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Nancy Pelosi on her 25 Years in Congress

The House minority leader reflects on her battles to combat AIDS/HIV and improve women's health over the years, and on women's role in a polarized Congress.

Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader, was soon to head home to San Francisco for a much needed August recess. But first she sat down with me for an interview, reflecting on her years in the House, beginning 25 years ago. One of the most important moments for her was that first speech. "The most exciting speech that I made," she said, "was about AIDS. I came here to fight against HIV and AIDS, and here we are 25 years later." With the International AIDS Conference meeting, Pelosi took the floor just last month to urge Congress "to recommit ourselves to a world without HIV/AIDS.”

Along with her fight against AIDS, Pelosi spoke to me about other issues important to her, among them women's health care.

The Affordable Care Act—its passage a major milestone for Pelosi as House speaker—kicked in on August 1 with a package of preventive and diagnostic care benefits of particular importance to women. Among other significant health related legislation, she cites passage of family medical leave under President Bill Clinton. "Most women will tell you that that issue is an obstacle, and men too," she said. She spoke of the challenges over the years of getting funding on AIDS and "breast cancer, cervical cancer, for any research on women… Pat Schroeder used to say they don’t even have female mice at the National Institutes of Health. They don’t want to test on women because, you know, they have these other cycles and things. And we’re saying that’s exactly why you should." She worked with Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) on including women in government funded research. "We sat three in a row on the Appropriations Committee," insisting on an "increase of funding for women’s health, and the establishment of the Office of Women’s Health. We got resistance, but we established it."

Resistance, challenges, polarization. All nothing new for Pelosi. Would Republican women join Democratic women on important issues affecting them? "Issue by issue," she responded. Case in point, two important issues that are still facing a great deal of resistance: the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, now stalled in Congress with one version passed by the House and another, more comprehensive Senate bill; and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which failed in the Senate in a party-line vote. Pelosi said that these issues will require women to weigh in. "And when you have more women in elective office, this becomes easier. Now Republican women in the Senate voted for the Violence Against Women Act. In the House they did not. The women in the Senate did not vote for paycheck fairness, so not all women are on board with all of these issues but you have a better chance."

Summarizing women's historic progress in the last century—from getting the right to vote more than 90 years ago to the exodus "from home to factories," and the pursuit of higher education—she said lack of childcare remains a glaring need. "I could never understand how these young women with young children could do what they did," she said, as one who took on her challenging jobs outside the home after four of her five children had left the nest. "I was in awe of them and my own daughters who do that. Access to affordable, quality childcare, important for children, important for families… so that is the missing link," she stated.

And she expressed her passionate desire to see more women in politics. "There were fewer than two-dozen when I came here, there are three times, four times as many now, but still not enough."

"Here’s my view and this is what I’ve been saying around the occasion of my twenty-fifth anniversary. Incrementalism is not working for us. At this rate, we’ll parity with men in Congress 200 years from now," which is unacceptable. "We have to create a different environment. We have been playing on their turf, their political system. If you reduce the role of money and you increase civility, you will increase the number of women elected to public office. The more that money weighs in and the more the poisonous debate takes place, well… it’s an important time for women to say, 'let us make our own environment.' It doesn’t mean women are better than men; it absolutely means the mix is better."

But being in a high-powered position as a woman may take a great deal of sacrificing. Pelosi weighed in on the debate surrounding Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," and Yahoo's choice of Marissa Mayer, who is pregnant with her first child, as president and CEO. "Everybody had something to say about her accepting the job. You know what I say to women? Your path is your path. You decide. You establish your priorities. You recognize what is most important to you at what time. But I don’t really want to accept any notion that women can’t have it all."

Which brings Pelosi back to her wish of seeing more women in political office. "I want to attract more younger women to run. I got here in my middle 40s, when my children were grown except for one still in high school. But women should be coming when men are coming, which would be like early 30s... They’re here ten years. They’ve established standing on issues, seniority in committees, and they’re much better positioned to take the leadership in the Congress."

Asked if we could one day see a Cabinet with a majority of women, Pelosi replied, "Oh easily. They follow the talent." Pelosi continued, "I always thought that it would be easier to have a woman president than to have a woman speaker of the House because [moving up in] this place is breaking the marble ceiling. I mean it’s no glass ceiling. We’re talking marble." She described the 200-year-old pecking order in the House: "It's ‘I’m next, you’re next, I’m next, he’s next,’ and it’s all guys. So when I asserted myself there was a lot of ‘who said she could run?'" She offers advice. "Make your case. The American people were way ahead of the Congress in that regard."

So how soon would we see a woman president? "Oh, it depends on if Hillary Clinton wants to run next time," she added. "I think if she ran she would win. That would be a great thing for America. And women have to recognize that women can do this."

As she looks to her 26th year in Congress, Pelosi spoke about one of the most important issues she feels must be addressed by Congressional leadership. "It’s not even an issue, it’s more of a value ethnic. And that is preserving our democracy. I really think that’s why this election is so important—we cannot have an election that validates that money rules. The people rule in our country and you cannot have a suffocation of the airwaves by so much money, suppression of the vote, and poisoning of the debate and say that’s what our founders intended. They founded a democracy, not a plutocracy." We have to have a debate about values "if we're going to ever get paycheck fairness and some of the issues we talk about," she said.

Pelosi’s day is not quite over. She is shortly on her way to another interview. This one is to talk about the late Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman vice-presidential candidate and what her nomination meant to the country.

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