Top 10 Most Powerful Women in Washington in 2021
Top 10 Most Powerful Women in Washington in 2021

Power in Washington is a complicated thing to quantify. Some people have it by virtue of the office they hold. Others maintain it by virtue of their reputations, no matter what their business card might read. And in a political city, many of the most powerful among us owe their clout to voters—either the constituents who elect them directly or the national electorate who picks the government every four years.

The Washingtonian has compiled a list of the region’s 150-plus most powerful women includes national power and politics, hometown heavyweights and folks shaping things from the arts to medicine to the economy. Here are top 10 of them.

The List of top 10 most powerful women in Washington in 2021

10. Lisa B. Nelson

9. Erin O’Shea

8. Marlene Malek

7. Suzanne Clark

6. Kay C. James

5. Sylvia Burwell

4. Ketanji Brown Jackson

3. Kyrsten Sinema

2. Nancy Pelosi

1. Kamala Harris

Who are the top 10 most powerful women in Washington in 2021

10. Lisa B. Nelson - Lobbying and Advocacy

Lisa B. Nelson is the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a 45-year-old nonprofit think tank dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism. It is the largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators in the United States, and it counts nearly one-quarter of all state legislators and hundreds of business leaders and entrepreneurs as members. Together, ALEC members discuss policy and develop real plans of action to protect hardworking taxpayers and create effective, efficient and accountable state governments.

Since 2014, Lisa B. Nelson has led her team to new levels of success in states across America. Supported by ALEC’s academies, forums and research, ALEC legislative members are 2.71 times more collaborative and 1.3 times as effective at introducing and passing legislation than any other section of legislators across the spectrum.

For 16 years before ALEC, Lisa led government relations departments in the private sector at such companies as Visa and AOL Time Warner. Her work covered issues ranging from technology-based data security, privacy, financial services, and intellectual property in international, federal and state-based legislatures.

Prior to her time in the private sector, Lisa worked on Capitol Hill, where she served as Public Affairs Liaison for the U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich from 1995 to 1998. As Executive Director of GOPAC in 1994, Lisa led the historic campaign effort that resulted in the first Republican Congressional Majority in more than 40 years.

In 2018, Lisa was asked to serve as a Commissioner for the White House Fellows Program. This preeminent program offers exemplary Americans the opportunity to work with top-ranking officials within the federal government and to participate in an education program with respected leaders of both the private and public sectors.

Lisa has always had a keen eye towards media and new uses for hyper-relevant data, and as technology becomes more ubiquitous, her background in communications for the National Party Conventions has allowed her to stay on the cutting edge. While at National Review magazine, Lisa founded the National Review Institute. She continues to actively participate in organizations and foundations in Washington, D.C. and serves on the board of the State Financial Officers Foundation.

9. Erin O’Shea - Medicine

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

Erin K. O'Shea Ph.D. is President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). In 2013, she was named HHMI's Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer. Prior to that, she was a Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. In 2016, her appointment as future, and first woman, President of HHMI was announced. She has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator since 2000.

During her post doctoral fellowship, O'Shea worked with Robert Tjian and Ira Herskowitz studying chromatin regulation of transcription in yeast. When she was joined by her graduate school colleague Jonathan Weissman, they began to determine the location and abundance of all of the proteins in the yeast genome. They ultimately made two libraries both with GFP-fused protein with tandem affinity purification (TAP)-tags.

After her PhD, O'Shea was briefly a Basic Research Fellow before joining the faculty of University of California, San Francisco as an assistant professor in 1993.

In 2005, she was recruited to Harvard University to be the director of the (FAS) Center for Systems Biology and a Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Her research is focused on gene regulation and the biology of a three-protein circadian clock. In 2012, she was elected to be HHMI's new Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer leading the HHMI Investigator Program succeeding Jack Dixon. She will continue to maintain her lab at Harvard.

8. Marlene Malek - Nonprofits and Philanthropy

Marlene Malek is Vice Chair of the Friends of Cancer Research (Friends) Board of Directors. Friends is an advocacy organization based in Washington, DC that drives collaboration among partners from every healthcare sector to power advances in science, policy, and regulation that speed life-saving treatments to patients. For more than two decades, Friends has been instrumental in the creation and implementation of policies ensuring patients receive the best treatments in the fastest and safest way possible.

Previously, Ms. Malek served as Board President from 1996 to 2016 and was instrumental in the founding and establishment of Friends. As Vice Chair, Ms. Malek works to mobilize support for increased cancer research funding. The Washingtonian Magazine named Ms. Malek, a “Washingtonian of the Year” for her work in building support for cancer research.

