A Conversation with Nancy Pelosi about what it will really take to make a woman president
Four years ago, when I first began writing my book, What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power, there were no female candidates running for president and that benchmark seemed distant and out of reach. So it was incredibly exciting a few months ago to be able to witness Hillary Clinton mark the milestone of becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major political party.
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this is a symbolic breakthrough we can and should all celebrate together, just as we did with Barack Obama’s historic win, as a positive sign that we are moving towards greater diversity and a reflective democracy.
In the interviews I conducted for my book, many interviewees reflected on what having a woman president would mean for our country, culture, and collective women’s leadership.
The consensus was that having a woman break the presidential barrier would have an undeniable positive impact on women and girls in this country. The symbolism alone would be incredibly powerful, especially for young women and girls who would see first-hand that it is possible for women to be successful, respected leaders — especially the highest leadership position of them all.
That’s the reason I decided to write my book in the first place: my daughter.
The book was inspired by my eight-year-old’s seemingly innocent question after we were celebrating Barack Obama’s historic win: “Why haven’t we ever had a woman president?”
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, shared that sentiment in this interview, below, excerpted from the book.
I look forward to the day when our daughters don’t have to wonder why there have been no women presidents, but when there have been several for them to look up to and learn from — and when they too can easily imagine that they might very well be the next.
“It’s about equality, but it’s not just about equality. And the rea- son it’s necessary to have more voices is because that strength- ens the debate and it strengthens the decisions. It isn’t that women coming in are better than men; they’re different from men. And I always say the beauty is in the mix. To have diver- sity of opinion in the debate strengthens the outcome and you get a better result.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives for the 113th Congress, is focused on strengthening America’s middle class and creating jobs, reforming the political system to create clean campaigns and fair elections, enacting comprehensive immigration reform, and ensuring safety in America’s communities, neigh- borhoods, and schools. From 2007 to 2011, Pelosi served as Speaker of the House, the first woman to do so in American history.
For twenty-five years, Pelosi has represented San Francisco, California’s 12th District, in Congress. She first made history when House Democrats elected her the first woman to lead a major political party. She has led House Democrats for a decade and previously served as House Democratic Whip.
Under the leadership of Pelosi, the 111th Congress was heralded as “one of the most productive Congresses in history” by congressional scholar Norman Ornstein. President Barack Obama called Speaker Pelosi “an extraordinary leader for the American people,” and the Christian Science Monitor wrote: “Make no mistake: Nancy Pelosi is the most powerful woman in American politics and the most powerful House Speaker since Sam Rayburn a half century ago.”
Pelosi brings to her leadership position a distinguished record of legislative accomplishment. She led Congress in passing historic health insurance reform, key investments in college aid, clean energy and innovation, and initiatives to help small businesses and veterans. She has been a powerful voice for civil rights and human rights around the world for decades. Pelosi comes from strong family tradition of public service in Baltimore. Married to Paul Pelosi, she is a mother of five and grandmother of nine.
MARIANNE SCHNALL: Why do you think we’ve not yet had a woman president? What do you think it will take to make that happen?
NANCY PELOSI: Well, [there are] two reasons why we will, and one is there are plenty of talented women—one in particular, Hillary Clinton, who I think would go into the White House as one of the most well-prepared leaders in modern history. She has the full package of having served in the White House and as a senator and secretary of state. She knows the issues in depth and she has great values, a good political sense, and is highly respected by the American people. So . . . how long will it take? Just as soon as she makes her decision! [laughs] That would be the shortcut—it isn’t a shortcut, it’s over two hundred years due. Why I think it will also happen is the American people are very, very ready for a woman president. They’re far ahead of the politicians, and that may be why we haven’t had a woman president.
I always thought it would be much easier to elect a woman president of the United States than Speaker of the House, because the people are far ahead, as I say, of the electeds, on the subject of a woman being president.
And in Congress, you know, as I said on the day I was sworn in, you have to break the marble ceiling—forget glass, the marble ceiling that is there of just a very male-oriented society where they had a pecking order and they thought that would be the way it always was and they would always be in charge, and, “Let me know how I can help you, but don’t expect to take the reins of power.” So it was interesting to me that we were able to elect a woman Speaker, and it wasn’t because I was a woman. That’s the last thing I could ask my members: to vote for me because I was a woman. But I just had to get there in the way that a woman would get to be president; not because she’s a woman—says she immodestly—but because she has the talent and the know-how and inspires confidence that she can do the job, whatever that job happens to be. In this case we’re talking about president of the United States.
MS: Looking at the bigger picture, because sometimes this gets framed as equality for equality’s sake, but why is this important to have more women represented and women’s voices—not just ultimately in the presidency, but in Congress and in Washington?
