The day after Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and an all-male panel of his colleagues advanced a bill to restrict abortion rights across the U.S., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Congress is "rigged" to suppress the interests of women and keep their voices out of the discussion.
"This is an environment that is almost rigged, intentionally or not, wittingly or not, rigged so that the status quo just goes on," Pelosi told The Huffington Post in an interview. "We have to kick open the door and make our own environment, reduce the role of money [in campaigns], insist on the civility of debates, and bring more women here, and that's a better reflection of our country."
Pelosi said that as a mother of five children, it infuriates her to see an all-male subcommittee pushing a bill to restrict women's reproductive rights. "What right -- I mean, really, I guess they're elected, they have a committee, they write a bill, but by what moral authority are they to make such a suggestion?" she said. "It always gets me because I have five children. When I brought my baby home, Alexandra, my oldest was turning six. As a practicing Catholic, I think I have the credentials to talk about this subject. Any of you who've had five children in six years can step up to the plate."
Republicans threatened to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood funding in early 2011, and women's reproductive rights have been the subject of contentious political debate ever since. Pelosi said that conflict, and the subsequent fury over the birth control coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act, has really brought to light something she had noticed in Congress for years.
"For 23 years, I have been saying to people, whatever you think about abortion, [Republicans] are against family planning and contraception. But they never believed it," she said. "The one satisfying thing for me last year was that at last the world could see they would shut down the government rather than fund Planned Parenthood. [I said,] 'Now do you see how extreme they are?'"
Pelosi said when she was a ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, she tried to introduce a bill related to funding for international clinics that would educate people on natural family planning methods. She thought that the issue would be something that Republicans and Democrats could agree on, since it did not involve birth control pills or abortion, but all of the Republicans on her committee opposed it. "They said, 'No we're not for any of that family planning,'" she said. "I said, 'We're talking about natural family -- the rhythm system. How come you don't have 13 kids?'"
Pelosi has seen a fair amount of progress since then. Since she was first elected to Congress in 1987, the number of Democratic women in the House of Representatives has multiplied by five, from 12 women to more than 60, and she broke a glass ceiling when she became the first female speaker. But she said the only way to change old ways of thinking and to make sure that women's issues are fairly represented is to continue bringing more diverse voices into politics.
"It's a tough arena for women," she said. "It's not for the faint of heart. But it's definitely worth it, and it's urgently needed."