Power and Madam Pelosi
We watched with interest as Nancy Pelosi fought to regain her role as House Speaker when the Democrats took the House after the November 2018 election. Congresswoman Pelosi is part of a generation of older leaders in government, including Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. No matter what we think of their politics, it is clear that Pelosi’s age is brought up more frequently as a reason for her to step aside than it is for male leaders in her age group. Pelosi, like Hillary Clinton, carries the combined burden of sexism and agism that weighs down the careers of older women in power.
If we accept the idea that a woman is disqualified by her age, we accept that a woman becomes disenfranchised at the height of her power. That Congresswoman Pelosi, a supremely effective leader who had just brought home a majority in the House, should be called upon to step down because of age is a particularly visible and appalling example of this negative synergy. Pelosi began her political career after her children were grown. For women who manage most of the childrearing duties in their families plus having a career, the extra years we enjoy at the end of our lives can be key to success.
Back on December 11, 2018, Pelosi, Schumer, Trump and Pence met in the Oval Office to discuss the possibility of a government shutdown. The discussion was unexpectedly captured on camera, and the contrasts among the four participants were instructive. Pence sat absolutely silent while Trump talked about how difficult it was for “Nancy” to talk. Pelosi responded, telling Trump not to characterize her power after bringing in a historic victory. Pelosi’s body language was extraordinarily controlled. She sat absolutely straight, hands folded, projecting a demure attitude even while calling the president a liar (“We do not want to discuss the discrepancies while the cameras are rolling”). Pelosi could have been channeling Mary Tyler Moore‘s character in her eponymous television show.
By contrast, Chuck Schumer rolled his eyes, interrupted the president, repeated himself in a booming voice for effect. What an enormous advantage Schumer had in that meeting by virtue of being male, by virtue of not needing to be so careful about what he said or how he said it. Pelosi’s pencil-narrow skirt seemed symbolic, a mummy bag in which she had little room to maneuver; and yet she was so clearly much better informed and on top of her game than the president. He had nothing but bluster; she exhibited expert command despite her circumscribed behavior.
Trump knew the measurements of the box in which Pelosi functioned. Trump’s statements about women, and in particular about then-Candidate Hillary Clinton, were designed to define that box and confine women inside it. But by the time of the January 2019 government shutdown, Trump had stepped into a box of his own devising.
A new group of women joined Congress in early 2019, women of a different generation, women who grew up with fewer restraints, who wore to their swearing in hoops and red lipstick, or traditional Palestinian clothing, or Laguna Pueblo dress, depending on heritage and preferences. No more pencil skirts: these women enjoy a new freedom of expression. And their leader in the House is Nancy Pelosi, who helped pave the way for them. Regardless of differences in style, Nancy Pelosi remains a role model for powerful women.
While we celebrate this new class of congresswomen, let us remember to hold men to just as high a standard as we hold women. Of all the Senators who, shamefully, voted Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court, almost all were men; so, why have we chosen one woman Senator, Susan Collins, and pledged to drive her from office over her vote? And while we celebrate younger leaders in office, if we do not press men to leave office over age alone, let us not burden women with that expectation.
And by the way, the new freshman class also includes Congresswoman Donna Shalala, who took office just a month before her 78th birthday.
There is no need to call it quits when some of us are just getting started.