cross-posted at The Washington Post
A few weeks ago, a friend returned to New York City from a visit to her family in suburban Ohio with the following query: “Why do people hate Nancy Pelosi so much?”
It’s a good question. By any measure, Pelosi has been one of the most effective House speakers in American history, especially given her relatively short tenure. At Salon, Steve Kornacki offers a helpful recollection of her many accomplishments, from health care to student loan reform to the credit card bill of rights to cap and trade. Pelosi consistently delivered legislation that became law, as well as legislation that the Senate then stalled on and failed to pass. As Kornacki writes, Pelosi is unpopular less because of what the House has done or failed to do — most Americans have little idea of those particulars — but because the economy is bad and voters wanted someone to blame.
But there’s another factor that makes Pelosi that much easier to scapegoat: She is a woman — the highest-ranked woman ever to hold elective office in the United States. In January 2007, Pelosi gaveled in her first legislative session as speaker while cradling her newborn grandson (one of seven grandchildren) and surrounded by other legislators’ offspring, whom she had invited to the dais to celebrate. She spoke about her own journey from “kitchen to Congress” and promised that the Democratic Party would govern on behalf of children, and their mothers, too — a vow she fulfilled by collecting the votes to pass the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which insures 11 million kids, and the Lily Ledbetter Act, which made it easier for victims of gender- and race-based pay discrimination to file civil rights complaints and collect back pay.
Her toughest personal moment in politics may have come last November, in the last 24 hours before the House passed the health-care reform bill. Faced with threats from antiabortion rights Democrats to kill the bill, Pelosi — a lifelong pro-choice activist — called the women of the Democratic caucus into her chambers, breaking the news that in order to enact their president’s agenda, the entire group would have to vote for a bill that would further limit poor and middle-class women’s access to affordable abortion. It is a mark of the trust these legislators had in Pelosi — and their commitment to expanding access to affordable health care — that every single one held their nose and voted “yea.”
Unfortunately, Pelosi’s openly feminist approach — as well as her disingenuous self-portrait of a housewife who just sort of stumbled upon political power (in fact, she was a canny operator who, over 23 years in Congress, carefully out-strategized the competition to ascend to the top of the party’s hierarchy) — allowed conservatives to caricature her all too easily. The attacks were vicious. A Republican National Committee campaign, “Fire Pelosi,” made careful, mocking use of her official title, “Madam Speaker.” When she criticized Gen. Stanley McChrystal for one of his many intemperate public comments about the administration’s Afghanistan strategy, ignoring chain of command, the Republican National Campaign Committee spokesperson said, “Taxpayers can only hope McChrystal is able to put her in her place”—barefoot and in the kitchen, presumably, far away from important matters of war and peace.
Most recently, Pelosi’s Ron Paul-backed Republican challengerdepicted her as the Wicked Witch of the West. The ad went viral, andRush Limbaugh picked up the habit of playing the Wicked Witch’s theme song when speaking about the House speaker.
Pelosi never shied away from what it meant to be the first woman to hold such an important job. She spoke openly about the sexism Hillary Rodham Clinton faced while running for president, noting matter-of-factly: “I’m a victim of sexism myself all the time, but I just think it goes with the territory. I don’t sit around to say, ‘but for that.’” And I must admit, I’ve had a soft spot for her ever since, standing in a scrum of reporters at the Capitol in 2008, all shouting questions in her direction, she called on me, noting that I was the only woman among the group.
So as her political career likely draws to a close, let’s raise a glass to Nancy Pelosi. Her legacy as the first female speaker of the House will, I believe, be vindicated by history, which will also remember her as a tough and effective leader of the Democratic caucus.