Martha Burk is a political psychologist and director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations.
There’s something jarring to a feminist like me having to comment, in 2007, about the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives. By rights (and what should be the equal birthright of girls in this country), my great-grandmother should have been writing about this topic in 1807.
The usual speculation abounds when a new speaker is chosen. What kind of leader will she be? Will she be strong or accommodating? Will she lead her caucus or follow it? These are fair and legitimate questions for anyone holding the office. Unfortunately, in Nancy Pelosi’s case, the emphasis is too often on the she.
Genderizing her behavior as speaker began even before the election, mostly by right-wing pundits and the White House spin machine. The term of choice to describe Pelosi’s leadership was “San Francisco values.” That of course instantly translates to “gay values”— therefore “female-like” values, something all red-blooded men want to avoid.
Just in case that connection was too subliminal for some, MSNBC's Hardball host Chris Matthews asked on national television if Pelosi was "going to castrate” Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Discussing the victory speeches of Clinton and Pelosi during the network's election coverage, Matthews also said that Pelosi will "have to do the good fight with the president over issues," and then asked: "How does she do it without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?"
Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan later piled on, describing Pelosi as exhibiting “that wide eyed, runaway bride thing." This tells us that regardless of her performance in office, to many Pelosi’s failures will be because she is female, and her successes will probably be attributed to those (guys) she surrounds herself with.
So what kind of leader will she be? Psychologists have long taught that there are two kinds of power—personal power and position power. Personal power comes from being able to assert yourself over others through strength of personality, which can include persuasiveness, charm, stubbornness, bribery, threats or intimidation. Position power comes with the territory of a given job or office, whether it’s in a school, church, corporation or the government; and it doesn’t matter much who’s sitting in the chair. At least until recently, G.W. Bush has wielded both kinds (so did LBJ), but Bush’s personal stroke has diminished along with his position power, now that his party no longer controls Congress.
Pelosi clearly also has both kinds of power, but how she will mix the two remains to be seen. Bucking both the Blue Dog democrats (who favored Jane Harman) and the hugely powerful Congressional Black Caucus (who backed Alcee Hastings) in order to pick Silvestre Reyes for Chair of the House Intelligence committee was clearly the work of a strong individual. She supposedly suffered a “crushing defeat” when her candidate for House Majority Leader John Murtha was defeated But when she successfully avoided the shoals of the impossible choice between Harman and Hastings the event was greeted by a noticeable lack of adjectives – and almost no comment on Pelosi’s leadership. Ask yourself if a male leader wouldn’t have been praised in the press as “decisive,” “brilliant,” or “imposing” if he had faced down both the Blue Dogs and the Black Caucus with hardly a whimper of push-back.
Pelosi has been described many times as both tough and smart, two prerequisites for wielding position power to its maximum effectiveness. She started even before she officially became Speaker. Picking up on a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, she announced her intention to form an intelligence oversight panel within the House Appropriations Committee, even though it won’t please some powerful committee members because it gives the intelligence types some budgetary authority over military spending.
But what was she wearing when she made the announcement? Mercifully, aside from one widely distributed Associated Press article on attention to Pelosi’s clothes, and an expected deconstruction of her wardrobe in the Style section of the Washington Post, we are being spared constant critiques of her fashion choices. So that’s progress in a way. Even so, her Armani suits are a frequent footnote and sometimes make the captions under pictures with her male colleagues. Funny, we are never told who designs Denny Hastert’s stunning wardrobe, or that George Bush wears suits by the tony Oxxford Company—clothier to the rich and famous.
It looks like Ann Richards’ 1988 description of female leadership is still mostly right in 2007. Pelosi is going to have to dance backwards in high heels and twice as fast to keep from being judged by her gender first. But from what we’ve seen already, she’ll glide across the floor nicely, thank you.