Watching the Women

Nancy Pelosi is someone to watch closely if we want to understand the tortuous relationship between language, gender, and power. Her role in bringing that relationship into focus is self-evident, but how her engagement with this question will play out will not only be of the utmost importance, but will be most fascinating to watch.

She has engineered a genuine coup in becoming House Speaker for the second time. Her role in creating the majority that will elect her was great, first of all in devising Democratic candidates’ winning rhetorical strategies; and in navigating the rapids within her own party (getting much less credit, let alone gratitude, than she deserved for that triumph), and her to rise to the Speakership has been remarkable for foxy dexterity. But that is just one part of the story.

Pelosi is being treated very differently, by her own constituency, from all past Speakers. Why? Well, duh: they have all been men,and she isn’t.

Interestingly that constituency is the Democratic Party,which prides itself on its inclusiveness. In 2018 the Democrats elected unheard-of numbers of women (86) to the House; Republicans brought in a few more, grudgingly. Yet those who stand to benefit most from her efforts – the elected women – are some of those who have been hardest on Pelosi.

It’s just that, as with Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, her colleagues, like everyone else, don’t know how to think about her, listen to her, understand her, or treat her. They aren’t sure what they ought to like or what they ought to do. Like any other woman ascending to a new level of power, she has to make her own way and her own rules, and especially her own meaning. But when she attempts to do so, critics of all parties and genders will criticize whatever choices she makes, because what she does will not look the same, or mean the same, as the exact same choices when made by a male in that position.

When she breaks out of the behaviors sanctified by 200+ years of male control of the bases of power, everyone gets distraught, and the Democrats too often end up shooting themselves in the collective foot. Once again gender bias makes them stupid…er.

Pelosi is no stranger to this game. It started for her, according to her recollections, when she was newly elected to Congress in 1987, when there were very few women there indeed. She noticed that she was not getting any of the committee assignments she had requested, or anything else, from her colleagues. She asked one of the powerful males what she had to do to get them. “Wear knee pads,” he said.


Jackie Speier, who entered Congress over a decade later, tells a very similar story, so it must be pretty funny. The humor eludes me. But then, women have no sense of humor.

With all the boys quivering in fear of  #MeToo, congresswomen don’t have to put up with that kind of garbage any more. But the signals that a woman doesn’t belong in the House (since a woman’s place is in the home, not the House), while subtler, are still very much in evidence, as in any institution. Pelosi is remarkable because she has learned how to undo the effects of that language.

Take a few examples. Unlike men in her position, Pelosi has had to contend with novel forms of prejudice, explicit and otherwise. No sooner was the Democratic victory assured than talk began among both party members and pundits about who should become Speaker. Pelosi, in second position as Minority Leader, would normally be the shoo-in candidate. This is all the more true since she had been speaker the last time the Democrats held the majority, since many knowledgeable people have declared that she is the best and most effective speaker in our time, perhaps ever, and since her campaigning and planning proved so effective. But those criteria weren’t enough. Some Democrats, especially the newly elected, started whining that what the Democrats, the House, and the country needed was fresh new leadership with fresh new ideas. Pelosi, at age 78, was necessarily too old to have them. (The main contenders, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, are a youthful 78 and 79.) That prevalent and tasty combination of ageism and misogyny manifested once more.  But when Hoyer and Clyburn took themselves out of contention, the Dems were still demanding new, fresh leadership. But no one arose to claim that they had it, because no one did. There is something strange about demanding change when there is no one in sight eligible to bring that change about.

(It is worth noting that a Speaker does not have, as a major responsibility, the discovery of fresh new ideas. It is equally worth noting that very few current congresspersons of any gender have been identified as having such, or indeed any, ideas, and none of those few – think of Adam Schiff and Jackie Speier – have expressed any interest in the job, nor have their names been mentioned. The major jobs of a Speaker are: getting party members elected, getting bills passed into law, and counting potential votes to see if proposed legislation can be passed – whether, in other words, to introduce and fight for a bill. In all of these, Pelosi has proven to be superb; perhaps her finest hour was managing to get the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, against truly overwhelming odds.)

Now the Dems have accepted the inevitable and are poised to make Pelosi Speaker. She has managed to achieve this by adroit deal-making, but again, that should not have been necessary. Worse, the ultimate deal she was forced to make was one that was bad not only for her, but the House, theDemocratic Party, and the country: she has promised to serve only two more terms. This makes her, for the rest of her term as Speaker, a lame duck,weakening her (and her party’s) ability to get things done. Such a concession has never been demanded of a potential Speaker before. So why did her fellow Democrats do it?

