Years before the #MeToo movement gained steam and incited women in all sectors to speak out against harassment, before the 2016 presidential election inspired a wave of women to run for elected office across the U.S., Janet Cowell was working her way up in politics – first as a member of the Raleigh City Council in North Carolina, then as state senator, and later rising to become state treasurer in 2007.

The first woman to hold that position, Cowell had a slew of successes during her tenure, which ended in 2016. Despite these wins, Cowell was challenging a deeply rooted status quo in North Carolina’s male-dominated political culture. To say it wasn’t easy is an understatement. Here’s what Cowell told Fast Company in her own words about being the only woman in the room for much of her career.

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