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Assessing our first female speaker of the House

By Dana Goldstein

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 challenger depicted her as the Wicked Witch of the West. The ad went viral, and Rush 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.

Dana Goldstein is a contributing writer to the Daily Beast and the Nation, and is a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. Read more of her work at

By Dana Goldstein  | November 4, 2010; 10:56 AM ET
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Hell yeah Nancy!

Posted by: theamazingjex | November 4, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

When Ms. Pelosi took the speakers gavel four years ago, unemployment was 4.6% now it is 9.6%. The federal deficit was 350 Billion, now it is 1.3 trillion. Federal spending was 19% of GDP, now it is 24%. Nancy Pelosi is successful in getting things accomplished in the same way that Senators Smoot and Hawley were in passing their disastrous Tariff legislation in 1930 that set off the great depression. History will not be kind to her.

Posted by: cummije5 | November 4, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

She was scapegoated for the same reasons that Hilary was scapegoated during the 90s. She's a woman and she's powerful.

Posted by: ctown_woody | November 4, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

cummije5 beat me to it. How's her record since 2006 on jobs? POOR. That's the reason she's gone as speaker. Remember the #1 exit poll from the midterms was jobs and the economy?

Using the gender card is as bad as using the race card for those that don't agree with President Obama's policies.

What's the excuse for those of us that don't agree with former President Clinton's policies? Are we against President's who stain blue dresses?

Maybe those that will bash Eric Cantor are against Jews? Those that are against John Boehner against those that sun-tan? Its all kind of idiotic and demeans their position and those that hold it. It does them no good and is the reason that most in those positions give it no credence.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 4, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

When Pelosi took office, I was 15 lbs lighter. Obviously her fault...

Posted by: JkR- | November 4, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Stop pigeonholing her based on her gender.

Nancy Pelosi is twice the man Barney Frank will ever be...


Posted by: jgravelle | November 4, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I believe that the hatred of Pelosi is best explained by your own words, Dana: "Pelosi consistently delivered legislation that became law, as well as legislation that the Senate then stalled on and failed to pass." Each of these House bills made her a huge target of political opponents to Obama and the Democrats. This opposition was quite bitter and publicly amplified with each of Pelosi's legislative successes, which represented failures by the opposition.

Posted by: pjro | November 4, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Well, isn't this a condescending piece of bloggery. Is it just possible that people hated Pelosi because they don't like the laws she pushed through or the way she did it?

Remember, when the Democrats took over she made a big deal about how open the process would be, e.g. that all bills would be online 72 hours before votes. But with all the major legislation in Pelosi's term members were given little, if any time to read the legislation. The stiumulus bill was written in caucus and Republicans had to vote on it without even seeing a final copy of the bill.

And Ezra may see the health care bill as an accomplishment, but most people see it as a disaster. For this she deserves credit?

Posted by: lseltzer | November 4, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I think that Dana has over-thought Pelosi's plight. It seems to me that she is unpopular because (1) she is a librul and (2) she is from San Fran and (3) she is a "tax and spend" Dem. That combination makes her essentially a Communist. That fact that she was effective just makes it worse.

Posted by: notsoswift | November 4, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

cummije5 above writes: "Nancy Pelosi is successful in getting things accomplished in the same way that Senators Smoot and Hawley were in passing their disastrous Tariff legislation in 1930 that set off the great depression."

I'd assert that Smoot and Hawley are at least remembered, whereas Pelosi will be remembered only as much as Erzsébet Báthory is remembered: if remembered at all, Pelosi may be recalled as the first woman Speaker who promised to "drain the swamp" but who instead deferred the ethics trials of Charles Rangel and her other comrades, thereafter leading her party to its most massive House defeat since World War II.

Posted by: rmgregory | November 4, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Pelosi is hated for the same reason Clinton was vilified and Obama is being dragged down. There's a right-wing propaganda machine going 24/7 to condemn every move any powerful Democrat makes and, if they can't find real stuff to criticize, they'll make up stuff to have some talking point to push. It worked, it works, and they'll keep doing it as long as it does.