It’s just too dangerous to have a powerful uncontrolled woman running your party and your country. Too scary. No matter what is lost, she must be humiliated and brought low.

A similar case has arisen in England, where Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, has been subjected to a similar demand: in order to pass a vote of confidence, she has had to promise that she will step down by 2022. Again, this weakens both her and her party and makes it harder for the UK to participate confidently in Brexit discussions. But those disadvantages pale against the fear of a strong woman.

Possibly Angela Merkel’s recent decision not to continue as Prime Minister of Germany arises out of similar pressures – I wouldn’t be surprised. But on the other hand, her probable successor is also a woman.

So here are three current cases of powerful women who, to retain the power they have rightfully won, must humiliate themselves and apologize, whether that is good for the people demanding humiliation or not,and whether they have done anything to justify being forced to eat crow, or not.

But thanks to Pelosi’s courage, tenacity, and smarts, that is not the end of the story. Pelosi is creating a new language of opposition, a new way of taking control when it needs to be taken, while avoiding the superficially obvious signs of a power struggle. Yet she has done so in a way that is, at least superficially, politely feminine. (She is not, in other words, engaging in the usually futile whos-is-bigger contest that Trump generally wins because he knows how that game is played.)

On Tuesday the Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House (Chuck Schumer and Pelosi) met with the president at the White House to try to fend off the government shutdown he was “proudly” looking forward to.What took place left observers, in particular the New York Times reporters, in a state of puzzlement: who was running who? What did the conversation’s twists and turns mean?

In the next day’s article its authors describe how Pelosi (Schumer mostly just sat there) baited Trump,interrupting him when he had interrupted her and scolding him for mansplaining(“Mr. President,” she said, “please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a great victory”). Those polite words (“please,” and “Mr. President” to his “Nancy”) paradoxically stuck it to Trump, who takes any criticism, however veiled, badly, and goes especially bananas after criticism from women.

Trump tried to retake discourse control: “It’s not bad, Nancy, it’s called transparency.” In other words, I am POTUS, I am male, I make the meanings here. But she seized the discursive power from him, asserting the right to define and thereby control.

“It is not transparency when we are not stipulating to a set of facts and when we want to have a debate with you about saying we confront some of those facts without saying to the public this isn’t true,” she said, thereby claiming for herself and all women the power to define – to make meaning.

She emerged from the meeting wearing sunglasses (opacity and a touch of feminine mystique), and a “swingy red coat” (since gone viral as burnt orange), a covert comparison to the oafish POTUS, as well as her typical high heels: In words, I am woman, hear (and see) me roar. Furthermore, you can be a feminine woman, in a swingy burnt-orange coat, and still give the Donald conniptions.

Then, in a closed door meeting with her aides, she added acouple of offhand remarks: she called Trump’s determination to build his wall a“manhood thing for him,” and likened their meeting to a “tinkle contest with askunk” in which she was “trying to be the mom.” This was not only funny, but seriously destructive as well to  Trump’s hyper-macho self-image, as well as any attempts to represent himself as an adult.

The Times article described Pelosi’s use of “tinkle” as “prim” –that is, a euphemism. That’s true, but more accurately “tinkle” is hypocoristic: the use by an adult of baby-talk, or the bringing into adult discourse the language of the nursery. As a mother of five and grandmother of six, Pelosi is certainly familiar with the use and abuse of such forms. I would argue that rather than using “tinkle” as a ladylike euphemism, Pelosi’s use of it it signifies that POTUS is a child and needs to be treated like one. Further, Trump is not a man. Either he is a girly-man trying to appear macho (“a manhood thing for him”) or he is not old enough to call himself a man, but only a child.

Most interesting is the dog that didn’t bark: what would have been normal for the President to do next, but never came: a Tweetstorm or an “offhand” comment to the press corps attacking Pelosi as he typically attacks uppity women as “low IQ” or remarking about “blood coming out of her wherever.” But since Tuesday there has not been a public word from Trump in any form about the conversation: Pelosi has, politely but unequivocally, shut him up.

Pelosi took control of the dialog and offered the White House, America, and the world a whole new set of expectations for gendered discourse: women don’t have to be deferential to men, even to a man with a tremendous amount of symbolic power. A woman in Pelosi’s situation can control the discourse by wit and strategy. Pelosi was signaling to Trump that she was no patsy and would not play his game; to still-reluctant Democrats that she (and she alone) has the knowledge, the smarts, and the courage to speak the new language to present new truths to power; and to all of us, that something has changed about gender relations, and if they can’t listen properly to a strong and powerful older woman, they had better learn to do so, pronto. The times they are a-changin’, and everyone, including Donald J. Trump, must a-change along with them.