An assessment that she’s off-putting is often presented as an objective matter of concern, not one of personal taste: It’s not me who dislikes her but some other people. Attempts to defend her are often accompanied by caveats: “I was in no mood to support Pelosi and the ‘corporate Democrats’ she represented,” wrote former congresswoman Donna Edwards in an op-ed this week, before going on to declare that her initial misgivings had been wrong.
The Nancyness of Nancy Pelosi seems to be what’s triggered an internal rebellion among Democrats, culminating this week in a letter signed by 16 House members and members-elect who say they won’t support the California congresswoman for speaker, the position she held the last time her party was in power.
Supporters have rallied to her side, arguing that it’s actually quite plain to them what people don’t like about Nancy Pelosi — that the problem is ovarian in nature. That her critics don’t like her because she’s a confident rich lady and that they find it emasculating, somehow, to have the voice of the House be hers.
But in the end, I’m not sure the sexism matters. Or rather, it matters a lot, morally speaking. It’s a huge, depressing, societal problem. But practically speaking, you can’t force people to like you. Even when their dislike for you is based on specious, illogical reasoning. (The letter cited a need “to change the status quo,” but most of the signers were white men with an average age of 52.)
Practically speaking, you’re still left with a quandary. When you are Nancy Pelosi and you have a track record of passing landmark legislation and have engineered a massive blue sweep in the midterms, but your leadership skills are now being called into question and people don’t like you for reasons related to your Nancyness — well, what’s the right move? What’s the moral one?
The Democrats who want her ousted haven’t named a successor. They just want someone . . . not her.
A few weeks ago, I read that Hillary Clinton is launching a public tour, a series of onstage chats with her husband in major-city arenas. Even people I knew who had voted for Clinton, who had been emphatically With Her, reacted as if the news was a horror movie, something to be watched through splayed fingers.
Didn’t she realize her insistence in remaining public was causing trouble for her party? (Nobody said this about Mitt Romney, who lost his race for president but then ran successfully for the Senate, or about John McCain, who resumed his prominent legislative career.) Didn’t she realize she was radioactive? Had the lifelong public servant perhaps reached a point at which her greatest gift to the public would be to leave it alone?
I even found myself wondering the same thing; I had a strange urge to pat Clinton’s hand and murmur that yes, she had been treated in a manner that was wildly sexist and unfair, but that perhaps now it was time to dig out her signature Relaxation Hillary caftan and retire. I had an urge to fall back on an argument familiar to any parent of two or more children: I know he started it. But you have to be the bigger person and finish it. Finish it for your party. For the country. It’s not me who dislikes you, but some other people.
But then, that’s also bad, and it sets a precedent. One of: Yell loud enough at a female leader, and eventually she’ll go away. Convince her that her disappearance is necessary for the party, and soon everyone will get to return to the avuncular comfort of a dude like Joe Biden. And rationalize that this step backward was actually necessary for a step forward, to be completed at some yet-to-be-determined point in the future, once the country has found its balance.
Is Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to step aside just another irritating sign of her irritating Nancyness? Or is she operating on a different plane, in which she sees the refusal not as selfish but symbolic? Maybe she knows she’s hated, and she knows that it’s unavoidable. She knows it’s her job to be amorphously hated, until one day some lady in her position won’t be hated. Not her, probably, but some lady, some day.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”
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