On Thursday afternoon, Oxford Speaks, a student-led society speaker group, in conjunction with the Oxford Diplomatic Society and the Oxford International Relations Society, held a discussion with the first female speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. 

The discussion began with a reading of Pelosi’s achievements, her role as the first female House minority leader, the first female House minority whip and her over 30 years of service in the House. Pelosi thanked the host for his kind words and in turn, thanked the house democratic members who elected her and allowed her to take up these roles. 

When asked about how she dealt with the slim 222-213 House majority the Democrats obtained in 2020, Pelosi responded by stressing that diversity is strength, and unity is power. She focused on Democrat achievements in that period, highlighting the Inflation Reduction Act for combating climate change, in particular. 

Pelosi was then asked her thoughts on the events in the Capitol on January 6th, following Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. Pelosi said that while the Democrats had expected the Republicans to take action to dispute the results of the 2020 election, and they were prepared with legal advice for when this happened, no one expected a sitting president to ‘incite an insurrection.’ She described the response to the election results as an ‘assault on Congress and the constitution’ and the event as ‘historic’ but not unexpected. 

In response to a question about the effect of polarisation on the relationship between the government and Congress, Pelosi stressed the importance of democracy. She said that in many places in the world, a fight between democracy and autocracy is underway. In this context, she mentioned her visit to Ukraine and its importance in the fight for democracy. Pelosi extolled the virtues of democracy as liberty, justice and fairness and stated that recent attacks on democracy had been reminiscent of past European autocrats. 

The floor was then opened for audience questions. Pelosi was asked what President Joe Biden could do to take advantage of his recent momentum in the polls. She responded that the opponent should never be underestimated and that Biden should focus on his strengths in his strategy and love and affection for the American people. She compared Biden’s presidency to that of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B Johnson’s presidencies in terms of gains made for the working man and believed the success of his presidency would speak for itself. She stated unequivocally that Donald Trump will not be president again and predicted a win in the House, Senate and Presidency for the Democrats. She also said she believed young voters would be won back on issues of women’s right to choose and gun violence. 

Pelosi was then asked what she thought of Labour leader Keir Starmer; her mishearing of his name as ‘Keith’ evoking laughter from the audience. Although she professed her lack of knowledge on British politics, Pelosi stated that he ‘looks like a person who is ready for success.’ She added that she had met with people on the other side of the political spectrum, like Theresa May, during her visit. 

She was then asked a series of questions on the situation in Gaza, with an audience member wanting to hear her thoughts on the US’ sending of arms to Israel; the murder of three Palestinians in the US, including a 6-year old child; and the current student protests across American university campuses. Pelosi stated that she had no objection to student protests but that she did object to cases of anti-semitism within any protests. In regards to the situation in Gaza, she said ‘it has to stop’, and highlighted the Palestinian aid included in a recent bill passed by the US senate. Pelosi said that whilst she believed Israel had a right to respond to the attack of October 7th 2023, she ‘could not think of a worse way to have done it.’ She emphasised the close relationship the US has with Israel as a ‘national security necessity’ but highlighted the Democrats’ disappointment in Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. She registered her horror at the possible famine developing amongst Gazan children and reiterated her belief in the importance of a two-state solution

Pelosi was then asked about her experience as the first female speaker of the House. She described the experience as not being a breaking of the ‘glass ceiling’ but of the ‘marble ceiling.’ She explained feeling as though, in running for Congress, she was disrupting a ‘pecking order’ of men who felt as though they were in line for her job. Pelosi said that in her first meeting as leader of the House Democrats at the White House, she felt as though she was standing on the shoulders of the strong women who had come before her, naming Susan B Anthony and Sojourner Truth amongst others. 

Lastly, Pelosi was asked whether she thought it was a failure of democracy that anti-democratic leaders could be elected democratically and what she thought should be done to make democracy more sound. Pelosi stated that a stronger popular confidence in elections was necessary, as was more transparency and accountability. She also noted the danger of ‘ethno-national populism’; a nationalism that came not just from pride in a country’s history, but in the ethnic makeup of that history. She mentioned Donald Trump comparing immigrants with vermin in this context. 

Throughout her speech, Pelosi focused on the audience being filled with ‘the future’, constantly returning to her belief in the importance of democracy and its virtues.