Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–As Nancy Pelosi, the congresswoman from California’s Eighth District, begins her term this week in the 108th Congress as leader of the House Democrats, we’ll be watching to see if reporting and commentary about her improve from what was said about her upon her recent ascent to the position of top Democrat in the House.

We have had the opportunity to observe closely how William Frist, expected to be votedas in this week as majority leader in the U.S. Senate, was treated by news media–polite deference and emphasis on policy, experience and professional background.

And, while overall, the coverage of Pelosi was not blatantly sexist–most reporters have evolved beyond comments on female politicians’ hair, clothes, and personal style–some coverage suggested that her presence as a woman in what had always been a man’s job was the overwhelming feature of her triumph. That tone was set in headlines such as “Woman is House Dem Boss” (New York Daily News, Nov. 15) and “Pelosi elected first female leader on Hill” (The Baltimore Sun, Nov. 15).

Of course, it’s legitimate to note that Pelosi made history by becoming the first woman leader on the Hill of either political party. But once that was dealt with, the real story should have been about her leadership abilities and the fact that she was the overwhelming choice of Democrats to lead them. This was acknowledged in news reports and commentary, but often within the frame of her gender and what she learned growing up in a Baltimore political family.

    Here are some examples:

  • “The mother of five said yesterday that her party needed to offer an alternative agenda rather than merely working against Bush.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 9).
  • “Mr. [Robert] Menendez won [the Democratic caucus chairmanship] yesterday–by a margin of just one vote–at the expense of a Pelosi ally, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro. His success reflects the growing power of the Democratic Hispanic bloc. But the aggressive 48-year-old lawmaker from Union City also rode a male backlash as it became clear a woman would be the new leader.” (Wall Street Journal writer David Rogers in a Nov. 15 column). Rogers also criticized Pelosi’s “leadership style,” mocking her “den-motheresque whip letters–full of team spirit and kudos for individual members” that “sometimes gush.”
  • “In the Cliff Notes version of her life, Pelosi begins her story of political life with the story of how Rep. Sala Burton of San Francisco, dying of cancer, made Pelosi promise to run for her seat. By then, as Pelosi tells it, she had raised five children and the youngest was about to finish high school. This touching story may take the threatening edge off a woman’s ambition–but by 1987, Pelosi had already headed the Democratic Party in California, attended national conventions and vied to head the DNC.” (The Washington Post, Nov. 14).
  • “‘There’s lingering concern about what direction Pelosi will take the caucus and is she ready to do it, a top Democratic leadership aide said.” (The Sun, Nov. 15).

It’s hard to imagine that the readiness of a 62-year-old, eight-term male congressional representative for the minority leader’s responsibilities would be questioned as Pelosi’s was–especially by one of his own.

Pelosi herself moved quickly to put things in perspective. “Today” Show co-host Matt Lauer’s first question in a Nov. 15 interview gave her an opening to set the record straight. “How much pressure were you under as a woman?” Lauer asked.

“I didn’t run as a woman, but as an experienced legislator,” Pelosi responded, a mantra she repeated in numerous interviews that week. Picking up a 2002 Women of the Year award from Ms. Magazine at the National Press Club in Washington on Dec. 9, Pelosi continued to make the point: “I don’t want you to vote for me because I’m a woman but I don’t want anyone to vote against me because I’m a woman . . . American life is improved by the involvement of women.”

Likewise, coverage of Pelosi should improve with her tenure in the minority leader’s position, says Pippa Norris, author of “Women, Media and Politics” and professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “The biases in news coverage are mostly evident at the local and state levels rather than when women get to Congress,” she says. “Once they are better known, the coverage is somewhat fairer. As you move up, as Golda Meir showed us, you can establish a record of your own.”

Like Meir, the Ukranian-born Israeli premier, Pelosi is focused on the big picture. Even though Newsweek’s prognostication on Nov. 18 about the Democrats’ presidential prospects in 2004 made only passing reference to her–an amazing slight, considering her clout–Pelosi said at the Ms. awards ceremony that “we really will not be satisfied until we have a woman in the White House.” With her election as House minority leader, that possibility is now much closer. Susan J. Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, called attention to Newsweek’s Dec. 16 cover story, in which she suggested that Condoleezza Rice was the most powerful woman in Washington: “I think that’s an arguable point because of Nancy Pelosi,” according to Carroll.

Pelosi’s GOP counterpart, the retiring House Republican majority leader Dick Armey, has said, “One of the reasons Nancy’s abilities are not appreciated is that she is a beautiful woman” (San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 15). Unfortunately, Armey probably is not alone in repeating an outdated stereotype that says beauty and brains, and womanhood and leadership, are mutually exclusive. It’s now up to political reporters covering Pelosi to show us that they aren’t recycling old stereotypes as well.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly newsletter of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism (Second Edition), published this summer by Strata Publishing, Inc.

For more information:

Center for American Women and Politics:

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi:–“United States Congress: Nancy Pelosi
Chosen Democratic Minority Leader”: