Christine Pelosi on the ‘Barbara Boxer Standard’ of Feminist Leadership

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Q & A Politics

Christine Pelosi on the ‘Barbara Boxer Standard’ of Feminist Leadership

Emily Crockett

"Once you run and once you win with an unabashed progressive feminist standard, then it becomes easier for everybody else who’s running," says the chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus about Boxer’s legacy.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who announced Thursday that she will not seek re-election in 2016, has made a name for herself as a pugnacious champion for progressive and feminist values since she was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982. She made history with her election to the Senate in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman, when California became the first state to have two female senators serving at the same time (the other was, and still is, Dianne Feinstein).

Boxer has long promoted the health of women and families in public policy. Together with then Sen. Joe Biden, Boxer introduced 1994’s landmark Violence Against Women Act. She fought for safe drinking water, worked to pass the first-ever funding authorization for after-school programs, and established the first-ever subcommittee focused on global women’s issues. In recent years, she has championed legislation protecting abortion rights, combating sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, and making child care more affordable.

Rewire spoke with Christine Pelosi, chair of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, about her personal experiences with Boxer as a close family friend and about Boxer’s legacy on women’s rights.

Rewire: How are you feeling about the announcement that Barbara Boxer won’t run again?

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Christine Pelosi: I’m still getting through the shock of it all. Selfishly, I want them to move back home to California so my daughter can grow up with her grandson! I’m looking forward to that third-generation friendship happening. But obviously as a political leader and head of the Democratic Party Women’s Caucus I just think it’s going to be impossibly hard to fill the shoes of such a progressive feminist.

Rewire: What has Boxer’s legacy been as a feminist leader?

CP: From a broader perspective, I think Barbara has truly been a champion for other women and other progressives. I remember going to her “Women Making History” luncheons, which she would do every year. She would honor women—the first woman vice president of a bank, the first woman entrepreneur to open up a certain kind of small business, women champions in the nonprofit world, in the business world, in the political world. She has never stopped lifting up other people, particularly other women, to make history with her, and I just think that generosity of spirit is so amazing.

The fact that California is one of the few states that is able to expand access to reproductive health-care services and women’s health clinics is part of her legacy as a leader. The Barbara Boxer standard of being an elected officeholder in California is being pro-choice, pro-privacy, pro-workers, pro-environment. All of that goes together, and with a living wage.

Barbara has always made sure that we understand the interconnectivity when it comes to public health—not just personal choices, but public health decisions that affect not only the size and timing of one’s family, but the health and success and aspirations of one’s family.

She was unashamed and undeterred by people who said, “Oh, those are just ‘soft issues,'” or “Those are ‘women’s issues.’” She would say, “No, these are progressive issues.” And to feminize the progressive movement, to be a voice for women, is something obvious to you and me now, but it wasn’t so obvious in the ’70s when she started. It was not so obvious in the ’80s. When people talked about what it means to be a progressive, they might talk in terms of “working people,” but they didn’t talk in terms of what they called “women’s issues.” One thing that Barbara just steadfastly refused to do was to marginalize health issues and choice issues as being “something that women talk about.” As opposed to: This is something that everybody ought to be talking about.

Even within the party structure at the time, they’d have a “women’s division.” Not just a women’s caucus, but a whole women’s division. They’d talk about, “Oh, maybe the women can have an amendment,” but it was never going to be about something substantive—we’ll leave national security to the guys, and you women can talk about women’s issues, but don’t talk about them too much and don’t scare us too much, right? And Barbara was just right out there, right up front: This is what it means to be a Democrat, a Californian, a liberal. This is what it means to be an advocate. You advocate for all the parts of people’s lives.

Rewire: Are there any specific moments in her career that exemplify these qualities for you?

CP: When my mom and Lindy Boggs and Barbara and the others went over to the Senate to protest the then Republican Senate’s efforts to disallow a vote on the Civil Rights Act amendment in 1990. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota was saying, “You don’t belong here,” pushing the women off to the side. And Barbara just got out there, they talked to the press, they were very clear that they did belong there, not only because members of Congress have House floor privileges and Senate floor privileges, but also morally, that women have a right to be at the table. They were literally told to sit down and be quiet, and that led to Boschwitz’s demise as a senator against Paul Wellstone in the next election, and started them on a path that ended up with Boxer as a senator, and of course Nancy Pelosi being speaker of the House.