Currently, Ms. Malek serves on the Board of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX, as well as the Duke University’s Cancer Institute in Durham, NC. At Duke, Mrs. Malek was given the “Shingleton Award” for outstanding service on the Board. Ms. Malek also served on the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center Leadership Council and is a member of the National Dialogue on Cancer. Ms. Malek received a Presidential appointment to the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) where she served a six-year term. While on the NCAB she chaired the committee on Communication and Cancer Control. In the past, Ms. Malek worked as a home care volunteer for Hospice, where she has provided physical and emotional support to terminally ill cancer patients and their families.

7. Suzanne Clark - Business Powers

Suzanne P. Clark is an American business executive. She is currently the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she has also held the roles of chief operating officer and senior executive vice president. She was previously president of National Journal Group, and founded the Potomac Research Group.

Clark sits on the corporate boards of TransUnion and AGCO, and the board of the Economic Club of Washington.

From 2007 to 2010, Clark was president of the National Journal Group, an arm of the Atlantic Media Company.

In 2012, she acquired the Potomac Research Group before returning to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2014.

Clark was appointed to the boards of AGCO and Transunion in 2017. In 2020, The National Association of Corporate Directors named Clark an honoree of its Directorship 100, an annual list of the leading corporate directors.

Among her other appointments, Clark is a board member of the Economic Club of Washington, and the So Others Might Eat foundation.

Clark is also the former president of the International Women's Forum's Washington chapter.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Clark's career with the U.S. Chamber began in 1997, when she took a position as a top aide to CEO Tom J. Donohue. Between 1997 and 2007, Clark held multiple senior positions within the organization, ultimately serving as chief operating officer.

In 2014, Clark was named senior executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber, serving until her appointment as president in June 2019, the first female president in the institution's 107-year history. In March 2021, Clark succeeded Donohue's 24-year tenure as CEO of the Chamber.

6. Kay C. James - Idea Powers

 The Heritage Foundation
Photo: The Heritage Foundation

Kay Coles James (born June 1, 1949) is an American public official who served as the director for the United States Office of Personnel Management under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. Previous to the OPM appointment, she served as Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources under then-Governor George Allen and was the dean of Regent University's government school. She is currently a member of the NASA Advisory Council. She is the president and founder of the Gloucester Institute, a leadership training center for young African Americans.

On December 19, 2017, she was named president of the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank. She is the first African-American and the first woman to hold that position. On March 22, 2021, she announced she was resigning as President.

On November 4, 2009, Governor-elect Bob McDonnell of Virginia named her one of the co-chairs of his transition committee[18] and subsequently appointed her as a member of Virginia Commonwealth University's governing body, the Board of Visitors.

On December 19, 2017, the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative Washington, D.C.-based public policy research institute, announced that James would be its sixth president. She has served as a member of the Board of Trustees since 2005.

In 2018, she was nominated by President Trump to serve as one of two members of the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission.

In March 2019, she was appointed to the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), which was set up by Google to advise on the ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence. Her appointment proved controversial, with some employees of Google protesting. On April 5, 2019, it was reported that Google had disbanded the ATEAC after more than 2,380 employees at Google signed a petition asking that James be removed from it. The petition signers stated that "James' positions on transgender and immigrant rights should have disqualified her from weighing in on AI ethics."

5. Sylvia Burwell - Education Powers

Sylvia Mary Burwell (née:Mathews; born June 23, 1965) is an American government and non-profit executive who has been the 15th president of American University since June 1, 2017. She is the first woman to serve as the university's president. She earlier served as the 22nd United States Secretary of Health and Human Services. President Barack Obama nominated Burwell on April 11, 2014. Burwell's nomination was confirmed by the Senate on June 5, 2014, by a vote of 78–17. She served as Secretary until the end of the Obama administration. Previously, she had been the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2013 to 2014.

A West Virginia native, Burwell first worked for the United States government in Washington, D.C., during the presidency of Bill Clinton. She helped form the National Economic Council in 1993. She later served as Chief of Staff to Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, Deputy White House Chief of Staff to Erskine Bowles, and finally Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Between her times in government, Burwell served as president of Walmart's charitable foundation focused on ending hunger, beginning in January 2012. She was earlier the president of the Global Development Program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where her program focused on combating world poverty through agricultural development, financial services for the poor, and global libraries. She was chief operating officer and executive director before its reorganization in 2006. She joined the Gates Foundation in 2001, at the end of the Clinton presidency.

