By Katie Lannan

MediaNews

LOWELL -- U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's bus tour promoting a women's economic agenda started in Seneca Falls, N.Y., home of the first women's rights convention. On Monday, it rolled into Lowell, hometown of the Mill Girls who Pelosi said she looks to for inspiration.

"We pride ourselves on being weavers, that we work at a loom, just as those women did in Lowell, Massachusetts so many years ago," Pelosi said of the House Democratic caucus. "And we weave in all of the thinking to build the strongest possible consensus."

Joined at Middlesex Community College by U.S. Rep Niki Tsongas of Lowell and congresswomen from across the country as part of the "When Women Succeed, America Succeeds" tour, Pelosi promised to fight for paid sick leave, affordable child care and fair pay, including both raising the minimum wage and closing the pay gap between men and women.

"Many women work for the first three months of the year for free, because they make 70 cents on the dollar for what men make," Pelosi, the former House speaker, said after the rally. "And if that would be an African American woman, that's more like 64 percent, and if that would be a Hispanic woman, it's more like 55 percent. They could be working almost half the year for free because of the disparity in income."

Appealing directly to women is a key strategy for Democrats in this year's elections, according to a memo from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Democratic Party plans will include recruiting female candidates and turnout and engagement efforts targeting unmarried women, a group likely to not participate in midterm elections after voting in 2012.

Tsongas said having women in public office is a key component in giving a voice to the issues that affect women and their families.

"If women don't have a seat at the table, then we're on the menu," Tsongas said, drawing cheers. "And we don't taste very good."

Pelosi shared tales, which she said she'd heard on a listening tour, of how economic policy affects real-world women. She mentioned a school-bus driver in Connecticut who told of seeing sick kids get on her bus each day because their mothers couldn't afford the time off to care for them.

Other congresswomen on the tour were Massachusetts Fifth District Rep. Katherine Clark and Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Donna Edwards of Maryland, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Doris Matsui and Jackie Speier of California, Joyce Beatty of Ohio, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Lois Frankel of Florida. All are Democrats.

Frankel called on the crowd to take action for women.

"Vote, donate, get your friends to vote, contact our colleagues, demand your rights," she said. "Chain yourself to a tree if that's what you've got to do. Stand up for what you believe."

Rep. John Tierney, whose district includes Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Tewksbury and Wilmington, was the only male on Monday's program. He said that issues like fair pay affect not just women, but families who need income and businesses who need customers.

Local speakers at the rally included Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan, UMass Lowell Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, Community Teamwork, Inc. Executive Director Karen Frederick and Lawrence attorney Zoila Gomez.

Frederick said that when women and families are equipped to succeed, it also means their children can succeed. She praised President Barack Obama's initiatives to expand access to early-childhood education and care.

In Massachusetts, Frederick said, there are 5,000 infants, 8,000 toddlers and 11,000 preschoolers on a waiting list for child-care assistance.

"Right here in Lowell, close to 1,500 children are waiting for early education and care," she said. "The long wait list means people lose jobs and job opportunities as they wait for a child-care slot. Low- and moderate-income families can be left with the untenable choice of leaving their children in substandard or unreliable care, or risk losing their jobs."

Cowan and Moloney both highlighted the strong role women play at their schools, both as students and administrators. Moloney recognized UMass Lowell's first all-female student government ticket, President Amanda Robinson and Vice President Sheila Angelo.

Angelo, a political-science student and Lexington native, said after the event that she valued the chance to hear from strong women leaders.

"It was so empowering," Angelo said. "It made me feel good that these women have been so successful."

Follow Katie Lannan on Twitter and Tout @katielannan.