As they watched House Speaker Nancy Pelosi step forward to wrangle an unruly Congress over the years or stare down a bombastic president, many women across the country saw a version of the calm, confident leader they hoped to be themselves.
Pelosi, in rooms full of powerful men, was tenacious, tactical, tough. All while being a devoted mother and grandmother at home. And rarely finding the need to raise her voice.
“The image of her coming out in the red coat was just always amusing to me because it just kind of personified how badass she is,” said Gina Lind, 61, of Phoenix, a marketing director for an airline. “It completely represented a woman in quiet control.”
After her announcement this week that she would step down from Democratic leadership after two decades, many people reposted that meme of Pelosi confidently striding out of the Trump White House in sunglasses and a long red coat following a tense meeting. The moment was a reminder of how Pelosi, the first woman to become House speaker, redefined outdated expectations about the role of women in the highest levels of government.
Fans of Pelosi, a California Democrat, have taped the image to their refrigerator, downloaded it as a screensaver or emblazoned it on coffee mugs. They likewise savor the photos of her confronting then-President Donald Trump in the White House Cabinet Room or ripping up his final State of the Union speech.
“When I look at that (Cabinet Room) picture, I think, ‘Okay, stand up and say what you have to say,’” said Kelly Haggerty, 49, an engineer for the city of Syracuse, New York, who works on construction projects and often finds herself, like Pelosi, squaring off in a room full of men.
“I mean, these guys across the table from me are not the president of the United States, but it’s not fun to always be the only woman in the room,” said Haggerty, who called the photo inspiring. “I did put it on my refrigerator because I have two teenage girls, and I want them to be the same way. I don’t want them to ever stand down,” she said.
Like many other women of her generation, Pelosi did not formally start her career until she was in her late 40s and her five children were mostly grown. But her father had been in politics, serving first as the mayor of Baltimore and then in Congress. And Pelosi, in her leadership farewell speech from the House floor on Thursday, recalled being awed by the sight of the Capitol building at the age of 6.
“Make no mistake, though, she’s been in politics since she was born, whether she was running for office or not,” said Rep. Karen Bass, a fellow California Democrat who is now the incoming mayor of Los Angeles.
In her view, Pelosi embraces her power without being “heavy-handed about it.” She credits Pelosi with standing firm during the tumultuous Trump years.
“Women do lead differently, and have to leverage their power in a way that is just different, and I think she has perfected that,” she said. “(But) if anybody has to go up against her, good luck.”
And that female strength and tenacity are what angers people about Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and other female leaders, some women believe.
“People expect us to be nice all the time. If and when we don’t behave in that particular ‘box,’ people can get pretty emotional and angry about that,” said Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth, 34, a Democrat.
“I think she took an undue amount of criticism for doing the job the same way and often times better than men had done that job,” Elfreth said. “And in doing so she paves the way for other women in elected office to be just as tough and just as resilient.”
If the country has yet to see a female president, the younger generations have at least seen Pelosi and a growing number of other women in Congress working beside her. When Pelosi first came to Congress in 1987, she had only two dozen female colleagues among the 535 lawmakers. This year, there are 147 women in the House and Senate — and a growing number of female governors.
“I think we take for granted how that (Pelosi’s leadership) has transformed what it means to be a woman in power, maybe what it means to be a woman executive, and I think that in years to come we’ll be especially grateful to her for breaking that glass ceiling,” said Cecilia Ritacco, a 22-year-old graduate student in government studies at Georgetown University.