Saturday, March 20, 2010

Nancy Pelosi and Shirley Chisholm: My Very Own BFFs

When I was a kid, I developed a Girl Crush on Shirley Chisholm.

Something about her eyeglasses, and the overbite, not to mention Chisholm's way with words.

The other day, I dipped again into Say it Plain: A Century of Great African-American Speeches, to revisit the Awesomeness that was Chisholm. (If you don't have this 2005 collection, edited by Catherine Ellis and Stephen Drury Smith, you might consider it: not only does it have all the Greatest Hits you might expect, including from MLK, but it also has more obscure speeches from the likes of John Hope Franklin, Johnetta B. Cole, and Mary McCloud Bethune. Oh, and it comes with a CD of the original audio captures of the speeches! Run, don't walk...)

On June 17, 1974, at The University of Kansas, Chisholm gave a speech titled, "The Black Woman in Contemporary America." Along with many observational gems on the status of black women, it included this:

I hope the day will come in America when this business of male versus female does not become such an overriding issue, that the talents and abilities that the almighty God has given to people can be utilized for the benefit of humanity. ... I would never have been able to make it in America if I had paid attention to all of the doomsday-criers about me. ... Forget traditions! Forget conventionalisms! Forget what the world will say whether you're in your place or out of your place. Stand up and be counted. Do your thing, looking only to God -- whoever your God is -- and to your consciences for approval.

Yeah, she brung it. And apart from the groovey and now dated '70s-speak -- "do your thing" -- Chisholm's toughness and smarts resonates with me.

This is what occurred to me too, recently, about Nancy Pelosi.

Not saying I have a Girl Crush on Pelosi. But honestly? It could come to that.

Lately I have been paying closer attention to her, specifically, to how she manages the wrangling of votes for the health-care reform bill. Seriously: Before now, I have been preoccupied, and not really tuned in to Pelosi's doings, or to all the Nancy Haters on the right. After Pelosi took the Speaker's gavel several years back, I tuned her detractors out: How boring to consider that they are unduly undone by Pelosi's San Francisco affiliation, as much as they are by any particular legislation she is championing.

But now it occurs to me that Chisholm's observations about sexism are really what is driving the Nancy Haters: How dare this gal wield so much power on Capitol Hill?, they seem to be thinking. Why is a woman in a position of power at such a crucial time in the history of our Republic? How come she isn't more deferential to us?

Right: Senator John Boehner and his crew probably use language that is a tad saltier when they talk about Pelosi in private.

But their Hateration is not only antediluvian, it is poisoning their ability to clearly assess a fundamental change that is taking place in the U.S. -- populations coast to coast are becoming younger, browner, and more female. The willful denial and ignorance of the Nancy Haters will be, ultimately, their own undoing. The increasingly frantic and absurd tactics they use to push-back against passage of the health-care bill are the final gasps of a dying empire, like Nero cranking up the violin as the flames of defeat expand around him.

Okay, not really the best metaphor, but I hope you get my meaning: Nancy Pelosi is a San Francisco Liberal (just like me...only with a larger clothing budget). And everything that is implied by that term, as it is typically hurled by Boehner and his crew, is fast becoming the "norm" in America: tolerance for "non-traditional" lifestyles, compassion for those less fortunate, government that provides for the most vulnerable of its citizens, and which smooths a path to stability for those who just need a fair shot.

Yeah, so don't waste too much energy on the Haters. Time is not on their side. I take solace in the best lessons from history, and from what I know about strong, smart American women. Shirley Chisholm's 1970 autobiography was titled Unbought and Unbossed.

That is how I think of Nancy Pelosi, too.

By the way, the best of the literary canon on Pelosi is Madame Speaker, written by Marc Sandalow, former DC bureau chief of The San Francisco Chronicle.

And, what?