(November 10, 2006) — So how does the White House welcome
the soon-to-be first female speaker of the U.S. House of
Representatives and second in line to the
"And in my first act of bipartisan outreach
since the election, I shared with her the names of some
Republican interior decorators," President Bush said at a news
conference this week, "who can help her pick out the new
drapes in her office."
I know what you're thinking. What do you expect from a guy
who thinks nothing of massaging the female German chancellor's
neck and shoulders during a meeting of the G-8 Summit, as he
did this summer? Don't be so sensitive.
If you ask me, though, that's just what we need: A little
more sensitivity, to go along with a lot more
It's been 100 years since the death of the
woman known for championing the political voice of her
sisters. Susan B. Anthony died before women won the right to
vote in 1920.
Women have since achieved a list of political firsts. New
Yorker Frances Perkins, first female appointee to a
presidential Cabinet, in 1933. Patsy Mink, first woman of
color to serve in the House, in 1965. Sandra Day O'Connor,
first female associate justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, in
But the changes have come agonizingly slowly, seemingly at
every level of government.
Last week, for example, the
Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership at the
University of Rochester released a report on the status of
women in New York state's local governments. The study showed
that female representation in the state's 57 county
legislatures has increased less than 1 percent, from 16.6
percent to 17.4 percent, between 2002 and 2006.
There are no women in six county legislatures, including in
Orleans County. (Calls this week to its chairman were not
On the up side, the study notes that more
women have taken up leadership positions since the center's
first report in 2002. The number of female county executives,
for example, is up from one to three, including Monroe's
"Yes, we're making progress," says Nora Bredes, the Anthony
Center's director and a force behind the regional celebration
of the early feminist's legacy. "But the question is, why so
That's not necessarily an issue shared en masse, especially
now that Pelosi stands to achieve what no other woman has.
Too, Rep. Louise Slaughter is expected to head the powerful
House Rules Committee and a woman could lead the House
In terms of sheer numbers, though, women are still woefully
underrepresented in Congress. Women gained just five
congressional seats in the election, for a grand total of 86
women out of 535 members.
My question is whether Pelosi's performance will be a true
measure of how women lead.
Bredes, herself a former
Suffolk County legislator, says no. Without an infusion of
more women into the process, the House will run by the values
of its male-dominated members.
So given the choice between, say, a female president or 60
percent women in Congress, Bredes would take the
"I think that would be the more revolutionary
change," she says.
But the real lesson may be in how slow change does
"Maybe you can't have that kind of cultural shift
in 100 years," Bredes says. "Maybe that's the nature of
"But we are further ahead than we were 100 years ago,"
Bredes says, "and that's good."