NP: Well, I think you’re right—it’s about equality, but it’s not just about equality. And the reason it’s necessary to have more voices is because that strengthens the debate and it strengthens the decisions. It isn’t that women coming in are better than men; they’re different from men. And I always say the beauty is in the mix. To have diversity of opinion in the debate strengthens the outcome and you get a better result. I do think that women bring a tendency, an inclination, toward consensus building that is stronger among women than men, as I have seen it so far.
MS: Women have made progress, and certainly it was history-making in terms of the number of women in Congress from this last election, but it’s still very far from parity. As women have seemed to make strides in so many other areas, why do you think progress for women in Washington has been so slow?
NP: Well, we’ve had a woman Speaker of the House. I don’t think enough appreciation was given to that, because I think a lot of people didn’t know what the Speaker of the House was. Now they do because they see an obstructionist one. Not to toot my own horn, but that’s a very big deal. President, vice president, Speaker of the House—you’re not there because the president chose you, you are there with your power derived from the membership of the Congress of the United States, so you go to the table as a full partner in the balance of power. And our checks and balances . . . the legislative branch is the first branch, the executive branch is second, and then the others. But more fundamental, what we have in our House—and it was a decision we made to make it so, and we want to do more—is our caucus is a majority of women, minorities, and LGBT. That is, 54 percent of the House Democratic caucus is not white male. In the history of civilization, you have never seen a representative body for a leading party that was so diverse. And the majority not being the so-called majority, as previously conceived.
Also, our committees will lead—should we win—but even in the minority, our top Democrats on these committees are a majority of women and minorities. Now, getting just to women and why aren’t there more. . . I’m drawing some conclusions the last few years when we’ve pushed and pushed and we’ve gained more, but in order for us to really kick open the door, we have to change the environment we’re in. The environment I would like to see is one where the role of money is reduced and the level of civility is heightened. If you have less money and more civility, you will have more women. And that’s one of the reasons—not the only reason, but to protect our democracy—that we are pushing for campaign finance reform to reduce the role of money in politics.
If you bring more women, more young people, more minorities, more diversity, more of a face of America to public office and to public service, just speaking in terms of women, I can guarantee you: if you lower money and increase civility, you will have many more women.
And that’s what we have to do: create our own environment. We’ve been operating in an environment that has not been friendly to the advancement of women, especially now that it’s become so harsh and so money-driven.
MS: Looking at the landscape right now, it does look very daunting to run, and even when you get to Washington, very challenging. What advice or encouragement would you want to offer to a woman who is considering pursuing elected office but feels discouraged?
NP: Well, one of the things that was very disappointing when they went after me in such a major way, is women would come say to me, “I’m not subjecting my family to that.” And I say, you have to know what you believe and how important it is to you, how urgent it is for the country, and then that doesn’t matter. You’ve stepped into the arena, you’re in the fight, you throw a punch, you’re going to get one thrown at you, and vice versa. They throw one at you, you’ve got to be ready to throw one at them [laughs], because it’s a rough terrain. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s what it is now.
So what I tell women is, “This is not for the faint of heart, but you have to have a commitment as to why you want to engage in public service.” We want people who have plenty of options in life to engage in public service—not anybody where this is the only job they could get. So we’re competing for their time, and their time, their priority decision will be made as to how important it is for them to make their mark, whether it’s on issues that relate to the economy, national security, family issues, education, healthcare, and those kinds of things. But I consider every issue a women’s issue. So you have to believe in who you are and what difference you can make. You have to care about the urgency and the difference it will make to your community, and you have to, again, have confidence in the contribution that you can make. You believe, you care, you have confidence in the difference that you can make. And that’s not to be egotistical, it’s just to be confident.
I tell women . . . “If you have a vision about what you believe about America, about our country and our families, you have to have knowledge about the situation. You don’t want to be a notion monger, you want to be an idea creator. So you have a vision, you know your subject—you don’t have to know every subject—you can focus, whether it’s foreign policy or whatever. Vision, knowledge, judgment springing from that knowledge, confidence, a plan, thinking strategically about how you would get this accomplished. When you tell the story of your vision with your knowledge and how you plan to get it done, you will be so eloquent, you will attract support. You will be lifted up and you will lift others up.”
MS: You have written a whole book about knowing your power. Do you think part of the problem is that women and girls today don’t know their power? And what can we do to change that, for even women to know that they have a vision worth pursuing?
