House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi marked Women’s History Month at the Capitol Tuesday with a rousing reception honoring Janet Yellen, the new chairman of the Federal Reserve and the first woman to hold the powerful post. Among those paying tribute to Yellen was her counterpart on the world stage, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Playing off the adage “perfect to a T,” Lagarde strung together a variety of Ts—talent, toughness, tenacity—and most important what she described as Yellen’s touch.
Recalling how Yellen was the first to take the floor at last month’s G20 meeting in Australia, where she announced how she would gradually taper the Fed’s bond-buying program, Lagarde said the whole T—tension—lifted: “The boys were reconciled.” Female members of Congress along with activists in the decades-long women’s movement laughed knowingly, reveling in their solidarity with this willowy and elegant French lawyer who has become an icon for women everywhere.
Warming to the occasion, Lagarde continued, recalling how a smart Australian photographer took a photo from behind of her and Yellen walking together. “What did we have in common? Our white hair,” she said. That too brought gentle laughs in part because visually the two women are quite different, with Yellen, like most women, considerably shorter than Lagarde. Reading her audience’s mind, Lagarde concluded, “She has a big IQ and I have a big body.”
On that note, amid peals of laughter, Pelosi waved Yellen’s husband, George, to the microphone. Though a bit reluctant, he stepped forward. “We met here in Washington some 30 years ago—the best thing that happened to me in my life every single minute,” he said, “So thank you, Janet.”
Reclaiming the microphone as every woman in the room was thinking George is wonderful, Pelosi said what Yellen and Lagarde have achieved is harder than running for office. “When we run for office, a lot of women vote for us,” the California congresswoman said, pointing out that these two highly placed economists had a far narrower field to draw their votes from. “This is something that is stark and remarkable,” Pelosi marveled. After Yellen’s name was suggested for the Fed chair, Pelosi said people who knew her called from all over the world and said, “You’re interested in the fact that she’s a woman; we’re interested in the fact that she’s the best.”
Accustomed to being behind the scenes, you get the feeling Yellen is still adapting to her more public role. She kept her remarks short and substantive. “History is more than what happens and what women and men did to make it happen,” she said. “It’s the knowledge we draw on to shape the future.” The last century is called the American century, but it’s also a century of progress for women, she said, where the numbers of women in the work force increased, particularly after 1970.
At a celebratory occasion like Tuesday’s reception, women can savor that progress as they sample some of Pelosi’s signature chocolates, yet Yellen knew she would be remiss if she didn’t point out that women are still under-represented in academia, government and business. “There are countless reasons for this,” she said, and economists like her are among those trying to figure out why women are not rising to higher levels.
“That sounds like our theme,” Pelosi exulted. “When women succeed, America succeeds.” Women lawmakers joined in the chant, adding, “When women succeed, the world succeeds.” With those sentiments, glasses of wine and tiny flasks with chocolate were raised in a toast to the guests of honor.