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When she picks up gavel again, Pelosi will preside over a very different House

Why We Wrote This

Returning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been a polarizing political figure. But one part of her legacy has echoed beyond policy and partisanship: her role as a trailblazer for women.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California finishes a news conference at the Capitol in Washington Dec. 13. Ms. Pelosi is all but certain to become House speaker this week. She appeased younger Democrats by agreeing to limit her tenure to no more than four additional years in the chamber's top post.

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On the verge of a historic second act as speaker, Nancy Pelosi is about to work with the largest incoming class of women ever elected to Congress. It’s a symbiotic moment: an opportunity for these newcomers to learn from her, and vice versa. “Isn’t that exciting?” Pelosi enthuses when asked about the female newcomers at a December press conference. “They bring the fresh-from-the-trenches energy that is so useful to the Congress. They learn from us how Congress works.” It’s a moment of national significance beyond partisan politics, though there will be plenty of that, say observers. In a chamber with 435 members, having a woman – again – as second in the line of presidential succession, leading a House with 105 women (90 of them Democrats), serves as a message of possibility to America’s women. “In some ways, these women give Nancy Pelosi even more power,” says Dianne Bystrom, director emerita of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “This group is pushing the boundaries the way she wanted to push the boundaries – only she’ll have more support.”

After the November elections, when Nancy Pelosi was still working on winning over Democrats who opposed her for speaker, incoming Congresswoman Donna Shalala met with her to talk about what committees she could be considered for.

The once-and-future speaker of the House recognized a teaching moment:

“Ask for the moon!” she said, according to Representative-elect Shalala. “Don’t come in here and tell me you’re going to support me no matter what. Ask for the moon!”

It was a lesson from a master negotiator, woman-to-woman. As a former cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration and a university president in Florida, Shalala knows her power. But not as a legislator. Not in the maze called Congress.

So what did the Floridian ask for? “A lot!” she laughs. “A lot!”

In Representative Pelosi’s 2008 memoir, “Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters,” the country’s first female speaker of the House says she learned from other women – and men, too, including her politician father and brother. But she emphasizes her mother, friends, pioneer female lawmakers, and women in political organizing. Now she’s on the verge of a historic second act as speaker, about to work with the largest incoming class of women ever elected to Congress. It’s a symbiotic moment – an opportunity for these newcomers to learn from her, and vice versa.

“Isn’t that exciting?” Pelosi enthuses, when asked about the female newcomers at a December press conference. “They bring the fresh-from-the-trenches energy that is so useful to the Congress. They learn from us how Congress works.”

It’s a moment of national significance beyond partisan politics, though there will be plenty of that, say observers. In a chamber with 435 members, having a woman – again – as second in the line of presidential succession, leading a House with 105 women (90 of them Democrats), serves as a message of possibility to America’s women.

“Many young women weren’t able to see themselves as part of this body called Congress,” says Cindy Simon Rosenthal, professor emerita at the University of Oklahoma and co-author of the book, “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics.” The large and diverse class “is going to provide a mirror which is going to be really profound for women going forward.”

This larger group of female lawmakers also has an opportunity to make their voice heard, to affect policy, to have a bigger seat at the table.

“You get up to 100, that’s a real significant infusion in the institution,” says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, who has sometimes been critical of Pelosi and the influence of the coasts and campaign-fundraising on House Democrats. Still, she strongly supports the speaker-designate as “a proven leader whose batting average cannot be matched,” and cites her “extraordinary trailblazing” as one reason “these accomplished women are going to hit the ground running.”

The political education of Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi was born into politics as the daughter of a congressman, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. When she was just seven years old, he was elected mayor of Baltimore, working the city in his trademark bow tie and straw boater (she wears stylish outfits and stilettos).

From him, she learned how to count votes, she says.

In her memoir, she recounts Election Day when her father first ran for mayor. Early in the morning, he went to the roof of their three-story row house in Little Italy. He had with him her brother Tommy – who would follow in his father’s footsteps as mayor. The two watched as campaign workers converged from every direction on election headquarters, picking up packets to go door-to-door and turn out the vote.

Pelosi’s mother, Anunciata, also called Nancy, was central to the organizing – dispatching a brigade of women to political events. Her mother also kept a “favor file.” She would note requests on a slip of paper, pop them into her folder, and after the people were back on their feet, later connect them with someone with a similar need. It was a way to share the work and the good works, she writes.

The young Nancy, too, became adept at listening to her father’s constituents, staffing a table near the front door where people came for help. As Pelosi recounts, this was “natural” to her and her five older brothers. It was about public service and community, and also – as a devout Roman Catholic – about faith anchored in social good.

Although she attended Catholic school and college, she veered from her mother’s desire that she become a nun, instead marrying Paul Pelosi, a native of San Francisco who became a wealthy investor. She launched into motherhood, having five children in six years – and a survival strategy of crossword puzzles and chocolate. It was an intense course in efficiency, organization, and planning that proved invaluable in her second career in Congress. “Proper preparation prevents poor performance” became her family motto, for which her children teased her.

