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The Sexist Roots of the "Nancy Pelosi Problem"

The House Minority Leader is unpopular for a reason, and it has nothing to do with her politics.

When Conor Lamb won his special election in Pennsylvania last week, he distanced himself from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, calling for new leadership if the Democrats retake Congress in November. Since Lamb won by only a handful of votes, this may have been shrewd strategizing on his part, since he campaigned in a district that had voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016. But other Democrats have followed suit in bluer districts: Marie Newman, challenging GOP incumbent Dan Lipinski in Illinois, gave a noncommittal answer when asked if she would support her for House Speaker. Why this reluctance?

Pelosi, the first and only woman to ever serve as Speaker, will turn 78 this week and shows no signs of slowing down. She has proved an effective leader on behalf of our party in the age of Trump, negotiating with the President and his cronies. Last month, she set the record for the longest House speech ever, when she held the floor for eight hours in support of the Dreamers. In previous administrations, she can take credit for killing George W. Bush's 2005 efforts to privatize social security; ten years later, she stopped a joint campaign from AIPAC and the GOP to kill Obama's Iran Deal. And as every profile of her points out, she's one of the best fundraisers the Democrats have. So why don't Democrats stand behind her?

For many years, the GOP has turned Pelosi into the Democrats' albatross, using TV ads to campaign against her as much, if not more, than they do for their candidates. In last year's special election in Georgia's sixth district, they attacked Democrat Jon Ossoff as her puppet, dubbing him "San Francisco's Congressman." True, the GOP loves to pick on San Francisco, the home of hippies and gay marriage. But it's telling that both California's Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, made their careers in that city and have faced opposition from both the left and the right regarding their future plans, with the 84-year-old Feinstein being told "Time's Up" and Harris the subject of a smear campaign tying her to Steve Mnuchin. Not even Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco Mayor now running to succeed Jerry Brown as governor, gets smeared as much as they.

Whenever a woman rises to power, we get stuck asking the same useless questions: is she likable enough? Experienced enough? Just plain power-hungry? The middle-aged, white male media loves to engage in these myths, and while they may be inaccurate and outdated, they keep on perpetuating them for a simple reason: they work. Many supporters of Hillary Clinton were enthusiastic about her campaign, but it was hard to convert skeptics who had been raised to believe twenty years of negative spin. The wall of lies was too high for us to vault over.

In an article in this month's Atlantic, Peter Beinart cites a 2010 study by Yale researchers Victoria Brescoli and Tyler Okimoto, where they presented participants with two fictional state senators: John and Ann Burr. They noticed that John Burr grew more popular when accompanied by adjectives such as "ambitious," while Ann Burr grew less popular when described the same way. Beinart writes:

"Nancy Pelosi, by leading her party in Congress, has become Ann Burr. A woman can serve in Congress without being perceived as overly ambitious. By climbing to the top of the greasy pole, however, Pelosi has made her ambition visible. She has gained the power to tell her male colleagues what to do...

"The more successful Pelosi is—the more she outmaneuvers and dominates her male adversaries—the more threatening she becomes. And the easier it becomes to tar the male Democratic candidates who would serve under her as emasculated yes-men."

It's not only sexism that's at play when we deride Pelosi, it's also ageism. While many people have served in Congress long past their sell-by date, the calls to retire are always louder around women than men, as we saw last month with Dianne Feinstein. Pelosi's enemies and other members of her party would do well to remember that her most likely replacement, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, is her exact same age. Where are the articles by angry young white men demanding that he step down?

Now, all of this may be a leap to conclusions, and The Washington Post argued today that Pelosi's unpopularity comes less from sexism, and more from her having been Speaker. Since Speakers are symbols for their parties (especially when they're not in the White House), they become rallying points for both the opposition's ire and their own party's disgust. When John Boehner stepped down as Speaker in 2015, he had a 59% disapproval rating from Democrats, 42% from the GOP, and an overall disapproval of 54%. By contrast, Pelosi's disapproval rating when she stepped down in 2011 was 46%. Perhaps her declining fortunes have to do with the unenviable job she may re-assume in January.

But even if the Post is correct, and even if the motivation to oust her is more strategic than sexist, we can't ignore this issue. If there was ever a time to talk about the way we treat women in power, it's now, especially since #MeToo and #TimesUp have revealed how many obstacles women have to overcome to rise in any setting. Tossing experienced women like Pelosi under the bus prevent that conversation from going forward. When we demand she retire, we should examine the conditioning that would allow us to make such a statement and get away with it. I may not agree with everything she says or does, but we are better off with experienced leaders like her in power, despite the way our opposition gaslights us into believing we should ditch them.