The picture dominating the front page of The Los Angeles Times last Thursday – e day Democrats took control of Congress – was noteworthy. It featured Nancy Pelosi, standing amid a group of beaming Democratic women . . . flexing her muscles. The day before, she had, as The Times reported, attended “an afternoon tea turned power rally”
The image was reminiscent of a certain type of 70’s-style feminism; one could almost hear the strains of “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” playing in the background. To hear Pelosi tell it, one would think that her election as Speaker of the House marked the single greatest step for womankind since the vote was secured by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
There’s no doubt that becoming Speaker of the House is an outstanding achievement for anyone – male or female. And many people hope that their lives will have special meaning and offer inspiration to generations yet to come – a natural human yearning that makes it natural for anyone to want to don the mantle of “pioneer.” What's more, for Democrats in particular, the lure of identity politics is nigh irresistible.
But even given all that, Pelosi’s self-congratulatory rhetoric was remarkable for its triumphalist excess. In her opening address as House Speaker, Pelosi characterized her ascension as “a moment for which [women] have waited more than 200 years,” “through the many years of struggle.” She concluded grandly, “For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling.”
Really? Prior to Pelosi’s election, were women being deliberately and systematically excluded from leadership in the corridors of political power, thereby requiring the shattering of obstacles maliciously put in place by men? Given the prominence of a number of women in Washington – ranging from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Elizabeth Dole to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to political consultants like Donna Brazile and Mary Matalin – such an assertion seems like something of a stretch. What’s more, it’s difficult to see how the fact that a woman has been elected Speaker of the House marks the lifting of a heavy yoke of oppression for all American women – especially when it’s impossible to point to any meaningful repression being visited upon them in the first place (unless, of course, one counts Jane Harman, who -- in a significant breach of feminist sisterhood -- has been passed over by Pelosi for chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee)..
Perhaps Pelosi’s “you’ve come a long way, baby” attitude would make more sense if she had surmounted significant obstacles to take her place among the nation’s political heavyweights. But it’s hard to identify any significant, systemic barriers that a San Francisco multimillionaire, raised as the daughter of Baltimore’s mayor, has overcome in order to rise to power – as women might have, say, a century or more ago.
Ultimately, the most frustrating part of Pelosi’s fixation on the “first woman” angle is that it actually results in her selling herself short. She didn’t win the post of Speaker of the House because of her sex or despite it. She won because of her hard work, her fundraising, her long tenure in the House and her political skills -- plus her ability to garner more support than the well-qualified man who had run against her. In other words, she won her post in the same way and for the same reasons any man would have. Her sex was simply incidental -- as it should have been.
Notwithstanding Nancy Pelosi's exuberant bicep-flexing in front of the Speaker's chair last Thursday, her election isn’t significant because it marks the destruction of some “marble ceiling.” It’s significant for a less romantic but more important reason. It demonstrates that even Democrats are occasionally willing to do what other Americans do on a regular basis: Support the person they believe is best for a particular job – regardless of gender.