|Photo by Elisabeth Crum at the reception celebrating The People’s House.
Let me share my impressions of the Women’s Tea held in honor of Nancy Pelosi and in memory of Ann Richards on January 3, 2007, the day before Rep. Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House. What makes me happiest about Ms. Pelosi making a “big deal” on becoming speaker is her willingness to own her election as a triumph for women and of the women’s movement that fought first for women to get the vote and then to enter the workforce in large numbers and then to hold political office. When speaking she frequently pumps her arm in the Rosie the Riveter pose, which appeared on the large buttons made for the event (and which has previously appeared on other political paraphernalia). The very fact that she held a tea for women makes me deeply appreciative of her understanding of the importance of this moment for women in the United States.
At the women’s tea, held in the Mellon Auditorium in a federal building now used by the Environmental Protection Agency, I was first struck by how well the party was set up–like a real English tea party writ large. Tea and coffee in silver urns, real china, cucumber and other tea sandwiches, petits fours, pastries, and most importantly scones with clotted cream and jam! As someone said coming in while the hall was still empty–this looks just like Nancy. Known for her graciousness, Rep. Pelosi’s party reflected a desire to treat the guests well.
The guests included many women who head or work in women’s organizations, supporters from California and elsewhere, and many members of Congress. There were quite a few seats available at small round tables the better to enjoy your tea. As a veteran of many receptions, etc., in Washington, some of which boast no more than warm soda in paper cups, this event was refreshingly civilized. The spirit of pure joy is hard to describe.
Those of us who have toiled mostly in the dark the past several years on women’s issues could not, I think, quite believe our good fortune. Here was a woman being elevated to an amazingly powerful position in America who was not afraid to, even happy to, acknowledge her debt to the women’s movement and to generations of women who fought to make her election to that position possible. Many of the people in the room, of course, had worked hard to elect a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and especially in the last few weeks before November 7, knew that Ms. Pelosi would become the Speaker, but it was not really possible to imagine beforehand the sheer joy of it as it came to be.
It was not unlike the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act in February 1993 in the Rose Garden very early on in the Clinton Administration as dozens of people poured into the White House for the first time in twelve years. Yes, people had worked hard to pass that bill in Congress three times (twice vetoed by Pres George Bush the father) and many also worked to elect President Clinton. We even knew that once President Clinton was elected that it would likely become the first major law he would sign, but still it would have been impossible to predict how wonderful that felt when it actually happened.
Rep. Rosa De Lauro, like Rep. Pelosi an Italian-American, served as emcee. A fabulous speaker, she also spoke eloquently about the importance of this moment for women, as well as the importance of their Italian American and Catholic background and the support of their families. She also spoke admiringly of Ann Richards, who served as Governor of Texas for one term and will be remembered by many for her remarks at the Democratic convention in 1992, when she described George Bush (#41) as having been born with a sliver foot in his mouth. She was much more than a fiery orator exceptionally good at the pithy one-liner. At this event, she was remembered by her very well-spoken granddaughter, Lily Adams, a Stanford University student and daughter of Cecile Richards, who heads the Planned Parenthood Federation, as well as by a short video about her life.
I got to know Ann Richards at the Aspen Institute when we both were members of the Domestic Policy Strategy Committee. Ann was one of the smartest people I have ever met; she frequently gave me good advice and I miss her very much. Would that we could have benefited from her shrewd political skills and wisdom a few years longer. As her granddaughter said to me afterward, they regret that they didn’t write down every word of the advice she gave them over the years.
Nancy Pelosi’s granddaughter, Madeline a second grader, read a short letter to her grandmother “Mimi” saying that she was happy her grandmother got this good job because it meant many other women would also be able to get good jobs. That too was followed by a short video about Ms. Pelosi. Then Ms. Pelosi spoke, calling up all the members of Congress present to stand with her on the stage. In her remarks, she previewed several of the themes she would use over the next few days. She thanked everyone for their hard work, acknowledged all her supporters, family members–especially her mother, several women leaders in California and nationally, including some like Molly Yard, past president of NOW, who are no longer with us.
Her remarks hit just the right note and were not too long. And she stayed afterward to allow anyone who wanted to, to take their photo with her. I of course forgot my camera (as I always do!). The program closed with a beautiful rendition of “What a Wonderful World” sung by a young man, Elijah Lawrence (10 years old), son of John Lawrence, Ms. Pelosi’s chief of staff, and Deborah Phillips, a well-known child development expert at Georgetown University.
As perhaps you can guess from the line-up of speakers at this event, the theme of the event was children. In her remarks, Ms. Pelosi stated that improving the lives of children in the United States would be her goal as Speaker. It previewed her unprecedented call to all the children in the chamber on January 4th to come forward as she presided over the House for the first time as Speaker.
On the one hand, this focus on children seems to come out of nowhere since it is not included in the 100 hours agenda and as a member of Congress Ms. Pelosi has not been especially known for work on children or women’s issues. Nancy Duff Campbell pointed out to me that Ms. Pelosi noted three separate areas that need to be addressed: child care, early childhood development, and education.
Ms. Pelosi spoke eloquently about how women’s advance in the work force has been met by a policy gap — no or not enough child care — limiting women’s opportunities as a result. Nowadays as several prominent, male executives have seen the light on early childhood development, we hear more about young children’s brain development than we do about the need to ensure children have good care while their mothers work, so it was refreshing to hear the future Speaker stress that women, and all parents, need good child care.
On the other hand, children are a traditional topic of interest for women legislators and Ms. Pelosi has five children and six grand children. She waited until her youngest daughter was a senior in high school to run for Congress. While feminists might feel some concern that speaker Pelosi is uniting childrenâs and womenâs interests so strongly, they should be reassured that as a member of Congress, Ms. Pelosi has championed family planning, health care, and education (among other issues such as fighting terrorism and protecting the environment).
In the dominant political climate of the last 20 plus years (conservative and centrist), children’s issues have become a short hand for a progressive agenda — increasing access to health care, reducing poverty, improving public education — in short, making the economy more people-friendly, a goal most of us can support. It will be interesting to see how Ms. Pelosi’s priorities on children will play out in the new Congress. John Sperling, author of the Great Divide, commented to me that he thought by focusing on children, Ms. Pelosi is explicitly appealing to Republican women, to which someone else in the room said “more power to her.”
– Heidi Hartmann