How do you become the highest-ranking elected female official in the U.S.? Pelosi didn’t iron her husband’s shirts
Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. By Nancy Pelosi with Amy Hill Hearth. Doubleday, 180 pp., $23.95.
By Janice Harayda
This book has inspired toxic comments on Amazon, apparently coming both from Republicans opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s liberal politics and Democrats enraged by her refusal to support impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush. Those diatribes may be too harsh. How bad can a book be when it includes an admission by the nation’s highest-ranking elected female official that she got where she is partly by declining to ironing her husband’s shirts?
Know Your Power isn’t a definitive autobiography but a brief memoir that its publisher optimistically but rightly categorizes as “motivational.” And it would be welcome if only because it offers an alternate model to any woman who thinks she could never meet Sarah Palin’s standard of running for high office as the mother of an infant and four other children. An implicit message of Know Your Power is: You don’t have to.
In this book Pelosi describes how she found her rewards sequentially. She got her start in politics when the mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the Library Commission while she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer who had given birth to five children in six years. But she didn’t become Speaker of the House until decades later. After becoming a Congresswoman, Pelosi seems to have accepted that she could never be the perfect wife envisioned by some of the women’s magazines: She has represented her California district since 1987, and her husband has never lived in Washington. A cornerstone of her philosophy of life is, “Organize, don’t agonize.”
Pelosi gives a strong sense of the rewards of a life in politics, some learned from her father, a Congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. She also sees the comic absurdities faced by elected officials of both sexes. One fan told her, “Speaker Pelosi, I named my dog after you.” One of the strongest sections of the book deals with her remarkable mother, who raised seven children — one of whom died at the age of three — and made sacrifices that indirectly underscore the need for elected female officials of both parties.
“My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and visionary,” Pelosi writes. “She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, called Velex – Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild, and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.”
Amid such reminiscences, Pelosi offers advice to anyone who aspires to career in public service. “Don’t overstate what you will deliver, and always complete the task agreed to.” “Quality childcare is the missing link in the chain of progress for women and families.” Then there’s the advice she got from Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman from Louisiana: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.”
Some of the nastiness in politics today clearly results from the problem noted by Boggs, that many elected officials fight every fight as if it were their last. It’s easier to take an end-justifies-the-means view if you think you’ll never face your opponent — or American voters — again. Partly for that reason, if Know Your Power is billed as a book for “America’s Daughters,” it has a message for American’s sons, too.
Best line: On why she majored in history at Trinity College in Washington. D.C.: “I had intended to major in political science, but at Trinity at that time you had to major in history in order to study political science. Our teachers often quoted the great English historian J.R. Seeley’s aphorism: History without political science has no fruit. Political science without history has no root.” As someone who majored in political science major, I think Trinity had it right here. I had good poli sci professors but almost no history courses, which left me with an inadequate context for some of their lessons. If I had it to do over, I would major in history or English, which might have required me to take a few Shakespeare courses. I thought I had enough Shakespeare partly because I’d had a wonderful introduction to his greatest plays in high school. Wrong. You never have enough Shakespeare, especially if you’re a writer.
Worst lines: “This is an historic moment …” “This was a historic day in our house.” Pelosi apparently can’t decide whether its “an historic” or “a historic” and is hedging her bets. “A historic” is correct. To oversimplify: “An historic” dates to the early English settlers of our continent, many of whom dropped the “h” at the beginning of words, and the construction perpetuates the outdated language.
Recommendation? Know Your Power has crossover appeal. Doubleday has packaged it as a book for adults, and in bookstores and libraries, you’ll find it with the new adult nonfiction. But this book may especially appeal to teenage girls, including college students, who are hoping to go into public service.
Reading group guide: Doubleday has posted one at doubleday.com/2008/07/28/know-your-power-by-nancy-pelosi/, but this is a guide that’s almost worse than none. Sample questions: ” What roles do women occupy, or have they occupied, in your family? Did you have older female relatives who worked while raising a family?” These questions do not engage the serious issues Pelosi raises. You could ask them about almost any book by any female author from Edith Wharton to Toni Morrison.
Published: July 2008
Furthermore: Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes much of San Francisco. She became Speaker of the House in January 2007 www.house.gov/pelosi/biography/bio.html.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.