The meme was everywhere. It showed Nancy Pelosi looking like a winner, cigarette in one hand, cocktail in another, rocking a gold flecked chiffon gown and surrounded by shining gold statuettes.
Only the face was actually Pelosi’s, however. It had been photoshopped onto the body of actress and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge pictured at an Emmy’s afterparty celebrating a very good night. But the feeling of female power the Pelosi meme projected as it was forwarded again and again — that was not about the Emmys, but about politics.
“There’s an intense hunger for a female superhero right now, and the showdown between the most powerful woman in the country and the most powerful man is potent symbolism,” said Jo Piazza, author of Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, the bestselling book (and soon to be Amazon original starring Julia Roberts) which Piazza says she wrote in the first place to fill a post-2016 “need for portrayals of powerful women who aren’t afraid of their power.”
Women who study women agree that this week marks a moment. But because the biggest takeaway of recent years is that American women are not of one opinion, there are any number of interpretations of what that moment is about.
Some envision Pelosi all but wearing a cape and taking on a man who has shown more than a little disrespect to women in his personal life. She has been celebrated for this before –sarcastically slow-clapping Trump at his State of the Union speech or tapping her shades into place while exiting the White House after a showdown with Trump over the border wall, chastising the president for having a “temper tantrum”, one of the many times she treated him like a flailing toddler.
Nancy Pelosi through the years
Nancy Pelosi through the years
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 8: File photo dated 08 May, 1996 shows US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, speaking during a Capitol Hill press conference in Washington, DC. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (R, D-MO) is expected to announce 07 November, 2002 that he will not seek another term after the Republican opponents took both the House of Representatives and the Senate in mid-term elections 05 November. One of two Democrats vying to fill the spot is is Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi; the other is chairman of the Democratic caucus Martin Frost (D, TX). (Photo credit should read J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: US President Bill Clinton signs the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act Amendments of 1996 20 May at the White House in Washington DC. Standing behind Clinton are (L-R) Jeanne White, mother of Ryan, White House Aide Patsy Fleming, Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), Rep. Henry Waxman(D-CA), Rep. Nancy Pelosi(D-CA). (Photo credit should read CHUCK KENNEDY/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 25: HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS: Ranking member Nancy Pelosi ,D-Calif., during the House Appropriations,Foreign Operations subcommittee markup of FY 98 foreign operations appropriations. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
SLUG:NA/BAILOUT DATE:9/26/08 WASHINGTON, DC CREDIT: DOMINIC BRACCO II From left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) speak during a press conference about legislation for a bailout of the financial crisis on Capitol Hill on Sept. 26, 2008. (Photo by Dominic Bracco Ii/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Washington, UNITED STATES: US President George W. Bush is applauded by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (R) and Vice President Dick Cheney (L) as he delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington 23 January 2007. AFP PHOTO/Larry Downing/Pool (Photo credit should read LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 10: WHIP RACE--Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, victor in the Democratic Whip race, talks to reporters and celebrates with supporting members after the Democratic caucus elected her to replace outgoing Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich., who is running for governor of Michigan. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA,L) newly elected Democratic Minority Leader raises her hand with outgoing leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) 14 November, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Pelosi's election marks the first time in the history of the US Congress that a woman will lead her party. AFP PHOTO MIKE THEILER (Photo credit should read MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 26: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the California delegate breakfast in Boston, Massachusetts on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, July 26, 2004. (Photo by Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 02: STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS--House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and 2004 presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., talk before President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
Congressman John Lewis, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Harry Belafonte, Jessie Jackson and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (Photo by Moses Robinson/WireImage)
WASHINGTON - JUNE 04: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) addresses the 2008 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC. Democratic U.S. presidential hopefuls Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) are scheduled to speak to the same event. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MAY 22: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol May 22, 2009 in Washington, DC. Pelosi turned the news conference into an opportunity to list what she and the Democratic House leadership considered their successes of the 111th Congress' first session. She took a handful of questions about her upcomming trip to China and her statements about the CIA. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 23: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, right, and Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, shakes hands while addressing the media before a meeting at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 23, 2009. Maliki pledged to mend sectarian divisions and fight corruption as he urged the international community to continue providing support to his nation. