Pelosi to Smith students: ‘This country needs you’

  • Smith College President Kathleen McCartney, left, listens as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to about 500 students, faculty and staff at John M. Greene Hall in Northampton, Wednesday night. SMITH COLLEGE/SAMUEL MASINTER

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on stage at Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall Wednesday night.  SMITH COLLEGE/SAMUEL MASINTER

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on stage at Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall Wednesday night. SMITH COLLEGE/SAMUEL MASINTER

  • Smith College President Kathleen McCartney, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at John M. Greene Hall Wednesday night. Pelosi received an honorary degree from the college before taking part in a Presidential Colloquium that served as the inaugural event in Smith College’s Year on Democracies. SMITH COLLEGE/SAMUEL MASINTER

For the Gazette
Published: 9/8/2021 11:43:26 PM

NORTHAMPTON — It didn’t take long for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call herself a Smithie Wednesday night, much to the delight of the Smith College students who had come to hear her speak.

After receiving an honorary degree from Smith President Kathleen McCartney, the two sat across from each other on stage at John M. Greene Hall as Pelosi fielded questions from McCartney on a wide range of topics, from voter suppression to Afghanistan, fighting hunger and climate change. Her visit was the first of the college’s Presidential Colloquium series.

Like a lot of things, this was supposed to happen in May of last year at Smith’s commencement. But that was squelched by COVID-19, which played a role this week as well — the audience was limited exclusively to 500 Smith students, via a lottery.

Pelosi, 81, an 18-term congresswoman from California and the first woman to serve as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, had been the highest-ranking elected woman in U.S. government history until Vice President Kamala Harris’ election last fall. Pelosi also is second in line for the presidency after Harris and was instrumental in many Obama administration landmark bills including the Affordable Care Act.

Asked about voter suppression, an aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020, Pelosi spoke of the “sanctity of the vote,” invoking the late congressman John Lewis who said, “If you suppress the vote, you suppress democracy.”

“When you put up obstacles to participation, designed to limit minorities, with the poorer neighborhoods having fewer polling places leading to hourslong lines and people who can’t afford to take that kind of time off from work ... we can try to overcome that but the obstacles in many states now can be overwhelming,” Pelosi said. “In Georgia, they talk about nullification. Martin Luther King spoke about that in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It didn’t get the attention that other parts (of the speech) did — there were so many beautiful passages — but you can see that happening in the South. These are Jim Crow laws.”

To the Republican Party, which Pelosi holds responsible for voter suppression, she said, “Republicans, take pride and take back your party, which has done so much for this country.”

Pelosi, dressed casually in a colorful jacket and black pants, talked about her earliest days in politics, deeply involved in issues while raising five kids at home. Though approached by Democratic leaders to run for Congress, she initially rebuffed them. “I was basically a shy person,” she said, getting a big laugh from the crowd when she intoned, “That was a long time ago.”

“But I had no interest in running for Congress — I had kids in school,” she added.

But party leaders kept wooing her until her youngest turned 16. “I said, ‘Alexandra, I have a chance to run for Congress. I would have to be gone three nights a week.’ She said, “Mother, get a life!’ I had never heard that expression before. Then she said, ‘What teenager wouldn’t want her mother out of the house three nights a week?’”

And Pelosi’s political career began. “I did it for the children,” she said, “with one in five living in poverty, and as a mother of five, I could not bear that.”

She then gave a shout out to U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, who was in the audience. “Nobody has done more for hunger in America than Jim McGovern,” Pelosi said.

Of the wildfires and floods of long-ignored climate change, Pelosi called global warming her “flagship issue, going back to my first time as speaker. Imagine if we thought it was urgent in 2007, 8, 9, 10, 11? We all agree that this is our moral responsibility and a national security issue.”

On the recent events in Afghanistan, she took pride in the evacuation of over 120,000 people, “but my heart breaks for those Marines, who were trying to help, not in a combat situation, just trying to help.”

“We need to shine a very bright light on what’s happening to women and girls in Afghanistan,” she said. “They’ve got a new government but it’s a government without women. For the last 20 years women and girls were free to live their lives and to go to school. It’s going to be hard for the Taliban to take that back.”

She also wishes that something was done about the Taliban a long time ago, noting that the U.S. left Afghanistan after that was accomplished. “It was a 20-year war. It was a safe haven for the masterminds of 9/11—that’s why we went in. We made the right decision but we should have left a while ago.”

On Afghans fleeing their country to come to America, Pelosi said, “The greatest speech on immigration was given by Ronald Reagan, his last as president. He said, ‘The country I love is blessed by so many newcomers coming into the country. We will no longer be pre-eminent in the world if you stop this.’ We should not be building walls,” she added.

Pelosi touted President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” initiative, because “We’re building it back better with women. Women have taken the brunt with the pandemic … 4.5 million women out of jobs; their children were out of school and they couldn’t afford child care. When women succeed, America succeeds.”

When asked about being held to higher standards than her male counterparts, Pelosi laughed, “When you get the gavel it’s all over!”

“But,” she continued, “The reason I was excited to become a Smithie is because of the Smith commitment to all of you. This country needs you. I encourage you to know your power. There is no contribution that anyone could make that is like yours. If one of your accomplishments is being a stay-at-home mom for any length of time, put a gold star next to that. It’s an accomplishment — says the housewife who became House speaker.”

Leaning forward and speaking directly to fellow “Smithies,” Pelosi said, “You have your vision, your passion, your knowledge, and your judgment, but you have to be strategic — how do you draw people into your vision? Be ready; you don’t know what’s around the corner.”


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