Posted by: steveh46 | November 4, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

If she was so great, why didn't the people want to keep her as speaker?

Posted by: obrier2 | November 4, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

So would you apply the same standard to the attacks on Sarah Palin. or was that just good clean fun?

Also, how would you contrast Pelosi, with the career of the ultimate coattail rider Hillary Clinton? While we would agree that Pelosi is a strong woman who has worked for evrtyhing she has gotten, how do you explain the career of Tammy Wynette Rodham Clinton if women need to achieve so much more to be taken seriously?

Posted by: 54465446 | November 4, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

"By any measure, Pelosi has been one of the most effective House speakers in American history, especially given her relatively short tenure."

Any measure except her short tenure itself, I guess. The fact is that she presided over legislation that was resoundingly unpopular and that helped cost her party its majority. Whether that should count as a success is arguable, it seems to me.

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 4, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

It's not *because* she's a woman. Some people may well have taken sexist cheap shots, but many of the people who despise Nancy Pelosi also happen to love Sarah Palin.

The people who hate Pelosi also aren't fans of Barney Frank, Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich, Al Gore etc. It's not gender.

Posted by: justin84 | November 4, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

The gop messaging machine villified Nancy Pelosi by screaming 'Nancy Pelosi bad' without giving any reasons, but loudly enough and often enough that eventually it became 'well everyone says 'Nancy Pelosi bad''. A Big Lie repeated frequently and loudly. That they did it, and that they were able to play off gender, shows that they would have done the same thing to Hillary had she become president. The gop machine no longer needs any substance to work with, they can assassinate anyone's character over anything.

Posted by: gVOR08 | November 4, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Aside from the unpopularity of the legislation she presided over, she has said some arrogant and stupid things, at the top of which list would be: the bill will have to be passed so that people can know what is in it. Remember those Vanity Fair pictures of two years ago, when she preened for the camera on the steps of the Capitol, waving a red cape like a matador? She does and says many graceless things, and cultivates an affected little girl voice. Compare her to Diane Feinstein, a woman senator who seems mature and genuine, and you'll see some of the reasons Pelosi herself invites the dislike you seem puzzled by.

Posted by: truck1 | November 4, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Conservatives hate her because 1) she was good, she was successful. It wouldn't have mattered who was House Speaker, they would have gotten the same treatment. That's what Republicans do. 2) They couldn't attack her poise or integrity. So they go after her with visceral contempt because she stuck in their craws. 3) Conservatives are children with respect to their feelings. Big babies.

I loathed bush43 because of his policies and the people he put in place. I didn't hate him. I recognize the difference between hate and dislike. Conservatives are children and demand attention. Hence they hate all who aren't like them.

Posted by: kindness1 | November 4, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Oh, as far the substance of what Pelosi has done; yes it all looks pretty good on paper. But how will we PAY for any of these things?

Pelosi is as guilty or more guilty than most of bad governmental accounting. For instance if you REALLY wanted to procure health care savings, you would pre-empt state legislation and allow policies to be sold across state lines.

Whoa, boy tha't s going way to far!

Posted by: 54465446 | November 4, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

You mean, Nancy we have to pass the bill to see whats in it Pelosi? Yeah, not sure why people don't like her.

Posted by: nunya1 | November 4, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Truly ashame if she leaves.

Sad times, will get sadder.

Posted by: rat-raceparent | November 4, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

visionbreaker protests way too much after months of displaying his visceral animus against Pelosi.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 4, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

I love Nancy Pelosi. I think she was a fabulous Speaker.

Posted by: LynnDee227 | November 4, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

and pseudonymousinnc is just a bitter progressive that realizes that the country isn't 100% progressive.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 4, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm a woman from the Bay Area, Nancy Pelosi's part of the country. I was so proud on the night she opened her first session of the House. Most folks don't notice (men especially) but all the leader's of this country are men. There are still few women in the Senate and the House. I admire Nancy Pelosi tremendously.

I've noticed that the right always viscously attack liberal women politicians and try to demean them by name calling and belittling them and their accomplishments. For some reason the right always feels threatened by powerful, well spoken, liberal women.

