Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
And I'm Faith Lapidus. Women in American politics is our report this week.
Nancy Pelosi won her first election to Congress twenty years ago this June.
She led the California State Democratic Party in the early 80s. After
that she served at the national level as finance chair of the campaign committee
for Democrats in the Senate. She also kept busy with her five children.
Nancy Pelosi came from a political family. She was good at raising money but
had never been a candidate for public office herself.
Then in 1987, the death of a Democratic representative in San Francisco led
to a special election. Nancy Pelosi narrowly won her party's nomination to enter
Since then, voters in the heavily Democratic district have re-elected her to
Congress ten times.
Now she holds the powerful job of speaker
of the House of Representatives. Under the Constitution, the speaker becomes
president of the United States if ever the president and vice president are
unable to serve.
Displeasure with the Iraq war was a driving force in the victory for the
Democrats in the elections last November. The Republican Party lost control of
both houses of Congress for the first time in twelve years.
Nancy Pelosi was the minority leader in the House. As expected, she became
the new speaker when the 110th Congress opened on January 4.
NANCY PELOSI: "By electing me speaker, you have brought us closer to the
ideal of equality that is America's heritage and America's hope."
Nancy Pelosi is the first woman ever elected to lead the House. At her
swearing-in, she thanked the new minority leader, Republican John Boehner, for
pointing that out.
NANCY PELOSI: "This is an historic moment and I thank the leader for
acknowledging it. Thank you, Mr. Boehner. It's an historic moment for the
Congress. It's an historic moment for the women of America."
The new Congress has a record number of women, including ten newly elected to
Twenty years ago, when Nancy Pelosi was first elected, men filled all
but 22 seats in the House. Now 71 of the 435 members, or 16
percent, are women. Most are Democrats.
Historically many of the women who have served in the Senate were never
elected. They were appointed to complete the term of a husband or other male
relative who resigned or died.
Fifteen years ago, only two of the 100
senators were women. Now the number is a record sixteen.
One of the five Republicans, Olympia Snowe of Maine, has served in both
houses of Congress and both houses of her state legislature.
Two women are new to the Senate this year. Both are Democrats. Amy Klobuchar
enforced the law as chief prosecutor in the largest county in Minnesota. Claire
McCaskill served as state auditor before she became the first woman ever elected
a senator from Missouri.
At the state level, women are governors of nine of the fifty states.
Across the country, the victory for Democratic candidates in November brought
back memories. It was similar to the elections of 1994-- only then, it was the
other way around. That was the year of what became known as the Republican
In Congress, all of the representatives and a third of the senators are
elected every two years. Now all the attention is on 2008, when Americans will
also elect a new president.
America won its independence in 1776. But it was not until nineteen twenty
that American women won a constitutional right to vote.
Women have made gains in society, but people talk about a "glass ceiling."
This is the idea that women may face unwritten limits on their rise to power in
jobs or other areas.
Nancy Pelosi says her election as speaker of the House means that women have
finally broken, in her words, the "marble ceiling."
The 66-year-old speaker quickly set to work on the legislative goals of House
Democrats for the first one hundred hours of the new Congress. The issues were
as different as increasing the federal minimum wage and reducing interest rates
on student loans.
But there were disputes among Democrats over some of her early decisions. For
example, some members of her party disagreed with her choice for chairman of the
House Intelligence Committee. She chose Silvestre Reyes of Texas over Jane
Harman of California -- the longest-serving Democrat on the committee.
Nancy Pelosi was born Nancy D'Alesandro. She was one of five children in a
family in the Little Italy area of Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, Thomas
D'Alesandro Junior, was the mayor of Baltimore. Before that he represented the
city for five terms in the House of Representatives. Later, his son Thomas the
Third also became mayor of Baltimore.
Daughter Nancy graduated in 1962 from Trinity College -- now Trinity
Washington University -- in the nation's capital. The following year she married
Paul Pelosi, a wealthy businessman from San Francisco.
In Congress, Nancy Pelosi served on the House Appropriations Committee, which
deals with federal spending. In 2002 she was elected minority leader.
Many women are proud of her success. But women are 51 percent of the
population and their numbers in Congress fall far short of that.
Last year, even extra money from the Democratic Party failed to help many
female candidates win seats in Congress.
One woman who appeared likely to win a seat in the House was Tammy Duckworth
of Illinois. She was a helicopter pilot in the Iraq war. She lost both legs when
her helicopter was shot down. Before the election, Tammy Duckworth was ahead in
public opinion. But when the ballots were counted, Republican Peter Roskam had
narrowly defeated her.
Some people say it is harder for women than men to win elections. They say
voters may worry that women will be soft on issues like illegal immigration. Or
voters, male as well as female, are suspicious of women in power.
Others argue that while some voters might discriminate against women, most
base their choices on a candidate's positions.
Political observers can argue all day about why Congress does not have more
And the fact is, they can all be right. America is a big country. What
influences voters in one area may have no effect in another. In some cases, what
might count most is the ability of a candidate to raise enough money for an
effective media campaign.
Even a candidate for local office may have to raise money for a campaign.
Some groups make special efforts to help female candidates. But in political
fund-raising there are no guarantees.
For example, Elizabeth Dole sought the Republican nomination for president in
2000. She dropped out, saying she could not raise enough money for a campaign.
She is now a senator from North Carolina.
Raising money might not be such a problem for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Senator
Clinton has long been considered the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential
nomination next year. Finally, on Saturday, she announced that she is forming a
presidential exploratory committee, the first step toward becoming a candidate.
"You know, after six years of George Bush, it is time to renew
the promise of America. Our basic bargain...that no matter who you are or where
you live, if you work hard and play by the rules you can build a good life for
yourself and your family."
The wife of former president Bill Clinton was elected a senator from New York
in 2000, and re-elected last November.
No major American party has ever nominated a woman for president. And only
one woman, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, was a candidate for vice president. That
was in 1984.
Most Americans say they would vote for a female president. But lately there
has been a lot of excitement about another Democrat. Illinois Senator Barack
Obama announced last Tuesday that he has formed a presidential exploratory
A number of other Democrats and Republicans have also announced exploratory
committees. Federal election rules permit individuals to "test the waters." They
can raise money and see if they have enough public support before officially
declaring themselves candidates.
Condoleezza Rice has often been spoken of as a possible Republican
presidential candidate. But the secretary of state says she does not want to be
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm
And I'm Steve Ember. Transcripts and MP3 files of our programs are at
www.unsv.com. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special