House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (H’02) to 2019 Graduates: “Know Your Power”

May 16, 2019

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)(H'02), with Ashley Nicolas (L'19) and Dean William M. Treanor before the May 16 event.

“Look at your beautiful futures, the magnificent education you have received here, grounded in the values of Georgetown, and enlightened by the quality of your professors… We love to take great pride in the fact that you are right down the street from us, studying the laws that we have made…” said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.)(H’02) as she addressed some of Georgetown Law’s 2019 graduates.

“Thank you for taking the steps to become a custodian of justice in our country. That is what it is all about — liberty and justice for all.”

Dean William M. Treanor and Ashley Nicolas (L’19) welcomed Pelosi onstage in Hart Auditorium on May 16 as one of two lecturers to the graduating class. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates visited the Law Center on May 14; New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood (L’69) will address graduates at the Commencement on Sunday, May 19.

“What a perfect way to end your time at Georgetown, and embark on your careers as lawyers, to hear from someone who is such an extraordinary leader and is so committed to the values that we cherish,” Treanor told the students.

Nicolas, a U.S. Army veteran who came to law school to help break down obstacles for women in the military, said at the start of the event that there was no speaker more perfect than Speaker Pelosi to start Commencement Weekend.

“During our journeys to and through law school, all of us have felt the far-reaching effects of legislation — both its benefits and sometimes, its negative unintended consequences,” Nicolas said. “For many of us, the opportunity to study the law down the street from where the law is made is what drew us to Georgetown. Many of you had the opportunity to work on the Hill, and gained personal experience with the lawmaking process during your time here.”

Know Your Power

Treanor led Pelosi, the only woman to have served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in a conversation that began with public service. Pelosi received the 2019 Profiles in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library for her leadership and work in health care, renewable energy, access to education and more.

Pelosi, who is married to Paul Pelosi (F’62), says she “never intended to run for anything.” She has five children: three are Georgetown graduates, one is a Law Center graduate and a grandson now attends the School of Foreign Service. In Congress, she never intended to run for leadership. But growing up, she was “instilled with the idea that public service was a noble calling” and an extension of her Catholic faith. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and later became the mayor of Baltimore.

The late Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J., a Georgetown Law professor who also served in Congress, said mass before Pelosi was sworn in as the Speaker of the House for the first time in 2007. She was reelected in 2009 and regained the position in 2019.

“If you have any thought about public service — and coming here, you do — I would just say…if you decide that you want to step into the arena…know why. Know your purpose…” Pelosi said, citing climate, criminal justice and education as examples. “Know why, know what, know how…have the confidence of all of that, but have the humility to listen, to learn from others, especially the constituents you want to represent. The connections you make with them [are] everything.”

To the women she said, “Know your power: there is nobody like you, your authentic, unique, individual contribution that you can make.”

And when you step into the arena, she said, be ready — because if you are effective, you will be targeted. “Every morning I get up, don a suit of armor, eat nails for breakfast, and get ready for the fight… I couldn’t tolerate the fact that one in five children in America goes to sleep hungry…and this is the greatest country that ever existed in the world. Why is this still the case?”

Have a Plan

When Pelosi was first elected in 1987, there were 23 women in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2019, there are 106.

“We consider every issue a ‘women’s issue…’ she said. “We are really very proud of our women in national security.” She especially thanked Nicolas, who during law school was co-president of the Military Law Society and worked for the Center on National Security, among other things, for her military service.

Pelosi fielded questions on leadership style, submitted by Professor Hillary Sale (who teaches a course on Women and Leadership); and on climate, submitted by Lauren Phillips (L’19)(who helped draft an amicus brief on environmental protection to the U.S. Supreme Court).

“If you have a plan, you have a chance,” Pelosi said. “A vision with a plan is a success; a vision without a plan is a fantasy… Know your power, be ready, have a plan — and listen.”

On the topic that interested many — whether it is appropriate to pursue a presidential impeachment — Pelosi noted that it was a divisive issue for the country, and not a course she wants to take. Yet Congress does have a constitutional responsibility of oversight and of accountability, and no one is above the law, she said, not even the president of the United States. “We take an oath of office to protect and defend the beauty of the Constitution…one of the core duties is separation of powers, separate coequal branches of government, a check, a balance, on each other. That is the heart of the Constitution.”