25 years, to finally talk about what happened to you — the sexual assault?
It was not planned. We were having a debate about the fetal heartbeat bill on the House floor. And no women were getting up and talking about it. There were no exceptions for women who had been raped or victims of incest. I did not plan to go to the well, but I did. And I remember holding on to the podium. My knuckles were white. I thought I was going to pull the thing out of the floor. [Laughs.] And the way that I was treated after by a few of my colleagues reminded me of the fear I had as a 16-year-old, the way that I was attacked when I gave that speech. And judged. In ways that you’re fearful [of] when you go through a traumatic event like that. But I made it through it because I’m tougher today than I was 25 years ago. And South Carolina is now [one of] the only state[s] in the nation that has a fetal heartbeat bill that has exceptions for rape and incest included in it. And that was based off an amendment that I drafted and the speech that I gave. And that is part of the Republican Party platform.
You were the first Republican woman elected to the U.S. Congress in South Carolina — in a year that Republican women elected to Congress doubled their number. What does that tell you?
It tells me that we still have ceilings that need to be shattered in this country. It took 100 years after women’s suffrage to have a [Republican] female member of Congress elected from South Carolina. Democratic women don’t hold a monopoly on breaking glass ceilings. It’s Republican women, too. We all have been breaking barriers most of our life. And if we want our Republican Party to grow, then the faces of our party need to reflect the faces of America. This is a great start, but we shouldn’t be satisfied until our body reflects the demographics of the nation.
Your very first week in D.C. as a member of Congress was marred by the pro-Trump mob attack on the Capitol. What did that change for you?
The priorities are different now. I think that we need to take a real hard, strong look and reconcile some of the things that happened. The fact that we went back into that chamber and continued to object and debate voter fraud allegations on a ceremonial vote on January 6th after hundreds of people stormed the Capitol, where five people died — it was the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong message. As Republicans, we need to have a higher standard if we want people to be able to trust us again. Everything that we’ve accomplished in the last four years is wiped out in the violence that happened. We have to start over. We need to rebuild our nation. We need to rebuild our party. But we can’t do it if this division continues.
Did you see anything in that day, that night, or its aftermath that gives you hope that maybe people are willing to come together and tone down the rhetoric?
I’m grateful that we did not object to any more [fraud allegations] after Pennsylvania. I think that was a good start. But it should have ended before that. I wanted to see more unity and less division, particularly after what had just transpired. And I want to be part of the conversation within my party on how we move forward and how we earn back the trust of the American people. How we ensure that we communicate our conservative ideas and policies in a way that shows just how compassionate they really are.
But we’re in a situation now where we have a Democratic president. And because of the rhetoric, we lost the Senate in Georgia. We don’t have a majority in the House. We’re going to be very hamstrung. It’s going to be an enormous challenge for us to be able to do that now. And so we really reap what we sow. But I’m going to work hard and try to seek out moderates and build relationships. That’s what it’s going to take. And both parties need to recognize that there is a problem and take responsibility. Moving forward, we can’t have a vacuum of radicals on the left or the right. We’re never going to get anywhere if we do.
Do you think the fact that there are so many women on both sides of the aisle now — or more than there have been previously, anyway — presents an opportunity to work together?
I think it does. I mean, I generally don’t rely on gender identity politics to get things done. I’m an equal-opportunity relationship builder. But I do think, as women, we juggle a lot. And we’re efficient with our time. And we communicate in a different way. We understand each other, I think, better.
But also the challenge as a woman in a male-dominated industry is that, as women, we’re tougher on each other than we should be. I learned that when I was at The Citadel. I saw it in my first job in corporate America. And I’ve seen it over and over again, where we don’t support each other. And that, too, has to change. We should want to see each other be successful.
There’s another famous young congresswoman, who was also a waitress ...
[Laughs.] I have not met her yet.
But hopefully there’s some common ground there, right?
Right. I mean, I will work with anyone who’s willing to reach across the aisle. And to me, you know, I’m “small parts, big difference.” I like simple, clean legislation. I think that is the best way to work together. But time will tell if that can actually happen.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen.