November 11, 2006
The Canberra Times

America’s first woman Speaker makes a Nancy boy of Bush

Nancy who? It seems I’m not the only one who’d never heard of Nancy Pelosi until this week’s mid-term Congressional elections. Despite just becoming the most powerful elected woman in United States history, a CBS newspoll found 55 per cent of Americans don’t know enough about Pelosi to form any opinion of her.

But we’ll all get to know her soon. About to become Speaker of the House in a US Congress now controlled by her party, the Democrats, it could be argued that Pelosi is the most powerful elected woman in the world.

The very first thing you’ll hear about Pelosi, before the fact that she’s the new head honcho in Congress, and third in line to the US presidency, is that she is a ”mother of five and a grandmother”. And if the American media doesn’t wave her maternal credentials in front of you, you can be assured – Nancy will. Right from the moment she first ran for Congress 20 years ago, Pelosi has made a big and constant noise about being a mother, and then later a grandmother. For two decades she’s worn the maternal badge and she doesn’t intend to stop.

On Wednesday, when she took to the stage before the voting results were clear, her voice was soft and reporters complained they couldn’t hear her. ”I’m not in charge of the technical arrangements,” she said as aides tried to rectify the problem. Then suddenly she took control with a booming, ”But I could use my mother-of-five voice!” Everyone cowered. You could hear her loud and clear.

Still wearing her ”unbudging smile”, later that night when she was proclaimed the incoming Speaker of the House, Pelosi again took to the stage and opened with, ”As a mother and a grandmother and the leader of the House Democrats …” Make no mistake, Pelosi’s order of priority was intentional.

She was quite frank about her excitement in the lead-up to the mid- term election, but it wasn’t excitement about the history-making opportunity for the Democrats as much as it was about the pending birth of her sixth grandchild. Her daughter Alexandra is due to give birth any day now. When Pelosi was awoken to a phone call on Wednesday, her first question was ”Did we have the baby?” No. It was her chief combatant on the line, President George W.Bush. He’d rung to congratulate Pelosi on her win. She politely called him ”Mr President” and he called her – the woman who will be a sharp thorn in his side for the next two years – ”Madam Speaker-elect”. It was all utterly civil.

According to those who have long watched her in action and observed her extraordinary political pull – Pelosi has raised more than $100million dollars for the Democrat campaign – her outstanding trademark is her ”motherly” approach. While noting her tough, uncompromising discipline, and her ability to keep caucus united and in check, a 60 Minutes profile of Pelosi insisted ”she is clearly not one of the boys”.

In a place as patriarchal as the US Congress, where after the mid-terms women hold 86 of the 535 seats, or 16 per cent, it’s all the more stunning that Pelosi has made it to the top. Despite a record number of women running for Congress this week, there was only a net gain of five.

No wonder Pelosi says Congress doesn’t have a glass ceiling, as glass can be shattered. The stuff she’s come up against is much harder and tougher than that. And late this week she was not only congratulating herself, but throwing down the ladder to the women below. ”For a woman to break though what I call the marble ceiling here is something quite remarkable,” she said. ”It sends a message that women can do anything.” And it seems, a 66-year- old mother of five and grandmother of nearly six can do more than most.

Refusing to play it like a bloke, she has instead used the fact that she is a woman and a mother as a powerful point of difference, rather than a disadvantage. She now says she feels a great responsibility to have ”the most honest and open Congress”, that has ”civility as its hallmark and fiscal soundness as a woman would want to have”.

Where Australian women in politics have been shy of brandishing their status as mothers or even grandmothers, Pelosi has cashed in on it. On this point, her Antipodean sisters should take serious note.

It has always disappointed me that powerful women in Australia, be they politicians or business leaders, have felt compelled to hide the fact that they are women; or at best ignore it. And it’s profoundly disappointing that motherhood is experienced as an impediment to winning and holding positions of power.

I’ve often been asked by young, ambitious females, why it is that women at the top in leadership positions in this country seem so anxious to distance themselves from an association with gender issues. Other than perhaps Natasha Stott Despoja, I’ve never heard any of our leading women publicly call themselves a feminist. But even Stott Despoja has had to bow out and put motherhood and family ahead of political ambition.

And yet, just as our leading women are opting out, or carefully concealing their status as mothers, our leading men on the other hand are flaunting their kids and fatherhood as a badge of honour; proof of their ”gentler”, ”caring”, more ”feminine” side. So this is what we’ve come to? An upside-down world down under, where men are rewarded for their ”feminisation” and women feel compelled to suppress theirs?

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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