Nancy Pelosi is using gender to win over progressives in her fight to become House speaker

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Zach Gibson/Getty Images
  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she is confident that she’s the best choice to be the next speaker of the House – and that a movement against her within her own party is motivated by sexism.
  • But the opposition to her – largely coming from centrist Democrats – have taken offence to that charge and may put up Rep. Marcia Fudge, a former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, to challenge Pelosi.
  • With no strong alternative for speaker in the left wing of the party, progressive groups have begun to fall in line behind Pelosi – and they’re also charging her opponents with sexism.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she is confident that she’s the best choice to be the next speaker of the House – and that a movement against her within her own party is motivated by sexism.

Pelosi has long said that she remained in Democratic leadership after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss because without her men would have dominated the highest levels of American politics.

“You cannot have the four leaders of Congress [and] the president of the United States, these five people, and not have the voice of women,” Pelosi said during a Sunday interview on CBS. “Especially since women were the majority of the voters, the workers in campaigns, and now part of this glorious victory.”

Pelosi’s defenders have suggested that her demonization by the right is deeply infused with sexism.

“Don’t like Pelosi, but can’t quite articulate why? Felt the same way about Hillary Clinton? Time for some deep self-reflection about gender bias and leadership,” Jennifer Victor, a political science professor at George Mason University, wrote in a tweet that went viral last week.

The minority leader and her allies argue that the former speaker’s fundraising prowess, significant legislative accomplishments, recent electoral victories, and a lack of any strong progressive alternative should be enough to vault her to the speakership. Pelosi says she’s “100 per cent” confident she’ll be re-elected speaker in the new Congress, citing “overwhelming support” in her caucus. Others in the party are pushing for a new voice.

‘Plenty of really competent females’

Pelosi and her allies have characterised the intra-party opposition to her speakership as a conservative, male-dominated movement out of touch with the bulk of the Democratic party. They have used the hashtag #FiveWhiteGuys – the same label Pelosi gave to a bipartisan immigration working group earlier this year – to refer to Reps. Seth Moulton and Tim Ryan, both centrist Democrats, who have led the movement against her.

Moulton has made clear that he’s not running for speaker, but has only floated one possible alternative so far: Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who said on Saturday that she’s been “overwhelmed” by the encouragement she’s received from colleagues and will announce whether she’ll run after Thanksgiving.

Fudge framed her potential candidacy as a move away from the Democratic party status quo and as a way to better represent the diversity of the caucus.

“If we run on change, then we need change,” Fudge told CNN on Saturday, adding that she and Pelosi discussed those “within the caucus who are feeling left out and left behind” during a Friday meeting.

Fudge, Moulton, and Ryan have also held that the next speaker should be a woman.

“There’s plenty of really competent females that we can replace her with,” Ryan told reporters last week, referring to Pelosi’s replacement.

Fudge was one of three women in a group of 17 incumbent and incoming House members who signed a letter last week promising not to vote for Pelosi on the House floor. As of Friday, at least 20 lawmakers have said they would oppose Pelosi, including a total of six women.

Women who oppose Pelosi’s bid for speaker take issue with the suggestion that the movement against her is sexist or anti-feminist.

Elissa Slotkin, an incoming Michigan representative from a formerly red district, framed her opposition to Pelosi as a push for “a new generation of leadership” and added that “kitchen table issues are more important than gender” to her constituents.

“I never want to be disrespectful to anyone who has served, especially a woman who has broken glass ceilings,” the 42-year-old former CIA officer said last week. “But we need to hear what people are telling us on the ground,” she continued. “They want a new generation that thinks differently and works harder and takes the caucus in a new direction.”

New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, who’s also advocating for a “new generation” of Democratic leaders, told reporters in recent days that female members “should not be made to feel that they are ‘anti-women’ if they don’t want to vote for Nancy Pelosi.”

Rice escalated this argument on Friday, tweeting, “I find it fascinating that the very people who are characterising our call for new leadership as a sexist campaign are also ignoring the women leading the charge. Are @RepMarciaFudge and I white men?”

Jennifer Victor, the George Mason professor, said she’s not convinced the centrist Democratic movement against Pelosi can fairly be characterised as sexist.

“The evidence that it’s five white guys is consistent with the sexism narrative, but it’s not the only way to read that evidence,” she said in an interview with INSIDER.

Progressive groups and insurgents line up behind Pelosi

With no viable alternative for speaker on the left, progressive groups have begun to fall in line behind Pelosi – and they’re also using gender as a defence of her and an attack on her opponents.

“Anyone who thinks that Pelosi should be replaced by a moderate white guy is fundamentally misreading the moment,” Joe Dinkin, spokesman for the Working Families Party, told INSIDER. “Women voters, and especially women of colour, powered the progressive wave, and we need more women in leadership roles – not less.”

Late last week, Indivisible – the progressive advocacy group behind many insurgent Democratic candidates this year – called Pelosi “a strong and progressive leader” and argued the party shouldn’t let a small group of white, moderate men sabotage her.”

The Brady Campaign, a gun control advocacy organisation, endorsed Pelosi on Friday afternoon, and, indicated their support on Thursday night shortly after Pelosi promised to put members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – which will make up two-fifths of the Democratic caucus – in leadership positions and prioritise progressive legislation.

Incoming progressive members of the House – many of whom sharply criticised Pelosi on the campaign trail and ran against the Democratic establishment – have also moved away from outright opposition to Pelosi.

On her first day of congressional orientation in Washington, New York Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist, joined hundreds of young protesters outside Pelosi’s office to push for a “Green New Deal.” While the tactic was an aggressive and unconventional one for a member of Congress, Pelosi praised the activists as “inspiring” – and Ocasio-Cortez commended her in return for agreeing to call for a select committee to address climate change, one of the group’s requests.

Ocasio-Cortez, who ran her insurgent campaign as a referendum on the Democratic establishment, said last week that she’s open to supporting Pelosi.

Other progressive insurgents have similarly changed their tune. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who said in August that she would “probably not” vote for Pelosi because Democratic leadership isn’t listening to the grassroots of the party, said this week of Pelosi “She’s willing to listen.”

For Tlaib, listening appears to be enough: “that’s what I ask for right now at this point.”