But the two also personify an important shift in how women gain and use political power: Pelosi first took elective office at age 47, running for Congress as a Democrat from California only after her five children were grown. Clark sought office for the first time at 38, running for Medford school board while her children were still school age.
Amid a decades-long battle for gender equity in employment and parenting roles, women today are less likely than in Pelosi’s generation to postpone their political careers for child rearing — a shift Pelosi tried to foster by encouraging young women to run.
That is true in many professions, but it has particularly far-reaching consequences in Congress. There, power is largely allocated by seniority, so the sooner politicians get started on their careers and the longer they serve, the more power they accumulate. Men have a leg up because they enter politics at a younger age than women, largely because women bear the greater child care burden.
Pelosi was 47 when she arrived in the House and 66 when she became speaker. Her predecessor, Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, was 28 when first elected, 45 when he became speaker. Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy of California is in line to become speaker in the new Congress at age 57; he was 37 when he got started in the California Legislature.
In the 116th Congress (2019-21), the average age for all members was 47; the average age for women was 64, according to Represent Women, a group that works to increase women’s presence in politics. But there are signs the age gap is dwindling: Looking just at the freshman women in the 116th Congress, the average age was 46, down from 50.2 in the 113th Congress (2013-15).
Female candidates now benefit from a panoply of women’s political groups. EMILY’s List is the behemoth, established in 1985 to support prochoice female Democrats.
Pelosi had none of that help getting started, at a time when ambitious women fought to rise through male-dominated party organizations. Pelosi was hand picked to succeed the late Representative Sala Burton — widow of the storied California powerbroker Phillip Burton — after her death.
Consider the different path followed by Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. A bartender and former volunteer for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, she blindsided and beat a 10-term Democratic incumbent in a 2018 primary. That kind of insurgency outside the “old boys network” is now easier due to the proliferation of social media and non-party activist groups like MoveOn and Our Revolution.
But conventional power structures still matter, and Clark’s rise in Massachusetts politics methodically followed a textbook path through the state hierarchy. Elected to her school board in 2001, Clark later served in the state House of Representatives and state Senate. She won a special election to the US House in 2013.
Her three sons were all under 18 at the time; she was also caring for her ailing parents living next door. That experience fueled her interest in issues like child care, family leave, and pay equity for women.
“When Congress was in session, I would return at the end of the week from Washington, D.C., not sure where I was needed more: help my husband with the pressures of our busy family or care for my aging parents,” she wrote in a 2021 Globe op-ed. “Often, I ended the week in tears.”
Obviously, Congress today is far from devoid of sexism. Still, Pelosi — having made her mark on Democrats’ agenda, fundraising, and strategy for longer than Clark has been in Congress — is leaving American politics a more welcoming place for the next generation of women to rise.
Janet Hook, a writer in the Washington, D.C., area, has been a national political reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.