Pelosi, taking on a president, meets feminists' desire for a superhero

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent

The meme was everywhere. It showed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looking like a winner, cigarette in one hand, cocktail in the other, rocking a gold-flecked chiffon gown and surrounded by shining gold statuettes.

Only the face was actually Pelosi’s, however. It had been Photoshopped onto the body of actress and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge pictured at an Emmys after-party celebrating a very good night. But the feeling of female power the Pelosi meme projected as it was forwarded again and again — that was not about the Emmys, but about politics.

“There’s an intense hunger for a female superhero right now, and the showdown between the most powerful woman in the country and the most powerful man is potent symbolism,” said Jo Piazza, author of “Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win,” the bestselling book (and soon to be Amazon original starring Julia Roberts) that Piazza says she wrote in the first place to fill a post-2016 “need for portrayals of powerful women who aren’t afraid of their power.”

Women who study women agree that this week marks a moment. But because the biggest takeaway of recent years is that American women are not of one opinion, there are any number of interpretations of what that moment is about.

Some envision Pelosi, D-Calif., all but wearing a cape and taking on a man who has shown more than a little disrespect to women in his personal life. She has been celebrated for this before — sarcastically slow-clapping Trump at his State of the Union speech, tapping her shades into place while exiting the White House after a showdown with him over the border wall, and chastising the president for having a “temper tantrum,” one of the many times she has treated him like a flailing toddler.

Others, though, just see a woman — a person — doing her job. Time was when this would have been a big deal, says Judith Warner, currently a journalism fellow at the Reflective Democracy Campaign and a longtime analyst of women’s issues, who wrote the first biography of Hillary Clinton, in 1993. In 2007, when Pelosi became the first woman speaker in history, “she was still an emblem of change,” Warner says. “But she’s now one of many, many more women in politics in general, in Congress more specifically, and ‘woman warrior on behalf of women against a powerful man’ is not the first framing that comes to mind.”

Warner and others also note that there are women on both sides of the aisle “pushing against” Pelosi. On one side are the white women who voted for Trump in 2016, and his defenders in the White House, in Congress and on Fox News. On the other are the insurgent progressives in Pelosi’s own party who believe she has been too slow to embrace the call for impeachment and view her as not leading the charge but reluctantly following it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Trump. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Al Drago/Reuters, Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Getty Images)

To some, in turn, such criticism itself — that Pelosi dithered and delayed — is a form of sexism. “The way it was talked about, the will she or won’t she, the accusations of dragging her feet, would they have talked about it that way if she were a man?” asks Joanne Bamberger, an author and political commentator whose focus is women in politics. “If this were LBJ, for instance, would they say this is strategic, knowing how to count the votes and whip the votes and waiting for the right, best moment to get this done?”

And then there is the irony that what triggered Pelosi’s endorsement of an impeachment inquiry was an action by Trump that was itself arguably rooted in his sexist approach to politics.

“He was so convinced it was going to be [Joe] Biden running against him, and he did all this to stop Biden,” says Molly Jong-Fast, a writer whose angry takes on the president have made her a mainstay of progressive Twitter. “The idea that a woman could be the nominee again is out of the question for him, apparently.”

Of course, Trump focused on Biden because he was the consistent frontrunner among Democrats. Trump, who has congratulated himself on coming up with the nickname “Pocahontas” for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, hasn’t exactly ignored her. But Jong-Fast sees a whiff of gender bias too. And, as news of Trump’s phone conversations with the Ukrainian president made the news this week, so did poll results showing Warren inching ahead of Biden in the Democratic presidential race. (Others, though, show Biden still holding a significant lead.)

“So after all this he might be going against two women,” Jong-Fast says. “Possibly Warren. Definitely Pelosi.”

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