Can Women Really Make History?
(Screenshot from C-Span Clip: Nancy Pelosi at the Economic Club on “Know Your Power”)
132,000 negative ads against her. Wow. At a recent Economic Club of D.C. luncheon, Club President David Rubenstein asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ’62) if it was personally difficult for her to be vilified constantly by the right wingers who go after her. Speaker Pelosi’s response was vintage Nancy: “Your power is the reason your opponents go after you….I have to be an example to other women not to be too shy about things, assert yourself, take credit… and here’s the thing: if I were not effective, they wouldn’t be doing these ads. They fear me because I’m a master legislator, I know how to do it… I have a following in the country that supports me at the grassroots level and so they have to take me down. So I have to show other women: we’re in the arena, and once you’re in the arena, you have to be prepared to take a punch (and, throw a punch, too!). Have no fear. Know your own power. Be yourself. Go out there and fight the fight. Know Your Why….. If I were not effective, they would not have taken out 132,000 ads…” (click on the link under the photo, above, to see the clip of this response, and click here to see the full interview.)
Self-confidence is essential for any leader, and teaching women how to be self-confident leaders is one of the reasons why women’s colleges continue to be essential and important for this country. Women’s history, which we celebrate this month, is chock full of great examples of outstanding women leaders like Nancy Pelosi, and women’s colleges rightfully point to many of our graduates in the pantheon of great women leaders.
But confident, bold, even egotistical women leaders are targets — Speaker Pelosi is masterful at handling the constant barrage of nastiness hurled her way (132,000 negative ads!), but many other women leaders struggle with the ugly personal attacks that are often irrelevant to their jobs, and frequently critical of behaviors seen as strengths in men. Male leaders get away with being hyper-aggressive, even bullies, even crass (looking at YOU, Mr. President!)…. but if women are assertive, tough, tenacious, proud, they get called names (the B-word is ever hovering) and held up for ridicule and degradation.
Outrageously, the mainstream media play into this demeaning treatment of women leaders all the time.
Consider the front page of the New York Times on February 22, above. The top story is about presidential friend and convicted felon Paul Manafort, then there’s a story on the sexual abuse allegations against R. Kelly, then the arrest of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in a prostitution sting, and then a story about sexual misconduct among priests and bishops in the Catholic Church — and then, the only story about a woman, a leader running for the presidency, is headlined, “How Amy Klobuchar Treats Her Staff.” Seriously? Amid major stories of political corruption in the highest ranks and sexual crimes among powerful men, the only story about a woman on the front page of the New York Times is something straight out of Miss Manners?
It gets worse. The opening paragraphs of the Klobuchar story tell the tale of a salad, a missing fork and a comb. For myself, I would have eaten the salad with my hands, but that’s just me. But seriously, folks, this is COMPLETELY UNIMPORTANT to the profoundly serious issues this nation faces about the new potential for nuclear war, the climate crisis, the immigration crisis, the looming economic crisis, corruption and authoritarianism in the highest places undermining our democracy. I don’t really know a darn thing about Amy Klobuchar but here’s what I do know: I want to know where a candidate for the presidency of the United States stands on these critically important issues for the future of our nation and, indeed, our civilization. Perhaps the fact that some of her dissident staffers dished on her salad dish habits and other intemperate moments tells us that she needs to improve her management skills, but that’s not what the world’s most influential newspaper should be focusing on right now.
And don’t get me started on the line about whether how a person treats her staff indicates her fitness for high office. Just look at who is in office right now. Let’s get serious and talk about the real issues, not the Style section, please!
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the presidency in large part because people didn’t like her. The mainstream media had a large role to play in creating that image, overplaying the private email server issue while Wikileaks and the Trump campaign were taking Democracy down the road to perdition. Hillary was portrayed by any number of supposedly serious journalists as too wonkish, or having a harsh voice, or being frail (??), or laughing too loud, or trying to hard to be friendly, or any number of other personal failings that are irrelevant to being an effective president of the United States.
Other women leaders also incur personal ridicule, from Kirstin Gillibrand eating fried chicken with a fork (she coulda given the fork to Amy!) or Donald Trump repeatedly calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocohantas” to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being ridiculed for everything from dancing in a college video to her clothes and living arrangements. The attacks are personal and demeaning, and women leaders have to learn to shrug them off.
We will soon observe the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in presidential elections. But a full century after that historic event, women candidates for the presidency of the United States are still held out as objects of scorn, ridicule and suspicion. The U.S. lags well behind other countries in the advancement of women to high leadership positions including presidencies. Being female in the U.S. is still a bona fide occupational hazard for a candidate for high public office. The gender gap in U.S. politics is as large and corrosive as ever — despite the fact that women now number more than 100 members in the U.S. House of Representatives, a great moment, but still, that makes women only 25% of the House and only 20% of the entire Congress, but we are 50% of the population.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has made history — twice! — by being the only woman elected (twice!!) to the Speaker’s chair. But we’re not satisfied with having a woman just being second in line to the presidency, which is where Speaker Pelosi is today. We want to see a woman president, and in our lifetime! But for a woman to claim the ultimate symbol of women’s history in this country, she will have to overcome the dark forces that constantly seek to demean, trivialize and disparage powerful women. Speaker Pelosi’s example — “Know Your Power – Know Your Why” is a serious lesson for all aspiring women leaders to study and emulate.
Can women really make history by claiming the presidency? Yes! But women candidates for the presidency and other public offices have to be strong, confident and able to overcome the pernicious stereotypes and personal attacks, including those enabled by the mainstream media. We should call them out every time they make the salad fork more important than the legislative agenda.