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''Breaking the Marble Ceiling''

Nancy Pelosi is about to become the first female Speaker of the House. The Californian is one of many women rising to new political heights.

By Patricia Smith


Two days after the midterm election that put Democrats in control of Congress, President Bush invited the incoming Democratic congressional leaders to the White House for lunch. For the first time in history, the leadership includes a woman, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who will become the first female Speaker of the House when the 110th Congress convenes next month.

After lunch, Pelosi joined the President and Vice President Cheney in the Oval Office. Photographs of the meeting show Pelosi sitting next to the President, beaming with pride.

As Speaker of the House, Pelosi will be second in line to the presidency, behind the Vice President—the closest a woman in elective office has come to the White House. The Speaker presides over House sessions, helps set the agenda, and appoints some committee chairs. The job places Pelosi on a more visible stage, with much greater stakes. "It's huge for women in politics," says historian Robin Gerber.

When Congress convenes in January, it will include more women than ever before: 16 female Senators and at least 71 women in the House of Representatives. In addition, there will be a record nine women serving as Governors.

There are also four women in the Cabinet, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, by far the most visible and influential. Rice is the Bush administration's top diplomat, and her name is sometimes mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for President in the future.

Meanwhile, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York won re-election by a wide margin, prompting renewed speculation about whether she plans to run for the presidency in 2008. Recent polls show Clinton as the frontrunner among possible Democratic candidates.

1917: First Congresswoman

Even with this year's gains, women, who are more than half the population, will be just 16 percent of Congress. The push to get more women elected "is not gender for gender's sake," according to Marie Wilson of The White House Project. "This is really about transitioning into a real democracy that's representative of the American people," she says.

The history of women in Congress goes back to 1917, when Jeanette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to the House (three years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote). The first woman elected to the Senate was Hattie Caraway of Arkansas in 1932.

Over the years, women have made progress in Congres. Across the street from the Capitol, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court in 1981, and three years later, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York became the first female vice-presidential candidate on a major party (Democratic) ticket.

If Clinton is the Democratic candidate in 2008, that would be another first. In a recent Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans said they're ready for a female President.

From a global perspective, the picture may look different. According to Victoria Budson, director of Harvard's Women and Public Policy program, the U.S. ranks 67th among the world's democracies in terms of women's participation in legislative bodies. "It places us behind virtually every other industrial democracy," Budson says.

Perfect Preparation

Pelosi, 66, has represented San Francisco in Congress for 20 years. She has said her priorities for the new session include raising the federal minimum wage, lifting the federal ban on funding for stem-cell research, and changing course in Iraq.

Her friends say her background—as the daughter of a Baltimore mayor, the youngest and only girl in a family of six children, and the mother of five—has prepared her perfectly for holding the unruly Democratic caucus together.

"I'll say to her, 'Nancy, I'd blow up if I had to deal what you deal with,' and she says, 'I had five children in six years,' " says Representative Anna G. Eshoo, Democrat of California. "If there wasn't discipline in her house, there would have been chaos. She knows how important that is."

It is often said that women in business hit a "glass ceiling" beyond which it's hard for them to advance into the upper levels of management. In trying to convey the same idea about women and leadership positions in Congress, Pelosi has often said it involves breaking a "marble ceiling."

"This place is steeped in history and tradition," Pelosi said of Congress the day after the election. "You walk the halls here, you rarely see a picture of a woman, a statue of a woman. To break the marble ceiling that is here is great for all women in America."