This Historic Gavel Hammers Home the Achievements of Nancy Pelosi… and the United States

The congresswoman donates to the Smithsonian artifacts tied to her first day as Speaker of the House 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

It’s hard to imagine an object more evocative of power, prestige and respect than a hardwood gavel. Looking at one, you can’t help but hear the decisive crack of mallet hitting block, a sound compelling order, commanding attention, and signaling a no-nonsense desire to move on and get more done. This morning, a gavel of special significance entered the Smithsonian collections: the maple gavel with which former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the first woman ever to hold that title, symbolically asserted her status as leader of America’s representatives on the day she took the mantle.

“The gavel that we are adding to the museum’s collection is more than an artifact of America’s political history,” said Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton at the opening of today’s donation ceremony. “It is a testament to Nancy Pelosi’s tireless leadership over the course of her career, and her determination to defy the odds.”

Pelosi herself donated the gavel to the Smithsonian, along with the plum suit she wore and the speech she delivered on the occasion of her 2007 ascendance into the role of Speaker. In those remarks, Pelosi called attention to what she described as “an historic moment for the Congress and an historic moment for the women of America,” spurring much of the audience to rise to their feet in applause.

“It is a moment for which we have waited over 200 years,” she said to the members of the 110th Congress. “But women weren’t just waiting—women were working.” And as of that January day, Pelosi said, “We have broken the marble ceiling. For our daughters and our granddaughters now, the sky is the limit. Anything is possible for them.”

This Historic Gavel Hammers Home the Achievements of Nancy Pelosi… and the United States
Nancy Pelosi's lacquered maple gavel, along with the suit she wore on her first day as Speaker, a prepared speech she delivered to the members of Congress, and a copy of the vote tally that got her elected to the position, today join the collections of the National Museum of American History. NMAH

It is fitting that Pelosi should make this donation in the month of March, Women’s History Month, and on the eve of International Women’s Day. On stage throughout the proceedings, held at the National Museum of American History, were a quartet of outfits worn by similarly groundbreaking women, lending context and a spirit of solidarity to the suit provided by Pelosi.

These other artifacts, all drawn from the Smithsonian’s U.S. history collection, included the striking orange and black ensemble worn by singer and civil rights activist Marian Anderson for her 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert, the uniforms of astronaut Sally Ride (the first American woman in space) and Anna Mae Hays (the first woman to attain the rank of general in the U.S. Army), and the flowing robe of Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman to win a seat on the federal bench).

Smithsonian political history curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy called this display “a wonderful array of the clothes that women wear to do their jobs, whether that job is singing for equality or commanding a nurse corps, exploring space, ruling from the bench, or governing the country.”

Consciously echoing her address from 2007, Nancy Pelosi stressed the power of American women to seize their own dreams, bringing their country ever closer to the ideal of “E pluribus unum.” “We need more women engaged in every area of our democracy,” she said to hearty applause. “Nothing is more wholesome to our democracy than the increased participation of women in the politics and government of our nation.”

Seizing on Pelosi’s call for a new generation of female leaders to claim their place at the helm of history, Smithsonian Secretary Skorton announced in a closing statement the commencement of the planning phase of a Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, a comprehensive effort which will bring inspirational women’s stories like that of Nancy Pelosi to the fore at all Smithsonian locations.

“This initiative,” which will be described in more detail later this year, “will elevate the profile of women and their contributions across all of our museums, exhibitions, and public programs,” Skorton said.

As the wheels of history continue to turn, Graddy is optimistic that the example of Nancy Pelosi will be one young women across the country will take to heart, and that many more female Speakers will in time follow in her footsteps. “It’s an amazing milestone for women and for America,” Graddy says. “After that first, you really do open ground for everyone else.”

As Congresswoman Doris Matsui, a Smithsonian Regent, said at the ceremony, quoting the poet Maya Angelou, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”