Nancy Pelosi is the first female Speaker of the House in the nation’s history. Far from just a historical relic, she remains one of the most powerful women in Washington. And yet, in a shocking interview on NBC’s Meet the Press she set aside her legacy as a defender of sexual harassment victims and instead picked up her mantle of Democrat strategist in attempted to defend Rep. John Conyers against growing allegations of sexual misconduct.
Last week, Conyers was the subject of a BuzzFeed report, which uncovered signed affidavits from former staff members who allege that Conyers made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sex acts, engaging in inappropriate touching, using Congressional resources to maintain mistresses, and requests to staff to find women to meet his sexual desires.
Despite the explosive allegations, when asked by Meet the Press host Chuck Todd whether Conyers should step aside, Pelosi instead questioned the accusers and argued that any allegations should be handled by the House Ethics Committee.
“We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — was it one accusation? Was it two?” Pelosi asked. “John Conyers is an icon in our country. He’s done a great deal to protect women.”
The defense of Conyers came in the same interview in which Pelosi lauded the “generational change” that is happening in the way brave women are publicly confronting their harassers.
“Something very transformative is happening,” Pelosi said. “That is women are saying zero tolerance, no more, and we’re going to speak out on it. This is so wholesome, so refreshing, and so different.”
Apparently, “zero tolerance” has a much different meaning in the mind of Nancy Pelosi because when presented with an opportunity to be on the right side of the cultural shift when it came to a high-ranking member of her own caucus, Pelosi demurred again and again.
When asked by host Chuck Todd whether she believed Conyers’ accusers, Pelosi said: “I don’t know who they are. Do you? They have not come forward.”
Asked again, she said that it was “for the Ethics Committee to review.”
When asked whether she would suspend Conyers from his position as the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Pelosi said: “This all happened during the Thanksgiving break. When we all come together at the beginning of this week, I think John will do the right thing.”
After being pressed again on what actions she would take, Pelosi said, “I’m not sharing that with you right now.”
Many pundits are criticizing her responses in light of the recent cultural moment, but as Laura McGann writes for Vox, her comments are regressive no matter the context. In fact, they almost perfectly capture the standard lines that have pushed victims of sexual abuse into the shadows rather than confront their accusers. For instance, Pelosi said that Conyers is an “icon,” indicating that his position somehow gives him implicit permission to act as he did; she said he is a good man who has “done a great deal to protect women” as if that gives him cover to be a hypocrite; and even implied that his behavior wasn’t so bad by asking, “Was it one accusation? Was it two?” as though a “yes” answer to either of those questions would be acceptable.
“[A] viral social media hashtag, #MeToo, has emboldened women to share their stories of harassment and assault without shame, and women are standing up at great personal risk to name perpetrators of sexual harassment. They’re demanding to be heard.
Will the first female speaker of the House hear them? Will she listen to one woman who spoke up?
Last year, Pelosi joked about a flap between Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, repeating Albright’s famous line: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Whatever happens next, today Pelosi is that woman.”
What happened next was that Conyers stepped down. But that doesn’t mean that Rep. Pelosi should be off the hook, even she was the one to get him to resign his Judiciary post behind the scenes. She was presented with the rare opportunity to set a powerful example of putting principle above base politics and asking for Conyers to resign. She failed.