From the moment healthcare reform passed, assessments of Nancy Pelosi went from sexist dismissal—a “smiley, wide-eyed dingbat,” as The New Republic had it; a presumptuous female who needs to be “put … in her place,” according to the National Republican Congressional Committee—to respectful awe of her historic achievement. President Obama is by no means alone in calling her “one of the best speakers the House of Representatives has ever had.”

Many believe that without her, the health-care reform bill could not have passed. “The real story here is how Nancy Pelosi dragged Harry Reid and Barack Obama over the finish line,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). Pundits vied for hyperbolic accolades. “Heroine of the Hour,” cheered Sean Wilentz in The Daily Beast. “Arguably the most powerful woman in American history,” declared The Economist, a tribute much quoted elsewhere.

Yet most people—members of the old-boy network in particular—assumed that Pelosi’s historic significance would be confined to the fact of her gender, as the first woman Speaker. Even now, their praise, though sincere, is sexist, even if unconsciously so. “She’s Lyndon Johnson in a skirt,” said Democratic political strategist Mark Siegel, and even a close aide expressed his admiration by comparing her, none too delicately, to a man: “The speaker,” he said, “has brass balls.”

Some men still find it hard to believe that a woman is capable of matching—let alone beating—them at what has up to now been their own game. It appears, however, that much of Pelosi’s success derives from a canny use of her own femininity, crossed with some old-style, on-the-ground politicking. She remembers birthdays, sends flowers, writes thank-you notes and calls when someone is sick, all of which endear her to her colleagues. She understands that the personal attention to the details of her associates’ lives increases her power, which she doesn’t hesitate to exert, albeit in a velvet glove.”She knows what the members need. She knows what the members want. And she knows the difference between the two,” her chief of staff, John Lawrence, told The New Republic.

Politics courses through Pelosi’s veins. Her father was an old-style pol in Baltimore, and all seven of his children—Pelosi is the youngest and the only girl—were pressed into service at an early age. Pelosi learned to count votes before she knew her ABCs, and with six older brothers to deal with, political horsetrading came naturally. Yet even when she plays a rough game of hardball, her politics are informed by her maternal experience—“like an extension of my role as mother,” she explained to New York magazine. What she wants for the country is no different from what she wanted for her children. “From my view, the best thing for my children was for them to live in a world where other children had opportunities, too, where the environment was safe and clean,” she said last fall.

It takes a grandmother? (Photo: The White House)

Similarly, when tempers fray and the wildly diverse caucus she is charged with disciplining begins to forget that they really do all sit on the same side of the aisle, Pelosi calls on her experience as a mother: “Count to ten, calm down, don’t yell at anybody, and they’ll come around eventually.”

When Senate movers and shakers, unmanned after losing their supermajority, started giving up the healthcare ghost, Pelosi forged ahead, using reconciliation as her winning strategy. And she intended to pass the whole enchilada, not the drastically scaled-back version—“kiddie care,” she called it—advocated by Rahm Emanuel and others in the White House.

Besides being an accomplished political strategist, Pelosi has grit. “We will go through the gate,” she told the press on January 28. “If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed.”

On the way back from February healthcare summit.

Opponents of the healthcare bill acknowledge her achievement. In fact, Republicans are so cognizant of Pelosi’s legislative acumen that they’ve made defeating  her their first priority. “She’s the one that pulled this out of the fire for the president after the Scott Brown election… She owns this…. The bottom line is, if you want to try to undo a lot of the damage that’s being done, or that’s being planned to be done under this bill, Nancy Pelosi has to be fired,” said RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

Playing with the double meaning of fire, a new GOP website is raising money to take back the House—“No more Madam Speaker”—by portraying her surrounded by flames.

Pelosi, of course, is fully aware of the ire she has stirred up—how could she not be? But the confidence that enabled her to pass bills embodying much of Obama’s agenda (the stimulus and bailout, the minimum wage increase, veterans’ healthcare, and ethics reform, to name a few) steels her against partisan criticism. “I couldn’t care less about what they say. If we weren’t effective, they wouldn’t be going after us,” she said.

And the speaker doesn’t flinch at the oft-repeated Republican warning that passage of the healthcare bill would cost Democrats the House. If that were the case, she said, “Then you wonder why they would stand in the way of it passing.”

Keep it up, Nancy, there’s a lot more history waiting to be made…

Trained as a medievalist, Diane Vacca taught medieval literature, Spanish and Italian at several universities before becoming a journalist with specialties in politics, the arts and New York City. Her work can also be found at and the New York City biweekly Chelsea Now, where she covers everything from education and public housing to landmark designation and the arts.

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  • Irene Egan March 25, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Are you kidding me? You reported the photo of Nancy Pelosi “in the flames” on the Republican website without any sense of horror. Living in Massachusetts, all I could think of were the Salem witch burnings. Isn’t that what we do with “uppity women” who have “too much” power?! It’s time that women everywhere speak out forcefully against this extremely sexist and violent image!!

    When Democrats are now the objects of violence, I don’t think my “read” on this image is too far-fetched. Anyone with a sense of history understands what this image is communicating and advocating.

  • b. elliott March 25, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Dear Diane, Love your voice! NP makes us all proud.

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