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 eighties. 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 nineteen eighty-seven, the death of a Democratic representative in San Francisco led to a special election. Nancy Pelosi narrowly won her party's nomination to enter the race.
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 One Hundred Tenth Congress opened on January fourth.
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 the House.
Twenty years ago, when Nancy Pelosi was first elected, men filled all but twenty-two seats in the House. Now seventy-one of the four hundred thirty-five members, or sixteen 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 one hundred 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 nineteen ninety-four -- only then, it was the other way around. That was the year of what became known as the Republican revolution.
In Congress, all of the representatives and a third of the senators are elected every two years. Now all the attention is on two thousand eight, when Americans will also elect a new president.
America won its independence in seventeen seventy-six. 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 sixty-six-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 nineteen sixty-two 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 two thousand two she was elected minority leader.
Many women are proud of her success. But women are fifty-one 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 women.
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 two thousand. She dropped out, saying she could not raise enough money for a campaign. She is now a senator from North Carolina.
'I'm In,' Clinton Declares
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.
HILLARY CLINTON: "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 two thousand, 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 nineteen eighty-four.
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 committee.
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 president.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. Transcripts and MP3 files of our programs are at voaspecialenglish.com. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.