The Woman Of The House

CBS Evening News writer Mary Alice Williams got a rare glimpse at history last week, through the eyes of her daughter. – Ed.

So we now have a brand new Congress and a brand new opportunity to continue forming our more perfect union. But what are the chances the 110th Congress can accomplish any more than the 109th did? Just because control of both houses has switched from Republicans to Democrats doesn't mean the process of getting bills passed into laws will be any easier. Just because there's a woman in charge of the House of Representatives for the first time doesn't ensure efficiency. But hey, it's a start.

In fact, it's a very big deal. Watching California Representative Nancy Pelosi take her place in history as the first woman Speaker of the House was a very big deal.

The picture alone demonstrated what a difference her leadership will make. Instead of a lone male gaveling Congress into session, here was a female surrounded by children. Women, in ways far different from men, represent families.

There were other women in the House of Representatives at that auspicious moment. A record 90 of them taking their place in the 110th Congress. And there were young women too: 26 girls from the Sacred Heart School in Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco district were there as invited guests. And there was also a 16-year-old from New Jersey named Alice. She is my daughter, a student in the High School's Civics and Government Institute, there to witness this great moment in women's history at the invitation of our congressman. And here's what amazed me. My mother, Alice Mary, was born before women had the right to vote. My daughter Alice was there on that special day, wearing her grandmother's pearls.

Alice called in to the CBS Evening News throughout the day to tell us which famous politicians she'd spotted. To comment on the impressive surroundings. To remark on how very long it took for the vote. She thought that part was pretty boring. I'm not sure she fully understood what a watershed moment she was witnessing.

For people born after 1970, I suppose it's hard to see it that way. They are the beneficiaries of a long hard struggle they weren't part of. It was started in 1776 by Abigail Adams who, when the Continental Congress was trying to work out the government we now enjoy, insisted that women have an equal voice in that government. A hundred years later, in 1876, Susan B. Anthony launched the suffrage movement to achieve what Abigail couldn't. It took another 44 years for women to get the right to vote. Many more for women to get voting rights in congress.

"First Woman" stories were a hallmark of the 1970's. The first women to run city councils and banks and universities and hospitals were taking their places in history during that decade. By 1981 we had covered the first woman astronaut, Sally Ride and the first woman Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor. Since then we've become accustomed to seeing women in virtually every walk of life. We've been making steady headway. But we haven't been breaking that much new ground. Until now.

Now a woman is second in line to the Presidency of these United States.
Perhaps less auspicious but equally important, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano will be inaugurated the first woman to lead the National Governor's Association, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius the first to head up the Democratic Governor's Association and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin will lead the National Conference of Democratic Mayors.

In helping women gain true equality in every aspect of life, Susan B. Anthony always said "failure is impossible." Today the only quibble she might have is that it took so long.