Nancy Pelosi is having her big meme moment. Images of the Speaker-elect leaving her meeting with the President last week clad in a stylish red coat, cool shades and a slightly exasperated expression have proliferated on the internet. As observers praised Pelosi for her poise in the meeting itself, Max Mara, the company that made that fiery coat, has gone so far as to reissue it. Far from her detractor-fueled image as a controversial, embattled leader, Pelosi has emerged with a renewed image as a competent, tough and deeply experienced legislator who had to explain to the President of the United States how laws are made: “[In] legislating, which is what we do,” she explained, “you begin, you make your point, you state your case.” When Trump then boasted he could easily get the votes for a wall, she immediately called his bluff: “Well, then go do it.” There was an undeniable thrill, especially for those of us tired of seeing women shut down or disregarded by powerful men, in seeing Pelosi go toe-to-toe with Trump and leave with another notch in her belt.
This isn’t to say it’s always a victory lap for Pelosi. Congressional races have used her as a bogeymen for years. “In the final stretch of the 2010 campaign, Pelosi was so toxic to her party that she abstained from campaigning for her fellow Democrats and instead focused on raising money at closed-door fundraisers,” one 2015 profile of her noted. Republicans used the same tactic of tying opponents to Pelosi in 2018—and many Democrats did in fact distance themselves from her—but she never seemed to be bothered, showing an understanding of how electoral politics differ from the politics of intra-party leadership.
Like other powerful political women reborn on the web—be it the Notorious RBG or “texts from Hillary”—Pelosi went viral because of an image that is based in an outward appearance of self-possession and power. But the reason Pelosi inspires women right now—more so than any other stage in her long career—is that her earned confidence predates the Trump era, with its scandals, egos, resignations and fibs, and hopefully will outlast it too. She’s a symbol of endurance and depth, of a certain kind of woman who puts her head down, does the work and gets her task accomplished, even as politics and personalities ebb and flow around her and she faces unending sexism. She told a reporter that early on in her ascension, instead of getting encouragement from party leadership, she got incredulity. “The only time I was ever in the Democratic speaker’s office was when I became speaker,” she said. “When I decided to run, the first thing I heard was: ‘Who said she could run?’” That she ran anyway, believing she was the best person for the job, is part of what makes her a figure of inspiration. And her story sends a message to women across the country, including the thousands who ran for office in 2018, many of whom won: If you want to make change, you may have to stand up and take on the boys.