Nancy Pelosi is the highest-ranking elected woman in American history. She’s also a walking political Rorschach test. The same week that the Austin American-Statesman described the first female House Speaker as “arguably so left-leaning that her parenthetical should be D-Beijing”, Code Pink staged one of its “Die-Ins” outside Pelosi’s San Francisco house. She’s also been the focus of criticism for famously declaring before the 2006 election that impeachment would be “off the table.”
I met with Pelosi in her House chambers a week before publication of her new book, co-written with Amy Hill Hearth, Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. The book is more inspirational manual than cold-eyed guide to the tough battles Pelosi has waged these last years against a President whom she’s called “a total failure.” While it’s clearly designed to humanize Pelosi–a onetime stay-at-home mom of five, now grandmother of seven– the book also serves as a vehicle for the Speaker to hit the interview circuit, as she will this week, to talk about the state of the country, the Democratic Party, women and politics, and the presidential and Congressional elections.
Yet Know Your Power is not only a tale of Pelosi’s journey from homemaker to Speaker, from the kitchen to the Congress. It’s also an appreciation of the power of American women to make their own history, by someone who has shattered the “marble ceiling” of the US Capitol and become an icon of female power. “When I became Speaker, it was American women who made history,” Pelosi writes. “My success is the result of the love and support of my family and most certainly an outgrowth of the wisdom and generosity of other women who enabled my path to power.”
The Speaker’s breakthrough comes at a moment when the path to power for women has reached a plateau. While Pelosi and Hillary Clinton are pioneers, they are only cracks in the glass ceiling–a ceiling that won’t be shattered until women have achieved a critical mass in government. Since 1992, when twenty-seven women were elected to Congress in what became known as the “Year of the Woman,” the number of women in national office has leveled off. Today, women are still less than 25 percent of senators, representatives, governors and state legislators. And as Ann Friedman’s smart article “Strength In Numbers” reminds us, “Progressives have a vested interest in getting more women into office–and not only because it’s good to have our elected bodies better reflect the population. Nearly thirty percent of women in Congress are members of the Progressive Caucus, while only ten percent of men are.”
Pelosi is particularly adept at encouraging women to think about how their homemaking skills–she likes the title “domestic engineers”–are transferable to successful political organizing and future political careers. After all, her domestic skills–along, of course, with former United Farmworker organizers Fred Ross Jr., and Marshall Ganz’s brilliantly disciplined get-out the-vote effort in her first Congressional campaign–contributed to making Pelosi the first daughter in US history to follow her father into Congress. As one of Pelosi’s friends said soon after she won a seat in Congress, “I knew she was going places when I would go to her house and see those little children folding their own laundry and organizing it in stacks!”