Madam Speaker: A famous first joins the national collection

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 museum’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.

Today we welcomed a new first into our collection, with objects donated by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who in 2007 became the first woman to serve as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

Gavel Nancy Pelosi received and used at the 2007 ceremony in which she was sworn in as the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
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.
Ivory-headed gavel used by Susan B. Anthony, who wielded power, authority, and gavels long before women held national elected office, 1888

During this morning’s ceremony, Democratic Leader Pelosi visited the museum and 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.

Women's 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.

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.

Along with her suit, the clothes on stage 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.

Marian Anderson outfit
Ensemble worn by Marian Anderson at her Lincoln Memorial concert, 1939 (on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture)
Military uniform
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.

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.

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

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. Her 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.

Pin awarded to the women imprisoned for being the first people to picket the White House, 1917

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. And the 52nd Speaker of the House. 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.

A group of men and women on a stage; in the foreground, Nancy Pelosi signs a donation agreement
Nancy Pelosi donates material to the National Museum of American History, March 2018

This is a wonderful donation for Women’s History Month, one that will be both part of the National Museum of American History’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.