Is the Treatment of Nancy Pelosi Fueled by Sexism?

Other than sexual assault or harassment, most of the sexism that women experience doesn’t come in the form of blatant statements or actions about women being inferior to men. They’re usually a lot more subtle than that and leave us wondering whether or not a man would get treated similarly.

With a hat tip to David Nir for catching this one, a perfect example comes in the form of how writers at the New York Times have handled caucus votes for the next Speaker of the House. Here are the first few paragraphs of the write-up of Wednesday’s vote to nominate Nancy Pelosi.

Representative Nancy Pelosi overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination on Wednesday to be speaker when the new Congress convenes in January, but the defection of 32 Democrats signaled that she could still face a divisive fight to lead the House just as the party assumes control.

The result kept alive the threat of a messy intraparty feud and touched off what promises to be an intense period of internal arm-twisting and cajoling by a leader renowned for both. At the same time, it confirmed that despite a drumbeat of calls within her caucus for new leadership, most Democrats support returning the 78-year-old Californian, the first woman to be speaker, to the post.

In a secret-ballot vote that dramatized rifts among Democrats only weeks after midterm election victories handed them the majority, Ms. Pelosi, running unopposed, won support from 203 Democrats. Beyond the 32 no votes, three ballots were left blank…

To become speaker, Ms. Pelosi must win 218 votes in a House floor vote on Jan. 3. That gives opponents time to recruit a serious challenger, something they have said could occur only once they showed that she lacked the votes to be elected.

Compare that to how the vote to nominate Paul Ryan was described just three years ago.

Mr. Ryan, an architect of sweeping budget and tax reform proposals who gained national prominence as the Republican Party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee, won the overwhelming support of his colleagues in the nominating contest and is now set to be installed as speaker in a formal vote on the House floor on Thursday.

Republicans said the vote was 200 to 43 over Representative Daniel Webster of Florida, Mr. Ryan’s closest rival.

Although Mr. Ryan was short of the 218 votes needed to win Thursday’s floor vote, supporters said he would pick up backers now that he is the nominee. “Anything over 218 wins, I think we’ll be well above that,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma.

There was no reference at all to the fact that Pelosi presided over the House during a time when Democrats passed some of the most sweeping legislation for her party in decades, while Ryan gets a shout-out for simply proposing budget and tax reforms. Beyond that, even though Pelosi got more votes, her victory was described with phrases like “divisive fight,” “messy intraparty feud,” and “dramatized rifts.”

It’s true that those articles were written by different reporters. But they both represent the conventional wisdom that has been prevalent in the media.

The question the comparison poses is whether or not the disparate treatment of Pelosi and Ryan is related to sexism. There is no way to prove that one way or the other, but there are those who will say, “of course it is” and many who will respond with, “of course it isn’t.” I’m not here to make an argument of bothsiderism on this one. I happen to think that sexism is a factor.

The point I want to make, however, is that these are the kinds of questions women face on a regular basis. Most of them just slide by with little or no fanfare. But over time, they take a toll. Absorbing the slights can chip away at our confidence. But the alternative to giving them a pass is to be constantly on the defensive. Having to mentally weigh those options all the time is exhausting.

I’ve had conversations with African American and Latino friends who say the same thing about what it’s like to deal with issues related to racism. When the attacks are obvious, they are hurtful—but at least we all know what we’re dealing with. It is those times when we have to question whether critiques are directed at us personally or if they are fueled by sexism/racism that mess with our minds. That is the everyday cost of white patriarchy that will only come out of the closet when we can talk about it honestly.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .