Assessing Our First Female Speaker of the House

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.

2 thoughts on “Assessing Our First Female Speaker of the House

  1. nycweboy

    I disagree quite fundamentally – I think her flaw is just what you cite her strength: it’s the fact that “effective” as you describe it can also be described as “steamrolling” and “anything to get a deal”.Time and again, Pelosi made deals to get votes that effectively compromised away key goals that progressives believed would make a difference – whether we’re talking elements of Financial Reform, Cap and Trade or most clearly, the atrocious Stupak compromise to pass healthcare. All of that matters. More pointedly, it goes to a larger sense that Pelosi doesn’t operate from a core set of beliefs so much as pursuit of power and control, aspects that turned off a good numbe of Democrats and arguably energized all of the Tea Party and conservative energy that defined this election cycle.

    Triumphing Pelosi as “feminist” doesn’t wash when, as you note, Pelosi doesn’t fit the bill – she’s no product of the Women’s Moveent (before her role in Congress, her work outside the home was as mostly as a Party volunteer and fundraiser), and she’s shown almost no personal identification, or actual interest in a lot of feminist issues. Lily Ledbetter, in this case becomes more proof that she does what she does when it suits here political goals: it was a given that liberal women voters would get the satisfaction of seeing Ledbetter passed once Obama was in place to sign it, a political win for all concerned that solidified the faith of the base (and, as a nice add-on, actual; did some good for the right people).

    Also, I think resorting to feminist boilerplate as a defense of Pelosi is more designed to cut off debate than start it: by dismissing nearly every criticism of Pelosi as anti-woman, antifeminist sour grapes, there’s no particular way to legitimize fair critiques about her failures or her mixed record, at best, in winning over the public. Pelosi is, as you note, a longtime operator in the Party, working from an incredibly safe seat in the House (perhaps the safest), using money and political clout to amass a nearly unstoppable level of personal power. Is that admirable… or concerniing? I suspect that, if not for Pelosi’s “D”, reasonable liberals who are concerned about too much power concentrated in the hands of one would raise more concerns about whether, in fact, Pelosi’s personal power is actually such a boon for Democratic ideals.

    We can’t really have made progress toward equlaity of men and women (or, in Barack Obama’s case, black and white) until it’s possible to create a shared standard of expectations and apply them fairly and universally. I’d like to think my expectations of Pelosi as leader of her party and Speaker of the House are not wildly different from those I have for men: to be not just “effective” but to be a clear and energetic advocate for the ideals I share, to value principles over compromise, to respect process over anything goes. I am dismayed by Pelosi, and eager for her replacement, because I think she has not lived up to the promise she showed, but instead to the machine type politics that produced her. We can do better, and we should. And her record, ultimately, will not be realistic until people – especially liberals, and especially liberal women – can put her flaws into context as well her strengths.

    My longer post on the subject: link to nycweboy.typepad.com

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  2. Sam Penrose

    Pelosi is my hero, for mostly the same reasons she’s your hero. For those reasons she was going to be a target. I don’t see any evidence that she got more spleen for being female. The “Wicked Witch” stuff comes from the same place as “Obama Osama”: grade-school bullying logic of labelling someone as an other. If Waxman had been Speaker, they’d have devoted as many resources to drumming up anger among the Neaderthal media-consuming base, and it would have been “personal”, but not really. The sexism is contingent.

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