Recognizing women leaders
Photos by Evan Krape December 07, 2023
Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi receives UD’s 2023 Valerie Biden Owens Woman of Power and Purpose Award
The University of Delaware welcomed Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi to campus on Friday, Dec. 1, and recognized her as the 2023 recipient of the Valerie Biden Owens Woman of Power and Purpose Award. Hundreds gathered at Mitchell Hall in honor of Pelosi and witnessed her engaging conversation with Biden Institute Chair Valerie Biden Owens.
The afternoon proved to be a memorable event, not only celebrating Pelosi’s invaluable leadership and impact during her 30-plus-year career in public service but also marking the official renaming of the annual award to include Biden Owens as its namesake. Biden Owens, a known figure for championing women leaders, helped establish the award in 2018.
The Biden Institute’s Woman of Power and Purpose Award recognizes one woman each year whose transformational leadership makes a difference in Delaware and beyond. Each fall, a ceremony is held to celebrate the chosen honoree, highlighting her accomplishments and inspiring the next generation of women at UD.
Speaker Pelosi has represented San Francisco in Congress for more than 36 years and previously served as the 52nd Speaker of the House of Representatives. She made history in 2007 when she was elected the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House. In January 2019, she made history again after regaining her position, becoming the first person to do so in over 60 years. Notably, Pelosi is the chief architect of generation-defining legislation under two Democratic administrations, including the Affordable Care Act and the American Rescue Plan.
“I appreciate how important it is for young women starting their careers in politics, in public policy, in public service to hear from women leaders like Speaker Pelosi,” said Biden School Dean Amy Ellen Schwartz during introductory remarks. “In these challenging times, we could too easily be drawn into despair and inaction, so it is particularly fitting that, today, we celebrate a woman who has persisted and prevailed in the face of discord and division.”
Pelosi joins the ranks of previous year awardees, which includes Ashley Biden, former Director of the Delaware Center for Justice (2018), Sally Yates, former Deputy Attorney General (2019), Tamika Montgomery Reeves, former Delaware Supreme Court Justice (2020), Opal Lee, Grandmother of Juneteenth (2021) and Desa Burton, Executive Director of ZipCode Wilmington (2022).
“It is critically important that we acknowledge the work that women have done and are doing every day to improve our society,” said UD President Dennis Assanis, addressing the packed house. “We all need to continue supporting and encouraging the next generation of women to reach even further and achieve even more.”
Pelosi and Biden Owens quickly connected on their similar childhoods, each growing up as the little sister in tight-knit Catholic households. Pelosi noted her eagerness to establish herself apart from her older brothers.
“They called me Miss Independence,” she said.
Growing up Italian-American in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood, Pelosi was no stranger to the importance of tradition. In her family, that meant the duty of public service and the responsibility to respect and help others, no matter their belief system or differences.
Her late father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., served as Mayor of Baltimore for 12 years after representing the city for five terms in Congress.
“When I was born, he was in Congress, but when I was in first grade, he became the Mayor of Baltimore, and he was the Mayor of Baltimore when I went away to college. I knew no other life,” she recalled.
Although her brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, followed in their father’s footsteps as the Mayor of Baltimore, Pelosi didn’t see it in the cards for herself. A shy and “behind-the-scenes” person, public office wasn’t initially something she was interested in pursuing. While raising her five daughters and satisfying her love of politics and service through working as Chair of the California Democratic Party, she began receiving peer encouragement to run for office.
Eventually taking the plunge in 1987, she joined Congress as the representative for the San Francisco district of California. It was a thrilling yet very different landscape as a woman elected official when only 23 out of 435 members were women. In comparison, women comprise over a quarter of current membership, with 128 out of 440.
On her swearing-in day, colleagues strongly advised her to be brief with any remarks or comments given the social-political climate at the time, the AIDS epidemic at its peak. Pelosi, whose district was deeply impacted by the virus, took this as a challenge, tapping into her inner “Miss Independence” and vowing before all of Congress to fight against HIV and AIDS.
This memory felt especially poignant, given Dec. 1 is officially recognized as World AIDS Day, with Pelosi dressed in a red pantsuit especially for the occasion. She still looks back on that first impression with pride, seeing it as the foundation for how her career would evolve as a woman in elected office, unafraid to speak up no matter the stigma or backlash.
That sense of self and purpose followed well into both of Pelosi’s terms as Speaker of the House, resulting in more legislation passed under her leadership than any other Speaker in history. While often depicted as an iron fist or tough, she says it all boils down to strong leadership and mutual respect in service of making real change.
“It’s about respect for different points of view in the caucus. You have a lot of diversity — generationally, geographically, philosophically, gender identity and all the rest — so you have to be respectful of that and build consensus,” she said. “I consider myself — to do this — a master weaver, and everybody knows that their thread is as important as any other thread there.”
That ability to unite everyone in times of division was strongly displayed on Jan. 6, 2021, during the storming of the Capitol Building and attempted block on the peaceful transfer of power.
“She is the calm, the present and the leader who organized and got everything back to normal,” said Biden Owens while reflecting on that day’s events.
While confusion and chaos ensued around her in real-time, Pelosi made de-escalation and re-establishing order her mission.
For Pelosi, the calling of public service and politics is not for the faint of heart. It is a duty that should never be taken lightly. It requires tenacity, fierceness in the face of adversity and a clear sense of your “why.”
“When you’re in the arena, you have to be ready to take a punch, and you have to be ready to throw a punch,” she said when asked about her philosophy on fighting for what you believe in, even when it feels impossible.
Pelosi especially believes in standing one’s ground and establishing a clear purpose when applied to young people preparing to head out into the world.
“Know what you’re talking about and the passion that you have or the mission that you undertake. See a way that you can bring people together. Show them what’s in your heart, what you really believe,” she said. “Know your power in all of this — there’s never been anyone like you in the history of the world. Recognize what you add to all of this, and if you choose to go down this path, know why you have chosen, know what you’re talking about, know how to get it done and show them that authenticity, and you will be a leader. You will succeed.”
Before concluding, Biden Owens and Pelosi received a special greeting from President Joe Biden, patched in via telephone.“I mean this without any equivocation: [Pelosi] is the finest Speaker of the House in American history,” Biden said. “She is the single best I’ve ever worked with, and she is a loyal, loyal friend.”
The President then had one final message, especially for his younger sister.
“I’m thrilled that our alma mater has decided to rename the Woman of Power and Purpose Award in honor of my incredible sister, Valerie Biden Owens,” he said.
If anything can be taken from these two individuals led by purpose, integrity and grit, it’s never underselling yourself. Embrace your inner force of nature, your “why” and never be afraid to fight for it.
About the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration
Established in 1961 and named in 2018 for the University of Delaware’s most distinguished alumnus, the 46th President of the United States, the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration prepares students with the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in research and public service to improve the quality of life in communities around the world. Biden School faculty, staff, students and alumni create and use interdisciplinary, nonpartisan research, and empirically based analysis to inform effective decision-making and policy and to improve leadership and administration. The Biden School partners with organizations from all sectors to discover innovative and equitable solutions to the critical challenges of our time.