UPDATE (Nov. 17, 2022, 1:56 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect that on Thursday Nancy Pelosi addressed the House after Democrats lost its majority.
Nancy Pelosi dropped a bombshell Thursday: She will be stepping down as House Democratic leader. It’s sad news for many, and in her message to America, she solidified why she has been one of the best House speakers.
It’s sad news for many, and in her message to America, she solidified why she has been one of the best House speakers.
She spoke passionately about the importance of keeping America’s democracy intact — something she has dedicated her career to doing — and of witnessing “its fragility firsthand, tragically, in this chamber.”
Last month, the country got a glimpse of what Pelosi could do while the United States’ democracy was quite literally under attack. The Jan.6 House committee showed nearly five minutes of never-before-seen footage of congressional leaders during the attack on the U.S. Capitol building. Senate and House leadership from both parties manned the phones, contacting local, state and federal authorities to call up the National Guard, D.C. police and other security forces to secure the Capitol. These bipartisan efforts were led by Pelosi, who showed remarkable composure and leadership in the face of physical danger.
The very first line of the history of her speakership should read “led Congress to safety and completed the certification of the election while under direct attack.”
Cartoonist Bob Thaves once said, “Sure, Fred Astaire was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did … backwards and in high heels.”
To date, there have been 54 House speakers. Pelosi is the first and only female to serve in the position. She is also one of the most effective speakers in history, and she does it while battling the double standards that apply to powerful women.
Her incredible track record of being able to pass crucial bills — the COVID relief package, the CHIPS and Science Act, an infrastructure bill and a bill that would help veterans exposed to toxins during military service — in one congressional session should be enough to secure her place in history alone. Days after the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act, Pelosi’s caucus in the House passed the bill without a single Democratic defection. Holding together a coalition as diverse as the one in the House, from conservative Texans to progressive “Squad” members, is impressive.
And that’s just this term, which doesn’t include her tenure during President Barack Obama’s administration. Historians and political observers began comparing Pelosi to other great speakers as early as 2010, when she played a central role in the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
But the evidence presented at the Jan. 6 hearing suggests that the very first line of the history of her speakership should read “led Congress to safety and completed the certification of the election while under direct attack.”
It would be a remarkable line, considering that for over 200 years white men held the speaker’s gavel. Henry Clay and James K. Polk, two of the most influential speakers in the 19th century, fit nicely in the mold of older, white male speakers and left their thumbprints on history.
As Pelosi established a new vision for House leadership, she did so with careful attention to detail. She has worn black on somber days and white as a nod to suffragists when she wants to make a silent protest. When she needs to assert authority, she adorns her lapel with a pin that is a miniature of the speaker’s mace with the eagle of justice on top. And no matter how long the workday or how many hours Pelosi spent whipping votes, her hair is never out of place, and her lipstick is never smudged.
Maybe these details and her appearance shouldn’t matter, but they do. Studies overwhelmingly show that women’s appearances affect how their colleagues view their work at much higher rates than their male counterparts.
In the same vein, Pelosi has struck a precarious balance between too tough and too weak. Colleagues have revealed that she keeps two items in her office — Ghirardelli chocolates on her desk and a stack of baseball bats signed by the San Francisco Giants. The items reflect pride in the businesses located in her home district, but they also subtly nod to her leadership approach.
Not all of Pelosi’s predecessors in recent memory have employed the same nuanced approach. For example, in 1995, Newt Gingrich, one of the most impactful speakers in history (for better or worse), seized power by brow-beating his enemies and allies into submission. He broke almost every political norm, embraced gridlock and consolidated control by dominating C-SPAN coverage of congressional speeches.
As unfair as it may be, these bombastic tactics wouldn’t work for a woman. Pelosi would likely be called angry, irrational and emotional and wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Instead, she keeps her caucus in line through careful hand-holding, listening, compromise, the occasional chocolate and permitting targeted defections. For example, in 2019, Pelosi and Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar went on a diplomatic trip to Ghana just days after Omar voted against Pelosi’s immigration bill. The next year, Pelosi endorsed Omar for re-election, despite repeated clashes over policies.
But the threat of the bat, so to speak, also remains. In December 2019, the House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment against then-President Donald Trump. As she banged the gavel, a few Democrats began to cheer. She glanced in their direction and, with a quick flick of her hand, silenced any applause. This moment was dark, not a time for celebration, and her members quickly received the message.
This careful balance was revealed in the Jan. 6 footage as well. On calls with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, she was polite and measured. Yet, she also didn’t accept any excuses. When Department of Defense officials suggested they didn’t have the authority to act, she said, “Pretend it’s the Pentagon or White House under siege.”
However, she also held her tongue when the task required it. A later clip captured Pelosi saying she hoped Donald Trump did travel to the Capitol so she could “punch him out.” She likely had similar sentiments for her Republican colleagues, many of whom had tolerated or encouraged Trump’s Big Lie and efforts to overturn the election. It is possible she shared those thoughts later. But in the moment of crisis, she put aside partisan differences in the interest of national security.
As she steps down from her leadership role, her unique status as the first female speaker, especially at moments of extreme peril, should not be overlooked. She not only established a precedent for the women that will follow, but she also accomplished more during her tenure than almost anyone who came before — and arguably under more difficult circumstances. That part of her story must not be forgotten.