Madam Speaker: A famous first joins the national collection

The re-election of Rep. Nancy Pelosi as the new Democratic Speaker of the House today after eight years of a Republican majority is a good time to revisit a post from last year when she donated several objects to the National Museum of American History.

Curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy explains how the donation by the woman who has attained the highest political office in U.S. history fits into context with those who preceded her—and those who will come after.

Museums are full of “firsts”—objects that represent the first person to complete a task, to win an award, to hold a position, to achieve a goal, or to reach a new height. Firsts must mean something to us. Look at how many expressions we have for them: blazing trails, opening doors, breaking barriers, shattering ceilings, paving the way.

Firsts help us create a timeline. They are benchmarks we use to document change and, hopefully, progress. We celebrate firsts, and we analyze them.

The National Museum of American History’s Political History collection holds material related to George and Martha Washington, the first president and first lady of the United States; John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States; and Frances Perkins, the first woman to be a cabinet secretary.

We recently welcomed a new first into our collection, with objects donated by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D.-CA), who in 2007 became the first woman to serve as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

Light wood gavel

Gavel used by Rep. Nancy Pelosi at the 2007 ceremony in which she was sworn in as the first woman to be elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo by Jaclyn Nash)

Rep. Pelosi donated the gavel she received and used at her 2007 swearing-in ceremony, the suit she wore during the ceremony, the vote tally of the election, her reading copy of her first speech as Speaker, and a copy of that day’s Congressional Record.

side view of wooden gavel

Gavel used by Mary Louise Smith, the first woman to chair the Republican National Committee. Smith used this gavel to convene the Republican nominating convention in 1976. (Photo by Jaclyn Nash)


Gavel with leather ribbons

Ivory-headed gavel used by Susan B. Anthony, who wielded power, authority, and gavels long before women held national elected office, 1888 (Photo by Jaclyn Nash)


Nancy Pelosi’s donation joins objects in the museum that reflect firsts achieved by women who changed America and who inspired—and continue to inspire—others to make change themselves.

Burgundy skirt suit

Suit worn by Nancy Pelosi at the 2007 ceremony in which she was sworn in as the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives. (Photo by Hugh Talman)

Along with her suit, the clothes on stage during the donation ceremony March 7 represented firsts: the ensemble worn by Marian Anderson, the first African American performer to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, during her historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939; the U.S. Army mess dress uniform worn by Brigadier General Anna Mae Hays, the first woman to attain the rank of general in the U.S. military; the judicial robe worn by Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice; and the in-flight suit worn by astronaut Sally K. Ride, the first American woman in space.

Black skirt with orange sill jacket

Shantung silk jacket (redesigned in 1993) and black velvet skirt worn by Marian Anderson at her Lincoln Memorial concert, 1939.
(Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture,
Gift of Ginette DePreist in memory of James DePreist)

Military uniform with long skirt

U.S. Army mess dress uniform, worn by Brigadier General Anna Mae V. McCabe Hays, Chief, Army Nurse Corps, 1967–1971, following her promotion to that grade on June 11, 1970. Hays was the first woman to attain the rank of general officer in the U.S. military. (Photo by Hugh Talman)

black judicial robe

Judicial robe worn by Sandra Day O’Connor when she was sworn in as the first woman associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1981. (Photo by Hugh Talman)

blue uniform

In-flight suit worn by first American woman in space, astronaut Sally K. Ride (on exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum)

Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1940, the daughter of Annunciata and Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. Her introduction to American politics came early. During her childhood, her father served as both a U.S. Congressman and as the mayor of Baltimore. She married Paul Pelosi in 1963 and the couple moved to San Francisco, where Nancy Pelosi raised a family of five children and began a career in Democratic politics, serving as a member of the Democratic National Committee from California.

In 1987, Nancy Pelosi was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. There were only twenty-four women in the House of Representatives then, and none were in leadership positions. Pelosi’s  committee assignments included the Appropriations Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. She championed legislation to bring equality for more Americans. In 2001, she became the first woman to serve as a party whip; one year later she was the first woman elected to be a party leader. And in 2007, Pelosi became the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives. As Speaker, Pelosi worked to pass legislation that included the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Clean Energy and Security Act, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Today she is one of the most recognizable figures in American politics.

Pelosi in 2007

Newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, surrounded by children and grandchildren of members of Congress, holds up her gavel in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In her 2007 speech, the newly sworn-in Speaker noted the significance of firsts:

“For our daughters and our granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. For our daughters and our granddaughters, now the sky is the limit. Anything is possible for them.”

The firsts we celebrate are often chosen because they, in some way, change the trajectory of American history. They create diversity, add new experiences and viewpoints, and create new possibilities. But they also can represent important points of continuity with the past. Nancy Pelosi was the first woman Speaker of the House, but she was the 52nd Speaker in the history of the country. Change and continuity. A women’s first, an American first, and a part of a position that can trace its roots to the earliest days of our country.

Pelosi at podium

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a donation ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on March 7, 2018. Among the objects donated by Pelosi are her gavel, a burgundy dress she wore to her swearing in, and the original speech she gave from January 4, 2007. Pelosi was the first woman Speaker of the House. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

This is a wonderful donation for Women’s History Month, one that will be both part of the American History Museum’s longstanding effort to document the history of women in America and the first in our expanded curatorial effort to document women in American politics. So for all the trail-blazers, door-openers, barrier-breakers, ceiling-shatterers, and way-pavers—we’re here waiting for you, ready to tell your American stories.

Lisa Kathleen Graddy is a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History. She looks forward to many years of encouraging American women to make their stories part of the national collections. This is an edited version of a post originally published by the blog, O Say Can You See?


Posted: 3 January 2019
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