In the aftermath of the election, the circular firing squad within the Democratic Party has dominated this week's news. As with any disaster, blaming those who are not responsible is a given -- and the pack mentality begins.
One of the folks targeted during and after the election is the highest ranking woman ever in the history of the U.S. Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Some political pundits have completely missed the mark regarding the importance of Pelosi, both in policy and political terms. In short, she has been one of the most effective speakers in the history of the House of Representatives, and remains the most important national leader for women -- and we need her in leadership. And for the Democrats to win in 2012, they are going to need women more than ever.
One of the many --and most important -- accomplishments of Speaker Pelosi was the passage, despite all odds, of historic health care reform. She pulled together a disparate and wide-ranging Democratic caucus, and convinced her colleagues to support a bill that was not what they wanted. Anyone who followed the travails of the health care bill knows it would never have passed without her leadership.
But not only did she pass the bill: she demanded that the bill protect and advance the health care needs of women. It makes a difference to have a speaker who is not only a policy expert and extraordinary consensus builder, but also a mother of five and grandmother of eight. Nancy Pelosi understands women's health issues in a deeply personal way -- and when she stands for women, it matters. Under the new health care law, women will no longer face gender bias in health insurance premiums; women won't be barred from insurance because of preexisting conditions such as pregnancy; and women's preventive health care will be covered by all insurance plans, so women will no longer be asked to shell out for co-pays.
And in the fight to defeat the effort by Congressman Bart Stupak to eliminate insurance coverage for abortion care, Speaker Pelosi refused to budge. Women need her now more than ever to protect their gains from those who are anxious to roll back health care and undermine their rights under the law.
It's pretty clear that the new majority in the House won't be putting women in leadership positions. Speaker Boehner himself is of another era when it comes to women's health and rights. Women are going to be looking to Ms. Pelosi to advocate for our best interests, particularly in this new Congress.
As a leader, Nancy Pelosi matters not just in policy terms, but also in political terms. Any analysis of the 2010 election shows that Democrats who won in tough races did so because of an outsized gender gap. Democrats lost women voters overall by one point, but women made the difference in key races: Senator Bennett won reelection with a 17 point gender gap; Senator Murray won with a 12 point gender gap; Senator Boxer with 16 points; and in one of the last races to be called, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon was reelected by women -- who provided a gender gap of 26 points.
It's notable that women voted for these candidates so overwhelmingly because they knew the difference between the candidates when it came to women's health and rights. After all the ads on jobs and taxes, the winning candidates brought women over by publicly campaigning on the issue of reproductive choice and women's health. Through paid television ads and mailings, winning Democratic candidates made clear that they stood for women's reproductive rights and that their opponents did not. Even Senator Harry Reid, who is not pro-choice, ran ads about the extreme record of his opponent on abortion rights -- and he ended up with an 11 point gender gap. It's not hard to figure out. In close races, women pay close attention to who stands for them.
If the Democrats are serious about winning in 2012, they need to pay attention to women -- as voters and as leaders. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has stood for us, and we stand for her.
Cecile Richards is President of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.