Don’t Mess With Nancy Pelosi

Speaker Pelosi announces she will not seek a leadership position in the new Congress. “Now we must move boldly into the future,” she said. “The hour has come for a new generation.” (Screenshot from C-SPAN)

Update Nov. 17, 2022: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has led Democrats in Congress for two decades and broke the glass ceiling as the first woman to control the House of Representatives, said she’ll step aside as leader at the end of the 117th Congress—though she plans to remain in the House as a lawmaker.

“Never did I think I’d go from homemaker to House Speaker,” she said.

The piece below was published in the Spring 2020 issue of Ms.

On the first page of Pelosi by Time Magazine’s Molly Ball is a quote from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) that speaks volumes about the woman second in line for the presidency:

“If you think a woman can’t beat [Donald] Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every day.”

This is just one of many reasons that House Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) is one of the women I admire most in the world.

Pelosi by Molly Ball.

For starters, she beats the boys at their own political maneuvering and manipulating: It was Pelosi who banned smoking in Congress, quite literally eliminating the old smoke-filled rooms where men made all the decisions. The ban, Ball writes, is a neat symbol of Pelosi’s rise to power, and under her leadership the House itself became neater and more under control, and the Democratic party more unified and ready to pass laws.

That’s not an easy task, even for someone with Pelosi’s inexhaustible energy and determination (“I don’t do downtime” is a revealing quote). Ending unjust wars, rescuing the economy, passing the Affordable Care Act, making the longest speech ever on the floor of the House on behalf of the “Dreamers”—this new account of Pelosi’s leadership documents each of these historic legislative battles, plus many others, with a behind-the-scenes perspective that is exacting, and exciting, in its details.

The intraparty and legislative maneuvering and backroom politics are spiced up with direct quotes from Pelosi, as well as comments about her from colleagues. Ball also describes Pelosi’s wardrobe choices for each history-making moment in her career, and there have been many.

Even if you think you know this incredible woman’s personal story, there is much more to learn. Born into a large Catholic family, Pelosi was raised to be a nun; her brothers were the ones destined to follow their father into politics. Pelosi married a banker, moved to San Francisco and raised five children before even entering—and winning—her first congressional campaign in 1987, eventually becoming the most powerful woman in U.S. politics and among the most powerful women in the world.

Ball’s documentation of how Pelosi leads, how she wins and how she uses her power is ultimately a portrait of a woman who fully embraces her personal gifts, owns them and uses them effectively—not for herself alone, even though she certainly knows how to wield power to win a legislative battle or even her own reelection campaign.

It’s worth noting that what she has accomplished would have landed a man on the cover of Time multiple times—but it took Pelosi decades to finally make the cover of the national news magazine in 2017. (Ms. first put her on the cover back in 2011.) 

Pelosi has graced three Ms. covers over the years. Ms. was the only national magazine to feature Pelosi on the cover during her tenure as Speaker from 2006 to 2010—which marked another historic first for women—and named her “The Most Effective Speaker Ever.”

Full disclosure: I have known Nancy Pelosi as a loyal and caring friend for many years. Yet I believe it would be difficult to read this book and not admire her, not marvel at her stamina, her fearlessness, her ability to face down enemies, survive harsh criticism and—after all that—get meaningful stuff done.

Now 80, she could have retired at the top of her game years ago and enjoyed being a grandmother. At an age when many women would choose to leave the battlefield—and making policy and passing laws in this deeply divided democracy remains a daily battle—Pelosi is driven by a singular vision of her role at this critical point in our history, and this stirring book is all the proof we need of that.

In the book’s afterword, Ball asks Pelosi whether she views the presidential impeachment process that was still underway at the time to be her greatest accomplishment. Pelosi hesitates—a rare occurrence—before answering, “It’s the most serious.” Yet every story in the book is a serious and intimate account of the way our government works, and doesn’t.

Remarkably, through the legislative wins and occasional failures, Pelosi seems to never lose her faith in the process of government, seldom loses her temper or even shows the resentment or contempt that she has every right to feel. I am grateful every day that Pelosi is where she is, continuing to use her position and her powers of persuasion to keep our government doing what it is charged to do: serve the people. We need her.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance Institute Board, the chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center board, and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and The Woodruff Arts Center. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to the American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council.