I am drawn to stories of childhood. Much like opening a door to a secret room that has long been shuttered, a glimpse of that earlier life often reveals something profound about a person’s character. Back in the day, in 1950, to be exact, Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. of Baltimore had six children: five boys and one girl. His daughter, age 10, was the youngest, and he enlisted her help. Whether it was a chance to simply practice her penmanship, as she has modestly claimed, it definitely involved keeping a record of her father’s many deals as well as favors either bestowed or received. At any rate, it was a singular education not to be replicated in any classroom.
She watched her dad’s political machine at work: how loyalties are built up, how politics can be used for the public good. She told her classmates how their parents could make the system work for them: how, for example, “to get a sick relative into City Hospital, how to get a job that paid a living wage.” As quoted in The Guardian, “I thought that was what it means to be a Democrat. You make sure that government works for the people.” Her dad also steeped her in the art of compromise as well as when to stand her ground.
In 2014, Forbes ranked her as the 26th most powerful woman out of 100 in the world. For a woman who says she is a “shy person,” the self-characterization might strike others as incredible. But that might be because mass and social media, not to mention some politicians, focus on catchy phrases more than exploring issues in depth. Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi pays no attention to the verbiage, denigrating or otherwise, because at this moment in time she is focused on encouraging women. Here is her advice: “Be confident in who you are, what you have to offer. And understand, if you are effective, you’ll be opposed. But you are in the (political) arena. That’s what it is, and it’s not for the faint of heart” (New York Times). She herself waited until she was 47, when her youngest child was a senior in high school, before she ran for office. And that was five years before 1992, the designated “Year of the Woman” because 24 women won seats that year in the House of Representatives.
2018 is yet another “Year of the Woman” with a record 34 women having won seats in the House. They join 66 other female incumbents who were re-elected, giving us at least 101-plus women in the House — the most in U.S. history. These new members are mostly Democrats and, ideologically, they tend to be more liberal than the incumbents.
Presently, Nancy Pelosi is the highest-ranking woman in American politics and in American political history, but she is still her father’s daughter: focused on connecting with voters and with people who are supportive; on listening; on solving problems. A Parkland, Florida, student compares her to Speaker Paul Ryan who, when asked what he would suggest as a solution to the gun violence, finally “threw up his hands and said ‘I don’t know,’ ” whereas Nancy Pelosi is “pushing for measures” that will abate the status quo (New York Times).
To her children and grandchildren, this remarkable woman is a Pelosi. To the political class, she is absolutely D’Alesandro.
Ursula Carlson, PhD, is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.