Beneath the portraits of male speakers past, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) retook the speaker’s gavel and more than 100 women were sworn in on the floor of the House.
The opening day of the 116th Congress Thursday was heavy with symbolism underscoring women’s historic gains.
Dozens of newly elected women queued to receive their member pins. Husbands affixed those pins to their wives’ lapels. They held tote bags, corralled relatives and quieted children.
Women lawmakers had to wait until 2011 to get a restroom off the floor of the House, but on Thursday, for the first time, there was a line to get in.
The day served as a powerful reminder of the shifting gender dynamics of the House as Democrats ascend to power. When Pelosi arrived on Capitol Hill in 1987, there were 23 female members. As of Thursday, there are 102, nearly 90 percent of whom are Democrats.
In her opening speech to the House as speaker, Pelosi noted that her election comes amid the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
“It’s been a work in progress,” said freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), escorting her family through the halls of the Capitol. “I look forward to ushering in further progress so that my daughters and their daughters don’t have to have these conversations about what this moment means because it would just become really normal.”
At one point, Pelosi invited the children present in the chamber to join her on the dais.
“Let us pray that God may bless our work, and crown our good with brotherhood — and sisterhood — from sea to shining sea,” she said.
New Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was mobbed by supporters as she and her aides sought to make their way through throngs of people outside of Pelosi’s office.
An anonymous Twitter account affiliated with the far-right had tried to spoil her week by posting a video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing on a rooftop during college, a move that seemed only to strengthen her support online.
In another made-for-Twitter moment, Republicans audibly groaned when Ocasio-Cortez cast her vote for Pelosi for speaker. “Sorry,” she mouthed with a smile.
Freshman Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) said he was inspired by his new female colleagues.
“I hope it’s the beginning of a trend, where we’re going to have gender equity hopefully in the workplace, but also here in our workplace,” said Levin, wearing a “Madam Speaker” pin.
Yet throughout the day, the reality of the political moment threatened to intrude on the festivities.
Much of the government remained closed Thursday, the product of an impasse between President Trump and Democratic leaders. Trump congratulated Pelosi for her “tremendous achievement” of again becoming speaker but suggested he would remain firm in demanding funds for a border wall.
“There is certainly a somber note as we think about the 800,000 people who are living in economic uncertainty because of a president who won’t grow up and reopen the government because of a vanity wall,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the ascendant Congressional Progressive Caucus, as she reflected on the day.
The shutdown appeared to unite Democratic factions and, at least for a day, tamped down talk of their differences.
Women lawmakers vowed to find a way forward.
“I think right now in our country, we’re in a real crisis,” Omar said.
The difference between the Democratic and Republican caucuses was striking as members assembled midday on the House floor.
To the left of the dais — the Democratic side — the typical sea of men’s suit jackets was balanced by pops of green, blue and white worn by women. Bald heads alternated with bobbed haircuts. Scanning the rows, the record number of women and lawmakers of Hispanic, Asian and African American heritage who will serve this term was clear.
To the right of the dais — the Republican side — older white men occupied nearly every seat. Visually, granddaughters provided most of the contrast.
Freshman Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) compared the scene to “an old movie.” A former state legislator, she enters Congress as one of four women representing Pennsylvania. Last term, there were none.
“It means a lot,” Dean said of the new women in the House. “I’m optimistic because I believe that what that kind of diversity will bring is problem-solving.”
The women’s bathroom off the House floor became a natural gathering place as incoming lawmakers and their families sought to navigate the events of the day.
Once the House parliamentarian’s office, the facility opened when there were only 76 women in the lower chamber. To access it from the floor, women must walk beneath the portraits of five men dating as far back as 1843.
Gathering outside, a group of women expressed the mood by channeling singer Nina Simone.