Nancy Pelosi
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Nancy Pelosi

In 2007, Nancy Pelosi made history when she was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Her new book, Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters, is half memoir, half success manual for the 21st-century woman.

Know Your Power

LHJ: What prompted you to write your new book, Know Your Power, now? What message do you feel you have to impart to a woman living in the 21st century?

NP: When I was elected to the leadership I received questions from all over the world -- from young women, older women, from girls in grade school, even -- asking me "How did you get from the kitchen to Congress?" This book was really a way to respond to them, to say "This is how I did it, and you can do it, too."

LHJ: Your achievement is historic. How does that knowledge influence your day-to-day activities? Are you aware on a daily basis that you are really a role model for many young women, myself included?

NP: Yes, it was really clear to me when I assumed my leadership position that not only did I have a responsibility to all who went before, who made my path to power possible, but also to all who would be coming after.

LHJ: On that note, do you feel that you are held to a higher standard than your predecessors?

NP: I don't worry about that too much.

LHJ: The whole "legacy" question....

NP: I want my legacy to be one that compares favorably, of course, with other Speakers of the House. Women are always held -- every step until now -- to a higher standard and that's a challenge I readily accept.

LHJ: But you are the Speaker first and a woman second -- is that the idea?

NP: Yes, and the fact is, when you get the gavel, you get the power.

LHJ: How do you think society as a whole responds to females in positions of great power? Do you think women wield power substantially differently than men do, that they're more wary about being ambitious?

NP: I would say that in terms of how people respond to women in power that we're in a period of transition. Congress is a bit different, because the Speaker is the Speaker, and everybody knows that. And so there's no question -- once you become the Speaker, everyone respects your authority. In terms of the public in general, there are some generational differences, but by and large women of all ages are very accepting and encouraging of women in power, and younger men are particularly encouraging, and fathers of daughters. It has been impressive to me how many fathers have said how happy they are to see this marble ceiling broken here, for what that means to their daughters. So it's not something I worry about, though it is something I am conscious of.

The Speaker of the House

LHJ: How would you describe your working relationship with the other members of the Congressional leadership, who are for the most part male? Did you ever feel that you were treated differently at all?

NP: No, no, I never did, actually. Power is not something that is given away, and the last thing I could say to somebody was "Vote for me because I'm a woman." That would not have been successful. But it is important to have women in leadership if those women can do the job. I could do the job better than anyone else, and that's why I ran. And I do commend my colleagues, both Democratic and Republican, for their recognition of that. Regardless of whether I'm a woman or a man, I am the Speaker of the House with all that that implies.

LHJ: There were campaign tactics used in the midterms of 2006 with the message that, if you do vote for the Democrats, then Pelosi will be Speaker. Do you feel that was motivated in any way by misogyny?

NP: Well, I think that whatever it was, it didn't work, and I think had they tried it now in the special elections it wouldn't have worked again. I don't understand why someone would think that was a good idea! If we want people to respect what we do, to be drawn to public service, to engage in the political arena, why would we start with the first woman to emerge as the leader of the Congress by labeling it in a way that is less than complimentary? I think it got the response that it deserved.

LHJ: Yes -- you won.

NP: We had a plan. No one gives power away -- it's always something you have to fight very hard for. We had the issues on our side, about a new direction for our country. We had a political plan in place that was successful, and we were able to attract the support of the American people.

LHJ: On that note, a few words about the Clinton campaign -- what's your take on why it was ultimately an unsuccessful effort?

NP: I would not describe it as an unsuccessful effort. I think that two things were at stake in the campaign. One is the election -- obviously, who wins the election is up to the voters. But it's up to the person, the individual candidate, who wins the campaign, and I think that Hillary Clinton came out the big winner. Well, both candidates did. Both were able to attract millions of new supporters to the Democratic Party with a fervor that was very positive for the future, so regardless of who wins the election, both candidates can win the campaign, and Hillary Clinton did succeed. With her candidacy, new ground was broken for women, as new ground was broken when Geraldine Ferraro was the vice-presidential nominee in 1984.

LHJ: Do you think we'll have to wait as long again for another potential female president?

NP: No, I don't. First of all, Hillary Clinton is still here and young enough to run again in a number of years, but there are also women in the House, in the Congress, and in the governorships. It won't be long before it won't be unusual for us to have viable, strong women candidates for President of the United States. And I take great joy in that thought.

