Nancy Pelosi is old. Her Republican opponents have been spreading the word on that for ages: Donald Trump Jr. called her “tired old Nancy Pelosi” in a campaign ad. Sarah Palin and Lindsay Graham joked about her getting face lifts. Former House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called her the face of “the old, old past” on Fox News. Beneath the competent, lifelong politician, these critics warn us, there’s a 78-year-old grandma with wrinkled skin — do you really want that making decisions about your health care?
This has been the line for many years now, and for a certain kind of voter, it works. What is surprising is to see these concerns — wrapped in slightly more polite language — used by Democrats and progressives to destabilize Pelosi’s current bid for speaker of the house.
The age argument for replacing Pelosi, Paul Blest writes at Splinter, “is a good one: not only is the leadership itself much older than the rank and file, but Pelosi has been reluctant to groom younger members for the leadership roles they’ll need to take over[.]” Meanwhile, at the Atlantic, we learn that “A House Dominated by Nancy Pelosi Hurts Young Democrats.” (The piece’s headline has evidently changed since publication but remains on Google search and in the URL.) Democratic insiders are supposedly worried that “yet another term of septuagenarian reign… would ignore the desire for change voiced by voters,” and that by refusing to hand over the reins of power, Pelosi is “hamstringing a crucial incubator of future leaders.”
Instead of heaping disgust on Pelosi’s aging, female body, Democrats are casting her as a desperate crone, clinging to relevance at any cost.
That said, a few inconvenient facts are at hand here: For one, there are no more exciting prospects making a bid for the speaker role and no coherent progressive politics behind the call to replace Pelosi . Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who claims he can replace Pelosi with “plenty of really competent females,” was anti-abortion until 2015 and had an A rating from the NRA as recently as 2010. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), one of the “females” Ryan has offered as a replacement, was one of only two Democrats who refused to co-sponsor the Equality Act, which extended civil rights protections to LGBT populations. There’s also the fact that Pelosi is still reportedly very good at her job. To her critics, these factors are cause for only slight hesitation, if any.
This is less crude than the sexism Pelosi has gotten from the GOP, but it is more insidious. Instead of heaping disgust on Pelosi’s aging, female body, Democrats are casting her as a desperate crone, clinging to relevance at any cost. In both cases, her age supposedly explains everything that’s wrong with her.
Pelosi herself has answered the critique many times over: “Oh, you’ve always asked that question, except to Mitch McConnell… It’s quite offensive, but you don’t realize that, I guess,” she told a reporter in 2012. Pelosi claimed that she has always worked to elect younger representatives to Congress and was particularly interested in electing young women: “I wanted women to be here in greater numbers at an earlier age so that their seniority would start to account much sooner.”
But, then, that’s the problem: “Women” and “seniority” are not supposed to occur in the same sentence. The act of building a life over time, of working one’s way up to leadership or securing a position as a respected elder, is denied to us. Age, experience, and authority are intrinsically connected for men; we’ve all grown up with images of sage, white-bearded elder statesmen. We still live in a society where men are supposed to age into power and women are supposed to age out of sight.
Pelosi’s age does not meaningfully differentiate her from men in similar positions. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is 67 years old. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — frequently mentioned as front-runners for 2020 — are 75 and 77, respectively. For that matter, President Trump is 72. Yet Pelosi’s age is cast as ugly and scary and freakish in a way her male colleagues’ ages aren’t; she is defined by being an old woman, whereas they are politicians who happen to be old men.
Nor is she the first to experience the double standard. Throughout her 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton (now 71) was portrayed as a fragile, sick, “stamina”-less senior citizen, despite being younger than either her primary or general opponent. Maxine Waters, at 80, is routinely assailed as a “senile old hag” on conservative websites.
In patriarchy, there are only two ways for a woman to earn value: by satisfying a man’s sexual needs or by bearing a man’s children. There is no equally valued role for elderly women. The second wave of feminism drove more women into the workplace, allowing women (admittedly, mostly white and middle-class women) to acquire roles that didn’t end with menopause. As those women’s careers kept tracking higher (like men’s do), women increasingly began attaining their greatest power and influence just when our culture deemed they should become invisible. That visibility makes people deeply uncomfortable — and that discomfort, predictably, gets projected onto the women themselves, who are cast as monsters simply because they didn’t crumble into dust the second they turned 50.
This is not to say that Pelosi is a perfect leader or that every criticism of her is sexist. I’ve had problems with her myself — she’s far too conciliatory with anti-choice Democrats at a time when reproductive rights are under siege — and I expect to have more. But by yielding to the stigma around older women’s visibility or insisting that age alone makes Pelosi useless for her job, we do more damage to “young Democrats” — specifically young, female Democrats — than Pelosi herself ever could.
Our drive to remove old women from positions of visibility and power is also a drive to obliterate female solidarity and deny the feminist movement any lasting legacy. We don’t want to just edge those women out of their positions; we want to deny that their work ever mattered in the first place. After losing the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was not just told to shut up and go away every time she appeared in public; she was erased from the history books in one Texas school district. Millennial and Gen X feminists were reared on jokes about the stodgy, ugly, sex-hating second wave, while Shulamith Firestone — once one of the most visible faces of the movement — starved to death in her own apartment. History is full of invisible women, but it is very hard to erase someone’s legacy while they’re still at work making it. Easing women out of their jobs is the first step toward pretending they were never there at all.
Even women — even feminist women — get caught up in this. We keep younger women from developing a sense of history by pitting generations against each other, encouraging young women to view their forerunners as obstacles, rather than allies and mentors. When 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez confronted Pelosi on climate change last week, it was widely portrayed as a catfight, even though both women left with kind words for each other and a shared commitment to the issue. Odds are that Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters would all characterize themselves as feminists, yet both groups had internalized the idea that the young woman could only succeed at the older woman’s expense, and vice versa.
But it does no good to support a young leader like Ocasio-Cortez now if we intend to drop her the second she gets her first gray hair. It does no good to fight for women’s representation if those women get thrown out of power every few years. Movements cannot progress if they cannot remember where they started, and when feminist movements eat their elders, we condemn ourselves to be forever running in circles. Nancy Pelosi is old. Every young woman will be old someday, God willing. We can only hope that by the time we get there, being old is no longer a reason to throw us away.