Political wives have been all over the news this week. They've been portrayed as victims of their husbands' infidelity, and as obstacles to their husbands' careers.
But what about women who aren't accessories to candidates, but are the politicians themselves? The person who achieved the highest political rank for a woman in American history shares her experience.
When talking about women in politics, Nancy Pelosi thinks back to her high school debate team.
It was 1958, and several schools came together to compete in extemporaneous debate. A young Nancy D'Alesandro watched a friend reach her hand into a fishbowl filled with debate topics on little scraps of paper. She pulled one out and read.
"The question was this simple," Pelosi recalls. "Do women think?"
For Pelosi, the memory is a reminder of how far she's come — from the daughter of a powerful mayor of Baltimore to a devoted wife and mother of five children. She always kept a hand in politics at the local and regional level. It wasn't until 1987, when her youngest daughter was a senior in high school, that Pelosi ran for office herself.
As a member of Congress from San Francisco, she worked her way up, with high-profile posts on the House Appropriations Committee and Intelligence Committee. Then, it was Democratic leader, and in 2006, after her party swept the midterm elections, she became speaker of the House — the first woman in U.S. history to hold the post.
'It's Her Fault'
Despite her work, she says, and the broadening role of women in society over the decades, Pelosi can still hear a certain edge in the voices of some men when they talk about her. When they say things like, "She's doing it. It's her fault."
"I don't know if it's generational or what," she says, "but sometimes using 'she' and 'her' instead of the name of the person is not really intended to be mean-spirited, I don't think — it's just the tone that goes with it.
"So I don't have time to worry about all that. You know, I just don't have time to take offense or hold offense. It's not important. They're going to do it anyway, and the more effective you are, the more they're going to do it," she says. "So you just have to decide: Do I care about that, or do I care about getting a job done? And as I say over and over again, we came to do a job."
A quick Web search shows what she means. Pelosi is demonized and reviled by some, whose attacks seem focused on things like her appearance and her ambition, rather than her ideas.
"The only concern I have about the attacks that are made on me is that I don't want it to deter other women from saying, 'I want to go do that.' "
For This Generation, Full Speed Ahead
After Democrats lost the House majority last November, Pelosi was elected minority leader, and Republicans took control of the House. Now, Pelosi worries that the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control and women's health exams as well as abortions, is a setback.
But then, she also thinks any leftover sexism in politics will die away. The public, she says, is way ahead of politics in terms of women in power. And the young women and girls of today prove it.
"In my generation, it was like, halt. But in theirs, it's full speed ahead," she says. "So I don't have any worry about what it means for my children and grandchildren — they'll have every opportunity.
"I was thinking of my mother today earlier, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, if she were born some decades later, what she would have done?' Just a remarkable woman," she says. "But it's about the future, and I think that nothing is more wholesome to the political process and the process of government than the greater participation of women."
Pelosi's advice to women rising in their careers who meet resistance from someone with other ideas of a woman's proper role?
"It's their problem," she says. "You know, it's the problem of these people who harbor this anger. And you can't let their anger take you down."
Focus, she says. Don't get dragged into it.
And the news showing women in politics more often as problems or props for their husband's political campaigns? You don't have to believe that story, Pelosi says.
Just look at her: She was a girl who chose to use her life and career to answer the question, "Do women think?" Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.