Choose Your Own Path
Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi ’62
Democratic Leader Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi ’62 delivered commencement remarks at Trinity’s 109th Commencement in May on the occasion of her 50th Reunion. In her remarks, Leader Pelosi highlighted the values Trinity graduates take from their education at Trinity, shared the powerful influence of a Trinity education in her life, and called on all members of the Class of 2012 to make their own unique contribution to the world. Below are the Leader’s remarks.
It’s a joy to be here at Trinity with all of these glowing graduates in the Class of 2012, and more than a few good men who are with us today as well. I want to join Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly in singing the praises of President Pat McGuire. She is a remarkable person. She is a great leader. She said that Barbara was a trailblazer for women in Congress, including me. Barbara is a trailblazer; Pat McGuire is a builder. She has built Trinity into something quite wonderful that we are all celebrating here today.
The first thing I want to do is to have all of you to stand, turn and look at your families and friends and all who made your graduations possible and cheer them. Thank you moms and dads, families and friends, and all who contributed to the success of each and every one of our graduates. We see them as a group but every one of them is a great story.
President McGuire shared with me some of the stories that you wrote about your aspirations when you came to Trinity and how some of you are the first in your family to graduate from college. And again, this means you’re pioneers. And that is in the tradition of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, which is part of the sisterhood and brotherhood that we all share.
When I was at Trinity, Sr. Margaret Claydon was the president of the college. She was in her thirties, not that much older than those of us in school, and she was a great connection for us to the Sisters of Notre Dame. Earlier we heard the beautiful invocation from Sr. Mary Ellen Dow, director of campus ministry, and we heard from Sr. Patricia O’Brien, chair of the Board of Trustees. That connection to the Sisters of Notre Dame is so important. They first came to this country from Europe in the 1840s, and once they got to the United States, they were directed by the bishops to cross the country, to educate girls in Ohio and in the West. This was very courageous; women didn’t go out alone in those days – they were true pioneers. And though they met challenges – whether it was the fog, the tempest of the seas, going over the mountains, whatever it took to go West – they covered the country to bring education to girls. They carried a message that women had the potential to be leaders. So, educating girls and women to be leaders is a longstanding mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame that continues today. Aren’t we proud to be associated with it? Thank you to the Sisters of Notre Dame.
My friend Barbara Kennelly was the first woman in the leadership in the Congress on the Democratic-side, and that meant the first woman in the leadership, and the doors that she opened enabled us to eventually have the first woman Speaker of the House. So, I thank her, I love her, our friendship is important to me, our Trinity connection is a strong one. Thank you Barbara Kennelly for everything.
More than 50 years ago, my parents’ car turned into the main driveway here at Trinity. There was no library. It was Main Hall and the chapel, that’s what we saw first coming from Baltimore, Maryland, where I’m from. I came from a very Catholic family – very strict, very liberal in their politics, very conservative in their upbringing of their children – so the farthest I could go away to college was to an all-women’s Catholic college within 45 minutes of my home. And lucky for me, the best women’s college academically – Catholic or not – was within 45 minutes. When we turned in here, it was like coming into Shangri-La for many reasons. I had six older brothers – one died – so I was raised with five older brothers; at last I would have sisters.
The excellent education that we received was so magnificent. But what was really important were the friendships that we made. On the very first day at orientation, we made friends for life. The chapel was the center of our existence; here this was, this relatively small college with this magnificent chapel. It was, of course, a manifestation of faith, but also a place where we felt comfortable expressing that faith. The nuns taught us to think beyond ourselves. And that is still the mission of Trinity Washington University. When we were here, 50 years ago, what an inspiration it was for us to campaign for John F. Kennedy for president of the United States. We saw the inauguration of a president – part of a new generation, the first Catholic, a young president – who was an inspiration to the world, who gave hope to all of the people in our country who needed hope.
Today, you’re graduating when another young president holds that office. Many of you saw him elected and inaugurated in your freshman year. He’s an inspiration to another generation, giving hope to the world. And we have that in common. And aren’t we, and our country, fortunate for that?
President Pat, what you have done here at Trinity is remarkable. It has had its moments, when there was a challenge of “do we keep it a women’s college?” But as they say: the more something changes, the more it stays the same. The more changes Pat made here at Trinity, the more it was the same vibrant, dynamic, in-the-lead institution educating women, telling them to think beyond themselves, and that they could do anything they set out to do.
President Pat mentioned that Barbara and I received honorary degrees from Trinity on other occasions. Well, when I received mine, I was the Speaker of the House. One young woman from the District of Columbia came up to me and said, “You’re Speaker of the House, that’s really nice, but I’m going to be president of the United States.” That was so demonstrative of who you are – your vitality, your enthusiasm, your self-confidence. I tell that story all over the country, because that is, for me, what Trinity is all about, the confidence that Trinity instills in our young people.
People always ask me, “What path did you take to become the Speaker of the House, to go to Congress? And what path should I take?” And I say, “The best path for you is the path that you decide upon, not somebody else’s path or what worked for them.” In our generation it was thought that we would have children and then go on to a career, maybe. And that was the path that I took. Five children in six years, the Catholic way. And so, when the opportunity came for me to run for Congress, I had never held elected office. I had worked as a volunteer in politics to the point that I was the chair of the California Democratic Party, a great honor but still an unpaid volunteer position where I could manage the time around my family’s needs. I had never suggested or thought about running for Congress. But people asked me to run; the woman who was in the seat said she wanted me to run. So, when the opportunity came to run for Congress – just to run, it didn’t mean I was going to win – I went to my youngest daughter. She would be going into her senior year in high school, the other four were already in college. So, I went to her and I said, “Alexandra, mommy has an opportunity to run for Congress. I love my life. I love being home with you, but if it’s alright with you, for a few days a week, I’ll be in Washington, if I run for Congress and if I win.” And she said something to me that I had never heard before. She looked up – now she’s 16, young for her class – she looks up to me and she said, “Mother, get a life.” And so I did. Not that I didn’t have a wonderful life, but I expanded that horizon because I believed that being involved in politics was an extension of my role as mother to help other children – especially to help the one in five children in America who lives in poverty, that is my driving force.
