This week, the 118th Congress convened with a total of 149 women, setting a new record for female representation. It comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first female to serve in that role, steps away from the leadership position she’s held for the past 15 years. “When I came to the Congress in 1987, there were 12 Democratic women, now there are over 90, and we want more!” Pelosi told her fellow colleagues when she announced her decision in November. Paving the way for more women in politics is part of Pelosi’s legacy and something she has pushed for from the beginning. “I think it’s in everybody’s interest — Democrats and Republicans — to have many more women in all parties representing Congress, in government, in business and across the board,” she told MAKERS in a 2012 interview. Now, 11 years later, Pelosi’s vision is coming to fruition not only with the history-making number of women serving in Congress but also more than a third of those women will be women of color. Here’s a look back at Pelosi’s groundbreaking career that helped change the face of Congress.
Pelosi grew up in Maryland with a family steeped in public service. Her father served in Congress before becoming the mayor of Baltimore. “You would never walk into our home without seeing bumper stickers, placards, political pins, brochures,” Pelosi said in her MAKERS interview. “Whether it was a federal election, a statewide election, a city election, my father running for mayor, we were engaged in elections all the time. It was great.”
After graduating from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., she married Paul Pelosi. Six years and five kids later, the family moved to California where Nancy Pelosi started volunteering as a political organizer. She quickly rose through the ranks and in 1981, she was named chair of the California Democratic Party. At age 47, Pelosi was encouraged to run for Congress. It was her youngest daughter’s senior year of high school, so Pelosi told MAKERS she went to the teen and said, “Mommy has a chance to run for Congress — I don’t know if I’ll win or not — but what’s most important to me is you. Do you want me to be here with you? Or I can run for Congress, either way I’m happy.” Pelosi said her daughter replied, “Mother, get a life.” Pelosi took her daughter’s advice and not only ran but also won that election, launching her historic career on Capitol Hill.
Over the years, Pelosi gained a reputation for being a highly successful negotiator who was not afraid to speak her mind or show her true feelings. Remember the infamous clap back she gave to former President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address? These bold actions often drew critics. “When you are effective, you are a target, it’s a tough arena. But the ability to make a contribution to our country to have some influence on public policy to make the future better for our country, is worth all that [PAUSE] aggravation,” Pelosi told MAKERS with a smile. But her ability to reach across the aisle when needed to get legislation passed is a skill that’s admired by even her harshest critics. “No other speaker in the modern era, Republican or Democrat, has wielded the gavel with such authority or such consistent results,” stated Ohio Republican John Boehner at the dedication of Pelosi’s official portrait last month. “Let me just say, you are one tough cookie.”
When Pelosi was sworn in as speaker of the House in 2007, she invited all the children on the House floor — from both sides of the aisle — to join her at the podium. “I was overwhelmed by messages from fathers of daughters saying now my daughter has another opportunity,” said Pelosi. Creating opportunities for future generations is something near and dear to her heart. She told MAKERS a story about her first meeting at the White House after becoming speaker. “The door closed behind me, and I realized this was unlike any meeting I had ever been to at the White House, and in fact it was unlike any meeting any woman had ever been to at the White House,” Pelosi told MAKERS. “And all of the sudden, I was realizing that sitting on that chair with me was , , you name it, they were all on that chair. And then I could hear them say, ‘At last, we have a seat at the table.’”
You have something very special to contribute and do not let anybody shake your confidence about what you came here to do.”Nancy Pelosi, First Female Speaker of the House
Pelosi used her seat at the table to champion female-focused policies such as the that gave women the ability to fight pay discrimination and the landmark that prevented insurers from denying coverage for simply being a woman. Using her political skills and instincts, Pelosi broke through plenty of “marble ceilings” further proving that women do indeed have what it takes to lead in Washington. “What I keep saying to women is there is no secret sauce,” said Pelosi. “You have something very special to contribute and do not let anybody shake your confidence about what you came here to do.”
In her final weekly press conference, Pelosi told reporters that even though she will no longer possess the power of speaker, she will continue to fight for women. “Now, transitioning to a different role, I expect to have strong influence, but not on my members, just in terms of encouraging more women to run.”