Women in Government

LHJ: You wrote the foreword for the upcoming book about the Sanchez sisters, Dream in Color. Aside from them, who do you see as the rising female stars in Congress; who do you think may be suited to follow in your footsteps?

NP: I think that we have a wealth of young women, and this is really part of my responsibility as I see it -- to attract many more women to Congress, and especially young women, because it's important for women to come into Congress when they are young . That way -- and this applies in every field -- they can build their seniority and be in a place to spring into great power at the same age that men are able to. There shouldn't be a power gap just because, say, women are home raising their children, as it was in my case. I stayed home with my children until they were grown, and that was fine for me, but it's a different era now. In this new era it's important for me to be a voice for their generation, to be a voice for working young women, in the Congress of the United States. That's very important. So I've made it a special mission to encourage that, and to that end -- well, if I start naming names and I don't name everyone that will be a problem. [Laughs] I'm very proud of the number of young women who are here, raising their families, raising those issues on the House floor, and building their seniority. Anything is possible for them -- leadership in this Congress, leadership in their states, leadership even regarding who could be the next president. Well, not next, but a future president.

LHJ: To what specifically do you attribute your own success?

NP: I took my own advice -- I knew my power. I knew that I could help win these elections, give Congress to the Democrats. I loved my work on the issues and I did want to work in the majority, so when I saw that a new-direction approach was necessary, I stepped into that. I took advantage of that opportunity to just say, on the basis of policy, it is essential that the Democrats win. On the basis of my knowledge of politics, I thought, I am a person who can do that. And I was able to attract the support. I always say it's about three things: the policy, the politics, and the people. People believed in me because of my knowledge of the issues and my political know -- how. As you see, I'm modest! [Laughs] Thus I was able to get the support to lead us to victory.

Work-Life Balance

LHJ: You are a mother of five and were a homemaker for many years before entering politics. You say in your book that the skills you honed doing those things were the same ones you needed when you got to Congress. How so?

NP: Absolutely, and this is what I want women to know, so they recognize the value of their own path, their unique experience. I've been in politics a while, over 20 years in the Congress of the United States, and this is a very rough-and-tumble.... I shouldn't say 'rough,' let me say a very challenging arena to be in. But as challenging as it is, nothing is as challenging as raising a family -- nothing. That experience forced me to be disciplined, diplomatic, focused, and successful, and I brought that discipline and focus to the Congress. Also, having a family keeps you focused on the future, which is the biggest inspiration in politics. In order to do what it takes to succeed in politics, you have to be inspired by your constituents, the power of your ideas, and the fact that you speak on behalf of children and their future, whether you have children of your own or not. It makes all the difference in the world.

LHJ: How did your children react when you became the first female Speaker?

NP: [Laughs] To tell you the truth, I was so busy winning the election and actually, when we won we were still not finished because we had a few races where the outcome was in doubt. I was so engrossed that when the day came, a week later, 10 days later, whenever it was, when the day came I just thought, "Oh my God!" And I remember how still-engrossed in the elections I was when my name was placed in nomination. I went to accept it and Rahm Emanuel said to me, "Your parents would be so proud." It just took me aback, because, well, of course my parents are proud of me, but they didn't raise me to be Speaker, they raised me to be good, to be holy, and that was the measure of success for them, for their children. Yes, they would be proud of this because it is a wonderful accomplishment, but my parents wanted my personal happiness and personal fulfillment to be the measure of our success and the source of their pride. And it just struck me when he said that, I thought "Well, they've been proud of me my whole life just because of the person that I am and the parent I became. But I guess you're right, now I am the Speaker of the House!" And then it really dawned on me, "Oh my, now I'm in a whole different realm."

2006 Elections

LHJ: One of my favorite anecdotes about the 2006 midterms was, you were expecting a grandchild at that time, and the President called with his congratulations, and when you were notified there was a phone call for you, you said "Oh, does this mean the baby's born?"

NP: The phone rang very early in the morning, before 7:00 -- well, that's not that early, but maybe a bit early to get a phone call -- so I picked it up and said 'Oh my, do we have a new baby?' And they said, "No, this is the President calling."

LHJ: A bit of a disappointment!

