It’s a glass ceiling no one else has even cracked, and Nancy Pelosi crashed through it Thursday, elected the nation’s first-ever female House speaker.
“I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship, and look forward to working with you on behalf of the American people,” Pelosi said in a speech to colleagues and the nation. “In this House, we may belong to different parties, but we serve one country.”
The 66-year-old San Francisco Democrat beamed and clapped as she heard the voice vote catapulting her to the House’s top post. She was surrounded on the House floor by her six grandchildren, including Paul Michael Vos, born to her daughter Alexandra in early November.
After her election by a vote of 233-202, Pelosi stood holding the sleeping infant — who did not stir — and shook hands as she accepted congratulations from her fellow House members.
“Today I thank my colleagues. By electing me as speaker you have brought us closer to the ideal of equality that is America’s heritage and America’s hope,” Pelosi said. “This is an historic moment — for the Congress, and for the women of America. It is a moment for which we have waited more than 200 years. Never losing faith, we waited through the many years of struggle to achieve our rights.”
Pelosi had entered the chamber to prolonged cheers from fellow House members and the packed visitors’ galleries, where onlookers included actor Richard Gere and singer Tony Bennett, crooner of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
As the roll was called to seal her election and one Democrat after another shouted out her name, Pelosi sat smiling broadly, holding one grandchild and then another.
'Broken the marble ceiling'
“For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling,” she said. “For our daughters and our granddaughters now, the sky is the limit.”
Pelosi began her history-making day running into anti-abortion demonstrators as she went to a prayer service with her husband, Paul, and a daughter at St. Peter’s Catholic Church near the Capitol.
“You can’t be Catholic and pro-abortion,” read one placard. Pelosi and her entourage walked past the small group of protesters without saying anything.
Attending the service with her were Republican leaders that her party put into the minority in the November election: new Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri.
Also there were new House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a one-time Pelosi rival elected by House Democrats to be her No. 2 over her protests, and Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean.
She also attended a ceremonial swearing-in of the Congressional Black Caucus, where the incoming leader of the 42-member group, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., made clear that they intended to have a voice in the new Congress. “She must deliver, because black people delivered that we might have this majority,” Kilpatrick said of Pelosi.
The House convened at midday with Democrats rejoicing over taking control of Congress after 12 years in the minority.
But the spotlight belonged to Pelosi, and she was making the most of it with a whirlwind of festivities from the lavish to the sentimental. The week was her coming-out to the nation, and she was aiming to introduce herself not just as the San Francisco liberal decried by Republicans, but also as an Italian-American Catholic, mother of five and native of gritty Baltimore, where her father was mayor.
“We look forward to the rest of the country appreciating the real San Francisco values, of diversity and a city of dreamers, “San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said after attending a brunch in her honor. “You can only exploit the gay community so much ... They’re going to see there’s so much more to San Francisco.”
Throughout, the symbolism of Pelosi’s triumph for women was center stage.
Outside a brunch Thursday at the Library of Congress, leaders from the National Organization for Women greeted her with a giant congratulation card. The message: Way to Go!
“This is a historic moment for women everywhere,” said NOW President Kim Gandy.
Thursday evening, Pelosi was being feted at a $1,000-a-head concert hosted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at the National Building Museum with performances expected from Carole King, Bennett, Wyclef Jean and others.
Pelosi attended Mass Wednesday at Trinity University, where she’s an alumnus, and dined that night at the Italian embassy.
Friday begins with an open house event across from the Capitol. Then she heads to Baltimore, where the street where she grew up in Little Italy is being dedicated in her honor: Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi Via.
Pelosi was raised there, the daughter of New Deal Maryland congressman Thomas D’Alesandro, who later became the city’s mayor. She didn’t run for the House herself until 1987 after marrying wealthy businessman Paul Pelosi, moving to San Francisco and raising her children.
In Congress Pelosi displayed the tough politicking of her childhood environment. She wrung loyalties, counted votes and muscled aside Hoyer to become Democrats’ second-in-command, and then Democratic leader in 2002.
