In the moments before the power outage last Thursday, I had started a "sum-up" post on the healthcare summit and intended to do some evaluation of Where Things Were and What Might Happen Next. Over the next couple of days, it was a struggle just to find a working outlet and some wi-fi, and the weekend was spent both recuperating from the flu and taking stock of the political scene (to say nothing of watching an hour of... waves - I shit you not - while Hawaii went through Tsunami Terror).
I mention this because, by this morning, when I hoped to bang out the piece before going to the other job, I discovered that my take on the whole healthcare mess is really more complicated, and a "sum-up" was not the place to begin. I went off to work, perplexed; I came home, exhausted.
And then, doing a little site surfing... I came up with a good starting point.
Set aside, for a moment - I know, for many of my dearest readers, the blood is already boiling - the needless Hillary Clinton snipes; what fascinates me is this interesting, sort of unquestioned assumption that, because she's a woman, Nancy Pelosi should be thought of in feminist terms, and expected, as a liberal woman, to be a feminist. Neither one is especially true. And what's all the more interesting, really... is that I think Nancy Pelosi has benefited, for some time, from just this sort of blurry understanding of who she is, and how she got to where she is today.
One thing I don’t understand is why Pelosi isn’t seen as more of a feminist icon. In 2008, we were treated to months of discussion about Hillary Clinton breaking or failing to break the glass ceiling, how coverage of Hillary was sexist, how this was womankind’s shining moment or worst disaster, and so on. Why isn’t there more discussion of Pelosi in this context? Not only is Nancy Pelosi one of the most powerful people in American politics (I’d put her second, after Obama), she got there the old-fashioned way by winning elections and knee-capping people who crossed her. We’ve never heard anything about her marriage or about how she generated sympathy by crying before a primary.
People in the House are genuinely afraid of Pelosi, to continue along with the whole fear discussion. I know Congressional staffers and they speak her name in whispers (what higher praise can there be?).
Isn’t it kind of big deal that the more powerful legislator of our generation is a woman?
So again, let's step back for a second. How much do you know about Nancy Pelosi, really?
First, let's jump back to Pelosi's Congressional seat; it's rarely discussed, except in right wing pejoratives, which are, as they are so often, simplistic. Pelosi is tagged as "San Fran Nancy" and such, her district "Ground Zero" for all of what is supposedly wrong with liberalism. Pelsoi's district, the 8th of California, is really rather mischaracterized this way: in fact, the real secret is that it's about the safest seat in the entire country for Democrats, because central San Francisco is, like many urban enclaves, reliably part of a Democratic machine down to its local elections. And Pelosi is, at heart, a product of just that sort of machine.
(It should also be noted, by the way, that the fact that Nancy Pelosi represents almost all of San Francisco proper speaks to the reality that, among cities, San Fran is actually kind of small and not a population mecca. It's worth remembering that both New York and Los Angeles... and Chicago, to be frank... are all much, much larger; and even comparable cities, like Boston, are more diversely represented because, unlike Pelosi's district, it makes more sense, in many cities, to divide the city's center geographically. San Francisco is remarkably concentrated in that respect, which works in Peosi's favor, but does underline why the city is, in some ways, an outlier.)
Pelosi wins her district by enormous majorities; in fact, the seat has never been especially challenged, not before her, and not since she essentially inherited the seat - Phil Burton, who was a champion of early response to AIDS (as you might know from And The Band Played On) died in 1983. His wife, Sala held the seat for two elections, and then decided not to run (because she was ill with cancer herself), and picked Pelosi, then a local Party Chairwoman, as her successor. And, well... that's about it.
Pelosi's political power stems, basically, from all that logically follows: she's wealthy and well connected, has always been a successful fundraiser, and grew up the daughter of a political machine pol, in Baltimore. Pelosi's safe seat and minimal need for campaign funds personally has allowed her to channel her financial support to many other Democrats, and thus consolidate the power that brought her to the positions of Minority Whip, Minority Leader, and ultimately to Speaker.
It's a mistake to see Pelosi, then, as driven by deep seated liberal philosophies, or especially interested in policy for policy's sake. And I don't mean that entirely negatively: as Democrats, we should appreciate that a) we need people like Nancy Pelosi and b) that she is very good, and skilled, at what she does.
But none of what she does, really, has anything to do with feminism, or especially, the intersections of feminist ideals and liberal politics. And there's a difference, I will always maintain, between having someone in the party who's highly partisan and determined to win at all costs... and the person who should be leading, say, the House of Representatives.
Pelosi has, generally and repeatedly, not identified herself as feminist. She is very traditionally Catholic - she went to Notre Dame in Baltimore for high school, and Trinity College in DC, a well known Catholic women's college before marrying her husband and working mostly in the party background while raising five children. She is not particularly a product of the Women's Movement - like, say, Hillary Clinton and other Baby Boom feminists - nor did she pursue the kind of career ambitions, or even a career/family balance that many other women executives her age pursued. All of this matters, really, in understanding her politics, and her approach to women's issues.
Pelosi has rarely shown interest in supporting the idea of women's achievements as women - she has, often subtly, but sometimes brutally, squashed the ambitions of women around her who might move into a position to challenge her; witness her tense relationship with Jane Harman, and her decidedly limp interest in supporting Hillary Clinton in any way. Those are the obvious examples, but Pelosi has a legislative team filled, not with an especially groundbreaking diverse assemblage of talent, but with seasoned Democratic veterans, most of whom share her machine-based political background: John Dingell and John Conyers of Michigan. Rahm Emanuel out of Chiacgo. Steny Hoyer from her Maryland base. Jack Murtha. Charlie Rangel. The list, really, is endless... and telling. And beyond all of that - very very male.
I have, since her rise to the post, been someone who questions why, as Democrats, we think Nancy Pelosi is the right person to be Speaker; in a sense, of course, the question is absurd - it's not our choice, something no one knows better than Nancy Pelosi herself. But in terms of ever being able to challenge the party establishment, nothing can change, really, until someone gets to the heart of the question: who is Nancy Pelosi? And why is she sitting is a position of such remarkable and absolute power over the Democratic Party?Of course Pelosi is not a "feminist icon" - she's shown no interest in championing women's issues, women's equality, or heartily asserted the challenging notion that all women - not just her - are capable of amazing things, politically. Given her position, it's both sad and immensely frustrating that she does not, in fact, do more to increase diversity within the Party leadership, to challenge old assumptions, and admit that, really, the Democratic machine politics of the past no longer suit our party, our country, or its political needs. Yes, she is the first woman to assume role of immense political power and prestige as Speaker of the House. But she is, in that role, a reminder too: it's not just being a woman that makes you a feminist, or a "feminist icon"... and that's a good thing. As feminists - at least for me, as a feminist - we naturally want to see women achieve; it's great that Nancy Pelosi has. But that's not feminism. And among many labels, "feminist" doesn't really apply to Speaker Pelosi. Realizing that - and a good bit more - would go a long way to getting honest about where we are, as Democrats. And where we need to go.
Now... about that Hillary Clinton thing...