4. Ketanji Brown Jackson - Legal Powers

Photo: CNN
Photo: CNN

Ketanji Brown Jackson (born September 14, 1970) is an American attorney and jurist serving as a United States circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She was a United States district judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia from 2013 to 2021. Jackson has also been Vice Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission from 2010 to 2014 and a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers since 2016.

Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Miami, Florida, Jackson attended Harvard University for college and law school, and served as an editor on the Harvard Law Review. She began her legal career with three clerkships, including with Justice Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States.

3. Kyrsten Sinema - Power on the Hill

Kyrsten Lea Sinema (born July 12, 1976) is an American politician, former social worker, and lawyer serving as the senior United States Senator from Arizona. A Democrat from Arizona, she served three terms as a state representative for the 15th legislative district from 2005 to 2011, one term as the state senator for the 15th legislative district from 2011 to 2012, and three terms as the United States Representative for the 9th district from 2013 to 2019.

Sinema began her political career in the Arizona Green Party and rose to prominence for her progressive advocacy, supporting causes such as LGBT rights and opposing the war on terror. She left the Green Party to join the Arizona Democratic Party in 2004 and was elected to a seat in the United States House of Representatives in 2012. After her election, she joined the New Democrat Coalition, the Blue Dog Coalition and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, amassing one of the most conservative voting records in the Democratic caucus. She won the 2018 Senate election to replace the retiring Jeff Flake, defeating Republican nominee Martha McSally. Sinema is the first openly bisexual and the second openly LGBT woman (after Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin) to be elected to the House of Representatives and to the Senate in 2012 and 2018, respectively. She also was the first woman elected to the Senate from Arizona.

Sinema is considered a moderate Democrat and was identified as the 47th most conservative member of the Senate in a 2019 analysis by the nonpartisan organization During the 116th Congress, she voted with President Donald Trump's position roughly 25% of the time, the second-most of any Democratic senator to serve during the full term.

2. Nancy Pelosi - Power on the Hill

Photo: BBC
Photo: BBC

Nancy Patricia Pelosi (born March 26, 1940) is an American politician serving as speaker of the United States House of Representatives since 2019, and previously from 2007 to 2011. She has served as a U.S. representative from California since 1987. A member of the Democratic Party, Pelosi is the only woman in U.S. history to serve as speaker of the House. She is second in the presidential line of succession, after Vice President Kamala Harris.

Currently in her 18th term, Pelosi was first elected to Congress in a 1987 special election, following her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., into politics. He had served as a U.S. representative from Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore. She is the dean of California's congressional delegation, having begun her 18th term in 2021. Pelosi represents California's 12th congressional district, which comprises four-fifths of the city and county of San Francisco. She initially represented the 5th district (1987–1993), and then, when district boundaries were redrawn after the 1990 Census, the 8th district (1993–2013). Pelosi has led the House Democrats since 2003—the first woman to lead a party in Congress—serving twice each as House Minority Leader (2003–2007 and 2011–2019) and as Speaker (2007–2011 and since 2019).

Pelosi lost the speakership in 2011 after the Republican Party won a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections. But she retained her role as leader of the House Democratic Caucus and returned to the role of House minority leader. In the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats regained control of the House. When the 116th Congress convened on January 3, 2019, Pelosi was again elected Speaker, becoming the first former Speaker to return to the post since Sam Rayburn in 1955. Under Pelosi's leadership, the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump, first on December 18, 2019, and again on January 13, 2021; Trump was acquitted both times by the Senate.

On January 3, 2021, Pelosi was reelected to a fourth term as speaker of the House, which is expected to be her last, after a deal with progressives.

1. Kamala Harris - National Power and Politics

Photo: USAToday
Photo: USAToday

Kamala Harris is the vice president of the United States, making her the first female vice president and first Black person and Asian American to hold the position.

After attending Howard University and the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, Kamala Harris embarked on a rise through the California legal system, emerging as state attorney general in 2010. Following the November 2016 elections, Harris became just the second African American woman and the first South Asian American to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. She declared her candidacy for the 2020 U.S. presidential election on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2019 but dropped out of the race before the end of the year. In August 2020, Joe Biden announced Harris as vice presidential running mate and after a close race, Biden and Harris were elected in November 2020.

Harris published two books in early 2019: The Truths We Hold: An American Journey reflects on her personal relationships and upbringing, and Superheroes Are Everywhere, another memoir rendered in picture-book form for kids.

She first became an author in 2009 with Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor's Plan to Make Us Safer, which explores her philosophy and ideas for criminal-justice reform.

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