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC- Jan. 05: House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, accepts the gavel from outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the 112th Congress convenes at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) works with staff before a vote on the House floor during a typically busy day on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, Thursday, June 23, 2011. (Photo by Melina Mara/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES â DECEMBER 1: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds her weekly on camera news conference in the Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 22: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (L) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi attends the Public Counsel's 2012 William O. Douglas Dinner at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 22, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 05: House Minority Leader Sen. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) waves as she takes the stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC that will run through September 7, will nominate U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media as female House Democrats gather around during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, on November 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. Leader Pelosi said that she has decided continue to lead the House Democrats and does not wish to retire at this time. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, bottom center, stands for a photograph with Democratic women of the House on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. 65 House Democratic women are part of the 114th Congress, the largest number of women in a party Caucus in the history of the Congress of the United States. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 07: (L-R) Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, Apple's SVP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, CEO of Apple Tim Cook, music producer Jimmy Iovine and Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi attend the Pre-GRAMMY Gala and Salute to Industry Icons honoring Martin Bandier at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 7, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - JULY 15: Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leave a meeting with House Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center where Biden briefed members on the nuclear deal with Iran, July 15, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JULY 14: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., introduces presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton to the press for her on the Iran nuclear deal following her meeting with House Democrats during their weekly caucus meeting in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi works with staff in her House Leadership office during a typically hectic legislative day on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday May 18, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) walks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after attending a meeting with the House Democratic Caucus on June 22, 2016 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 28: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 14: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), chats with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), during a memorial service to honor the late Rep. Mark Takai (D-HI), 49, who died from pancreatic cancer last July, at the US Capitol September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 21: (L-R) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) drive nails into a piece of lumber at the 'First Nail Ceremony' September 21, 2016 outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The ceremony marked the official launch of construction on the Inaugural platform where the next President of the United States will take the oath of office on Friday, January 20, 2017. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 22: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) answers questions during her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol September 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. Pelosi answered questions on a range of topics, including congressional negotiations on a new continuing resolution. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, right, shakes hands with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, following a meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. During their closed-door meeting, Pelosi expressed strong concerns about Trump's decision to name former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon to be his chief White House strategist, and asked him to reconsider the appointment. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Bloomberg
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Others, though, just see a woman — a person — doing her job. Time was when this would have been a big deal, says Judith Warner, currently a journalism fellow at the Reflective Democracy campaign, and a long-time analyst of women’s issues, including the first biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, in 1993. In 2007, when Pelosi became the first woman speaker in history, “she was still an emblem of change,” Warner says. “But she’s now one of many many more women in politics in general, in Congress more specifically, and ‘women warrior on behalf of women against a powerful man’ is not the first framing that comes to mind.”
Warner and others also note that there are women on both sides of the aisle “pushing against” Pelosi. On one side are the white women who voted for him in 2016, and his defenders in the White House, Congress and on Fox News. On the other, the insurgent progressives in her own party who believe she has been too slow to embrace the call for impeachment and view her as not leading the charge but reluctantly following it.
To some, in turn, such criticism itself — that Pelosi dithered and delayed — is a form of sexism. “The way it was talked about, the will she or won’t she, the accusations of dragging her feet, would they have talked about it that way if she were a man?” asks Joanne Bamberger, an author and political commentator whose focus is women in politics. “If this were LBJ, for instance, would they say this is strategic, knowing how to count the votes and whip the votes and waiting for the right, best moment to get this done?”
And then there is the irony that what triggered Pelosi’s endorsement of impeachment was an action by Trump that was itself arguably rooted in his sexist approach to politics.
“He was so convinced it was going to be Biden running against him, and he did all this to stop Biden,” said Molly Jong-Fast, a writer whose angry takes on the president have made her a mainstay of progressive Twitter. “The idea that a woman could be the nominee again is out of the question for him apparently.”
Of course, Trump focused on Biden because he was the consistent front-runner among Democrats. Trump, who has congratulated himself on coming up with the nickname “Pocahontas” for Warren, hasn’t exactly ignored her. But Jong-Fast sees a whiff of gender bias, too. And, as news of the phone conversations with the Ukranian president made the news this week, so did poll results showing Elizabeth Warren inching ahead of Biden in the Democratic presidential race.