Pelosi Donates Speaker Mementos to Smithsonian for ‘Next Generation of Trailblazers’

‘We need more women engaged in every area of our democracy,’ first female speaker says

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks Wednesday at the the National Museum of American History in Washington, to which she donated items representing her term as the first female speaker of the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Nancy Pelosi talks about legislation, she often connects its potential impact to “the children,” the next generation. 

The California Democrat’s message was no different Wednesday as the first female speaker of the House sealed her place in history once again with donations to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“It’s all about the children; it’s all about the future,” Pelosi said at the donation ceremony. “To build that future, we need more women engaged in every area of our democracy.”

Pelosi donated five items to the Smithsonian that represent her historic accomplishment: the burgundy pantsuit she wore on Jan. 4, 2007, her first day as speaker; the wooden gavel she received during her swearing-in ceremony; her copy of the speech that she read that day; a copy of the congressional record with the speech; and an official tally sheet recording the election vote.

“They say I’m a great vote counter. This is the tally,” she said, pointing at the latter. 

Watch: Pelosi Looks Toward Future As She Makes Smithsonian Donation

Pelosi said she hoped those items and her story will help “inspire our next generation of trailblazers and change-makers.”

That inspiration was something several speakers at the donation ceremony referenced, including House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers

“No dream is too big, and no goal is too far-fetched,” she said.

Pelosi has recognized the significance of her achievement and the responsibility she bears from the start. During her swearing-in as speaker, she recalled being “surrounded by children” as she shattered the marble ceiling. 

“That day I said to our daughters and granddaughters: ‘We made history, now we must make progress,’” she said. 

In the four years Pelosi held the gavel, she helped usher through major pieces of legislation, such as the 2009 stimulus package, the 2010 health care law and the 2010 financial overhaul. 

Nancy Pelosi is sometimes the only woman at the negotiating table,” Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui said in introducing her fellow Californian at the event. “I know she takes that responsibility very seriously.”

Matsui also referenced another of Pelosi’s historical accomplishments: an eight-hour floor speech she delivered last month on the need for Congress to pass legislation protecting from deportation young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers.” It was the longest continuous House floor speech on record. 

‘A seat at the table’

Pelosi shared two anecdotes from early in her speakership when she felt the significance of her position as the first woman to lead the House. Both involved former President George W. Bush. 

One was about her first meeting at the White House as speaker. She had been to similar meetings before, so she wasn’t apprehensive, but when Bush was speaking, she recalled, “I felt very closed in in my chair.”

Pelosi realized that feeling came from sharing the space with other female trailblazers, like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth.

“They were all on my chair with me,” she said. “And I could hear them say, ‘At last we have a seat at the table.’ And then they were gone. And my first thought was, ‘We want more.’”

The second anecdote involved Bush’s first State of the Union address after she became speaker. When the president arrived for his joint address, he told Pelosi he had a surprise for her. 

“You never know what that could be,” she said. “Could be a veto. Or could be a signature, that would really be a surprise.”

But it was neither. Bush opened his speech by noting that he had the distinct honor of being the first president to begin a State of the Union address with the words “Madam Speaker.”

Speaker again?

Pelosi is now the House minority leader, hoping to lead Democrats back to the majority in this year’s midterms.

Asked after the ceremony if being around the mementos from her time as speaker made her want to hold the gavel again, she said, “I never thought about being speaker when I was speaker. I was just working. And so I certainly don’t think about it now.”

She may not be thinking about it, but some of her colleagues are. 

Florida Rep. Lois Frankel, chairwoman of the Democratic Women’s Working Group, said she joked with Pelosi at the event about donating her speaker’s gavel.

“I said, ‘It’s easy, because you’re going to get another one soon,’” she said. 

Pelosi, however, wouldn’t commit to running for speaker again if Democrats retake the House. 

“That will be up to our members,” she said after the ceremony. “That’s not what we’re here about.”

Part of Pelosi’s decision on whether she wants to continue to lead her caucus will undoubtedly depend on November’s results. If Democrats are relegated to the minority again, she may not want to stay. And some Democrats who have pushed for new leadership in the past will most certainly renew those calls.

Talk from Pelosi and others at the Smithsonian ceremony about inspiring the next generation was geared more toward youth and those still trying to find their path.

“Be yourself. Know your power. Go for it,” Pelosi told the audience.

But the message may also resonate with some in her caucus who want to see a new generation of congressional leadership. Pelosi, who turns 78 later this month, has served in Congress since 1987 and as the top Democrat since just after the 2002 elections.

Frankel pointed out that similar arguments about age and tenure haven’t been made against male lawmakers, like Bernie Sanders, Mitch McConnell and John McCain.

“There’s no question in my mind this age issue with Nancy Pelosi is sexism, royally. It’s royally sexism,” the Florida Democrat said. “Let me tell you something: She can match any member of Congress in her energy, in her intelligence.”

Crucial time

The Smithsonian induction comes not only at a crucial time for Pelosi personally, but for the women’s movement as a whole. The event was appropriately timed with Women’s History Month. 

Women have become increasingly politically active in recent years, culminating recently with the #MeToo movement, which has seen women in entertainment, business and politics speaking out against sexual harassment and gender discrimination. 

Pelosi referenced those “brave women” in her speech, saying, “They’re proudly claiming their full inheritance and rightful place in our democracy.”

However, she said the timing of her donation to the Smithsonian was coincidental.

“They invited me a while back for this particular date, but maybe it’s fortuitous that it all is happening at the same time as so much other momentum following the second Women’s March, all of the, shall we say, confidence women have speaking out,” she said. 

Frankel said there have been “spurts of feminism” at different points of history and she believes one is occurring now. That’s among the reasons she thinks Pelosi will be speaker again. 

Attending the donation ceremony left Frankel feeling like she was part of history.

“For me it’s a very emotional kind of thing because when I was growing up, we hardly had any women in Congress,” she said. “There were a lot of things we didn’t have.”

Many people take for granted the fact that Pelosi was the first female speaker given the strides that Congress, particularly the Democratic Caucus, has made in including women among its ranks, Frankel said. 

Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour, one of the ceremony’s speakers, offered some perspective on that progress, saying that four times as many women are now serving in Congress compared to 30 years ago when Pelosi first came to Washington. 

“Today there are 105 women … almost 20 percent of the Congress,” she said. “I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that that number is going to increase significantly in the next Congress.”

Also watch: Lawmakers Take to Comedy at Annual Congressional Dinner

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