One more thing. I am an American and I resent that John Beohner says the American People have spoken (regarding the takeover of the House by the Republican Party.) I am an American and John Boehner and the Republican party do NOT speak for me.

Posted by: Asiaa | November 4, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

"If she was so great, why didn't the people want to keep her as speaker?"

Because the people are shortsighted, uninformed, selfish and childish. All they can think about is what's in it for me. They think a complicated and major downturn in the economy, largely created by greed, an ever widening gap between rich and poor, caused by ever increasing tax cuts and loopholes for the uber wealthy (most hedge fund managers, for example, pay 15% in taxes because they're income is considered capital gains - even though it's income made from other peoples money. This is just one example. Others abound; taxes are at historic lows) - they think that recovery from such an economic collapse can be achieved overnight. This is why angry people went to the poles and voted against their own interests.

Posted by: kmgunder | November 4, 2010 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Well, It seems her entire staff has posted their undying praise for dear Nancy and that's nice.

However, the rest of us still hate her.


Oh, I don't know....maybe just a gut feeling that she has been nothing but a shill for Obama's more stupid agenda items. She never stood up and told him to back off when he really needed to hear it. Result, she no longer 'the Speaker'.

And also, we low lifes didn't like her demanding the BIG Air Force planes to ferry her butt to the West Coast constantly. She didn't like refuel stops, wanted non-stop planes only. All the while lecturing us on being frugal and 'green'.

Won't miss you Nancy. But, if it's any consolation, many of us dislike John Boner even more!

Posted by: mosthind | November 4, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Dana, this isn't the end of Pelosi's career. She's still in the House. She won her district by 80%. She's there as long as she wants.

And I think it's just as simple as this: Nancy got things done. She is hated by the right because she was strong and she was capable. Sexism was just one of the lazy ways that hatred manifested itself many times.

Posted by: boloboffin1 | November 5, 2010 1:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree with the Republicans that there's not anything particularly sexist about their Pelosi hatred. They hate her about as much as they hate Barack Obama, and about as much as they hated Bill Clinton (but not quite as much as they hate Hillary). The thing about Pelosi is that she's relatively free of personal scandal or impropriety. So criticisms of her are limited to obscure, petty and just plain bizarre complaints. Other politicians get this kind of treatment, but there's usually some element of scandal to give cover to the blind rage.

Which isn't to say Pelosi is some kind of saint or even particularly likeable, but I'm reading that people hate her because of her flight plans, her voice, and because she once "waved a red cape like a matador."

That anger is a built in feature of contemporary conservatism. I'm tempted to say it's part of politics in general, but I feel like there's a bit more of a spectrum on the liberal side between undying hatred and rapt adulation.

Posted by: Kazooka | November 5, 2010 5:45 AM | Report abuse

Why is Pelosi so hated??

First of all, she is hard to take seriously with her plastic face and wide-eyed stare. But if you can get past that, lets see what comes out of her mouth:

She writes an op-ed in the USA today calling townhall protesters un-American.

She claims she will "clean the swamp" but when presented with chances like William Jefferson and Charlie Rangel she does nothing.

She is prone to saying stupid things such as "we need to pass the bill to see what's in it"

and "I don't know what's so great about the great depression, but that's the name they give it."

Posted by: TruthSpeaker | November 5, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

You may hate her, that is essentially because many of you are uninformed and clearly not very bright. Since when does the speaker influence the unemployment rate? What a joke. I will bet that those criticizing her have health care and could care less about the 15 percent of Americans who do not. For those who paid attention to the Congressional Budget Office's scoring of the bill, it will save money. That's how it will be paid for. Its an embarrassment that the US was the only advanced industrial democracy without health care for many of its citizens. Much like in the 19th century the US was among the last to abolish slavery! Something its supporters went to war to keep.

Posted by: aj1111 | November 6, 2010 2:31 AM | Report abuse

Nancy rocks! I hope she stays in leadership for a very long time. Steny is making me a bit nervous. Blue dogs are becoming more and more problematic. Hail progressive, female, yellow dogs...we're all b.....s, thank you very much.

Posted by: Reader4 | November 9, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

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