Grandma With a Gavel

Nancy Pelosi shares her historic moment with some of her grandchildren and other House members' children.
Nancy Pelosi shares her historic moment with some of her grandchildren and other House members' children. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I have to admit: The grandkids got to me. I'm sentimental by temperament, cynical by training and experience, and the longer I work in Washington, the more the latter trait prevails.

So when the newly minted speaker of the House invited her own grandchildren and the other children in the chamber to join her on the podium and touch the speaker's gavel, my first thought was: This is so choreographed. My second thought was: Awwwww.

The images as California Democrat Nancy Pelosi took office last week were striking -- and stirring -- in their unfamiliarity. Pelosi, holding her infant grandson swaddled in a white receiving blanket, as she sat in the well of the House, awaiting her election. Pelosi, with the assurance of a mother experienced at dispensing cookies to impatient toddlers, giving each child his -- and her -- turn with the gavel. Pelosi raising her hand to take the oath as her grandson, at her side, fiddled with grandma's papers.

As a journalist, I understand the calculations at work here: This plays to Pelosi's advantages, humanizes her image as shrill San Francisco Democrat. As a woman and a mother, especially as a mother of daughters, I was quietly thrilled. About the marble ceiling cracking, yes, but also about the way Pelosi cracked it -- reveling in, not minimizing, her mother- and grandmother-hood.

"Powerful" and "mommy" are not concepts we're used to holding simultaneously. We've become accustomed to women who appear comfortable wielding influence without denying their femininity; think Condoleezza Rice in those high-heeled boots or posing for Vogue in a strapless black gown.

But powerful women who also happen to be mommies have tended to play down the mommy thing, almost as if they think it would diminish their ability to be taken seriously. In a world where women are suspected of failing to comprehend throw-weights, having a baby on board isn't a traditional road map for success.

Pelosi is playing it differently: motherhood as preparation for public office. "Having five children in six years is the best training in the world for speaker of the House," she told the AARP Bulletin. "It made me the ultimate multitasker and the master of focus, routine and scheduling."

Asked about national security during the campaign, she would preemptively bring up her mother-of-five-ness: "Think lioness when you think of women in politics. You threaten our cubs, you're dead." As the election drew close, Pelosi made clear that she'd skip town -- even on election night -- if her daughter went into labor with her sixth grandchild.

How different is this? Imagine Margaret Thatcher threatening to deploy her "mother-of-five voice." When her first grandchild was born in 1989, the prime minister declared with regal glee, "We have become a grandmother," and that was it for the cuddliness.

Pelosi's mommy shtick can get a little clunky (the lioness bit never worked for me) and a little treacly ("Let's hear it for the children, we're here for the children.") But it serves as an important confirmation of women's increasing comfort with their dual roles, and the need for society and the workplace to adjust accordingly.

I started my career in the "dress for success" era, in which women were solemnly instructed to dress as much as possible like male wannabes, in somber suits complete with floppy faux-ties. (Compare Pelosi's swearing-in outfit: scoop-necked aubergine suit and pearls-on-steroids.) Even more important than looking like men was acting like them -- to suppress any suggestion that motherhood might compete with career. If you had to cut out of the office for the third-grade play, better to plead an emergency root canal than look like a mom. That is changing -- now men, even men in politics, wave around their family obligations as badges of decency.

But the Pelosi paradigm could use an update: Pelosi 2.0. The new speaker did stay home and bake cookies; she wasn't elected to Congress until she was 47 and her kids were grown. For better or worse, and with or without a wealthy husband, this isn't especially feasible for most women now. For one thing, we tend to have children later; for another, employers aren't eager to hire women with stale degrees and atrophied skills. The key to ensuring future Pelosis is a workplace that accommodates women -- and men -- looking for ways to shuttle in and out of work or to craft flexible schedules that let them be good employees and good parents.

Who better to help accomplish this than a female speaker? As 8-year-old Madeleine said of her grandmother at the women's tea honoring Pelosi last week, "Because my Mimi got this job I think more women will get jobs like hers."

When Madeleine finished, Pelosi gave her a hug, and then, like grandmothers everywhere, brushed the child's hair out of her eyes.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company