A few dozen people gathered one early March evening at the National Museum of American History to celebrate the opening of a new exhibition marking the centennial of women’s suffrage.
Collected in the glass cases are the artifacts of a long, arduous road to political empowerment:
A red silk shawl worn by Susan B. Anthony as she plied the hallways of the Capitol arguing for the right to vote.
A palm-sized campaign card from the 1916 campaign of Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, who became the first woman elected to Congress.
The brown felt hat that Bella Abzug wore at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, where some 2,000 delegates declared: “We demand as a human right a full voice and role for women in determining the destiny of our world, our national, our families and our individual lives.”
Another item on display: the gavel used to call the U.S. House to order on Jan. 4, 2007.
The speaker who wielded that gavel on that day was, for the first time, a woman. Though Nancy Pelosi does not lack for self-confidence, she rarely indulges in public self-reflection. On that night at the Smithsonian, however, she gave a nod to those who had paved the way for her.
“The women who did all of this — oh my gosh — we revere them. We hold them up as icons. But what we hear people say is, ‘Yes, they were icons. You are troublemakers.’ They were considered troublemakers in their time, so maybe there is a future for all of us,” Pelosi said with a laugh. “But I can just tell you, a troublemaker with a gavel — that’s the real difference.”
A few days after Trump’s inauguration, his combative chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon took the measure of the then-House minority leader at a meeting in the White House dining room. Trump had begun the session by repeating his fantastical claim that he would have won the popular vote in 2016 had it not been for millions of fraudulent ballots cast on Hillary Clinton’s behalf.
“There’s no evidence to support what you just said,” Pelosi said sharply.“And if we’re going to work together, we have to stipulate to a certain set of facts.”
“She’s going to get us,” Bannon whispered to colleagues. “Total assassin. She’s a total assassin.”
A woman about to enter her ninth decade has become a warrior-heroine to the social-media generation. It seems that her every gesture toward Trump conveys a message of contempt. When he gave his 2019 State of the Union address, she offered stiff-armed, mocking applause. Right after he delivered it this year, she gracelessly ripped up her copy of what she called “a manifesto of mistruths.”
At times, even Pelosi seems taken aback by the frenzy she can trigger. After she got the better of the president during a meeting in late 2018, the Internet was ignited by an image of her striding triumphantly from the White House in a fire-colored coat. It created such a sensation that fashion house Max Mara scrambled to put the design from its 2012 collection back on the market again for $2,990. “You know, it’s a funny thing because none of it was planned or intentional. I only wore that orange coat because it was clean,” Pelosi recalled. “Now, I can barely wear it because it’s a meme.”
She understands the significance that such moments convey, especially for many women. “When I was speaker before, I rarely paid attention to the accoutrements of power. I was just busy being a legislator. This time, people seem to know more about what the speaker is — well, for whatever reason — and maybe social media has made that clear to people,” she said. “But as I say to the women, nobody ever gives away power. If you want to achieve that, you go for it. But when you get it, you must use it.”
In nearly every major negotiation between the executive and the legislative branches, Pelosi remains the lone female at the table where the biggest decisions are made. Still, the gains that she has seen women make over the course of her political career have been enormous. When Pelosi arrived in the House in 1987, a freshman at the age of 47, there were barely two dozen women among its 435 members. Now, in part thanks to her efforts, there are more than 100.
But even as these victories are celebrated, they remind us that no woman has yet to climb to the top. “My disappointment is that every time I’m introduced as the most powerful woman in American history, it breaks my heart because I think we should have a president,” she said. “We could have had a female president, and we should and we will.”
It is therefore instructive to recall that Pelosi’s own rise was not one that anyone — starting with the speaker herself — would have foreseen. Life has a way of making a joke of the plans that we devise for ourselves. Only in the rear-view mirror can we see how choices and chances pave a road we could never have imagined.