WASHINGTON (AP) – It may not have been quite the star power assembled over at the Lincoln Memorial, but it was still an impressive array of Democratic Party luminaries who gathered Sunday at a joyous luncheon to celebrate women’s gains in 2008.

For some 2,000 people crowded into the Washington Hilton ballroom to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and many others, it was also an occasion to enthusiastically cheer on Barack Obama, less than 48 hours before he takes office. And given the mood, it was hard to remember that only seven months ago, there was talk that he might have trouble winning over large numbers of female voters who’d supported Clinton.

“George W. Bush is going back to Texas, and Barack Obama is president of the United States of America!” exulted Ellen Malcolm, founder of EMILY’s List, to huge cheers. The group, which hosted Sunday’s event, promotes women candidates who support abortion rights, and is one of the largest political action committees in the nation.

Clinton, expected to be confirmed next week as Obama’s secretary of state, was the marquee speaker, and she almost didn’t make it, due to traffic problems on the busy inaugural weekend. But no one in the packed ballroom was planning to leave until she spoke.

“Isn’t it great to be in Washington with a Democratic Congress and a Democratic White House?” she asked the crowd when she finally did arrive. She called Obama’s upcoming inauguration “a historic and glorious event,” and asked supporters to continue helping her in her new role, toward goals like universal basic education, better access to health care for women and children, and eradicating poverty.

Women’s advocates are somewhat divided over how successful the 2008 election season was for women.

The fact that Clinton almost became the first female nominee is a point of pride for many. Yet some are disappointed by what they see as decidedly mixed success in getting women into leadership positions up and down the political spectrum.

At the luncheon, though, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and many others spoke of the year’s successes: A record 13 Democratic women now in the Senate, and 61 in the House. Major victories this year included the election of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina, and Gov. Bev Perdue, also of North Carolina.

All three women received huge, raucous ovations at Sunday’s meeting, which was a veritable Who’s Who in Democratic politics. Also speaking were Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Obama’s pick for secretary of homeland security, and California Rep. Hilda Solis, his choice for labor secretary.

Women also expressed excitement over the progress of a top item on the Democratic agenda – long-awaited legislation making it easier for women to challenge pay discrimination in the workplace.

Republicans are demanding changes, however, and the so-called Lilly Ledbetter bill is not likely to be ready for Obama’s signature when he takes office next week.

It faced a veto threat from President Bush, but Obama backs it strongly. Also on the front burner: legislation granting children health insurance.

“Isn’t it wonderful to have a president who will put women and children first?” Pelosi asked the audience.

With all the praise for the incoming president, Pelosi did suggest that perhaps women, after all, are behind his stunning success.

Musing on what she would be feeling as he gets sworn in on Tuesday, she said she would be “overwhelmed by joy and pride,” but also would be thinking about his late mother and grandmother, and “how strong they must be to instill in this man a sense of self-esteem and confidence” to lead him so far.

AP-ES-01-18-09 1739EST

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