Watching the Women

Pelosi Schumer Trump

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.

gender, other topics, politics

The Terrifying Nancy Pelosi



Who are the most terrifying persons currently resident on this planet?


You might be tempted to reply: Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, or even our very own Donald John Trump – killers or wannabe-killers. But you would be wrong. Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics

One or Two (Actually, Three) Things I Have Learned Since 11/8/2016

Now that the 2018 midterm elections are over, it is time to assess what American voters have learned since 2016. Here are three things that I have learned.


  1. Misogyny is stronger than most of us would like to think, or used to believe. It has shown up in many forms, from many people we might have thought to be beyond it. But the culture is no more post-misogynistic in 2018 than it was post-racial in 2012.


It was most obvious in Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald J. Trump, and was equally manifest in subsequent interpretations of the election’s outcome. We saw it in voters’ and pundits’ outrage at Clinton’s use of a private email server (particularly when contrasted with pundits’ and voters’ lack of response to the information, in a recent New York Times front page article, that the president has been using an insecure cell phone that is known to be under Russian and Chinese surveillance, and further that the president is aware of this fact and doesn’t care). In Clinton’s case, FBI chief James Comey expressed great indignation and public opinion swung strongly against Clinton: even usually rational sources condemned her use of the server as possibly “criminal,” or “treasonous,” despite no evidence that any emails Clinton had sent on that server had been compromised. My assumption is that, very rationally, the Secretary of State (who traveled extensively) found it easier to use the private server on her travels and thus do all aspects of her job more efficiently. But the cry persists to this day: “Lock her up!” Continue reading

other topics, politics

Aha and Snort



A thought just struck me. If I’m right, it would explain a lot.


You know how handwriting experts say that a person’s signature basically remains the same throughout life? Well then, take a look at Donald Trump’s signature on one of the documents pictured on page 1 (hard-copy) of the New York Times’s blockbuster story of October 3 about Trump’s ill-gotten gains, the document headed SUNNYSIDE TOWERS APTS. COMPANY. It’s a pretty normal, if somewhat childish signature – small, rounded, perfectly legible. While the document in the photomontage is undated, it seems to have been created many years ago, while Trump’s father and brother were still alive.


Then check out any of the many examples of Trump’s current signature – the one he displays on a bill after he has signed it: huge (the caps at least 1” high), thick, very angular. It looks nothing at all like the older one.


How can we explain the discrepancy? Continue reading

gender, language, politics

Judge Kavanaugh Cuts the Gordian Knot

Brett Kavanaugh, hearing, Judiciary Committee


In the process of conquering the world, Alexander the Great came to the town of Gordium. In that town was a piece of rope entangled in an intricate knot. Whoever unraveled the knot, according to legend, would rule the world. Many had tried, and all had failed. Nor had anyone ever ruled the world.


Alexander contemplated the knot and his options. He fiddled with the knot but got nowhere. Then he drew his sword, sliced the knot apart, and went on to rule the world.


This legend is usually told as a justification of a bravura style of leadership. Wannabe leaders try conventional solutions to problems and fail. The natural leader scorns those, thinks outside the envelope, and rightly rules.


In his second hearing, on September 27, Brett Kavanaugh demonstrated Alexandrian leadership style, with considerable success . But just as Alexander’s impetuousness (and drinking habits) led to his early death, it may yet transpire that the bravura style may not work in Judge Kavanaugh’s long-term interests. You might, as many have noted, see a hearing of this kind as a job interview. You could also see it as an audition, in which a candidate demonstrates his possession of the skills he would need to successfully perform the job for which he is applying. Then the employer has to ask: does this candidate’s behavior demonstrate what I am looking for? Continue reading

language, politics

Reading Trump


Many of the usual experts confess that they don’t get Trump: despite their repeated attempts to make sense of him, and despite the authority and expertise they bring to the task, he won’t make sense; his behavior, especially his communicative behavior, simply doesn’t work by the rules.


Their problem lies in their background, which limits their understanding and expectations. Most political experts have been educated as political scientists and/or politicians, historians, or economists. That background provides them with expectations that have worked well in understanding other presidents: they assume that their subject’s behavior has underlying it a rational strategy for the short and long-term; and they further assume that people in positions of power and influence act according to their belief (correct or not) that the strategy will bring long-term benefits to their nation. So experts see politicians as rational actors whose moves are predictable and explicable.


But Trump is another story, a narrative the plot of which the pundits, try as they may, cannot follow. They cannot read him. He is Greek to them, but would be Navaho to Aristotle. Again and again, he goes out of his way to insult people that others in his position would be trying to humor or befriend. His insults tend toward the crude, infantile, and personal. Kim Jong-Un is “Little Rocketman.” Germany under Angela Merkel has become a client state of Russia. Europe has lost its culture (Trump gets a twofer here, smacking both Europe and Islam). Theresa May is too dumb to take his advice. NATO is a bunch of cheaters. Continue reading

language, other topics, politics

The Weaponization of Free Speech



There are only two kinds of people who reliably cannot interpret figurative language as such, confusing metaphor or hyperbole with literal sense. They are schizophrenics and, apparently, political conservatives.


It has long been a basis of psychiatric diagnosis to ask a subject to interpret a proverb. If they interpret it literally, that tends to favor a diagnosis of schizophrenia. “A rolling stone gathers no moss” is a favorite. A literal interpretation would consist of an explanation of how moss grows more easily on stationary objects. A “normal” interpretation makes use of metaphor: someone who has put down no roots and has no connections to others will not be saddled with responsibilities, and/or will not amass property or meaningful relationships. Continue reading


The Trump-Putin Summit


I admit to some puzzlement about the Trump-Putin summit scheduled for July 12.


For one thing: why (really) are they having one? Usually a summit takes place between adversaries in an attempt to mitigate a negative relationship. But Trump and Putin are BFFs: what is there to mitigate?


And why has there been so little discussion about it from the White House – when you consider the amount of advance puffery about the Trump-Kim meeting? And why was this meeting arranged so hastily? Continue reading

language, politics

Trump Talk – And How to Talk Back to It


The major problem with Donald Trump’s use of language is not so much what he literally says, but with what his utterances reveal about who and what he really is.


Here is my thought on this question: Trump is the Antichrist and his discourse can only be properly understood from that perspective. Remember: I am a linguistic scientist so I know about arcana of this kind.


The notion of the Antichrist is one of the murkiest, yet scariest and therefore most potent, narratives comprising the discourse of Christianity. There are several versions of the story: where he comes from, what role he plays, and how his existence fits into the larger understanding of Christianity.

Continue reading

gender, language, other topics, politics

Should Bill Clinton Apologize?


Apologies are some of the hardest speech acts, both intellectually and interactionally.


They are intellectually difficult because it’s often hard to know whether an apology is owed, to whom, and in what form; and interactionally hard because making an apology puts the maker in a one-down position to the person apologized to, and a full apology requires the apologizer to make, explicitly or tacitly, a number of self-destructive statements: I was wrong; I did harm to you; I need your forgiveness. So making an apology always entails a loss of power.


Hence apologies take many forms, direct and indirect, explicit or hinted at, depending on the seriousness of the misdeed and the power relationship between the parties. Continue reading