Personal loyalty is key to Pelosi. She tried to block Hoyer’s bid in November to become Democratic majority leader, suffering an embarrassing defeat when her preferred candidate, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, lost badly.
Pelosi wins re-election by huge margins and stays true to her San Francisco constituency, voting against the Iraq war resolution and co-sponsoring legislation to end federal prohibitions against medical marijuana. Her liberalism makes some moderate Democrats leery, and she’s avoided campaigning in some conservative districts.
Gender history of Congress
It shouldn't be surprising that it took more than 200 years for Congress to select a female speaker of the House. The United States isn't exactly at the forefront when it comes to women in politics.
Women make up a larger share of the national legislature in 79 other countries, including China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an association of national legislatures. The United States even trails a couple of fledgling democracies: Afghanistan and Iraq.
There were 22 women in the House when Pelosi was first elected to her California district in 1987. There will be a record 71 female representatives when she takes over as speaker, giving women 16 percent of the seats.
"The biggest obstacle women candidates face is not about gender, it's about the lack of opportunity," said Ellen R. Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, which helps Democratic women who favor abortion rights get elected to public office. "Ninety-eight percent of incumbents who run for re-election are re-elected in most years. ... The bottom line is there are very few opportunities."
Once women decide to run for office, they are just as successful as men, according to experts who study the issue. However, women are much less likely to run.
One big reason is child care. Women are much more likely than men to be responsible for child care, and that doesn't always fit into the usually chaotic schedule of a member of Congress.
"All these women, even if they are extremely qualified, they are still so much involved in their family life they couldn't even consider running for office," said Richard Fox, professor of political science at Union College in New York.
Fox did an extensive survey of women in professions that produce many lawmakers: education, business and the law. He worked on the study with Jennifer Lawless, an assistant political science professor at Brown University who ran for Congress this year, losing the Democratic primary in Rhode Island to incumbent Rep. James Langevin.
Among the conclusions:
- Women are less likely than men to be asked to run for office by party leaders and other officials.
- When women are asked to run, they are just as likely as men to do it.
- Women are more likely than men to think they are unqualified to serve, even when they have the same qualifications as male candidates.
"A man can wake up one morning, look in the mirror and say, 'By God, I would be the best state legislator that Nebraska has ever seen,'" said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "Men don't need to be asked."
Rep. Jeanette Rankin, R-Mont., was the first woman elected to Congress, in 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote (women could already vote in Montana).
Before 1970, more than 40 percent of the women in Congress gained office by succeeding their dead husbands. Since then, fewer than 10 percent have followed their husbands, according to data collected by Dennis Simon, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
The number of women in Congress has grown slowly, with the biggest jump coming in 1992, the "Year of the Woman," when it nearly doubled, to 54.
Pelosi, 66, grew up in politics as the daughter and sister of Baltimore mayors. But she waited until her youngest daughter was in high school before she ran for Congress, a path followed by many women.
Women are, on average, older than men when they are first elected to Congress, giving them less time to rise in leadership, which is based largely on seniority.
Lena Saradnik was elected in November to the Arizona State Legislature for the first time at age 59. She said it would have been tough to run for political office while her daughter, now 30, was still young.
Saradnik, a Democrat from Tucson, said she could see herself joining Pelosi in Congress some day, but she's realistic about her prospects.
"If I were younger, I would probably say, absolutely," Saradnik said.
Saradnik said she decided to run for office after being approached by a local Democratic official. She was helped by a training program called Emerge America, which teaches public speaking, fundraising and media skills to female Democrats. Republicans have a similar programs called the Excellence in Public Service Series.
Just the beginning?
Marya Stark, executive director of Emerge America, predicted that more women will be inspired to run for office with Pelosi serving as speaker and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., being a potential candidate for president.
Pelosi embraces her role as the first female speaker, but she wants to be judged by the same standards as the 51 men who came before her.
"I have always asked my colleagues to judge me by the quality of my leadership and the results we achieve together, not as the first woman," Pelosi said.
But, she added: "Becoming the first woman speaker will send a message to young girls and women across the country that anything is possible for them, that women can achieve power, wield power and breathe the air at that altitude. As the first woman speaker of the House, I will work to make certain that I will not be the last."