Nancy Pelosi discusses what it will take to elect a woman president

The first female speaker of the house discusses how women can break through the glass ceiling

Published November 5, 2013 4:10PM (EST)

  (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Excerpted from "What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?"

For her new book, "What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?," veteran journalist Marianne Schnall interviewed high-achieving women about why the highest glass ceiling in the land is still in place. The following is taken from her talk with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Marianne Schnall: Why do you think we’ve not yet had a woman president? What do you think it will take to make that happen?

Nancy Pelosi: The American people are very, very ready for a woman president. They’re far ahead of the politicians. I always thought it would be much easier to elect a woman president of the United States than Speaker of the House, because the people are far ahead, as I say, of the electeds, on the subject of a woman being president. And as I said on the day I was sworn in, you have to break the marble ceiling—forget glass, the marble ceiling that is there of just a very male-oriented society where they had a pecking order and they thought that would be the way it always was and they would always be in charge, and, “Let me know how I can help you, but don’t expect to take the reins of power.” So it was interesting to me that we were able to elect a woman Speaker, and it wasn’t because I was a woman. That’s the last thing I could ask my members: to vote for me because I was a woman. I had to get there in the way that a woman would get to be president; not because she’s a woman, but because she has the talent and the know-how and inspires confidence that she can do the job, whatever that job happens to be.

MS: Why is it important to have more women represented and women’s voices—not just ultimately in the presidency, but in Congress and in Washington?

NP: Because that strengthens the debate and it strengthens the decisions. It isn’t that women coming in are better than men; they’re different from men. And I always say the beauty is in the mix. To have diversity of opinion in the debate strengthens the outcome and you get a better result. I do think that women bring a tendency, an inclination, toward consensus building that is stronger among women than men, as I have seen it so far.

MS: Looking at the landscape right now, it does look very daunting to run. What advice or encouragement would you want to offer to a woman who is considering pursuing elected office but feels discouraged?

NP: What I tell women is, “This is not for the faint of heart, but you have to have a commitment as to why you want to engage in public service.” We want people who have plenty of options in life to engage in public service—not anybody where this is the only job they could get. So we’re competing for their time, and their time, their priority decision will be made as to how important it is for them to make their mark, whether it’s on issues that relate to the economy, national security, family issues, education, healthcare, and those kinds of things. But I consider every issue a women’s issue. So you have to believe in who you are and what difference you can make. You have to care about the urgency and the difference it will make to your community, and you have to, again, have confidence in the contribution that you can make. You believe, you care, you have confidence in the difference that you can make. And that’s not to be egotistical, it’s just to be confident.

MS: You were the first female Speaker of the House, which is a huge milestone. What advice or perspective can you offer on breaking through glass ceilings, or as you say, “marble ceilings” and being the first or one of very few women in the room and the pressure that comes with that?

NP: The only time I’m the only woman in the room is when I go to the leadership meeting. But by and large I have made sure that women were chairing our committees when I was Speaker, or the senior Democrat on each of the committees, where I had the jurisdiction, because I think it’s really important for people to know: it’s not just about one woman, it’s about women. And it’s about the issues that we care about and the reinforcement of a message, not just one person saying it. The Speaker has awesome power, there’s no question about it. That role, number three—president, vice president, Speaker of the House—they are the highest positions in the country. But the fact is that, again, it’s not about one woman, it’s about what this means in the lives of women. So the interaction of women on these issues was [more] important for the members than the reinforcement on how we see our role. We’re there for our country, we’re there for our districts, but women in America see us partially as their own, even if we don’t represent them officially.

MS: Did you feel the magnitude of being in that position? Because being the first is something that’s significant, even thinking about what the pressure’s going to be on the first woman president. Did you feel that you could be there and be your authentic self, or did you feel the weight of people’s expectations?

NP: As I think back on it, I was so busy. We had an agenda to get done for the American people. And while I never set out to be Speaker and I never even envisioned it, one thing led to another and there I was, but I just knew I had a responsibility. As I look back on it, maybe I should have taken time to just sit there and say, “Wow,” but I didn’t even have a second to do that. When we won, President Bush was president and we had a 100-hour agenda—the first 100 hours we raised the minimum wage; it hadn’t been raised in eleven years. We had our “Six for ’06” [agenda], most of which became the law of the land. So we were on a schedule. There wasn’t really too much time to think of how important I was. It was really more important for our members and our women to take ownership of the issues that build consensus around where we would go from here.

MS: When you were talking about the importance of a consensus—and certainly in this current climate, that seems really important—what advice do you have on working with people across the aisle whose opinions you may disagree with but who you have to interact with?

NP: We come to Congress representing our own district. And so does everybody else, so even if you disagree with the manner in which some people present their views and how negative they may be, the fact is, you respect the people who sent them there. They are there, a House of Representatives, and so it’s unimportant what you think of somebody; what is important is that you respect their constituents and the right of that person to represent them. Now, having said that, you know you’re in the marketplace of ideas; that’s how our founders had intended. You depend on the strength of the power of your ideas, the strength of your argument, to compete in this marketplace of ideas to prevail. You know that if you’re going to do something that’s going to have sustainability that you’re going to have to try to build consensus across the aisle, if possible. Go to find common ground; where you can’t, you stand your ground, as I always say. But you always try.

MS: Women and young girls can feel very hesitant to speak out or stand out too much. It seems like you’ve always had the courage to speak out for what you believe in. You don’t hold anything back. Where does that come from? How did you develop your inner leader?

NP: Well, I think a couple of things. I went to all-girls’ schools my whole life, so every model of leadership that I saw was a young girl or a woman, and so there was never any hesitation that women could lead. I know what I believe. And I really think—says she immodestly—one quality that I bring to my role is that I’ve been in Congress awhile, I know the issues, so I think I have good judgment as to what works or what doesn’t and an institutional memory of what has worked and what hasn’t. It’s also that I have a clear view of what I think our purpose is and that is to make the future better for all of our children, in every way, and that involves national security, our economy, every subject you can name, including those that are directly related, like health and education and environment.

MS: Are there concrete changes that you would like to see that you think would help foster more women leaders, not just in Washington, but in general? Are there things that you think we can do to increase the numbers?

NP: Well, I think that really lies inside of every woman. They have to really have confidence in themselves. If women have confidence in themselves, they will have confidence in other women. You know, it’s not a zero-sum game—there’s plenty of opportunity for everyone, so there’s no reason to worry about somebody else’s success, either saying you couldn’t do this so she’s better than you, or she’s doing it so you can’t. No, she’s doing it so you can. Every piece of advice I give to people is, “Be yourself, know your power, have confidence in what you have to contribute.” If you have all of that, you will respect that in other women and we can just advance this. Now I’ve said to you before: reduce the role of money, increase the level of civility, and women will take these responsibilities. And many more women will say, “Okay, I’ll run. I’m not afraid of needing the money or being . . .” shall we say, “smeared.” A little girl interviewed me this morning, she said, “How did your family deal with all the negative things that the Republicans said about you?” I said, “Well, they didn’t really care that much, because I didn’t really care that much.” What I do care about is that it’s an obstacle to other women entering politics, because they’ll say, “Why would I do that? I have plenty of other options.” And women with plenty of options are just the women that we want to be in politics and government. 

Excerpted from "What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership and Power," by Marianne Schnall. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.

By Marianne Schnall

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Books Feminism Glass Ceiling Nancy Pelosi Politics Presidency Writers And Writing