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Pelosi shattered the marble ceiling and leaves a historic leadership legacy

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., is surrounded by members of the media as she heads back to her office after announcing she would step away as a party leader.
Andrew Harnik
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AP
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., is surrounded by members of the media as she heads back to her office after announcing she would step away as a party leader.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shattered the so-called "marble ceiling" in Congress during her two decade career as a leader in those halls.

Hers has been a career of firsts — the first woman to be elected speaker of the House — and she occupied a particularly high-profile position during some of the most pivotal and, often volatile, moments in recent American political history.

Her tenure has spanned the Iraq War, a financial crisis "from the depths of hell" as Pelosi later described it, sweeping legislation to regulate Wall Street, expanding health insurance coverage to millions of Americans, a nuclear arms treaty with Russia and a repeal of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays serving in the armed forces.

She became the first speaker to launch two impeachments against the same sitting president, Donald Trump, including for his role in inciting the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol during the counting of electoral votes to affirm Joe Biden's 2020 presidential election victory. Pelosi joined with other leaders to reconvene Congress that evening to finish the count. Both impeachments fell along party lines and he was acquitted by the GOP-controlled Senate.

Her pivotal role in these particularly acrimonious moments in recent political history often drew the ire of opponents and made her the target of criticism and physical threats. Prosecutors said the recent attack on Paul Pelosi, her husband, in the couple's San Francisco home was politically motivated.

Ultimately, however, her decision to step down was centered on making room for a new generation of leadership.

Here is a look at Pelosi's career and its impact on that history.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi flexes her muscles before receiving the speaker's gavel from Rep. John Boehner in January 2007 at the start of the 110th Congress, her first as House speaker.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Rep. Nancy Pelosi flexes her muscles before receiving the speaker's gavel from Rep. John Boehner in January 2007 at the start of the 110th Congress, her first as House speaker.

Pelosi broke the marble ceiling

One of the pinnacles of Pelosi's career would come in 2006, when she led House Democrats to reclaim a majority from Republicans who had controlled the chamber since the 1994 GOP wave election. The nation had soured on the war in Iraq and a series of lobbying and ethical scandals gave Democrats a platform to campaign against a "culture of corruption" in Washington, D.C., with popular promises to "drain the swamp."

It worked. Democrats swept control of the House by making big promises to change the way Washington worked. "The American people voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington, D.C., And the Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history," Pelosi said the day after the election.

In 2007, after serving in other party leadership roles, she became the first woman elected by her colleagues to serve as speaker of the House, forever securing her place in history for breaking the "marble ceiling" of congressional leadership until then dominated by men. She did it again in 2019, becoming the first speaker since legendary congressman Sam Rayburn to lose and regain the gavel.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is sworn in as speaker while surrounded by her own grandchildren and the children of members of Congress during the 1st session of the 111th Congress on Jan. 6, 2009.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is sworn in as speaker while surrounded by her own grandchildren and the children of members of Congress during the first session of the 111th Congress on Jan. 6, 2009.

Pelosi's vantage point included four presidencies

Pelosi ultimately served alongside four presidents in her two turns as speaker — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Trump and Biden — two Republicans which she held in utter contempt, and two Democrats who could not have accomplished as much without her.

She was one of Bush's most prominent critics in Congress during a scandal-laden era on Capitol Hill coupled with a worsening Iraq War, the fallout of the administration's mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and a near economic collapse during the 2008 financial crisis. "God bless him. Bless his heart. The president of the United States, a total failure. Losing all credibility with the American people, on the economy, on the war, on energy, you name the subject," she said of Bush in 2008.

But Pelosi, who often boasted of herself as a "master legislator," also worked with the Bush administration to keep the wars abroad funded — often to the anger of the party's liberal base — and reliably delivered Democratic votes on must-pass legislation when necessary.

In this March 23, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act in the East Room of the White House in Washington, surrounded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
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AP
On March 23, 2010, President Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act in the East Room of the White House, surrounded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers.

As speaker, Pelosi served as a critical ally to the nation's first Black president, Obama, and together enacted into law one of their signature legislative achievements, the landmark 2010 Affordable Care Act that inched the nation closer to health care coverage for all Americans.

She led the two House impeachments of Trump, the first with some hesitation about how it would divide the nation for Trump's role in pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate the Biden family, and the second with great enthusiasm for Trump's role in inciting a Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol during the counting of electoral votes to secure Biden's 2020 presidential victory. Trump was acquitted by the Senate in both cases.

Under both the Trump and Biden administrations, Pelosi helped enact trillions in new spending and government programs as part of the public health and economic recovery efforts during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the years that followed.

President Donald Trump turns to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., as he delivers his State of the Union on Feb. 5, 2019 as Vice President Mike Pence watches.
Andrew Harnik / AP
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AP
President Donald Trump turns to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he delivers his State of the Union on Feb. 5, 2019, as Vice President Mike Pence watches.

Pelosi was able to help marshal through the House trillions of dollars in COVID relief aid.

When Democrats lost the House in the 2022 midterms, Pelosi finally did what most Democrats expected her to do a decade earlier and step down from party leadership, and has vowed to serve in the House.

"History will note she is the most consequential speaker of the House of Representatives in our history," President Biden said when she stepped down from leadership in November 2022, who praised her as "a singular force securing once-in-a-generation bills that will define our nation for decades to come."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence talk during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump.
Pool / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence talk during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump.

Unlike other lawmakers who run for Congress, Pelosi never harbored political ambitions beyond the speakership. From the day she first took the gavel on the House floor, she knew she had earned her place in history as a female political icon.

"For our daughters and our granddaughters: today we have broken the marble ceiling," Pelosi said in 2007. "For our daughters and granddaughters now, the sky is the limit — anything is possible for them."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.