NP: Well, here’s the thing: I wrote that book—it’s like just a little puff— because people were saying I always wanted to be Speaker since I was five years old; I had no interest in running for office when I was five years old, nor when I was a teenager, nor when I was forty years old. I had an interest in politics, but not in running for office. So I thought I sort of had to keep the record straight. But for that reason, I was able to say to people, “Be ready. Just be ready. Take inventory of what your skills are. And if that means being a mom and all the diplomacy, interpersonal skills, management of time—all the rest that is involved in that—value that.” How many times do you ask somebody, “What do you do?” “I’m just a housewife.” Just a housewife? No, proudly a housewife, or a homemaker, or whatever the term is these days. But that’s what women used to say when I was young, and I’d say, “Don’t say that! I’m a stay-at-home mom, too, but I don’t think I’m just a housewife!” So in any event, take inventory of what your possibilities are and have confidence in that. . . . And what you have—as I say with the vision, knowledge, et cetera—you have your own authenticity that is very sincere and very convincing. So be proud of the unique contribution that only you can make. That really is what I want people to think—to enjoy why they’re attracted to a certain issue, to savor learning more about it, that they can have opinions that are respected, they have standing on the issue, a plan for how they can implement something to make progress for our country and our families . . . and that argument will always win the day.
MS: You were the first female Speaker of the House, which is a huge mile- stone. What advice or perspective can you offer on breaking through glass ceilings, or as you say, “marble ceilings” and being the first or one of very few women in the room and the pressure that comes with that?
NP: The only time I’m the only woman in the room is when I go to the lead- ership meeting. But by and large I have made sure that women were chair- ing our committees when I was Speaker, or the senior Democrat on each of the committees, where I had the jurisdiction, because I think it’s really important for people to know: it’s not just about one woman, it’s about women. And it’s about the issues that we care about and the reinforcement of a message, not just one person saying it. The Speaker has awesome power, there’s no question about it. That role, number three—president, vice president, Speaker of the House—they are the highest positions in the country.
But the fact is that, again, it’s not about one woman, it’s about what this means in the lives of women.
So the interaction of women on these issues was [more] important for the members than the reinforcement on how we see our role. We’re there for our country, we’re there for our districts, but women in America see us partially as their own, even if we don’t represent them officially.
MS: Did you feel the magnitude of being in that position? Because being the first is something that’s significant, even thinking about what the pressure’s going to be on the first woman president. Did you feel that you could be there and be your authentic self, or did you feel the weight of people’s expectations?
NP: Marianne, I want to tell you something, and as I think back on it, I was so busy. I was so busy. We had an agenda to get done for the American people. And while I never set out to be Speaker and I never even envisioned it, one thing led to another and there I was, but I just knew I had a responsibility. As I look back on it, maybe I should have taken time to just sit there and say, “Wow,” but I didn’t even have a second to do that. I’m looking at President Bush’s library, and he used to say, “You’re number three.” He’d point to himself, one, point to Cheney, two, [point to me], three. Yes, it would be driven home to me that I was in this very exalted position, but it was only important to the extent that I could involve other women at the proper level, so that it wasn’t just about one person. It’s pretty thrilling to be Speaker, no question about that. But, again, right away we had sent the president the Lilly Ledbetter [Fair Pay Act], and one week and one day after his inaugural address we sent him the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. I mean, that’s when we had President Obama, but when we won, President Bush was president and we had a 100-hour agenda—the first 100 hours we raised the minimum wage; it hadn’t been raised in eleven years. We had our “Six for ’06” [agenda], most of which became the law of the land. So we were on a schedule. There wasn’t really too much time to think of how important I was. It was really more important for our members and our women to take ownership of the issues that build consensus around where we would go from here.
MS: Well, you did a wonderful job. And actually, I have heard your name come up many times, not only just being such an admired woman leader, but also as somebody who could potentially run for president or would make a great president. Is that something that you would ever consider?
NP: No. Here’s the thing: I didn’t even focus on becoming Speaker, but I knew—as whip, and as leader, and then as Speaker and then leader again—that the cooperation you get from members, which is everything— how you build consensus—has to have no doubt associated with it that it’s anything but for the good of the country. That there isn’t even a slight tinge that there might be some other political agenda at work. This is not for the faint of heart, any of it. You take a vote, you make friends and foes, and everybody has to know that this is a consensus that we build together. I think that’s really important. And nothing could be more of a thrill to me than to represent the people of San Francisco in Congress. To be speaker and have that recognition from my colleagues, and to be the first woman—I’m honored by that. I thought it would be not in furtherance of reaching all of our goals if there was any doubt that I wanted to run for any other office. And I didn’t, so that was easy [laughs]. There was no contrivance there; it was like, “Make no mistake: I’ve reached my height” [laughs].
MS: When you were talking about the importance of a consensus—and certainly in this current climate, that seems really important—what advice do you have on working with people across the aisle whose opinions you may disagree with but who you have to interact with?
NP: We come to Congress representing our own district. And so does everybody else, so even if you disagree with the manner in which some people present their views and how negative they may be, the fact is, you respect the people who sent them there. They are there, a House of Representatives, and so it’s unimportant what you think of somebody; what is important is that you respect their constituents and the right of that person to represent them. Now, having said that, you know you’re in the marketplace of ideas; that’s how our founders had intended. You depend on the strength of the power of your ideas, the strength of your argument, to compete in this marketplace of ideas to prevail. You know that if you’re going to do something that’s going to have sustainability that you’re going to have to try to build consensus across the aisle, if possible. Go to find common ground; where you can’t, you stand your ground, as I always say. But you always try.
