The mood in the Mellon Auditorium on Capitol Hill was buoyant among this gathering of partisans and issue advocates. Many, like me, have tasted both victory and defeat time after time in the struggle to advance liberty and justice for women. Now, with Nancy Pelosi leading a newly elected Democratic majority, a question was raised repeatedly in conversations throughout the elegant hall: “Will this time really be different?”
Change can be elusive in a Washington culture that seems to suffer from attention deficit disorder. But a more enduring transformation could be seen in the nature of the audience itself. Collectively, these women had raised or given millions of dollars and worked millions of hours on behalf of candidates. Women have always been the envelope stuffers and door-knock organizers in political campaigns. Now—thanks to the clout that results from gains in economic equality won through many election cycles—we’re also writing the big checks. And we’re writing them for the causes and candidates we choose from bank accounts we have earned ourselves.
Economic power and political power are joined at the hip, as the guys have always known. And despite some backlash declarations that feminism is dead from those who would like to see it so, the truth is that girls today grow up with an entirely different outlook on their lives than I had as a youth. So Nancy Pelosi’s self-assured, elementary school-aged granddaughter Madeline could say about the woman she calls Mimi: “Because of Mimi, more women can get jobs like this.”
Much of the rhetoric and symbols of the day’s political theater positioned Pelosi as a family-first kind of woman, one who learned her values from family and church and focuses on making life better for others. All that sounds pretty traditional. But maybe, like Nixon going to China, it takes what looks like a traditional woman to make lasting, radical changes in public policy.
“For every little girl who has wondered what she can be when she grows up, the glass ceiling in this institution has been shattered forever,” declared DeLauro. “When women are elected, the agenda changes."
I doubt that because a woman has ascended to the position of speaker, all Americans will suddenly have health care, the war in Iraq will end immediately, Congressional ethics will no longer be an oxymoron, and vicious debates over stem cell research and abortion will be transformed into positive initiatives to improve public health. But each step that takes our nation a little closer to full equality for all its citizens is a change to be celebrated with high tea or other libations, as much for how we have changed ourselves as for how our efforts have changed our government.