So then, I’m elected to Congress. I’m there for 15 years or so, and the opportunity to run for leadership came. I took the challenge and I ran for leadership. The men in the caucus said, “You’re not next.” I said, “No, we’ve been waiting over 200 years, women are next.” So, when I decided to run and won the position, I went to the White House. This is an important story for you to take home with you. When I went to the White House for my first meeting – now, I had been to the White House many times as a member of the Appropriations Committee and the Intelligence Committee, so I wasn’t apprehensive about it at all until I got to the room where the meeting would be. The president and the vice president of the United States were there, and the leadership of the Congress, Democratic and Republican, House and Senate. President Bush was always a very gracious man, and he welcomed me, very graciously, to the table for the first time.
When I walked in, I realized that this meeting was unlike any meeting I had ever attended at the White House. In fact, it was unlike any meeting any woman had ever attended at the White House because I was walking in, elected by my colleagues to represent the first branch of government, the legislative branch, Article I, at that table with the president. I was not there by his appointment. However wonderful it is to have a presidential appointment, I was there elected by my peers. And as President Bush was graciously welcoming me, I felt really crowded – on my chair it was crowded, I was squeezed in. I’d never had that feeling before and then all of a sudden I realized that sitting on that chair with me in that room were all the suffragettes – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott – you name them, they were all there. I think even Sr. Julie Billiart probably was sitting there, too, as well as Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul – they were all on that chair with me, it was very tight. And I could hear them say, “At last we have a seat at the table.” And then they were gone. And all I could think was, “We want more. We want more women. We want more minorities. We want more diversity at that table so we have the benefit of the thinking of all Americans.”
When that happened, I realized that I was standing on the shoulders of many women who had gone before. When we talk about Barbara Kennelly’s leadership when there were just 21 women members of Congress, then when I got there 24 members were women – you have to remember, that was out of 435. Out of 435 people, only 21 or 24 were women. And this is really important, for women to take on leadership roles. It is really important whether we’re talking about the growth of our economy, the education of our children, the strength of our military, the vitality of our academic institutions – any arena that you can name benefits from the fuller participation of leadership of women in it. And that is your role as we go forward.
I also think, just speaking from the standpoint of the political arena in which I contend, that we must reduce the role of money and increase the role of civility. Then, I promise you, we will elect more women to public office. I took this message with me last week when I went to visit our troops, which I do every year on Mother’s Day. This year we had an all-women’s delegation of members of Congress to visit our troops in Qatar, and then in Afghanistan. We spent Mother’s Day with the Marines in Helmand Province and with the Army later in the day at Kandahar and then in Kabul to say to them, “Thank you for keeping America’s families strong,” but also to celebrate the leadership of women in the military. There are so many moms and, believe it or not, grand-moms who are serving our military and they make it stronger and they make it better and they should have every opportunity to rise to the heights in our military. But we also met with many women across Afghanistan, who are Afghan, whether they were the poorest of the poor, maybe a beggar, or the most educated – an attorney, a doctor, an academic of high standing – and we shared the message that decisions made by a country are better decisions the more women have a role and a seat at the table. It’s true in America. It’s true in Afghanistan. And we told President Karzai that we wanted to see more women participate in those decisions. We’ve expended so much in terms of the lives and the health of our loved ones fighting the war, the money that it costs to do it. We did not do this for women to go backward in Afghanistan.
My final story to you is about the passage of the health care bill. I’m not going to go into the details of the bill, just to say one sentence: No longer will being a woman be a preexisting medical condition under the health care bill. At the White House signing ceremony, President Obama gathered all those who worked hard to pass the bill and many who would benefit from it. And we’re all there for the signing. It was quite incredible. And after he signed the bill, two Trinity sisters went up to him – Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Trinity Class of ’70, and Nancy Pelosi, then-Speaker of the House. So, we went up to the president and we said, “Mr. President, would you have a picture taken on this historic day with the Trinity sisters?” And he said, “Yes, where are they?” expecting to see women in habits, I guess, and we said, “We’re the Trinity sisters. We represent the Trinity sisters here.” But imagine. This was legislation that stands right up there with Social Security and Medicare, and now health care for all Americans as a right, not a privilege, and two of the people who had leading roles in making it happen were Trinity sisters, graduates of Trinity College.
When we graduated, we were so proud of our degrees and what they would lead to, how they enhanced who we were, how we learned, how we enhanced our values here at Trinity. We were so proud of that degree. But I honestly have to say to you that looking at each and every one of you, I’ve never been prouder of my own degree than the fact that you’re receiving that same degree today.
We walked the same Marble Corridor. We studied under the same Red Roof. We have a sisterhood that is important. You, you Class of 2012, you are the future. You will see things we never could have dreamed of when we were at Trinity, or many years since. I will come back in two weeks to Trinity for the big 5-0 Reunion; the big 5-0 – how could it be? It goes faster than you think. When I return here for Reunion, I will tell my classmates how proud I am of all of you, how much you make Trinity shine even brighter than we could ever have imagined.
As I say in my book, I want you to “Know Your Power.” Know the power of what you have learned, the values that have deepened, the love of your families who made this all possible. Know your power to be a very different person from anybody else, to make your own distinct contribution to our future.
Congratulations Class of 2012! Congratulations for making everything better for our Trinity! Congratulations and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you.