Earlier this month, I attended Arianna Huffington, Donna Karan and Sarah Brown’s second-annual WIE Symposium (Women: Inspiration & Enterprise), an event which set out to explore the central theme of “What it means to be a woman now” through a variety of thought-provoking and informative panels and lectures. The two day event, which benefited the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, featured a keynote from Dr. Jill Biden and a wide diversity of esteemed and inspiring speakers. Several women leaders and activists were also honored with WIE awards. I was there for the presentation of the WIE Leadership award to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader of the United States House of Representatives, who made history when she became the first female Speaker of the House, a position she served from 2007-2010. She currently serves as House Minority Leader.
Pelosi was presented with the award by Jeffrey Sachs, American economist and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, who praised her as “someone who has stood for the right things very, very boldly and with incredible consistency … with a long track record of decency, leadership and wise judgment.” Sachs called her “one of our country’s greatest leaders for women’s rights, for sexual reproductive rights, for the defense of all groups in our society” as well as an important champion for peace.
When Pelosi took the stage, she shared her personal story of getting from “the kitchen to the Congress” and from “being a powerful homemaker to being the House Speaker” (Pelosi has five children and eight grandchildren). One inspiring story she shared was about her first official meeting at The White House after being elected House Speaker — with then President Bush, the Vice President and the other leadership of the Democratic and Republican House and Senate. She said she had the sensation of “feeling very squeezed in my chair, I just couldn’t figure out what it was, just very tight.” She realized it was the presence of “Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul — they were all sitting on the chair with me, in that room. And then I could hear them say ‘At last we have a seat at that table!’” Pelosi paused for the audience’s applause and cheers, then added, “And then they were gone. And my first thought was, we want more!”
Pelosi then went on to talk about the uphill battle and criticism those pioneering suffragettes faced in their tireless and brave fight for a women’s right to the vote, reminding us that she and all women today are “standing on their shoulders.” Pelosi says it was a “tremendous” achievement to have become the first woman Speaker, adding, “You have no idea how it is there — it’s like not a glass ceiling, it’s a marble ceiling.”
In the remaining portion of her speech, she touched on many topics, ranging from making sure her colleagues “consider women when they come to the table to make decisions,” fighting discrimination against women in health care (“no longer will being a woman be a pre-existing medical condition”), alleviating poverty and disease and helping women in the Third World, and the growing role of women’s entrepreneurship and women-owned businesses in fostering job creation and boosting the economy. She ended by addressing the room, saying she was excited to see “so many young women with all your hopes, dreams and aspirations.” She encouraged them to “understand that your success will help so many other people in the world… We all have to do our part. Nothing is more wholesome for our country than the increased participation of women in government, business and the academic world and the leadership of our country.”
Immediately after her speech, I was honored to have a few moments alone with Pelosi to ask her a few questions.
Marianne Schnall;: That was a very inspiring speech. For the people who might not have been able to be here, what was the one message you are most hoping to convey?
Nancy Pelosi: Well, one message is: Know your power. And be ready. Because you just don’t know what opportunity will present itself when. But I want these young women to have the confidence that whatever they have been doing will prepare them in a very unique way for the challenges ahead. There’s no one like them. There’s no one like them.
MS: Only 17 percent of Congress is women. What can we do to change that and get more women into positions of political leadership?
NP: Yeah, I know, it’s a small percentage of Congress. But we have to do more. It’s a decision we have to make as a country. But women also have to decide and be confident about taking the chance of running — it’s tough.
I think women also have to — and I have said this to some groups lately — women have to have each other’s backs. Because we are talking about power. And nobody ever yields power. It is fought for. And when women go forward — they are great competitors, but therefore they become great targets. And women have to help women in that regard.