After winning back a majority in the House of Representatives with the election of historic numbers of women, fending off a challenge to her leadership to become Speaker (for the second time) and outmaneuvering the president over his shutdown of the government and funding for his border wall, Nancy Pelosi is determined to get things done—even in this time of divided government.
Pelosi is the most powerful woman in U.S. political history, and, as Speaker, she’s second in line to the presidency. She sees herself as an organizer foremost, and is renowned for her ability to count votes and build consensus. While pundits and weekend talk show hosts obsess over the differences within the House Democratic Caucus—a caucus that spans from the Blue Dogs to the progressives—Pelosi has methodically delivered Democratic members on the most critical votes, from the battle over appropriations to a rebuke of the president’s emergency declaration to a resolution condemning hate speech.
A self-avowed feminist, Pelosi believes the empowerment of women in elected office is essential to progress on everything from the environment to gun safety, public health and national security. She has elevated more women to powerful positions in the House—as heads of committees and subcommittees—than ever before in history. And even as she discusses her grave concerns over the relentless attacks on legal abortion by politicians and judges, Pelosi is hopeful the Congress will seize opportunities to advance women’s rights, including workplace equality, and to finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
I caught up with Speaker Pelosi on International Women’s Day, following passage by the full House of a sweeping bill aimed at reducing the role of money in politics, expanding voting rights and ending the culture of corruption in Washington, D.C. Reflecting the importance Pelosi places on reforming government, H.R. 1, the For the People Act, was the very first measure introduced in the new Congress in January.
In a wide-ranging interview that appears in the latest issue of Ms., I asked Pelosi about the importance of pushing forward, knowing that reforms passed by the House might die in the Republican controlled Senate, the importance of having women at the peace-making tables in Afghanistan and why we must finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. (Become a Ms. member today to read the full interview.)
But I also asked her about being a woman in power, and the importance of getting more women in elected office.
Do you think you’ve been underestimated because you’re a woman?
I have no idea. I just don’t know how [President Trump] thinks, assuming he thinks. I have absolutely no idea what he thinks, but I think he has some idea of the power of the Speaker of the House.
You said the first time you ran for speaker that none of the Democratic leadership encouraged you, and in fact a lot of them questioned why you even ran. And when you were elected speaker, you’d never even been inside a Democratic speaker’s office. This time, do you think sexism and ageism played a role in the challenge that you faced to your reelection as speaker?
I think some of it is just people trying to stake out a place for when the change will come, and there will be change. It’s a natural course of events that other people will put their names out there for, if not this time, for future reference, and that’s okay.
Ageism, of course, is rampant, but, you know, I just always had confidence I would be Speaker. And I do think that there is sexism in our electoral process. I do think there are some people who just can’t get used to the idea of women in power, but I don’t spend too much time—as I say, “I don’t agonize; I organize.” And I wouldn’t ask people to be for me if I thought that I wasn’t going to win.
I remember back in 2007 when you first became Speaker, Ms. was the only national magazine to put you on the cover. We were shocked that we would be the first and the only one. Were you surprised at all?
I didn’t even think about it that much, to tell you the truth, until we had passed the Affordable Care Act and all the rest. But [even] then, they never did. Then, before the Republicans won the Congress, or before John Boehner ever even became Speaker, [Time] had him on the cover—
Three times, I think.
But thank you to Ms. magazine for making that recognition. People were bewildered that just about any man could be on the [Time] cover, but the first woman Speaker of the House was not, not until I became the Speaker of the House again years later.
I have known you for so long and watched your many accomplishments. Has being a feminist shaped your approach to politics and your work in Congress?
Yes, I think so. In many areas. One of them is the empowerment of other women. Every woman’s success is [all] women’s success.
I do have a concern right now about women’s right to choose, which is an imperative. It’s of value to me as a mom of five, and a Catholic no less. There are assaults on a woman’s right to choose which disrespect women. You’d think we passed all of that, but the other side is just so determined to mischaracterize what we stand for in a way that is harmful to the discretion of women to make their own choices, rather than having politicians in Washington or justices on a court making decisions for them.
As you were saying, you’ve always encouraged that more women’s voices come to the table in greater and greater numbers. Is it making a difference having all these new women who have flooded in with this last election?
Yeah, fabulous. This year we have 91 on our side, 15 on the Republican side. I want more, of course, always want more, but we made a decision years ago—and you were part of that, the Feminist Majority was very much a part of that—that we would have more women advance in the public arena. And now we do and that makes a big difference in our country.
Many of the new freshmen [women] who came in are now subcommittee chairs. And women are chairs of very important committees of the Congress. So it’s about not only a seat at the table, [but] a seat at the head of the table.
Do you have any marching orders for feminists at this critical time?
What I would say to women and girls here and around the world: Be not afraid. Be ready for whatever opportunities come along, and know how important your contribution is, because when women succeed, everyone succeeds.
Kathy’s full interview with Speaker Pelosi appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read the rest!