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The San Francisco Democrat

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

You've got to hand it to Nancy Pelosi. Love her or hate her -- and there are probably more people in the second category than the first -- you can't deny the enormity of her accomplishment. She did something very, very big. She cut a tough deal at the last minute to do it, and she absolutely was the right person to be cutting that deal. I don't like the fact that the health care bill does its best to negate a woman's right to choose, but if Pelosi tells me that's what it took to get the votes, I believe her.

None of that will necessarily make her any more popular with most Americans this week than she was last week. You can be sure Republicans are looking with greater relish at running against her than against President Obama.

And that's after some real improvement in Pelosi's ratings. A few months ago, her disapproval rating was hovering around 62 percent, according to Rasmussen Reports. A majority still doesn't like her. But then, a majority, according to Rasmussen, doesn't like health care reform, either. Far from undercutting her achievement, these numbers underscore it. She got it through anyway.

I was thinking about what it would be like if, say, a rich, handsome, photogenic man from Silicon Valley was speaker of the House and had pushed health care through. I think he would be a very big deal. In a very different way from Nancy Pelosi.

I have been conducting my own informal survey to find out why people don't like Pelosi and, more particularly, what it is they don't like about her. My focus has been on people who agree with her, many of whom -- particularly men -- cringe visibly when you ask them about her.

You hear the word "phony" a lot, but that's not really true. Pelosi is authentically just what she is, which is to say one of those women my mother spent her life being jealous of, comfortable in her Armani, secure in her good looks, unashamed of the obvious time and attention she puts into them, a girl who had the right kind of father (rich and powerful) and the right kind of husband (rich and supportive) and always fit in. You know she was popular in high school. She is also tough, smart and determined, which doesn't make it better. I always found it easier to take when girls like that were dumb.

If you suggest to people that it's sexism that keeps Pelosi from earning the approval she deserves, most right-minded men, not to mention women, will immediately start telling you how much they like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is also from San Francisco and rich and powerful and very well-dressed. It's true. Sexism today rarely takes the form of excluding all women.

But there's a narrow window of acceptability, much narrower than for men. Feinstein's public persona has been shaped by tragedy. She became mayor of San Francisco in a hail of bullets. She has a very dignified, almost upper-crust bearing. She is not in your face. I don't think she would want to wrangle the House of Representatives into passing health care.

There's also the problem that many people -- including many men and more women than we'd like to admit -- don't cotton to taking orders from a woman, particularly a pushy one. And what successful woman over 40 is not pushy?

It still amazes me how many young people tell me openly that they've had horrible experiences working for women and prefer not to. Too often the stories are pretty bad. Embarrassing. A bitter older woman punishing a younger one. On and on. The next generation was supposed to change all this, not have it reinforced.

None of that is going to change because of Pelosi. But the one thing I didn't hear from anyone, even the people who both hate and disagree with her, is that she doesn't know what she's doing. If you think what she does is easy, look around the world. This woman is good at her job, at one of the toughest jobs there is. That speaks well for all of us.


See Other Political Commentaries

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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