It’s undoubtedly the end of an era. Nancy Pelosi was the first female Speaker of the House, and her exit is historic, just as her ascension was. And to be abundantly clear, she did not hold onto her position for nearly two decades by virtue of anything less than a near-superhuman level of tenacity and dedication. Throughout her tenure, she has faced extreme misogyny and violence, and the ways she kept the House Democrats together through the Trump administration was nothing short of extraordinary.
Still, Speaker Pelosi and the very position she has held leading the Democrats are, in many ways, functions of white supremacy. And Pelosi herself comes from a cohort of older white feminists in politics—Hillary, Dianne, Madeleine— who, over the past several years, have begun to slowly step back to make way for political leaders who may bring a more intersectional approach to their work. White feminist ideals helped Pelosi succeed in a job where the entire point is to keep a unified interpretation of the centralized party line. That line often compromises when it comes to the rights of those who have been classified as the “minority.” As has happened with abortion rights repeatedly, and with climate change and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—all issues that disproportionately affect people of color.
White feminism is an ideology that exists to bolster white supremacy. White feminist ideology is not defined by the race of the person who wields it; rather, it refuses to acknowledge inequality based on race, and indeed hides that inequality behind a sort of “you-go-girl” attitude that prioritizes gender inequality above all else. The bottom line: white feminism does not challenge whiteness. Period. Neither did Pelosi as speaker.
As Koa Beck, journalist and author of White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind, points out, if Pelosi had not been able to unify the House Democrats around more centrist ideals, she would have been deemed ineffective at her job. “I think there are a lot of parallels between, say, a speaker of the House, who cannot pull everybody in line and, say, a very powerful white female CEO who can’t present a really unified, exploited workforce to a board,” Beck says. “It’s a very similar dynamic.”
There is a clear line through Pelosi’s tenure where, to be sure, she did her job, and she did it well. But we cannot ignore that it came at the expense of those who have traditionally been disempowered in the United States. As 2009 waned, Pelosi faced increasing pressure as speaker to pass aversion of a bill that would become the Affordable Care Act. To do so, she would have to move past a final sticking point: whether abortion would be covered. The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops refused to endorse the bill if it included coverage for abortion, and a small cadre of anti-abortion members would not vote for it without the bishops’ go-ahead. Abortion coverage would have to go. (In fairness, this was a failure on President Obama’s part, who notoriously sought the ever-elusive prize of bipartisanship to the detriment of rights like abortion.)
It is clear, particularly in Molly Ball’s retelling of the saga in her biography of the Democratic leader, Pelosi, that this was painful for the Speaker. It is the tension of her career: fighting for important rights and ideals versus making realistic calls about what kinds of legislation can pass.
Even beyond the tough calls she had to make to pass legislation, Pelosi has made severe missteps in as a leader in Democratic discourse, adhering to white feminist ideals even outside her duties as Speaker. In 2016, Pelosi told Roll Call, “I don’t believe in abortion on demand,” employing a stigmatizing talking point that conservatives use to gin up outrage over abortion care. The following year, she told Washington Post reporters that she believes abortion is “a fading issue” for Democrats, never mind that accessing abortion care was becoming increasingly more arduous for pregnant people in hostile states. The same year, she insisted that Democrats should not use abortion as a “litmus test” for potential candidates.
As time has passed, more and more challenges have been levied at the Democratic party as an institution, particularly in the ways that it prioritizes whiteness as a baseline, a shorthand for “American,” even if the demographics of the country say otherwise. “Any efforts particularly that come from women of color in Congress to diversify Democratic strategies, ideologies, resources, have been met with a lot of resistance by her,” Beck points out. “What has been amply reported about her as she’s engaged with AOC or Ayanna Pressley or Congresswoman Omar is that she sees their politics and their efforts to diversify Democratic strategies as detracting from that essential power that Democrats have had. That is a classic white feminist practice—to have power on that level, and to see efforts and strategies to expand that power or think of it differently as detracting from that hard won power.”
Indeed, after members of the Squad—U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley—were the four Democratic holdouts on a Pelosi-backed immigration bill in 2019 because they felt it did not go far enough to protect immigrant children who are detained, Pelosi took a shot at them in the New York Times. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she said. “But they don’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”
Now, it looks as if the Democratic leadership position vacated by Pelosi is likely to be taken up by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Black man from New York who has consistently been unapologetic in his defense of abortion rights. And while people of color are certainly quite capable of taking on white feminist strategies, to be sure, Jeffries ain’t it. His leadership could see a continued decline of white feminism and white supremacist ideals in the House. But Beck cautions that rooting out white supremacy is a tall order, and a process that must continue on.
“White feminism is so insidious, and is very powerful, and I would argue white feminism is very adept at evolving,” she says. “I think that white feminism constantly needs to be seen in the context of an ideology, and not just one person.”