Nancy Pelosi cleared the first hurdle to regaining her former position as speaker of the House on Wednesday, earning 203 yes votes and 32 noes from her fellow Democrats. To get the gig, she has to turn 15 of those no votes into yeses by January, when the floor vote takes place.
It’s been frustrating to watch members of both parties do battle over who Pelosi is, what she’s done, and whether she deserves another term as speaker, because there seems to be little room for nuance. Republicans have long made her out to be a cartoonish villain, a morally bankrupt banshee with an insatiable thirst for power. They’ve spent millions, if not billions, attacking her with ad campaigns in congressional districts she has no connection to, even as she held relatively little power as House minority leader. They’ve used her name as shorthand for sharp-elbowed ambition and her image, usually a photo with teeth bared and eyes bulging, as a dog whistle for conservatives who gag at the sight of a woman asserting her dominance in the public sphere.
To counter that narrative, some Democratic supporters have made Pelosi out to be a feminist savior, a groundbreaking role model who can translate the momentum of this year’s surge of female candidates and activism into a new era of progressive legislative accomplishments. In a recent New York Times piece by Kate Zernike that explores how Pelosi navigates her distorted public image, one Pelosi fan in Philadelphia notes that aging men in politics are perceived as experienced, while aging women are seen as “expired.” “If I think about who we need as a leader, it’s a woman who’s raised five children,” she said. In the same piece, another woman addresses an audience at an organization that trains female Democratic candidates, calling Pelosi “our style icon and political fairy godmother.”
It’s not just political allies who are hailing Pelosi as a feminist superhero. Journalists looking for vivid, accessible ways to illustrate her unflagging work ethic have latched onto gendered clichés. Both Zernike and HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn have riffed on the famous line about Ginger Rogers, suggesting that Pelosi must do everything her male counterparts do “backwards and in high heels.” Elsewhere in her piece, Zernike describes one of Pelosi’s facial expressions as a “look that is most withering when it comes from a mother.” I think this was supposed to be a compliment, a celebration of female reproductive capacity as a source of strength rather than vulnerability. But for the life of me, I cannot imagine any facial expression that mothers and childless women perform differently. Nor can I imagine any journalist remarking on a glare that is particularly intense because it’s coming from a father.
As a writer on the women and gender beat, it’s my job to take notice when narratives like these emerge, as they do just about every time a woman vies for political power. I’m starting to think, though, that viewing female leaders through a gendered lens can be at once tiresome and self-defeating. When I write about male politicians, I scrutinize their policy proposals, messaging, personal histories, and alliances. When I write about female ones, I do all that, plus untangle all the gendered biases that attach themselves to their public personas. But it’s not just that the sexist rhetoric that’s billowed around Pelosi since her entrée into national leadership is an extra line item to ponder and write about. It’s that this sexist rhetoric, and conversations about the rhetoric, can make it impossible to have a fair, honest discussion about her political leadership.
There are plenty of reasons to admire Pelosi and support her nomination for speaker that have nothing to do with gender. She was instrumental in passing the Affordable Care Act, she has an unparalleled knack for whipping votes and knowing her own caucus, she’s a tireless and reliably bankable fundraiser, and she is one of the more progressive Democrats in Congress, more liberal than the vast majority of those who’ve publicly opposed her. There are also many good reasons to want someone different at the helm. She’s not a great public speaker—I shudder at the memory of her rousing election-night invocation, “Let’s hear it … for pre-existing medical conditions!” She seems uncomfortable with, if not downright peeved by, the ouster of long-serving Democrats by younger, more progressive politicians. She has refused to make the protection of abortion rights a foundational pillar in the party’s congressional platform. And her maddening postelection focus on bipartisanship and “common ground” is a poor match for both the urgent threats an increasingly racist and undemocratic Republican Party poses to American society and the anti-Trump furor that produced the blue wave that will likely put her back in the speaker’s chair.
These reasonable anti-Pelosi arguments bear no resemblance to the reasons put forward by Democrats in Congress who want her gone. Their opposition to the longtime leader stems mostly from the fact that she’s unpopular with moderates between the coasts—due, in large part, to the GOP’s relentless assault on her character. When legislators like Rep. Seth Moulton and Rep. Tim Ryan say they want a more moderate face for the party, they’re not only responding to Pelosi’s left-wing voting record, which is very much in line with the opinions of Democratic voters nationwide. They’re also capitulating to the sexist caricature Republicans have marshaled against her.
There’s a good argument to be made that any Democrat with Pelosi’s visibility and long history of leadership would get branded a villain. Democrats rag on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and outgoing Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan plenty, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s mug (usually wearing a stern look, very withering and fatherly) has appeared on a few pro-GOP mailers. But there’s something obsessive, almost feral, about the way Republicans sink their teeth into Democratic women, especially women of color, regardless of how much power they actually wield. You can see it in Republicans’ fixation on Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has never held political office; in the proliferation of Rep. Maxine Waters’ image in the sort of right-wing memes that populated mail bomber Cesar Sayoc’s Twitter feed; and in the continued smearing of Hillary Clinton.
By backing away from the women the GOP has villainized, the Moultons and Ryans of the Democratic Party ensure that their fellow moderate Democrats will always harbor more reservations about female leaders than male ones. And because there are so few women at the top, any prominent woman’s failure or unpopularity is seen as a referendum on all women in leadership, making too many people—including several progressive men who, after Clinton’s 2016 loss, told me the Democrats should go back to nominating white guys—wary of ever putting a woman at the top again.
“You can’t let the opposite party choose the leader of your party,” Pelosi said in a speech last month. Democrats shouldn’t let them set the terms of the debate about her, either. I’m not suggesting anyone stop discussing Pelosi’s gender or its effect on her public perception and treatment—for one thing, her success in an environment that has been hostile to women is a testament to her skills as a politician and leader. But this round of discussions about Pelosi, and the backlash to her, and the backlash to the backlash to her, is a clear illustration of the second-order effects of gender bias. Sexism doesn’t just harm women in politics. It also poisons political analysis.
Advocates for gender equity sometimes encourage people to imagine the advances humanity might make, or might have made earlier, if half the world’s intellect were valued and utilized as much as the other’s. I wonder what the Democratic Party might accomplish if people on the left didn’t have to spend so much time rebutting gendered attacks on their female elected officials and could instead talk about whether they’re good at their jobs.