“Today we have broken the marble ceiling.” So proclaimed Nancy Pelosi as she took control of the House, the first woman to hold the Speakership. It was a truly exciting moment not merely for the women that she addressed with those words but for all Americans. Watching the swearing in on C-Span, was one of those rare being witness to history experiences. The atmosphere on the floor with numerous children sitting at the side of the parents or grandparents (who included the new Speaker) for the special occasion and in the visitor’s gallery above was both warm and festive. Lots of hugs, a sense albeit momentary, that this was not Democratic or Republican history being made, it was American.
But before we congratulate ourselves on this milestone, let’s not forget how long it took to reach this point. It was 1789 when the first, Frederick Muhlenberg, ascended to the office and every Speaker since, a period of 218 years, has been a man. Thanks to those revered Founding Fathers who apparently took the words “all men are created equal” literally. women remained disenfranchised and didn’t even get the right to vote until 1920 a mere six years before the new Speaker’s father Thomas D’Alesandro took his seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. Indeed it is a sign of how modest our progress has been that the election of a woman as Speaker is big news. Perhaps the old Virginia Slims tag line, “you’ve come a long way baby” resonates, but still in an unmistakably small voice. Sure we’ve had some progress, but it’s been at the margin. Ninety women may now sit on the House floor and that should not be discounted, but real breakthroughs, a chain of repeating accomplishments remains illusive.
We now have had female Secretaries of State in two successive administrations (though both only in second terms) and, thanks to President Clinton, a second woman finally made it to the Supreme Court, but as of last year the first was gone and another woman has not taken her place. In fact gender backsliding is the rule not the exception. Both India and Israel elevated women (Indira Ghandi and Golda Meir) to Prime Minister in just over two decades after their founding and Margaret Thatcher held that post in London for a record setting eleven years, but their tenures were aberrations, one-offs not to be repeated in the intervening years. Germany now has a woman atop its government, but don’t count on there being another any time soon.
The Speaker’s triumphant words notwithstanding, both the marble and glass ceilings remain in tact where most of us live and work. Also, let’s remember that despite the considerable powers of the Speaker, thanks to Henry Clay’s conduct of the office, it remains only in the line of succession – the second at that – not at the center of real power which resides in the Oval Office not on the Hill. Perhaps we will see a first woman President in 2008 with Hilary Clinton entering the race in the weeks to come, but her election much less her nomination, is by no means a foregone conclusion. Even I who would so much like to see a woman in the White House have my doubts about her (largely about her stance on the War) and at this point am looking more to potentially the first President of color, Barack Obama, whose positions are more in line with my own. But ironically it may not be people like me who will make it difficult for Hilary; it’s a lot of women. As one of them put it to me in an email just yesterday, “I don’t think we’re ready for a woman President, perhaps a Vice President first”. Sadly, that sentiment is still widespread and has little to do with Ms. Clinton’s supposed polarizing personality.
The truth is that Americans are still more comfortable with the notion of women in supporting roles. Even there, the independence of a Betty Ford praised at her husband’s funeral last week still stretches the limit as did the role of Ms. Clinton when she expressed more interest in health care than in baking cookies. Eleanor Roosevelt, probably the most activist First Lady in history was widely reviled in her time and many in the country breathed an audible sigh of relief when Bess Truman stayed home in Independence and Mamie Eisenhower kept largely to herself even when in the White House. So men may have a strong lady behind them, but they continue to rule. When we depart from that “norm” we require a level of performance never demanded from men. Make no mistake about it, everyone will be waiting for Nancy Pelosi the gentle lady from California’s every misstep. She will be expected to embody perfection and will be given little if any slack. That’s where things really are. With that reality, the only question I would ask of my fellow men as they consider the new Speaker and other women in high places is, given our largely preemptive power, have we done such a great job at running things all these years? Consider what our entitlement has wrought in this increasingly troubled world. Need I say more? So congratulations Ms. Speaker, we’ve been waiting for you.