Gender is central to the narrative of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who announced on Thursday that she will step down from her leadership role and serve only as a member of Congress.
Pelosi not only became the first woman to serve in a major leadership role in the House, she became the first woman House Speaker in US history in 2007. She is a feminist icon. She is quite literally already in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Many tributes to Pelosi note these milestones, and there’s no doubt that when her eventual obituary is written, her historical achievements will be in the first line.
But Pelosi’s tenure was more historically significant than her groundbreaking role.
As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican and no fan of Pelosi’s politically, told the Washington Post last year: “You could argue she’s been the strongest speaker in history. She has shown more capacity to organize and muscle, with really narrow margins, which I would’ve thought impossible.”
Pelosi led her Democratic caucus for two tumultuous decades, a feat few have ever achieved. She is only the second person in history lose the speaker’s gavel and come back to reclaim it. The only other person to do so was Sam Rayburn in 1955. An iconic building in the Capitol complex is now named after him.
These days, members of Congress largely fall into three categories: workhorses, show horses, and prolific fundraisers.
Pelosi excelled in all three.
She was literally born into politics. Her father was a member of Congress who later became mayor of Baltimore. Later, her brother was also elected Baltimore mayor.
Pelosi got her start in politics as a political fundraiser in her adopted hometown of San Francisco. Her ability to raise gobs of money and expand her networks made her a power player and set her up for her first election to the House in 1987.
She rose through the leadership ranks on the strength of her opposition to the Iraq War. This put her at odds with the House Democratic leader at the time, Richard Gephardt, who worked closely with a White House then occupied by President George W. Bush. When Gephardt left the seat to run for president, Pelosi was set up to lead the House Democrats.
As speaker she was both a performer who would rip up Trump’s speech at the State of the Union, and a commander who could shepherd bills through the floor even as her party barely held power.
Central to the legacy of the past four presidents is the role Pelosi played. It was Pelosi who got a major bank bailout through the waning days of the Bush administration, possibly saving the nation from a second Great Depression. It was Pelosi who somehow gave Barack Obama his greatest achievement, the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
It was also Pelosi who initially balked at impeaching Donald Trump before deciding the House would pursue his impeachment twice, a grim first for any president. And most recently, when it seemed impossible, Pelosi delivered the votes for Biden’s legacy in a pair of laws involving infrastructure and climate change.
Perhaps the real genius of Pelosi as speaker will be seen very soon. Republicans will somehow have to govern with a similarly slim majority. It will not be easy. Even Democrats may find their caucus fracturing as the House Republicans have with the rise of factions like the Freedom Caucus pitted against leadership.
Pelosi may have been the first woman to hold the role of Speaker of the House, but in a raucous period in American politics, she may have been, even to her critics, the most effective legislator in modern American history.