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Who's the most powerful woman in U.S. history?

October 9, 2013: 3:44 PM ET

On Wednesday afternoon, President Obama nominated Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve. If the Senate confirms the appointment, she will be the first woman to fill that seat in the central bank's 100-year history.

Could this also make Yellen the most powerful woman in U.S. history? What about the women who became Speaker of the House, Supreme Court justices, Secretary of State and Attorney General?


Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen (pending)

What does the head of the Fed do?

Congress created the central bank in 1913 as an independent institution to serve as a "lender of last resort," lending money to banks in the event of panic.

The Fed manages the country's money supply, regulates the banking system and attempts to keep prices stable. In 1977, Congress gave the Fed an additional role: maximize employment.

The Fed usually controls the money supply by adjusting interest rates. But since the Great Recession, it has turned to other unconventional methods. With its key short-term interest rate already at zero, the Fed began buying trillions of dollars in U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, to try to lower longer-term interest rates.

That bond-buying program, known as quantitative easing, aims to stimulate the economy by making it cheaper to borrow.

As the future head of the Fed, Yellen will be tasked with eventually ending and unwinding that unprecedented stimulus program.

She would also be the top manager of roughly 21,000 employees across the entire Federal Reserve system, and the leader of what essentially amounts to the world's most profitable bank.  With a profit of nearly $89 billion last year, the Fed generated more income than America's top five banks -- JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs combined.

Yellen will also be the lead voice at the Fed's policymaking meetings, where a 12-person committee decides how to influence the money supply.

In the recent financial crisis, Congress also gave unprecedented power to the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department, by enabling those agencies to bail out failing banks.


Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (2007-2011)

A Democrat from California, Pelosi made history when she became the first female Speaker of the House in 2007.

In addition to leading the House of Representatives, the Speaker is second in the line of succession from the U.S. president. So in the event that both the president and vice president died, were incapacitated or removed from office, the Speaker could act as president.

In her first speech as Speaker, Pelosi remarked "It is a moment for which we have waited over 200 years…For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling. For our daughters and our granddaughters, the sky is the limit, anything is possible for them."

As Speaker, Pelosi led the House to pass President Obama's stimulus package in 2008 and the Affordable Care Act, which has since become known as "Obamacare."


Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright (1997-2001), Condoleeza Rice (2005-2009) and Hillary Clinton (2009-2013)

When Madeleine Albright was sworn in as the 64th Secretary of State in 1997, at the time she was the highest ranking woman in U.S. history. She was later followed by two other accomplished women – Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

The Secretary of State is the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat and highest ranking member of the president's cabinet, and fourth in the line of succession, after the vice president, speaker of the house and president pro tempore of the Senate.

Albright worked to enlarge NATO and helped lead its campaign against terror and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, a role she later said was her greatest achievement.


Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor (1981-2006), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993-Now), Sonia Sotomayor (2009-Now) and Elena Kagan (2010-Now):

Sandra Day O'Connor grew up an Arizona cowgirl and overcame discrimination against female lawyers to become the first woman on the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan later followed in a role that wields an enormous amount of power.

O'Connor, for example, cast the deciding vote in a case that upheld the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights. She also voted with the majority in Bush v. Gore, the case which upheld the original count of Florida's electoral votes and consequently, George W. Bush went on to serve a second term as president.


Attorney General Janet Reno (1993-2001)

Janet Reno not only became the first woman to serve as Attorney General -- the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the country -- she also went on to become the second longest-serving person in that role, after William Wirt, who was appointed by President James Monroe.

During Reno's tenure, the Justice Department captured and convicted Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the Oklahoma City bombing, and five terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. The job came with much controversy though. Reno authorized the FBI's raid of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, which lasted 51 days and resulted in 76 deaths.

Reno also made the decision to have federal agents seize 6-year-old Cuban boy Elian Gonzales from relatives in Miami, following an international custody battle.

Annalyn Kurtz
Annalyn Kurtz

Annalyn Kurtz is a senior writer at CNNMoney, where she covers America's jobs crisis, Federal Reserve policy and other economic news.

About This Author
Annalyn Censky
Annalyn Kurtz
Writer, CNNMoney

Annalyn Kurtz is a senior writer at CNNMoney, where she covers America's jobs crisis, Federal Reserve policy and other economic news. Before joining the site in 2010, she served as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Prague and interned at Fortune Small Business magazine. @annalynkurtz

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