Looking through the coverage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s State of the Union “clap heard around the world,” I thought of something British actress Dame Kristin Scott Thomas once said: “We older women in Europe are lucky not to be shoved away in a drawer.”
I’ve encountered Thomas’ words about older women before, usually in stories about how few roles exist in Hollywood for women older than 55 (beyond either incredibly wise or severely impaired grandmothers). But they hit me differently when I thought of the 78-year-old Pelosi making a good portion of the planet either clap with her or pound for her removal.
The difference is that, no matter whether you think Pelosi might be the battle-proven warrior we need to save us from the current situation in Washington or something wicked vapored up from the nether world to destroy us, one cannot deny that a woman well beyond the “certain age” of about 50 that a few cosmetics companies and fashion designers have realized they could target now occupies one of the most powerful positions on political earth. That is something that has rarely occurred in any nation’s history.
Of course, the British had Margaret Thatcher, who was 65 when she left office after 11 years as prime minister. The British also have 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, though her role has mostly been symbolic. Then there is 64-year-old Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany and thought by many to be the true boss of Europe.
Much ado has been made in recent years of the 85-year-old “Notorious RBG,” also known as Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But while all of these women held or hold power residing on different levels of the lofty scale by which we measure world leaders, none compares exactly to the two-heartbeats-from-the-presidency power Pelosi possesses.
There are other things that separate Pelosi from other women leaders (older than 55 or not), things that cause tremendous discomfit and distaste in some and make others see her as a model of something we should encounter more often. While Margaret Thatcher instilled enough dread in enough people to warrant the “Iron Lady” title she came to wear with pride, few men or women thought her captivating in the manner much of Western society has for centuries thought proper and desirable for women.
Pelosi is capable of being as ruthless, fearless and competent a negotiator and dealmaker as any of the men who have held similar positions in Congress. Yet she doesn’t seem to mind combining that with more traditionally feminine qualities.
She did not run for Congress until her youngest child was nearly finished with high school. She surrounded herself with grandchildren at both of her swearings-in as speaker of the House. Her hair is not the closely cropped gray one might expect of someone in her late 70s. She energetically walks in heels of a height women many decades younger have discarded for sensible sneakers.
Even those who despise her with most every breath they command have been heard to remark upon her beautifully tailored wardrobe. A wardrobe that includes dresses. Some of them in pink. When she walked out of the White House after a government shutdown session, a lot of people commented on the smart cut of her coat and the confident manner in which she donned her make-my-day sunglasses.
Some said she acted great for her age. Some said she just acted great. Some even said she was beguiling.
The thing is, older women, whether they be seamstresses or speakers of the House, are contributing more to society than stereotypes and Hollywood movies might have us think. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2024, twice as many women 55 and older will be in the workforce as women ages 16 to 24 will be. Will all of them look to Pelosi for inspiration? No. But a whole lot of them will.
And as we wait to see whether another government shutdown awaits, is Nancy Pelosi showing us that older American women shouldn’t be shoved away in a drawer?
Put on your sunglasses and watch.
Mary Stanik is a writer in St. Paul and author of the novel “Life Erupted.”