Did you see the New York Times page one photo of newly-elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, gavel in hand, celebrating the start of the 110th Congress surrounded by a swarm of her grandchildren as well as other Congressional members’ offspring? What did you think when you saw it?
I’m still sorting out my feelings–but I feel conflicted.
I wonder why Pelosi, a woman I admire, seemed so keen to use her first day as Speaker to portray herself as a traditional, family-first kind of woman? Sure, it was fun to see children working a room usually used for adults (who too often act like babies). But why not use those first, symbolic hours to surround yourself with all the Democratic women in the House–including the newly elected eight–and signal that this is “The Year of the Democratic Woman?” (That image would have also shown those newly elected alpha males, macho Dems the power women have in the new House!)
Where were the many images of the tough and shrewd politico, now the most powerful woman in American history, two heartbeats away from the presidency, who finally cracked what she calls “the marble ceiling” of the Capitol? What about the woman of impeccable style (though her suit certainly fit the bill) and doggedness who’s been likened (not on the style quotient) to the late majority leader Tip O’Neill? What about the ambitious leader who’s worked tenaciously to advance full equality and justice for women–of all kinds–not just moms.
But, maybe, as veteran women’s rights activist Gloria Feldt put it, “like Nixon going to China, it takes what looks like a traditional woman to make lasting, radical changes in public policy.” And it’s not as if the image of Pelosi as mother figure isn’t authentic; she’s the only speaker whose first career was as a stay-at-home mom. She’s led a multidimensional life–as do so many women today. In her case, she’s now not only the leader of 233 Democrats, she’s a mother of 5 and a grandmother of 6. And certainly her ascension means that little girls have a new role model–something the photo clearly signaled. As Congresswoman Rosa de Lauro, put it, “for every little girl who has wondered what she can be when she grows up the glass ceiling in this institution has been shattered forever.”
But it’s the Rorschach quality of the NYT photo that intrigues me. Reactions run the gamut, but all relate to the conflicting emotions, views men and women have about what the template is for women in power, circa 2007. (If you scan the globe, it’s clear there’s no one-dimensional model. Chile’s first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, was elected last year as a single mother, in a conservative Catholic country where divorce was only legalized in 2005. I doubt she marked her inauguration surrounded by children–though it might have played well in a country where fewer than half the country’s women work outside the home. Other women leaders around the world–German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, Ellen Sirleaf of Liberia and Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate in France’s upcoming Presidential election, also offer different models and images of leadership.)
I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the men I’ve talked to about the photograph–an older male colleague, my father, a college friend–think it’s an iconic photo and moment. To my father, the photograph suggested profound change and fresh hope for our nation. My colleague sees a new spirit, “nourishing, not destroying,” that is needed in this nation. Pelosi, he believes, “has a chance to represent that, so long as she also represents the tough leader. Potentially, this a politically compelling combination that reaches across the usual divisions. Soft and tough, anchored in values that are deeper than politics. I judge that this combination is within her, we will find out. Meanwhile, it is to her advantage to be under-estimated in stereotypical terms.”
Yet many of the women I spoke to worry that the photo fed into the image of woman as one-dimensional. A Friend with a new baby hadn’t even had time to look at the Times that morning. (I suspect that was the case with millions of stay-at-home and working mothers–the very people Pelosi may have been trying to appeal to with these images.) At the Nation, where the top senior editors are women (as are the top business staff), one thought that invoking the “Mother thing” makes women seem weak and passive — following, not leading. Another worried that it reinforced stereotypes of the Dems as the so-called Mommy Party. That certainly has been the stereotype and, sure, it is still very present in the culture. But maybe things are changing.
As my male colleague wrote me, “Masculine delusion is one of our great national pathologies. You can see it playing out in the politics of Iraq. How can we exit without losing our ‘manhood’? I am not romanticizing women and mothers. I am channeling Carol Gilligan and suggesting her general observation of ‘a different voice’ is now in play in our politics. Not just because Pelosi is female, but because events and circumstances argue for a deep shift in how we approach public concerns in general, war and peace in particular. The ‘boys’ are going to keep picking fights, playing ‘king of the hill’ around the world, because that’s what they know how to do. We need to blow up the scoreboard for these deadly games. I do think the country is ready for such a different cultural understanding. The younger people I know are already comfortable with a different perspective (in complicated ways) which tells me the country can change too.”
What do you think?