Why Nancy Pelosi is good for America

As Nancy Pelosi takes charge of the House of Representatives, she is making history in more ways than one. N...

Posted: Jan 4, 2019 7:05 AM
Updated: Jan 4, 2019 7:05 AM

As Nancy Pelosi takes charge of the House of Representatives, she is making history in more ways than one. Not only is she the first woman to be elected speaker of the House in two stints; not only has she stood up successfully to President Trump in the Oval Office with cameras whirring; not only did she deftly compromise with dissidents in her ranks in order to retain power. Nancy Pelosi is also the woman now at the forefront of a potential revolution in American politics.

Despite her unpopularity in GOP districts around the country, Pelosi has become the central player in an unfolding drama, the plot of which centers around one question: Whether the flood of new women into Congress this year can begin the renewal of the badly broken political system that is increasingly holding back the country.

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Since the election of Donald Trump, women of all ages and backgrounds have become more civically engaged, especially on the Democratic side. In the 2015-2016 political cycle, for example, fewer than 1,000 women called Emily's List, an organization that seeks to elect Democratic women to office, for help in launching political bids from city halls to Congress. In 2018, more than 40,000 called Emily's List interested in a political run.

It cannot be stressed enough that, so far, Democratic women have been winning many more elections than Republican women. Indeed, Democratic women have increased their numbers in the House from 64 two years ago to 89 today, while the number of Republican women has decreased from 23 to 13. Smart Republicans are now scrambling to have more women join the parade.

Regardless of the paltry GOP representation, the fact is that women across the nation are opening the door wide so more of their numbers can, in the words of "Hamilton," "be in the room where it happens." Their arrival is welcome news for the future of politics.

Better at leading?

Social science studies and public polling over the past several years indicate that women being in these halls of political power will likely bring positive changes in governance. In fact, a large increase in female leaders could be a saving grace for the country's hyperpolarized, venomous politics. They may just be better at leading than men.

Barbara Kellerman, a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of several books on leadership, writes about effective leadership as a system in which the strengths of leaders, the needs of followers, and the demands of context all align properly. At this moment, women in leadership roles fit extremely well with the country's needs.

When it comes to the respective leadership strengths of different genders, it's hard to be sure what is absolutely, verifiably true. But research suggests women possess two leadership qualities that our country needs right now. In her book, "Women in the Club," Georgetown University professor Michele Swers explains that women are able to influence change in oft-ignored policy arenas. She writes, "Women are able to leverage their gender to influence policy debates on a range of issues from health care and education to abortion rights and pay equity."

But women in public office don't just bring needed attention to these issues. They also have distinct enough experiences from men that female elected officials bring new ideas on how to fix problems in essentially every realm, from foreign policy to the economy. Given the gridlock slowing down Washington, the looming threat of climate change, and an economy at risk of tanking, all of which place stress on Americans and their families, fresh ideas and a new agenda are critical for correcting the current government malaise.

As critical as new policies are, the country needs more than just ideas. It needs elected officials who will rebuild faith in government. Fortunately, women tend to bring something as leaders that is sorely lacking in Washington: Ethics and integrity. Alice Eagly writes in "Through the Labyrinth" that women are seemingly less likely to encourage unethical practices when on corporate boards or other positions of leadership than men.

Ethics and empathy

Although research confirming Eagly's findings remains limited, people who work with women who lead agree that they are more likely to be ethical and honest than men. A 2012 study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that employees of female leaders rate the average female leader significantly higher than the average male leader when asked to what degree the leaders display "high integrity and honesty."

While the context in Washington is ripe for the strengths that female leaders would bring, the same question that has long held female leadership back remains: Is the electorate ready for women to lead? The recent election and polling suggest that Americans now want what they believe women bring to the table.

Pew reports that 61% of Americans believe women are more likely to be compassionate and empathetic as political leaders. It also found that Americans overwhelmingly believe female leaders are more likely to stand up for what they believe in and do so in a civil way than male leaders. Americans' faith in female leadership is critically important given people's lack of trust in government. Electing women, then, seems like a logical first step toward restoring that trust. The context, followers and leaders seem to have aligned.

However, Pew also found Americans hold a lingering stereotype that might prevent them from voting for women: They believe women are less willing to take necessary risks compared to men. But this stereotype is inaccurate, as recent events have shown. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has fearlessly led in Europe, often making decisions that were politically unpopular, including allowing millions of migrants into the country. Sen. Lisa Murkowski just months ago proved willing to risk her political standing to vote against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Most recently, Pelosi proved herself as risk-taking and strategic as any politician these last few weeks in her showdowns with the President and members of her own party.

Social science and national need suggest this new class of women in Congress -- which will be the largest in history -- should be just the beginning of a new political movement. Looking toward the future, there's one last finding from the Zenger and Folkman study that might be relevant to Democrat voters and leaders come February 2020 when the presidential primary begins: The closer men and women get to the highest levels of power, the more their employees believe women are better leaders than men.

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