NP: [Laughs] Well, that was the only thing I could even imagine would be happening, because that was the first thing on my mind, the whole time -- "Is the baby coming, is the baby coming?" At the time we thought the baby could come before the election, and if it came a weekend before, would I be able to leave the campaign trail, and I said, well, that isn't even a close call -- of course I'll leave the campaign trail. And then once we got past the election, we thought, "Oh, the baby's been so accommodating!" So I was certain that that call was the news that our new baby had arrived. Since then my daughter Alexandra has not only had that baby but another baby -- another precious little doll.

LHJ: One of my favorite anecdotes from the book as well was when you said that you were scheduled to go on a trip to the Middle East with a congressional delegation....

NP: Oh, that was different, that was my granddaughter.

LHJ: Right, right....

NP: All these calls in the night that I always have to take! But that time I didn't think it was a baby -- at that time I thought it was the reverse. I thought that I had overslept and that the Air Force was calling to say they were downstairs and instead it was my husband saying that my daughter had gone into labor early.

LHJ: And you said that every woman would have made the exact same choice.

NP: Oh, I think so. There's no question. Now, some of my men friends would say, "Well, I don't knooooow...."

LHJ: Exactly.

NP: It wasn't even any contest for me, and my granddaughter -- now she's 9 -- takes great joy in the fact that the decision was made that way. But my daughter thought, "oh, we'll just tell Mommy so she knows that we're going to the hospital before she gets on the plane." And I thought, how could she ever think such a thing?

Work and Family

LHJ: And then you showed up.

NP: [Laughs] I said, "What did we have?" My husband said, "Well, you didn't have anything!" [Laughs]

LHJ: Women since the dawn of time have struggled to balance their careers with their families. What advice would you give to women who are trying to achieve that very elusive balance? Do you think it's possible?

NP: Yes, I think it is, and what I tell women is, you are doing the best you can, even if it's not the best you know how. You can't control every aspect, so don't worry about not measuring up. Just know that it's the best you can do, and know that if you succeed in being a mother, you can succeed in any arena. There's nothing to compare it to. And I always say know your power. That's how I got the title for my book. Mothers have so much power. They have the power to make a difference in the lives of these little people they're raising, and the power to make a difference in the world in which they will grow up and then live. That's a key message of my book. I want women to recognize the value of their unique experience. And in Congress, I've made it my special mission to be a voice for young working women.

LHJ: Can you tell me a little bit now about your home life, growing up? You said in your book that your mother was "born 50 years too soon."

NP: She was fabulous -- a very intelligent, lovely, energetic woman. She had ideas; she was very entrepreneurial in her thinking. She used to say to me when I was a little girl, "I know many more things can be done with the telephone!" I didn't mention that in the book, but she used to say, "I know that this is not the limitation." Now she wasn't an engineer or a scientist but she always saw things beyond their apparent possibilities. She was well known in our community as just a force, but she was a mom first. While she was a teammate of my father's and his political life [Speaker Pelosi's father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was a U.S. Congressman from Maryland and a Mayor of Baltimore], and she cared about the community a great deal, when the door closed in our home, she was Mom. She was Mom -- Mommy, actually. [Laughs] Not Mom, she's Mommy. To tell you the truth, in the '50s when I was growing up, I wasn't thinking about -- well, I was thinking about being a teenager. I wasn't thinking about, oh, my mother is my role model. I wasn't even thinking about getting married and having children.


LHJ: Well, that's not on most 16-year-olds' minds.

NP: No! [Laughs] I was just rocking around the clock. And she did not encourage young women to get married young. So I didn't have any of that pressure of, when are you gonna get married, do you have a boyfriend, or any of that. So I didn't have that pressure, which was nice, and as it turned out, I did marry young and had children at an early age -- relatively speaking. I mean, I graduated from college first.

LHJ: You did plan to go to law school, you said in your book.

NP: That's right. Instead, I'm making laws. [Laughs]

LHJ: You say in the book that you did not expect to get married so young, and that you were just kind of swept off your feet by your husband, Paul. How did he help change your mind about what your life was going to be?

NP: Well, I think it was a surprise to both of us. I don't think Paul set out to get married so young either, but there we were, and we were living in separate cities, and in those days, if you were going to be together, you were going to get married. [Laughs]. But I think that was part of our initial attraction to each other, because neither of us was interested in, shall we say, a "long-term" exclusive relationship. And we had similar backgrounds and loved children and ... I don't know ... one thing led to another and there we were, and it was inevitable because of our attraction for each other. And I think I was a little bit different from some of my classmates. Some of them were like me, just thinking about what we would do next, but others thought that they would soon be married and be raising a family. And all of them have achieved great things, so one way or another, by having a family first or by pursuing a profession first, one way or another we all ended up pretty much in the same place -- very satisfied with our lives, fulfilled by our families first and foremost, and successful in our careers.

