Jackie Speier was never daunted by obstacles, however unsurmountable

The retiring Congresswoman’s fearless fight for women was rooted in optimism

Congresswoman Jackie Speier was downcast as she left her Washington, D.C., apartment Thursday morning.

It was the 43rd anniversary of the day that shattered her life.

On Nov. 18, 1978, Speier was preparing to board a small plane on an airstrip in Guyana with her boss, California Congressman Leo Ryan. Rifle-carrying men in a red tractor trailer suddenly sped toward the plane and opened fire. Speier, then 28 years old, saw bodies crumble and blood gushing from Ryan’s neck just as she felt the crush from the first of the five bullets that pierced her.

Ryan and three journalists — including Examiner photographer Greg Robinson — were killed along with 900 of Jones’ followers who were forced to drink Flavor Aid laced with cyanide at their encampment several miles away. Authorities arriving at the airstrip hours later found Speier, chunks of flesh missing from her side and bone protruding from her leg, lying in the nearby brush, barely clinging to life.

“It’s always a very hard day,’’ Speier said in a Zoom interview from her Congressional office on the afternoon of the latest anniversary. “But this morning I had an epiphany.’’

If anyone has earned a right to be a pessimist, it is Speier. She was molested by her grandfather, sexually assaulted by a colleague and so ravaged by her gunshot wounds that in her first run for office — which she lost — she couldn’t even sign the candidacy papers.

But Speier has never been daunted by obstacles, no matter how seemingly insurmountable.

Her first job in politics was as a “Ryan Girl,’’ wearing a miniskirt, white boots and checkered bobby hat, ginning up attention at Peninsula shopping centers for Ryan who was then running for state Assembly.

The idea that she would one day be a member of the House of Representatives — a chamber where 424 of 435 members were men — never crossed her mind. Being a woman in politics wasn’t unheard of. It was just exceedingly uncommon.

More than a decade later, she won a seat on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, where she was the only woman and the youngest member ever elected. In the state legislature, where she was one of just 13 assemblywomen, she was the first to give birth while in office.

She served with legislative giants — Assembly Speaker Willie be Brown, Senate President John Burton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Her legislative accomplishments include landmark advances for women: garnishing wages and depriving licenses to fathers who failed to pay child support; forcing Congress to live by the same sexual harassment rules as private business; reforming military codes to offer recourse to victims of sexual abuse.

Speier did not hesitate when asked whether such measures might have been advanced by a man.

“No.’’

She recalled her campaign manager, after winning her first Assembly election, telling her: “You’ve got to stop working on women’s issues and broaden your spectrum.’’

“I thought about it,’’ Speier said. “But if I wasn’t going to do it, who was?’’

It’s not that many men don’t support her measures once they’ve been introduced, she added. But on matters ranging from reproductive health to childcare, “they sometimes just don’t think of it.’’

Speier laments the “glacial speed’’ at which women are gaining political power. Though women make up slightly more than half of the electorate, they comprise less than 30% of elected officials nationwide. In the House, that number is below 28%.

“The way we’re going it’s going to take, I don’t know, another 100 years to get to 45% even,’’ Speier said.

She expressed frustration at Republican women who defended Rep. Paul Gosar, R-AZ, who was censured by the House this week after posting an anime depicting him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY.

“It’s intended to silence women, to strip them of power, and discourage them from running for office,’’ she said.

Speier’s announcement that she would not seek re-election noted she looks forward to her “next chapter,’’ prompting speculation among the politically obsessed that perhaps she had another office in mind.

Speier scoffed at the suggestion, saying she doesn’t yet know what that next chapter will be, but that it is motivated by wanting to spend more time with her husband.

“I’m coming home,’’ she said, adding that she’ll miss Congress. The attention she has received from colleagues and the media this week made her feel “like I’ve been to my own funeral.’’

Speier said she had left her apartment that morning, reminded of the Jonestown anniversary, “feeling kind of blue.’’

But thinking back to the horror in Guyana, she said she was comforted by a realization.

“As I locked the door I thought: ‘I have had 43 years of life since that day.’

“It has been pretty remarkable,’’ she added. “And I have everything to be grateful for.’’

Marc Sandalow is the associate director of the University of California’s Washington Program. He has been writing about California politics from Washington for nearly 30 years.

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