Related: Civil & Human Rights, Political Issues, Politics, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Trinity Alumnae, Women, Women's Leadership

“Competent Females,” Remarkable Women


Nancy Pelosi at symposium(Nancy Pelosi speaks at Dreamer Symposium at Trinity, October 2017, photo by Summer Faulk)

Hey, sisters, did you hear the news?  The revolution is over!  Congressman Tim Ryan tells us so!  “There’s plenty of really competent females” in Congress, according to Brother Tim!  Whew!  Glad we settled that, because with so many incompetent men in Congress, we need somebody who knows what they’re doing!

Ryan’s back-handed compliment to “competent females” (so redolent of “some of my best friends are….” rhetoric) is no generous compliment from a recovering male chauvinist.  Au contraire, clumsy phraseology aside, his statement is actually an attack on the most effective leader the U.S. House of Representatives has had in decades.  Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ’62) is tough enough and politically skilled enough to prevail over the cheap machinations of Ryan, a man who is not above using other women in his fight to keep Pelosi from becoming Speaker of the House for the second time in her career.  Ryan is attempting to discredit Pelosi’s clearly superior track record and experience by injecting the gender card into his campaign against her.  Seriously, Congressman, all “competent females” are not necessarily ready to be Speaker of the House — nor are most men, as recent history reveals.

Nancy Pelosi is a remarkably effective political leader whose achievements during her first tenure as Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011 are legendary.  A New York Times story on November 15 puts it this way:  “[Pelosi] is considered by both Democrats and Republicans to be the most effective speaker in modern times. Were it not for her political skill and keen strategic sense, they say, President George W. Bush could not have secured the bank bailout he needed to halt an economic free fall and President Barack Obama could not have passed the Affordable Care Act.”

Pelosi greeting students(Nancy Pelosi greeting Trinity students at the Dreamer Symposium, October 2017, photo by Summer Faulk)

But, as many news stories attest, Pelosi has been demonized for years by the Republican media machine, to the extent that some Democrats have distanced themselves from her in order to win their elections.  This spinelessness on the part of some Democratic members of Congress plays into the hands of those on the political right who not only want to block Pelosi’s return to the powerful Speaker’s chair, but also, they want to keep the Democrats fractured and consumed by infighting.  Those who think that a different, less experienced person in the Speaker’s chair would be more effective in promoting a progressive agenda while blocking the more destructive effects of Trumpism are clueless about the real dangers this nation faces right now.  Experience, not gender nor age nor extremist views, should be the deciding factor.

Nancy Pelosi’s style in handling opposition should be a case study for all those who seek leadership positions, and particularly for women.  At least to the public eye, she exudes supreme confidence about her abilities and destiny to be successful in whatever she undertakes.  “Know your power,” is her constant refrain.  In a recent CNN interview, political reporter Dana Bash put it this way:  “As she was telling me how qualified she is to be House speaker again, it struck me how unusual it is to hear a woman talk so confidently about how uniquely qualified she is for a job or position she is seeking. Though I am no shrinking violet, it is often hard for me to toot my own horn that way, something I admitted in the moment to Pelosi. 

“For most women, frankly, myself included, it is hard to say those words, ‘I am uniquely qualified. I deserve this. I earned this. I can do this better than anyone else,'” I told Pelosi.

“You know why I do it? I do it, because I want women to see that you do not get pushed around. You don’t run away from the fight,” she responded.”

Demonizing powerful women is as old as civilization itself — in centuries past, a woman who stepped up to leadership might have been declared a witch and burned at the stake or otherwise banished and despised.  Today’s powerful women simply have to put up with Twitter trolls and demeaning advertising and ugly smears and the abject disloyalty of people who should know better.  Learning to cope with all of that while remaining effective is a trait that successful women leaders have to develop.

Trinity Women have been in public leadership for generations, and each can tell her own story of the private battles and personal attacks that go along with the public persona.  Before Nancy Pelosi went to Congress, our first Congresswoman was Barbara Bailey Kennelly, Class of 1958, now distinguished professor of Political Science at Trinity.  As Congresswoman Kennelly, Barbara was one of very few women in the House of Representatives from 1982 to 1999; she was the first woman to serve on the House Intelligence Committee, and one of few women back then to serve on Ways and Means.  Like Leader Pelosi, Congresswoman Kennelly knew her power in Congress and was always supremely confident despite the many barriers to women’s progress — and like Nancy, Barbara also fought for legislation to improve the status and condition of women.

When she was Speaker of the House previously, Nancy Pelosi worked closely with Kathleen Sebelius, Class of 1970, then Secretary of Health and Human Services and formerly a two-term governor of Kansas.  Kathleen is yet another example of a remarkable Trinity leader in public life, and she, too, certainly knew how to manage the nastiness that is part of accepting public office.

Also in the administration of President Barack Obama, Susan Flood Burk, Class of 1976 served as Ambassador for Nuclear Non-Proliferation in the Department of State.

In the current White House, Kellyanne Conway, Class of 1989, Counselor to the President, is the latest Trinity alumna to serve a president, and she, too, knows the kind of personal attacks that women in leadership incur.  I’ve had my disagreements with Kellyanne but I do not condone the personal vilification that she receives.  Before Kellyanne, Maggie Williams, Class of 1977, served as Chief of Staff to First Lady Hillary Clinton as well as Assistant to President Clinton; Maggie was the highest ranking African American woman in the Clinton White House.  She, too, knew the scorching rhetoric that often beleaguers women in high places.  In the 1970’s, the late Patricia Sullivan Lindh, Class of 1950, served as the Special Assistant for Women’s Affairs in the administration of President Gerald Ford, and Nancy Lammerding Ruwe, Class of 1949, was the Social Secretary for First Lady Betty Ford.

Trinity Women serve in public office in many other ways.  Kathleen Passidomo, Class of 1975, just won another term in the Florida State Senate, and she is very effective serving her constituents in southwest Florida.  Rosemary Collyer, Class of 1968, is a senior judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and currently serves as the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  Claire Eagan, Class of 1972, is a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, and she, too, serves on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

These are just a few of the many remarkable Trinity Women who have served in public office, and each one goes beyond mere competence to true excellence.  Trinity Women know that gender is not the reason for anyone to get hired or promoted — but nor should gender (or age, or race, or other personal characteristics) be used against women to block our progress.

Our Trinity Sister Nancy Pelosi is poised to become, once again, one of the most powerful political leaders in our country.   I, for one, do hope that she is elected Speaker of the House and is able to be an agent for the kind of change we need so much right now.  Whether you agree or disagree with her politics, we surely can join in a prayer of hope that if she does become Speaker of the House in January, may she take office with the strength, wisdom and love of the Trinity to guide her in these extremely perilous times for our country.

Let the revolution continue!

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: