Will women clean House in November?

Why this fall could be a milestone in American politics.

Published September 29, 2006 10:57PM (EDT)

Somewhere the late Ann Richards is smiling at this Women's eNews story. If the Democrats do take back the House this fall, it could be an important milestone for women in American politics. For starters, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is now the minority leader of the House, will be poised to be the first female speaker of the House in American history. That would make her second in line in presidential succession, after Vice President Dick Cheney. Allow me to repeat that. If the Democrats take back the House, and under some extraordinary circumstances both Bush and Cheney die or leave office, then Pelosi could become the first woman president of the United States.

OK, let's not get too fanciful.

In any case, even if Dems do win the 15 seats they need to gain a majority in the House, Pelosi wouldn't automatically become speaker. The other Democrats would have to elect her. Still, here's why that would be significant: "If Pelosi does become speaker, she will be responsible for blocking out the congressional calendar, a power that will enable her to set the chamber's legislative agenda," writes Allison Stevens of Women's eNews. As chairwoman of the party's steering committee, the speaker also can make committee assignments, which can build (and break) lawmakers' careers, assign bills to committees and appoint nine of the 13 members of the powerful Rules Committee.

That's why Harriet Woods, former president of the National Women's Political Caucus, says the first female speaker would be significant: "In many ways a woman Speaker will be more important" than a female president, Woods said. "Just think of Newt Gingrich. It's really the closest thing we have to a parliamentary selection." In addition to Pelosi's big prospects, four Democratic women would be poised to take over as chairwomen of major committees, including the House Rules, Intelligence, Administration and Small Business committees.

Debbie Walsh, executive director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, tells Women's eNews that women of both parties in general not only hold more liberal and more feminist attitudes than their male colleagues but also are more likely to favor policies that directly affect women.

For instance, might a version of the Women's Retirement Security Act, just introduced in the Senate, gain traction in the House, too? That bill, which incidentally has been introduced by four male senators, seeks to narrow the retirement income gap between women and men.

In any case, it's all one more reason to get out the vote this fall.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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