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Capitol rioters searched for Nancy Pelosi in a way that should make every woman’s skin crawl

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/11/2021 Monica Hesse
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appears at a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday. © Melina Mara/The Washington Post House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appears at a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday.

As rioters made their way through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, some went looking for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. New footage of this was released at Wednesday’s session of the impeachment trial. The mob roamed hallways, searching for her office, and as they did, they called for her. “Oh Nancy,” one man cried out, three syllables ricocheting off the walls. “Oh Naaaaaaancy.

If you cannot stomach reading an entire column about three syllables, you should stop here.

Oh Naaaaaaancy is a very specific scene from a horror movie. Oh Nancy is what the protagonist hears when she is hiding in a parking garage, or in a stairwell, or crouched under her desk, or pressed flat on the ground in a damp cornfield. Her terror is played out for entertainment, whether that means a narrow escape or a bloody death.

Oh Naaaaaaancy is said in a singsongy voice. It is the same voice that a child would use to say, Come out, come out, wherever you arrrrre in a backyard game of hide-and-seek tag. It is playful. It is sinister. It says, I am planning to take my time, and it will not be pleasant, and it will not end well for you. The men looking for Pelosi in the Capitol were strolling, not running.

[Many of the images from the Capitol riot showed the terror. One highlighted the smugness.]

The “Nancy” part is intentional. Footage shows us that the rioters were also looking for male lawmakers; they were looking for Vice President Mike Pence. They referred to him as “Pence,” not “Mike.” They yelled his name instead of cooing it. They wanted to show they were angry with him. Her? They wanted to show she was their toy.

Some women — and I won’t say all, but I think it is closer to all than none — have heard their own first names called out in this singsong tone. Maybe a woman heard it when the front door clicked open, announcing the homecoming of the boyfriend who hits her sometimes. Or maybe she heard it intoned with flirtation and menace by the unnerving guest at a party; maybe she was hiding in the pantry at the time, concocting her excuse to leave. Or maybe she heard it while lying in bed, eyes wide open, wishing she hadn’t told the pushy date he could sleep it off on the sofa.

Oh Naaaaaaancy. A woman who hears it thinks of a specific kind of danger, and a man who says it thinks of that danger, too. That’s why he says it. To make clear that he is the hunter, and guess what you are?

After watching the newly released footage from the Capitol siege — a cornerstone of the House impeachment managers’ case against former president Donald Trump — it is hard to imagine there is a man, women or nonbinary individual inside the Capitol who did not fear for their lives that day. But to be a woman in the Capitol then meant fearing for your safety in a specific way.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) spoke of this in an Instagram live stream last week: how she was acutely aware of her status as a minority woman as she rifled through staffers’ gym bags looking for sneakers to swap for her heels so she could run for her life. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) spoke of it in an interview with New York Magazine: how when the breach began, her first reaction was to see whether any liberal female congresswomen were on the House floor. She was relieved to see that none were. She hoped that meant they were somewhere safe.

A HuffPost investigation into multiple people arrested on charges connected with their presence in the building revealed that, long before they stormed the Capitol, they had terrorized women. One had choked his wife until she nearly passed out, according to police reports. One was arrested after he allegedly pulled his sister’s door off its hinges so he could attack her. One allegedly lured his estranged wife to a hotel room, duct-taped her mouth and handcuffed her. One had allegedly harassed his ex with repeated texts: “Do the right thing and kill yourself already.”

Et cetera. Et cetera.

Mental health experts have recently begun to explore the connection between public acts of violence and misogyny, which is a connection many women already knew existed, and that is why their skin runs cold when they hear someone calling, Oh Naaaaaaancy.

Oh Naaaaaaancy is also self-aware. It knows it sounds like a horror movie. It is the sort of affectation a bad man might pick up after too many viewings of “The Shining.” It is what a man stalking a woman thinks a man stalking a woman should say.

He is performing a role.

He is reciting a line.

He is enacting a scene: The woman is hiding in the parking garage. The woman is hiding in the stairwell. The woman is hiding in her office. The woman is the speaker of the House of Representatives. For this scene, that doesn’t matter.

She’s not a powerful politician right now; she’s Nancy.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.

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