Now that Democrats have retaken the House, a debate that had previously been theoretical fodder for midterm campaigns has become very real: should Nancy Pelosi reclaim her position as speaker of the House?
Nancy Pelosi says yes, obviously.
And one of the arguments she has made, and one that is shared by many of her supporters, boils down to this: it would look very bad if there was no woman in a leadership position in the “new” House. “It’s important that it not be five white guys at the table, no offense,” Pelosi told the Boston Globe in May, referencing both the House and Senate leadership and Donald Trump. She doubled down on this argument again on Sunday, this time in an interview with CBS. “You cannot have the four leaders of Congress [and] the president of the United States, these five people, and not have the voice of women,” Pelosi said in an appearance on Face the Nation. “Especially since women were the majority of the voters, the workers in campaigns, and now part of this glorious victory.”
EMILY’s List, the influential PAC that supports pro-choice women candidates (though not always progressive candidates), has been whipping votes for Pelosi among new members of Congress, according to Politico, and several incoming and longtime representatives have already expressed their support. “We have a president who is a misogynist, a president who has been antagonistic to women’s issues,” Texas’ newly elected Congressperson Veronica Escobar told Politico, adding, “There is no better person at the very top than [Pelosi].” Representative Lois Frankel of Florida echoed Escobar: “We have a pink wave with women who have brought back the House, then you’re going to not elect the leader who led the way? No.” Recently, Representative Elijah Cummings described the prospect of replacing Pelosi with a man as a “damn shame.”
But for all the focus on Pelosi and the fretting over a lack of women in leadership positions, less is being said about the fact that the top three House Democrats—Pelosi, 78; Steny Hoyer, 79; and Jim Clyburn, 78—will, by most accounts, hold on to their power. This, in the wake of an election in which the message revolved around change and fresh leadership and at a time when the most galvanizing new members of the House are progressive women of color who campaigned hard on Medicare for All, radical action on climate change, and raising the minimum wage.
Pelosi, meanwhile, in a speech on election day and the day after, called for bipartisanship, unity, and the need to “seek common ground,” a stark contrast to the wishes of much of the electorate that swept Democrats to victory and remains ready to fight. Case in point: On Tuesday morning, young climate activists, joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, held a sit-in at Pelosi’s office demanding a plan to combat climate change. “While the UN’s IPCC report says we only have 12 years left to get serious about getting off fossil fuels, Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party leadership are reviving stale, so-called ‘bipartisan’ ideas that get nowhere near the scale of the crisis,” Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement to The Hill.
Still, Pelosi’s likely victory to be the next Speaker continues to be framed as a victory for “women.” Which women is a question we never ask, and it’s a narrative trap that establishment candidates and the mainstream political press won’t let us out of. Like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi becomes an avatar for all women without questioning whether she is actually aligned with the parts of her base—young women, progressive women of color—that are currently demanding more accountable leadership. At a time when wages are stagnant, more immigrants are being detained than ever before, healthcare costs are continuing to drive people into poverty, and abortion rights are on the line, Pelosi’s (as well as the party’s leaders in the Senate—Chuck Schumer, I’m looking at you) embrace of a stale politics of civility and compromise is less relevant today than perhaps ever before.
There are plenty of debates to be had about whether Pelosi should lead House Democrats into whatever comes next, but whether her loss would be a loss for women isn’t it.