In the public eye again recently for her controversial trip to Taiwan, Nancy Pelosi features regularly in the headlines, this time causing considerable media and market speculation, particularly given the reaction of various global powers. Inspired by other US leading ladies Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama (and with a fondness for biographies), I am curiously drawn to finding out more. How did she become the 3rd most powerful person in American politics and what has led to her enduring into her 83rd year?
I will not pretend to understand the complex world of American or indeed global politics (I am no expert). Having watched in disbelief the attack on the US Capitol last year and increasingly seeing more extreme far right activity within the media, there is great light in the energy, the drive and the commitment to justice that abounds in this lady, and that points to a very different America.
Politics remains a terrain which is largely male led. With just 23% of TDs in Ireland female*, the picture in the US is not much different. The US Congress is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate with a 28% and 24% female representation respectively**. There is still some way to go, and this lady has certainly been a trailblazer.
Born Nancy D’Alesandro in 1940 into an Italian Catholic family and political dynasty, she grew up in the neighbourhood known as Little Italy in Baltimore, Maryland. Nancy was the sixth child and the first girl born to her parents. Her father Thomas John D’Alesandro Jr. was an insurance salesman, a legislator and Democratic political strategist, he served as mayor of Baltimore, and was appointed by President Kennedy to the Federal Renegotiation Board (a watchdog on defence and space contracts). Her mother Annunciata (Nancy) Lombardi started law school and had entrepreneurial ambitions but gave these up to look after her young family and support her husband. Known as “Big Nancy”, she ran the Baltimore Democratic Women’s Club out of the family home and looked after her husband’s book of favours. This was a collection of names and detail on the relevant services or support sought! These same members of the community were later asked to show their loyalty through their votes. Looking after this favours file was a role that would later fall to her daughter at a young age. New immigrants to the area would regularly knock on the family’s door asking for help and young Nancy could direct them on getting a hospital bed or housing in the projects.
She attended an all-girl private Catholic high school at the Institute of Notre Dame in Baltimore. The family spent summers in Ocean City, Maryland. It was in 1957 that Nancy met John F. Kennedy at a dinner in Baltimore, a figure who has inspired her in her political career, and she later attended his inauguration in 1961.
Her mother had hoped that Nancy might enter into religious life but Nancy had other plans. She studied political science and history at Trinity College in Washington D.C, graduating in 1962 (later to become Trinity Washington University). She remained in DC to work as an intern in the office of Senator Daniel Brewster, who would go on to co-sponsor the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While she had no bigger plans to run for office at that point, she did plan to go to law school but family life soon took over as she was now Nancy Pelosi having met her husband the previous summer.
Nancy Pelosi would go on to have 5 children in the space of 6 years. Living initially in New York, the family soon moved to San Francisco. She claims her experience as a mother, has given her the tools to be successful as a political leader.
It was only in her forties that she ran for office. She was very much behind the scenes up until then working as a volunteer organiser for the Democrats. In 1987, she won a special election to represent the city of San Francisco in the House of Representatives and went on to become House Democratic Whip and House Democratic Leader (the first female to hold both positions). She made history in 2007, when she was elected the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House. On election to Congress, she asked to make a speech, where she focused on the Aids crisis which was not a popular topic at the time (a cause to which she remains strongly committed). This was not a lady who was going to sit on the sidelines.
She has been lead-engineer and architect in so many areas including legislation on Covid vaccines as part of the American Rescue Plan and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which introduced legislation to fight pay discrimination and ensure fairness in the workplace. The was the first bill signed by Obama, and in crediting Nancy Pelosi, he said “we could not have done it without her”.
The Affordable Care Act introduced in 2010, expanded health insurance coverage to millions of people, it did however cost the Democratic party. Pelosi encouraged members to support the bill, despite the fact that they would lose votes. On signing the reform into law, Obama himself said there is no tougher job in government than leading legislative chambers, and that “one of the best speakers the House of Representatives has ever had is Nancy Pelosi”. She did not “play to the polls”.
In 2016, she was ready for Hillary Clinton to take over as President and was deeply disappointed on Donald Trump’s victory. One of his first objectives in office was to reverse plans on the Affordable Care Act. Pelosi would lead the defence against it and she has been one of Trump’s toughest political opponents, also leading on his impeachment. “We must repair and we must heal” were her words on the damage done by his administration.
In a 2018 CNN interview, she remarked how she takes glee in saying… “women you know how to get it done – know your power”. She wants women “to see that you do not get pushed around and you don’t run away from the fight”.
She has been instrumental in Biden’s recently passed landmark Inflation Reduction Act. The most historic legislation aimed at tackling the climate crisis, it will see $369 billion invested in climate initiatives and will also lower medication and healthcare costs.
She led a US delegation on a visit to Ireland in 2019 where she addressed the Dail on its 100th anniversary and spoke of the mutual experience of rebuilding a nation following a civil war, of shared democratic values and a commitment to freedom. She talked of the emerald thread that is woven “in the fabric of American history and national life”. Interestingly she has an Irish son-in-law and grandchildren who were christened in County Wicklow.
During Brexit negotiations she was firm in the US’ stance on respecting the Northern Ireland protocol. There would be “absolutely no chance” of a UK-US trade agreement if the Good Friday Agreement was jeopardised.
The epidemic of gun violence is one she is determined to end, and she remains a powerful voice for human rights and equality. She has worn orange in media interviews, the colour of gun violence prevention and on certain occasions suffragette white in solidarity with women across the country. She also still wears heels…. incredible at the age of 82!
She is said to be a private person. Dark chocolate and ice cream are amongst her favourite foods, and crossword puzzles help her to relax.
There has been much debate on Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Was it ego, legacy or sheer determination that motivated her? Maybe we will never know.
She has been one of the biggest fundraisers for the Democratic party and that this has been key to her power. Some may say she has been in leadership too long and that now is the time to allow a new generation to rise, she has certainly paved the way. I will continue to follow her with a keen and curious eye.
Linda Forde is Head of Marketing at Cantor Fitzgerald Ireland