How Nancy Pelosi set the stage for women in politics

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Why Nancy Pelosi matters: How the departing Speaker of the House set the stage for women in politics

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California announced Thursday that after two decades in leadership positions within the Democratic Party, she is handing off the baton to the next generation of Democratic leaders. She leaves behind a legacy of nearly unrivaled legislative accomplishments — and a mark on the role of women in politics.

“For me, the hour’s come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect,” she said on the House floor on Thursday.

Pelosi made history as the first woman elected as Democratic whip in 2001, party leader in 2002 and speaker in 2007. When she stepped into these elite roles, fewer than 90 women were serving in Congress. In the 118th Congress, at least 145 women will be legislators.

Researchers credit trailblazers like Pelosi who ran for state or national office or held high-profile leadership positions with the rise in women running for office. Even when a female candidate doesn’t win, just running leads to higher numbers of female candidates.

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Pelosi’s specific impact on urging women in the Democratic Party to run for office “cannot be understated” Jason Windett, a public policy professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told Grid. “From early in her career in Congress, Speaker Pelosi was able to recruit but more importantly, to help fund many women candidates across the country.”

It was that gift for fundraising that not only made Pelosi a role model for women seeking office but offered practical help.

What we know about women running for office

There are numbers behind the claim that when a woman runs or holds an elected office, more women are inspired to follow suit.

A state having a female governor or U.S. senator meant, on average, that an additional seven women would run for state legislature during the next election cycle, according to the 2018 study co-authored by Windett and. The researchers also found that the “legacy effect” — having women not only win but remain in leadership roles — likely encouraged more women to run for state legislature in the following years.

And the higher the office, the better when it comes to getting women on the ballot. A 2015 study published in Political Research Quarterly found a role-model effect where the presence of highly visible politicians Pelosi and Hillary Clinton encouraged more young, Democratic, liberal women to run.

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Republican women have also seen increases in the number of women running for office over the past decade, but Democrats have had the advantage of support from EMILY’s List, which is specifically intended to elect more Democratic women to Congress. The organization contributed $3.1 million to female candidates in 2022 alone.

It has been so successful that a top House Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), started her own group, Elevate PAC, which backed 23 Republican women this cycle.

Research also shows that when women are elected to public office, they vote differently than men. Regardless of party affiliation, they tend to back legislation that is more likely to benefit women.

Pelosi has navigated a rough road

Pelosi’s contributions to the cause of female leadership didn’t come without a cost. Republicans have vilified her for decades. In 2009, for example, the Republican National Committee ran a political ad, riffing on the James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” that showed her face framed by the barrel of a gun, complete with gunshot sound effects and blood. Trump called her “crazy Nancy.” And the recent violent assault on Paul Pelosi appears to have been part of a planned attack on the speaker, followed by a number of Republicans who used the opportunity not to offer their condolences to her husband but to verbally attack the speaker.

This kind of online vitriol, extreme rhetoric and potential violence against women in office, aimed at undermining women in those roles, can dissuade women from running.

Nancy Pelosi has also been the central target of criticism inside the Democratic Party for the number of years she’s held control of the party. During her last election to speakership, members of her own caucus accused her of not creating space for the next generation leadership in the party.

“It’s time for Nancy Pelosi to go, and the entire leadership team,” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) said, as some Democrats objected to her second run for the speakership in the wake of them retaking the House in 2018.

Headway has been made, but Congress is still heavily male

One of the biggest reasons why more women aren’t in office is because of incumbency. On average, nearly 90 percent of representatives seek reelection, according to a 2021 Congressional Research Service report — and currently just 27 percent of Congress is female.

When Democrats began asking her to step aside in 2017, Pelosi and her supporters raised the specter of sexism in response. She also cited Clinton’s 2016 loss and the “male-dominated congressional structure” as part of her reason for extending her time in the House. “If Hillary had won, I could go home,” Pelosi had told the host of CBS “Face the Nation.”

There are few female contenders to take Pelosi’s place. With Pelosi’s departure, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) is currently the only remaining woman in a leadership position; she has served as assistant House Democratic leader since 2021.


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The other most likely replacements are male, and most have already decided the spot isn’t for them. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), have also announced plans to step aside — Hoyer doesn’t plan on seeking another leadership role while Clyburn is eyeing the assistant Democratic leadership role. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who led Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, said he isn’t seeking a top Democratic leadership role in the House, instead looking toward a potential Senate run.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), current chair of the House Democratic Caucus, is at the top of the list. He has for several years been positioning himself as a potential Democratic leader for the post-Pelosi era and is seen as a likely front-runner for the job. If elected, Jeffries would be the first Black speaker of the House.

Regardless, Pelosi was the first female speaker of the House — and the only one for the foreseeable future. Her leadership role showed women they could not only win an election but hold a position of power once they got there. But it’s still seems a long way off before there are equal numbers of women in Congress.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.