The XX Factor

Pelosi: The Meryl Streep of American Politics

Hanna , I share your fascination with Pelosi. There’s a slide show commemorating health care reform over at Talking Points Memo , and one of the pictures shows an impeccably put-together Pelosi warmly reaching out to grab the hand of Obama as they leave some conference or other. They’ve obviously just been talking over the intricacies of reform. Except on one hip, Pelosi is also carrying (with no apparent physical strain, though she turns 70 this week) a school-aged grandson with tousled hair. It’s a striking image, in part for the rare combination of maternal instincts and raw political power.

She isn’t just the second in line of presidential succession, following Vice President Biden (and thus the most powerful woman in American history). She’s a mother of five (yes, count ‘em, five) kids, a grandmother of seven, and a church-going Catholic, who is still married to her college sweetheart-in many ways the very embodiment of family values. But while older than Hillary, she appears to have suffered none of the battle scars of early feminism and is completely comfortable and confident in her own skin. In the past, the trailblazing achievements of feminist icons often seemed to exact readily visible costs-in the form of an incoherent personal style or a messy/nonexistent love life or family life. (Yes, there are the women of the Supreme Court, but their femininity is cloaked by the burqa of their black robes.) But Pelosi makes combining family, beauty, brains, and political brawn look easy.

She’s Lauren Hutton-attractive without looking like she’s been excessively worked over by a plastic surgeon. While she may not push the fashion envelope like Michelle, Pelosi is stylish in an elegant, understated way. (Her outfits throughout reform weren’t the typical red or blue dowdy affairs of official Washington but were instead sleek wool suits in mauve or okra.) She is both ruthlessly effective and quietly feminine. After the House passed health care reform last November in a narrow, difficult vote, Politico reported that Pelosi walked out of the chamber and commented serenely: “That was easy.” Indeed, she’s so calm and collected, she makes Obama look like a drama queen. When he was freaking out after Scott Brown’s election, she coolly told him to get a spine and helped salvage his top domestic agenda. She never appears to lose it or even raise her voice. (Love her or hate her, no one can credibly accuse her of being hysterical or a harpy.) Indeed, she often seems to talk in a breathy whisper. At the same time, she may be the most able politician and strong-arming vote-getter since LBJ. But far from resenting her power as a woman, her mostly male colleagues in the Democratic House appear to idolize her (in much the way conservative men in Britain used to adore Margaret Thatcher).

There’s just no other woman like her in American life. In this sense, she’s the political equivalent of Meryl Streep. But like Streep, Pelosi is less a role model for other women than an outlier: Few women (or men, for that matter) are likely to be able to match her accomplishments.