Unlike women candidates who have sometimes avoided highlighting their gender or motherhood, Pelosi publicly embraces her status as a mother and grandmother. She considers her role in politics an extension of her role as a mother.

“Know your why” – your purpose – she advises candidates. “My why is the 1 in 5 children in poverty in America,” she says. “I can’t, as a mother of five, accept the fact that so many kids go to sleep hungry at night in the greatest country that ever existed in the history of the world.”

But the intersection of motherhood and politics is also clearly about managing relationships. Returning from the early December rhetorical brawl in the Oval Office over the budget, the wall, and what has become a partial government shutdown, she told her Democratic colleagues she was “trying to be the mom” in the room.

It wasn’t until Pelosi’s youngest child, Alexandra, was nearing the end of high school that she ran for Congress. This, after years of party work, including as the chair of the California Democratic Party. Still, it was only after an ill Rep. Sala Burton implored her to run for her seat that she considered running. First, Pelosi wanted to check with her daughter. “Mother, Get a life!” Alexandra implored. So she did.

Speakership – Act II

Sixteen terms later, Pelosi is about to become speaker for a second time. She got there first in 2007, after Democrats swept both houses in a repudiation of the Iraq War and the handling of hurricane Katrina by Republican President George W. Bush.

Her four years wielding the gavel, which extended into the first two years of the Obama presidency, are often described as productive – if controversial. Spanning the Great Recession, they included the passage of the economic stimulus package, Wall Street reforms, and the Affordable Care Act. These drew on considerable negotiating and legislative skills, a deep knowledge of her caucus and ability to hold it together, and her vast network of influencers and donors outside of Washington.

“Frankly, I think she’s been the most successful speaker that we have seen since Sam Rayburn,” the last lawmaker to make a comeback to the speakership, says Professor Rosenthal.

Many in her caucus agree, describing her as at the top of her game and the most qualified to negotiate with, or block, President Trump.

“When Winston Churchill took the prime ministership, in his biography he said all of his life was a preparation for that moment. When I saw Nancy pushing back against Trump [in the Oval Office] and saying, ‘Don’t characterize the strength that I bring,’ I thought of that,”  says Rep. Ro Khanna, (D) of California. “In some sense, all of her life has been a preparation for this moment.”

And yet, inch-by-inch, negotiation-by-negotiation, she has had to win over Democrats. It’s not her qualifications they question, but her grip of 16 years on the Democratic leadership, the desire for a fresh face at the top (she’s pushing 80, as are the other two most senior caucus leaders), and her toxicity in swing districts where Republicans relentlessly attacked her as the liberal from San Francisco.

Even after she persuaded a holdout group of opponents by agreeing to limit her speakership to no more than four years, Democrats who promised voters they would not support her still plan to oppose her when the full House votes for speaker Jan. 3 – though they won’t be enough to sink her.

“I’ve never seen this much negotiating. Ever!” says Marcia Fudge (D) of Ohio, who considered running against Pelosi. She changed her mind after Pelosi offered to reinstate a subcommittee on elections and voting rights – and name Congresswoman Fudge as its chair.

A different era

When Pelosi first arrived in Congress in 1987, there were 12 women Democrats and 11 female Republicans. Several of the new lawmakers have young children at home, including a single mom commuting from California. It’s a challenge that could give more impetus to the issue of quality child-care, which Pelosi calls “the missing link” in the chain of progress for women and families.

Along the way, the speaker-designate has passed out political pearls of wisdom gathered from others, including “know your power,” from Democrat Rep. Lindy Boggs, the first woman elected from Louisiana, and “organize, don’t agonize,” a saying among her political friends during her years in California party politics.

But this year’s incoming class of women hardly lack confidence, nor do they doubt the importance of organizing. They include a former Air Force captain and Navy pilot, a former CIA officer, and activists who followed through on their desire to get involved and make a difference.

So what can they learn from Pelosi?

“I’ve got a lot of years of experience practicing law,” says Rep. Susan Wild, an attorney who flipped a red seat to blue in Pennsylvania. “That does not mean I have a lot of years of experience moving bills through Congress. So all of us, men and women, are looking to her for her political expertise.”

Rosenthal suggests that the newcomers can learn that they can be extraordinarily tough and hard-nosed and still be gracious in their persona – that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who will be sworn in this week, admires Pelosi for her leadership role.

“Having women in leadership gives us a seat at the table,” she says. “And when you actually look at the social dynamics of Congress, that does matter. We’re not treated the same.”

It wasn’t until this fall that Pelosi landed on the cover of a major national news magazine. When her memoir first came out, a colleague couldn’t find it in the politics section – it was sold under “self-help.” Indeed, Pelosi says that she has stayed on to fill what otherwise would be a female void at the highest rungs of power – given that Hillary Clinton lost the presidency in 2016.

Conversely, the speaker-designate can also learn from the incoming women, to “think outside the box” and to be more inclusive, says Dianne Bystrom, director emerita of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

“In some ways, these women give Nancy Pelosi even more power. This group is pushing the boundaries the way she wanted to push the boundaries – only she’ll have more support.”

Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed to this report.

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