She was the only female in a room full of men. So why did the veteran congresswoman find herself flanked by so many cheering women?
In October of 2001, I became the first woman elected to the top leadership of either house of Congress. I'd been involved in politics my entire life and in Congress, at that point, for 14 years. I ran for Democratic whip, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives (now I'm the Democratic leader). When I won, I was flooded with congratulations from all over the country, many of them from women who were excited that we'd broken through this marble ceiling into the highest reaches of government. I was honored.
Shortly after my election, the top congressional leaders were invited to the White House for a meeting with the president to talk about the agenda for the next session of Congress. I'd been there on many occasions, so I wasn't particularly apprehensive. But when the door closed behind us, I saw that there were very few other people at the table with the president, and of course they were all men. It occurred to me that this was unlike any meeting that I'd ever attended at the White House. In fact, because a woman was there as a top elected leader and not as staff, it was unlike any meeting ever held at the White House.
It was really quite profound. I realized the opportunity that I had, and it was poignant because it made me think, Why did it take this long? It sounds strange, but as I sat down, I felt that I was not alone. For an instant, I felt as though Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton—everyone who'd fought for women's right to vote and for the empowerment of women in politics, in their professions, and in their lives—were there with me in the room. Those women were the ones who had done the heavy lifting, and it was as if they were saying, At last we have a seat at the table.
The president welcomed me and congratulated me on my election, but no one at the meeting said anything about the historical significance of the occasion. And I didn't make the point because I thought it would be appropriate for everything to be as normal as possible. But my thought was, We want more. I felt uplifted, as if I were seeing over the top of a mountain. And to tell you the truth, we can handle it: Women can breathe the air at these altitudes, we can do the job that needs to be done, and the day will come when we'll have a woman president of the United States. I'm sure it will happen soon.
Then the meeting began, and we got down to business.