“She has stood before those who had perceived they had power and demonstrated to them what the meaning of true leadership and power is,” said Nadeam Elshami, former chief of staff to Pelosi. “And I think symbols are part of that, but to her, they just come naturally.”
The most recent example came Wednesday, when she amplified to her own advantage an image Trump tweeted of her standing and pointing over a table full of men.
It was typical of this Pelosi phenomenon. Those images of her, most of which came from moments with Trump or after meetings with him, have become symbols of the Democratic resistance to the president and of women in power more broadly. Her clothes, her hand gestures, her facial expressions — they’re all “And nevertheless, she persisted,” personified.
Let’s run through the memorable examples of how Pelosi has burnished her legacy through images of her interactions with Trump.
The red coat and sunglasses
First came this December 2018 meeting, involving the most powerful politicians in the country, that devolved into a heated argument. In the Oval Office. In front of cameras.
“Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now, and I understand, and I fully understand that,” Trump said at one point.
“Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory,” Pelosi responded.
The jaw-dropping televised meeting ended. Then, these images:
Over 10 minutes of a surreal public sparring match in the Oval Office, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tried mightily to rise above the bluster and ego that erupted between the men in the room.
But Pelosi (D-Calif.) instead had to listen as President Trump mansplained to her the legislative process and her role in the debate, while Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer talked over her to trade barbs mano a mano with Trump.
Yet Pelosi emerged from the meeting not some wilted flower, but a symbol of a woman who doesn’t have time for male posturing. A photo of her departing the White House, dressed in a red coat and putting on her sunglasses, instantly became a meme.
“It’s like a manhood thing for him,” Pelosi privately told Democrats after that meeting. “As if manhood could ever be associated with him.”
Her aides have said she always wears a jacket and sunglasses outside when it’s cold, but there were some parallels to what makes this photo as famous as the pointing one.The red jacket, like the blue one she wore Wednesday at the White House, was unapologetically bright. Pelosi has recognized its significance. Almost a year later, she put it on again to be photographed for Vanity Fair’s December magazine by famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, who followed her around for two days on Capitol Hill.
In another telling photo for that Vanity Fair spread, Pelosi is surrounded by three Democratic lawmakers who are leading the impeachment inquiry, all wearing dark suits. She’s in a canary-yellow dress and matching necklace, balancing three tubes of makeup in front of a mirror that resembles back stage for a Broadway star. She is prepping for the camera in a way men don’t have to — and doing it all while appearing to provide guidance to the men around her.
The State of the Union clap-back
It’s February 2019. Democrats have just won back the House for the first time in almost a decade, and that means Pelosi is seated behind Trump as he gives his State of the Union address. Her every move is on display. Trump had a line that got a rare bipartisan standing ovation, on rejecting the “politics of retribution.”
She appears to be following along with his speech on paper and jumps up when he says this. She claps. But she extends her arms when she claps, almost locking her elbows out, in an effort to gesture her clap at the president. Her eyes are wide and pointed. She is most clearly pointing at the president (notice a theme?), telling him with her body language to listen to his own words. It’s a warning in a clap; reminiscent of how her fashion makes a political statement.
The speaker’s gavel
A month earlier, Pelosi officially became speaker again, still the only woman in U.S. history to hold the title. In a ceremony in the House to officially begin the new Congress, wearing a coral-colored dress that jumped off the TV screen, she grabbed the wooden speaker’s gavel and took the oath of office, surrounded by children, many of them her grandchildren. Again, Pelosi was speaking to many American women in that moment.
“It created an image that denotes not only making history, but also a perspective on this role and her power that aligns with experiences of women, of being a mother and grandmother,” said Kelly Dittmar, a gender and politics expert at Rutgers University. “She embraced these identities along with her political identity.”
Pelosi has had lots of practice at effectively using cameras and images to convey meaning. She’s been in Congress for more than three decades, in leadership for 16, and is one of the most photographed politicians in the country.
She is comfortable in the space she’s in, said Elshami, her former chief of staff. And her clothes reflect that. Research shows that female politicians are more scrutinized for their appearance than men. They have to be likable to win votes, whereas men don’t, necessarily. And the clothes women wear, their hair and makeup, play a big role in coming across as likable. On the flip side, women also have many more ways to express themselves. Men’s main power accessory is the same, day in, day out: a suit and tie. For a woman, the mere aspect of wearing pants is a statement of power. So is color, and jewelry and pointed heels, all items Pelosi wears regularly.
Beyond the clothes, Pelosi is often one of the only women in the room at the highest levels, which is particularly resonant in the #MeToo era, in which women are celebrated for standing up and standing out. Speaking of ...
The pointing photo
In a tweet Wednesday, Trump, as he often does, leaned on stereotypes about gender to insult a woman he feels threatened by. He tweeted this photo of his contentious meeting with Pelosi, captioned “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown!”
Her response was to make it her cover photo on Twitter. Where Trump saw weakness, Pelosi and her team saw strength. And we can see why. She already stood out in a bright blue jacket amid a room mostly full of graying white men in shades of dark blue and gray. She’s the only one standing. And to top it all off, she’s pointing at them — at the president, specifically. It’s not enough for her to be the only woman at a powerful table, Dittmar said. She’s also portraying a gesture of aggressiveness to the most powerful man in the world and his allies, men who are all listening to her, looking either demure or demoralized. The photo symbolized that she is in control. And she recognized it the moment Trump tried to weaponize it against her.
“Any woman knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room,” Dittmar said, “so having it not only be an image where she’s just one woman alone at the table, but also where she is clearly engaged in a conversation in which she’s taking the lead in the conversation, that’s indicative of power.”
Pelosi told the New Yorker in an interview Saturday, before the White House meeting, that she relishes these moments: “I do believe everything he says is a projection of himself. He calls me ‘Nervous Nancy.’ I know he’s very nervous. … Any knock from him is a boost to me.”
She told reporters Thursday morning that she was “probably saying ‘all roads lead to Putin,'" an accusation against Trump that was as bold as the moment the cameras captured.