There are many reasons to reflect on the historical significance of President Joe Biden’s first joint address to Congress. It was a great speech by a man who understands why he is in this role, in this time. He knows who we need him to be, and isn’t that a relief.
I first felt the weight of the moment at the sight of those two strong, powerful women standing side by side on the House dais, awaiting Biden’s arrival. For the first time, Vice President Kamala Harris called the session to order. For the first time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally introduced President Biden to Congress.
The moment was not lost on Biden. “Madam Speaker,” he said after handing both women copies of his speech. “Madam Vice President.” No president has ever said those words from this podium. No president has ever said those words. And it’s about time.”
Social media exploded with images of Harris and Pelosi sitting or standing behind Biden. They were wearing masks, of course, but there was no hiding their watchful eyes as he spoke.
There were also the inevitable jokes. BuzzFeed News’ Matt Berman tweeted, “We’re going to see history tonight in Congress as two women sit silently while a man talks for about an hour.”
Some laughed; some insulted him; some took great offense – with few lecturing him about feminism and demanding to know what he was doing for his country. Your typical evening on Twitter.
I was among those who laughed, mainly because no one with even a passing acquaintance with Pelosi and Harris would mistake them for demure women behind any man, including the husbands they love. Both have been ambitious without apology, which means they’re like a lot of successful men. They’re also smarter than a good number of those men, because that’s how this works. Ask us how we know.
Pelosi first became speaker of the House when she was 66. At an age when most are expected to wind down, she was gearing up – and what a remarkable 14 more years it has been for this woman who was first elected to Congress at age 47.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now 81 years old. I love saying that out loud, especially at the end of a long and frustrating day. If she can keep going, so can we.
Kamala Harris is 56 and a glorious tower of firsts in her role as vice president of the United States: first female, first Black person, first South Asian American. I look forward to that round of reader emails accusing me of identity politics for mentioning this. As soon as America stops caring about gender and race, I’ll stop talking about why they matter.
It is impossible to behold the image of Harris and Pelosi on that dais and not feel the arc of history moving closer to equality. But as I watched them, I was restless, too. Blame it on the number of my years of being female in America. I want to know: What’s next?
Like so many women of my generation, I’ve lived long enough to know these gains are fragile and require constant tending. Impatience gets us to the threshold, and perseverance breaks down doors. But it’s commitment that keeps the opportunities open for the next generation of women – and the next and the next.
This is my most frequent conversation with women over 50. If you read my column with any regularity, you are familiar with my plea that we carry as we climb. I feel such urgency right now, as one state legislature after another launches yet another round of assaults on women’s reproductive rights.
There will always be right-wing politicians who want to punish women for having sex. If we are to stop them, exhaustion is not an option, and the advancement of years does not excuse us.
Today I was talking to one of my oldest friends, Jackie. She patiently listened as I, yet again, went on about how there are two types of professional women our age: those who lecture younger women to suck it up just as they had to and those who do everything they can to make sure the discrimination of the past ends with them.
The former group is easy to spot. They lead with their injuries. “Bitter, table for one,” as Jackie puts it. (Every woman should have a friend like Jackie.)
The latter group – the majority of us, I want to believe – is not always so easy to spot. Call it humility. Call it shyness. Call it waiting for the invitation.
Call it whatever you want, as long as you also call it that thing about us that we must change.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.