So there are many, many people along the way who have underestimated Barbara Boxer to their peril. Rudy Boschwitz was only one of them. For all the talk in California about “Maybe Boxer can’t do this, can’t do that”—they don’t know Barbara. She almost revels in being underestimated because it just means that people don’t see her coming.

And when she talked about Anita Hill and led a march of women up to the Senate steps to demand a hearing, taking a stand and saying, “I believe you Anita Hill.” That meant so much for so many women who had been dealing with sexual harassment. And she talked about being a stockbroker before she became a representative, and the sexism inherent in being a female stockbroker in the earliest parts of her professional career. Again, groundbreaking.

Now, it seems obvious—you know, something happens, people hashtag it, talk about it on Twitter. But that’s not how it was then. There was a real conspiracy of silence. Women were basically not telling their stories. The attitude was, “Look, you’re lucky to just be here in the room. Don’t blow it for everybody else by being so female.” And Barbara always told her story, always spoke her truth, and lifted up other people’s stories. There is a tremendous amount of courage that she has when she talks about her own experiences with the choices she’s faced in terms of the size and timing of her own family. And again, that may not seem as important now in this era of storytelling and the public confessional, but it was a very different time 30 years ago.

Rewire: You talked about the “Barbara Boxer standard” for statewide office in California and the state’s advances for reproductive rights. How has she affected that fight?

CP: I think she set the standard for: This is what it takes to be elected statewide in California. When she was running in 2010, remember what the fight was. Carly Fiorina was running. You had a millionaire who was going to run who was anti-choice, anti-LGBT rights, and was pro-outsourcing. And for all the people who thought, “Carly Fiorina can win because she’s moderate,” Barbara pointed out that it’s not moderate to deny women reproductive freedom. That’s not moderate at all.

I think that redefining the center, moving the center to the left, redefining the political center of gravity around reproductive freedom, was something that Barbara did. So while she didn’t need to necessarily call in to Jerry Brown and weigh in on whether he should sign a bill to expand access, her mark was already there by the standard that she set, and in the statewide work she did. And obviously in the work she and Dianne Feinstein did in the Senate to make sure that the people nominated for the judiciary coming out of California respected the right to privacy. She walks out there on that Senate floor with more votes for her than are cast for almost anybody else by virtue of being from the biggest state in the union, she and Dianne. I think that gives them that extra added benefit of creditibility.

So I think that’s what her legacy is: Once you run and once you win with an unabashed progressive feminist standard, then it becomes easier for everybody else who’s running. We’re going to be very careful about this seat and this legacy and the ideas put forward by those who would aspire to it. It’s more important than ever to have a progressive feminist voice replace her.

Rewire: What has Barbara Boxer meant to you personally?

CP: Again, that generosity of spirit. That certainly shaped me as a young activist. The most important lasting legacy I will take personally with me is, if you have the confidence of a Barbara Boxer, the confidence she instills in you, you feel so prepared to walk into a room, and it naturally occurs to you to bring other people with you. So often in politics and in the women’s movement, there is a sense that only so many people can succeed at the top. One of the things I love about Barbara is her openness and desire to say: We all do better not only economically, as Paul Wellstone would say, but politically, socially, and morally when there’s more of us in leadership.

And of course she and my mom have had a sisterhood for decades, and seeing the two of them lead together for so many years is also something that’s quite rare and unique, to see two strong women who are so close and so noncompetitive with each other other reach out and bring more people along.

And all of that while having a loving, sustained marriage, raising two great kids, having these wonderful grandchildren, and being not only a lover of humanity but also of human beings. Whether it was when we were in college and she was saying, “Girls, you shouldn’t smoke,” or when we were dating and she’d say, “You need to find somebody to marry who’s going to love you as much as your parents do.”

I remember right before Obama’s first inauguration, I was six months pregnant. I came waddling into their house the day before the inauguration and she made me a big bowl of chicken soup and sat down and was giving all of this advice. And their grandbaby had just been born, and it was just this complete other alternate universe to everybody else who might have been breaking bread with a U.S. Senator the day before the inauguration. It was: Come over to the house, have some soup, relax, let’s all spend some quiet time together. She’s still a mom, still a Jewish mother and a Jewish grandmother, and that’s not going to change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.