First woman to become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
‘When women succeed, America succeeds.’
When I was born, my father was in Congress. I learned as much from him as I learned from my mother because the two of them were very civic-minded—the value of public service, the idea that we have a responsibility to each other.
When I graduated from college, I got married and had five children in six years, so that was my life. I ran for Congress 30 years ago. At the time, my youngest was going to be a senior in high school and the others were in college. I went to Alexandra, my youngest daughter, and said, “Mommy has a chance to run for Congress. I would like it if it were when you were in college, but this is when the opportunity is. I love my life. Any answer is fine. But if it’s O.K. with you, I’ll take a chance and run.” To which she said, “Mother, get a life.” So I did.
People still asked, “Who’s taking care of your children?” I’d answer, “My children are taking care of me.” They always ask women that question: Who’s taking care of your children? So I sympathize with young women who are running now who have young children. That’s exactly who we want to be in Congress: women who reflect our population, young women with children who are in professions or who are choosing to stay home or whatever it is. Running for office as a woman is hard, because people trivialize everything that a woman has done. Not everyone places the value that I do on raising a family, which is a very major and challenging experience.
When I ran for leadership, some of my colleagues—even as enlightened as some of them are—would say things like, “Who said she could run?” As if I needed anybody’s permission. And, “Maybe you could just make a list of things you want the men to do, and we’ll do them for you.”
There is a tendency to think that there’s a secret sauce that only men know—that unless you wear a suit and tie, and unless you belong to the club, you really can’t be serving the public. But that’s their problem. Let them think that.
When I did break what I call the “marble ceiling,” the response I got from the public was overwhelming, including the fathers who said, “Now I know my daughter has more opportunity.” This may sound immodest, but in breaking that marble ceiling, we said that no longer does it always have to be—bless their hearts—white men in these roles.
When women succeed, America as a whole succeeds. It’s an agenda that recognizes all the needs that women have. We need to have equal pay for equal work, and to raise the minimum wage so that women’s work is valued. That helps men too. We need to have affordable, quality child care to truly unleash the power of women in the workforce. And we need to have paid sick leave so that if the breadwinner is sick, that person has the ability to stay home and not be docked pay or lose their job.
For women to be respected for the work they do, that is freeing. They can be entrepreneurial in their thinking. They can take risks. Our economy and society will benefit by unleashing the power of women. All the intellect, all the imagination, all the integrity, all the enthusiasm.
Nothing is more wholesome for the political and governmental process than the election and leadership of many more women.
So I say, “Be yourself. You may have role models and people that mentor you, and that’s wonderful. But be yourself, because that’s the most authentic person you can present. Value that. Know your power. And use it. America needs you.”
Pelosi, who represents California’s 12th Congressional District, has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987. She was the Speaker from 2007 to 2011 and is now the minority leader.