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Nancy Pelosi's extraordinary and pioneering legacy

OP/ED: Pelosi, a trailblazer for women in politics, has possessed a singular mastery of the legislative process, which has never mattered more in this deeply polarized time.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

After two decades, Nancy Pelosi is stepping down as leader of the House Democrats. She leaves behind her an incalculable legacy of service and achievement as the most commanding — and most effective — House speaker in history. And she did this all while blazing a path for women in politics, striding forward in shoes that will be truly impossible to fill.

Until the 2020 election of Vice President Kamala Harris, Pelosi was the most powerful woman in our country's history. And no one has done more to further other women’s political prospects than her.

Pelosi, who first ran for public office at age 47, understood the unique challenges women candidates, especially as wives and mothers, faced. When she was first elected to Congress in 1987, only 12 women Democrats served in the House with her. Thanks to her pioneering example and tireless efforts, today there are 91.

In 2019, Pelosi spoke at a 100th anniversary celebration of the 19th Amendment, hosted by my organization, All In Together. She told the hundreds of women in attendance that "there isn't any job you can't hold…You have to have knowledge and the judgement, and people then will respect your judgement."

It was Pelosi's own solid judgement that enabled her to accomplish so much for other women, for her party and her country.

Through the entirety of her career, Pelosi has also been a steadfast role model for women leaders, seemingly unperturbed by the brutal politics of our time and unintimidated by critics, especially when she famously stood up to President Trump with characteristic swagger and style. It made her both a beloved meme and frequent target of Republican ire.

In the chaos of the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, she showed remarkable calm – a strong woman standing up to the strong man, and was unwavering in her commitment to preserve democracy, even in the face of imminent personal danger. And even after the horrific violence perpetrated against her husband Paul, just a few days before the midterm elections, Pelosi was still there, cheerleading Democratic candidates to the end.

Of course, Pelosi has a very long list of legislative achievements to celebrate too, including the historic passage of the Affordable Care Act during the Obama Presidency. But given the thin margins in the House and a 50-50 Senate in her last term, her most impressive achievement may be the success of President Biden’s sweeping legislative victories, including on infrastructure, Covid-19 relief and the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s hard to imagine any of this passing without Pelosi's steely resolve and skill.

The scale of Biden's domestic vision elicits frequent comparisons to President Lyndon B. Johnson . But Johnson had large majorities in the progressively-minded Congress of his time. Pelosi had no such advantages. Only she could have united such a fractured, big tent coalition to get so much done. How? Because of her singular mastery of the legislative process and her uniquely-female leadership style. She has always met the moment.

Now at 82 years old, having served 17 Congressional terms, Pelosi has more than earned a plush retirement somewhere fabulous, and yet she has chosen instead to remain in Congress supporting the new Democratic leaders. That decision speaks volumes about her.

History has a habit of overlooking, undervaluing, even dismissing the contributions of powerful women. But in assessing her indelible legacy, her trailblazing impact cannot be understated. To overlook or undervalue the kind of distinctively female leadership she has modeled and the agenda she has passed, does a disservice to both the facts and to history itself.

Speaker Pelosi once said, “Our country was built by strong women and we will continue to break down walls and defy stereotypes.” As others try to fill her impossibly big (high-heeled) shoes, may future leaders of our nation embrace that vision, and embody her example.