MS: Looking at Washington right now, it can seem very daunting and it looks like a lot of work to people. What would you say are the positives? What drives you and fuels your work and motivates you every day? What are the joys of doing the work that you’re doing?
NP: Well, again, there are 435 members in the House, only one from my district, from each of our districts, so that’s a great honor—that is a tremendous honor to be able to speak for the people of your district. So that’s always a joy, and when it isn’t, it’s time to go home. To represent your district in the people’s House—how thrilling, how thrilling.
I think that people have some thought that this gridlock has been there for a long time. It really hasn’t. It’s largely something that has obstructed progress from when President Obama came in and the Republicans declared that they would stop his success, and they did that in a way that I think was harmful to the American people.
So it’s not about the niceties of debate; it’s about what are we here to do? If they’re standing in the way of jobs for the American people, then we have to make that fight. And we have differences of opinion on the role of government in whatever it is—the education of our children, the safety and good health of our neighborhoods and of our people, you know, all of that. We believe what we believe, and we respect that other people have different beliefs, but we don’t just roll over and say, “Okay, we all sign up for obstruction.” We just can’t. We can’t govern . . . we’re called the legislative branch; we came to legislate and that’s what we should do. So when people say this and that, I say, “You know what, understand this: the House has always been a competitive arena for the battle of ideas. Anybody who’s here to obstruct progress for our country really should be held accountable for that.” And that’s what we’re dealing with right now.
MS: Women and young girls can feel very hesitant to speak out or stand out too much. It seems like you’ve always had the courage to speak out for what you believe in. You don’t hold anything back. Where does that come from? How did you develop your inner leader?
NP: Well, I think a couple of things. I went to all-girls’ schools my whole life, so every model of leadership that I saw was a young girl or a woman, and so there was never any hesitation that women could lead. I know what I believe. And I really think—says she immodestly—one quality that I bring to my role is that I’ve been in Congress awhile, I know the issues, so I think I have good judgment as to what works or what doesn’t and an institutional memory of what has worked and what hasn’t. It’s also that I have a clear view of what I think our purpose is and that is to make the future better for all of our children, in every way, and that involves national security, our economy, every subject you can name, including those that are directly related, like health and education and environment.
MS: Are there concrete changes that you would like to see that you think would help foster more women leaders, not just in Washington, but in general? Are there things that you think we can do to increase the numbers?
NP: Well, I think that really lies inside of every woman. They have to really have confidence in themselves. If women have confidence in themselves, they will have confidence in other women. Sometimes we wonder, what is the support of women, for women? It’s by and large, very large, I think, but sometimes it’s not always there. And sometimes I think it’s because, “Well, I can do that. Why is she doing it?”
You know, it’s not a zero-sum game—there’s plenty of opportunity for everyone, so there’s no reason to worry about somebody else’s success, either saying you couldn’t do this so she’s better than you, or she’s doing it so you can’t. No, she’s doing it so you can.
Every piece of advice I give to people is, “Be yourself, know your power, have confidence in what you have to contribute.” If you have all of that, you will respect that in other women and we can just advance this. Now I’ve said to you before: reduce the role of money, increase the level of civility, and women will take these responsibilities. And many more women will say, “Okay, I’ll run. I’m not afraid of needing the money or being . . .” shall we say, “smeared.” A little girl interviewed me this morn- ing, she said, “How did your family deal with all the negative things that the Republicans said about you?” I said, “Well, they didn’t really care that much, because I didn’t really care that much.” What I do care about is that it’s an obstacle to other women entering politics, because they’ll say, “Why would I do that? I have plenty of options.” And women with plenty of options are just the women that we want to be in politics and government.
MS: It’s been brought up how remarkable it is that it was not that long ago that women didn’t even have the right to vote. It’s almost surreal to think about that. Where do you see the current status of women in the United States and around the world right now? What do you see is the current call to action for women today?
NP: I think that women have to know how important they are. Not that women are better than men, but the mix is a beautiful thing and you get a better result. I think that we will have a woman president soon. I hope that Hillary Clinton will decide to run, because I think that will bring that day closer to us. . . . I do think that we will be required to be taken into a direc- tion where the American people are so far ahead of the Congress. And as I said to you before, I always thought we would have a woman president before we would have a woman speaker of the House, because of the way this system has been so male-dominated and the American people are far ahead on that score. So I see us on a path. I think it will be very important to our country, to women and little girls in our country, and to everyone in our country and the world, to see our country join the ranks of those who have women leaders.