As they watched House Speaker Nancy Pelosi battle an unruly Congress over the years or stare down a bombastic president, many women across the country saw a version of the calm, confident leader they hoped would be themselves.
Pelosi, in rooms full of powerful men, was persistent, methodical, tough. All this while being a dedicated stay at home mother and grandmother. And she rarely finds the need to raise her voice.
“The image of her going out in the red coat was always amusing to me because it just personified how badass she is,” said Gina Lind, 61, of Phoenix, a marketing director for an airline. “She totally represented a woman in quiet control.”
After she announced this week that she would step down as the Democratic leader after two decades, many people reposted this meme of Pelosi confidently walking out of the Trump White House in sunglasses and a long red coat after a tense meeting . The moment was a reminder of how Pelosi, the first woman to become speaker of the House, redefined outdated expectations about the role of women at the highest levels of government.
Fans of Pelosi, a California Democrat, stuck the image on their refrigerators, downloaded it as a screen saver or put it on coffee mugs. They also enjoy photos of her confronting then-President Donald Trump in the White House Cabinet Room or tearing into his final State of the Union address.
“When I look at this picture (of the cabinet room), I think, ‘OK, stand up and say what you have to say,'” said Kelly Haggerty, 49, an engineer for the city of Syracuse, New York, who works in constructs and often finds herself, like Pelosi, in a room full of men.
“I mean, these guys across from me aren’t the president of the United States, but it’s not fun to always be the only woman in the room,” said Haggerty, who called the photo inspirational. “I put it in my fridge because I have two teenage girls and I want it to be the same. I don’t want them to ever quit,” he said.
Like many other women of her generation, Pelosi didn’t officially launch her career until she was in her 40s and her five children were grown. But her father was in politics, serving first as mayor of Baltimore and then in Congress. And Pelosi, in her farewell address to the leadership from the House floor Thursday, recalled being awed by the sight of the Capitol at age 6.
“Make no mistake, though, he’s been in politics since he was born, whether he ran for office or not,” said Rep. Karen Bass, a fellow California Democrat who is now the new mayor of Los Angeles.
In her view, Pelosi embraces her power without being “heavy about it.” She credits Pelosi with standing firm during the tumultuous Trump years.
“Women lead differently and have to harness their power in a way that’s just different, and I think she’s perfected that,” she said. “(But) if anyone has to deal with her, good luck.”
And that female strength and tenacity is what makes people angry about Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and other female leaders, some women believe.
“People expect us to be good all the time. If and when we don’t behave in that particular ‘box,’ people can be quite emotional and angry about it,” said Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, 34, a Democrat.
“I think she got an undue amount of criticism because she did the job the same way and many times better than men had done that job,” Elfreth said. “And in doing so, she paves the way for other women in elected office to be just as tough and just as resilient.”
If the country has yet to see a female president, younger generations have at least seen Pelosi and a growing number of other women in Congress working alongside them. When Pelosi first came to Congress in 1987, she had only two dozen colleagues among the 535 members. This year, there are 147 women in the House and Senate — and a growing number of female governors.
“I think we take for granted how she (Pelosi’s leadership) has transformed what it means to be a woman in office, maybe what it means to be a woman executive, and I think in the years to come we’ll be especially grateful for her breaking that glass ceiling.” , said Cecilia Ritacco, a 22-year-old graduate student in government studies at Georgetown University.
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