By Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D.

I recall being incredibly moved by Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker of the House of Representatives after the 2006 midterm elections. As a woman, long underrepresented in Congress, I felt real joy even liberation in having a woman elevated to the most powerful position in the House and, in terms of succession, only two steps away from the presidency of the United States. As minority leader, Pelosi had defeated Pres. Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security and led her party into majority status and her just reward was the speakership. And in the past four years as Speaker, she often highlighted issues of special interest to women, such as equal pay, and passed bills in the House to achieve gains for women.

By all accounts, Nancy Pelosi has been an incredibly effective and productive speaker overall, a key player in helping President Obama achieve his major goals, such as health care reform and regulatory reform of the financial system. And, like many women candidates and political leaders, she has been disrespected in countless ways, particularly in the media but also in the campaign literature of those in the opposing party or movements. Leading up to the 2010 elections, some Republican candidates for Congress ran ads that targeted Pelosi as much as their local Democratic opponents (for one such ad, see here). One advertisement simply asked, “Had enough of Nancy Pelosi?” On August 31, 2010, the Women’s Media Center, Women’s Campaign Forum Foundation, and Political Parity joined forces to launch a campaign to decrease incidences of media misogyny directed toward women running for elected office.

At IWPR’s recent Roundtable on Women and the Economy, the pundits we assembled to help us review the recent midterm election results all agreed that Speaker Pelosi was striking a blow for women’s political progress by running for minority leader of her party, rather than stepping down after her party’s loss of the majority. The assembled experts (Jennifer Lawless, political science professor at American University; Avis Jones-DeWeever, political scientist and executive director of the National Council of Negro Women; Denise Baer, political scientist at Social Solutions; and Celinda Lake, pollster) argued that as women, we need to recognize the attacks on her for what they are, attempts to remove a powerful woman from her leadership position precisely because she is incredibly effective in that position. Of course, some in her party argue she is not now the best leader to carry her party forward, that a more moderate voice is needed. Others argue that the best way to bring her party back to majority status is a strong defense of its accomplishments, which they believe Nancy Pelosi can surely provide.  The decision of who should lead her party in the House is clearly up to the Democratic members of the House.  But I hope women and women’s organizations will show their support for Speaker Pelosi; several, such as NOW and Feminist Majority, already have.

One reason I particularly value Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, especially at this critical time, is her strong advocacy of Social Security. At least three major commissions, one appointed by President Obama) are releasing reports this fall on how to reduce the federal debt. Unfortunately, no matter how important that goal may be in the long run, the deficit hawks and budget cutters are out in full force and are aiming at Social Security, despite its strong financial position and its importance as a guaranteed source of income for more than 50 million Americans (its Trust Fund has a $2.6 trillion surplus and it does not contribute to the debt as it is not allowed to borrow to pay benefits).  It’s hard to imagine a more important issue for women than Social Security or a stronger defender than Nancy Pelosi.

Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is the President of IWPR, a scientific research organization that she founded in 1987 to meet the need for women-centered, policy-oriented research. She has published numerous articles in journals and books, and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.