The New Feminism

LHJ: How involved were you in your own daughters' "life plans"?

NP: My practice as far as my own daughters were concerned was to give as little advice as possible. If asked, I certainly had an opinion, but I didn't volunteer anything because I didn't want any advice volunteered on me! My mother always used to say, "Sometimes you ask me for my advice and then you do whatever you're gonna do anyway." [Laughs] So anyway, I did not try to shape their thinking in any way in terms of what course of action they would take in their lives. Certainly, of course, my husband and I tried to influence them in terms of their value systems, but we knew early on that in terms of the course their lives would take you could only hope to influence -- by example, by upbringing -- but certainly could not direct their course of action. My kids are great, but I think if I tried to foist any course of action upon them, it would have, well....

LHJ: Incited a rebellion?

NP: [Laughs] Exactly.

LHJ: Do your daughters consider themselves feminists?

NP: Oh yes, yes, yes.

LHJ: And you, of course, do as well?

NP: Yes, indeed, I certainly consider myself a feminist, and I know my daughters live by the idea that women can be whatever they set out to be, and their decisions matter.

LHJ: What are your thoughts about the fact that the term "feminism" is falling out of favor with many young women? They feel that they personally have not been discriminated against in their personal lives or at the workplace, so they feel it's no longer relevant.

NP: Well, you know, this is the normal evolution of society, and good for them that they have not felt that. I don't think anyone would say, well, I don't want them to enjoy the benefits of feminism unless they accept the term. I don't think anybody's advocating that. But I do think that we have some obstacles to overcome yet. We just don't have enough women in positions of power, whether it's political power, corporate power, academic power....

LHJ: Why is that?

NP: I think it's changing. Again, it's a natural evolution. I'm so proud of the female presidents of Ivy League universities, for example. I think it's generational. I think that for the next generation and beyond, gender won't even be an issue.

The Elusive Presidency

LHJ: Do you think there's something in particular about American society that somehow we have a "block" when it comes to having a female president? More seemingly "sexist" cultures -- for instance, Pakistan, India, Liberia, Chile -- have all had female heads of state, and we still have not managed to get one here.

NP: I think that we will, and Hillary Clinton's campaign bodes well for our country. She was accepted as a contender -- not merely accepted, she established herself as a contender -- right up until the end with her eloquence, with her knowledge, with her stamina. She showed that any woman can make that fight. It turned out that she did not prevail, but she could have, and so I think the path has really been paved, the opportunity has been established. And anyone who cares about women in power and a woman in the White House owes a great deal of gratitude to Hillary Clinton for her courage in going forward in the manner in which she did, for the strength with which she proceeded and success that she had. I think she showed that a woman can win the White House. It was a close call in the end. And I don't think there was anybody who thought that she couldn't win and that she wouldn't be a great president. I'm very excited about her candidacy. There are those who will do the postmortems on why she -- sorry, not the postmortems; here we call it an "after-action review" -- about what could have been done differently, but there were some things on which we can all agree: It had nothing to do with whether the American people were ready to accept a woman.

LHJ: And yet she faced a lot of criticisms -- everything from the pantsuit jokes to....

NP: Well, I wouldn't take that too seriously, because I don't think that made a difference in the outcome of the election.

Encouragement for All Women

LHJ: And you don't think those criticisms were particularly because she was a woman?

NP: Well, I mean, you call attention to someone and people pay attention, they notice. Now, is there sexism in the media? Well, yes -- I experience it all the time, but I don't think it makes the difference as to whether you're going to win or not. To take a different tack, I think the people who acted in a sexist way were the losers in all of this. I don't think they looked good at all; it looked like yesterday and just ... silly. I mean, my children have said to me, "Mother, if you had any idea what people say about you." And you know what? I don't care! I've done what I've set out to do. I know that the right-wing media sets out to caricature me, but if you decide to worry about that, then you might as well just pick up another line of work. They have their say and you have yours, and at the end of the day, we won. But in terms of the presidential race, women have to view this as very positive. The respect and admiration for Hillary Clinton in this country has, I believe, increased, and been enhanced by this race. And that's important not only for her but for any woman who sets out on a path to do something new. And it should be a source of encouragement to all women.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2008.