Pelosi: What Difference Will a Woman Make?

After two days of pounding Washington’s marble hallways last week while the 110th Congress was sworn in, my flat-heeled boot clad feet were killing me. That Nancy Pelosi manages to do it in Jimmy Choo heels was enough to convince me of her resolve.

When Pelosi accepted her gavel, she said she was “breaking the marble ceiling.” But what difference does it make that Pelosi has become the first woman speaker in our nation’s history? After its first 100 hours in which the House is taking up ethics reform, raising the minimum wage, lifting restrictions on funding stem cell research, lowering interest on student loans, permitting the Feds to wrestle Medicare drug prices down a few notches, and nipping subsidies for oil and gas producers -- all measures on which the new Democratic majority agrees and can even pull a few Republican votes -- will Pelosi do things differently, fulfilling her pledge of civility and partnership over partisanship?

Shortly after being sworn in to cheers from a packed gallery, Kirsten Gillibrand, new Democratic congresswoman from upstate New York’s 20th District, was, she said, “on cloud nine. I’m so aware of the historic significance of this moment and thrilled to be part of it.” Gillibrand’s victory over a long-time Republican incumbent was one of the pivotal wins that tipped the majority to the Democrats.

We were standing amid a chaotic mass of constituents waiting to get pictures taken with their member and the speaker outside the Rayburn room -- named for legendary Texan, Sam Rayburn, who presided for 17 years as speaker during the 1940s and 1950s. Washington is obsessed with the photo op because leadership is about the creation of meaning. The now ubiquitous photo of Pelosi brandishing a giant wooden gavel and smiling among her own and other members’ children and grandchildren telegraphed her message precisely: I am a woman, a liberal Democratic pro-choice feminist woman no less, and I love children. My agenda will be about the future not the past. So get off my case, all of you who want to brand me as lacking those values. I’m a mom, and I know how to run a house. I’m taking this Congress forward. (Gracious smile here.) Do come with me.

I waited among another group of family, staff, and friends for the swearing in of Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat representing Southern Arizona’s 8th district and one of the youngest of the new congresswomen at age 36. Giffords was in constant motion, excited at the prospect of presiding over the House session from 11 pm until midnight that evening -- prime TV time for C-Span watching constituents back home. Pelosi has made a number of smart moves like this: giving new members from swing districts plum assignments -- Gillibrand and Giffords are both on the prestigious Armed Services Committee -- and substantive speaking roles to help them keep their seats in ‘08. Pelosi photo accomplished, the Gifford contingent went down to the Capitol rotunda for a private swearing in by former Governor Bruce Babbitt -- before a statue of John C. Greenway, a mining magnate whose widow Isabella become Arizona’s first congresswoman in 1933. Giffords promised to follow in Isabella’s footsteps as she thanked women who paved her way and pulled her up.

Later, Giffords told me she had worked with a woman speaker before, a Republican who led the Arizona legislature. A feminist in today’s terms, she thinks, is “a woman who is strong, self-sufficient, [and] moves beyond a gender focus.” She said Speaker Pelosi “surrounds herself with smart, good people. She knows being a Washington insider isn't a good thing. When we had a briefing on Iraq, she had all the freshmen ask questions first. And she is giving freshmen women roles not considered typical to women. I don’t know whether a man would have that sensitivity.”

Pelosi has more women to consider for assignments than available to her predecessors. Though still far from parity, this Congress includes 74 women in the House and 16 in the Senate, marking a recovery from the setbacks of the 1994 Gingrich revolution that wiped out gains made during the 1992 “year of the woman” elections. No victory is forever. And Giffords is only Arizona’s third woman member of Congress -- an illustration that more women need to be in the pipeline if the next generation is to achieve gender balance.

Speaker Pelosi may well inspire more women to become candidates. Newly elected Congresswoman Mazie Hirono of Hawaii cited a growing body of research that finds most women run because other people encourage them, whereas men “think it’s their God-given right to seek office.” Hirono spearheaded a political action committee to raise money for women candidates, named in honor of the late Congresswoman Patsy Mink. “If you never see a woman leading, it is very hard to envision a woman as speaker of the House and second in line of succession to the presidency,” said Hirono. “The very fact that Pelosi is there makes a difference.”

Hirono is a role model herself. She served in the state legislature before she was elected lieutenant governor. She then ran for governor and lost one of the few statewide races that have pitted two women against each other. But Hirono came right back, barely winning a hotly contested Democratic primary for her Congressional seat before coasting to victory in the general election. Women have to learn to take those risks and not be deterred by defeat, she says.

Encouragement can work both ways. The new congresswomen are a stellar bunch who can be a huge support to Speaker Pelosi. Democrats are far more diverse and far less trusting of power than Republicans tend to be. But if the speaker is as smart as I think she is, she will spend less time cultivating the “Blue Dog” Democrats and recognize the progressive women as her greatest asset.

Sam Rayburn was fond of saying, “Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build it.” Pelosi has the enormous challenge of being the right woman for this time -- the carpenter who builds a better future for those fresh-faced children surrounding her in that iconic photo.

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