Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) is questioned by reporters about his opposition to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s bid for House speaker. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton is defending his campaign to block Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s bid for House speaker in the face of protests and complaints that his effort smacks of ageism and sexism.

Moulton, one of the leaders of the opposition to Pelosi, encountered a standing-room-only crowd of about 175 on Monday night at a town hall, where he asserted that the Democratic Party needs new leadership.

Among those in the crowd chastising Moulton was Lynda Christian, 80, of Burlington, Mass.

“I almost feel like I’m targeted. I’m old and I’m a woman,” said Christian, who added that she lobbied for abortion rights during the 1970s. “Nancy Pelosi, I don’t know her, but she’s done a fantastic job. Who fires somebody who does something well?”

Pelosi, 78, raised millions of dollars and campaigned for Democrats, who delivered on her guarantee that the party would win the House in the midterm elections. Democrats gained 37 seats and could add to their majority with four races still unresolved.

Pelosi, the first female speaker, has said her experience and skills make her eminently qualified to reclaim the gavel when the full House votes Jan. 3. But she faces opposition from Moulton and more than a dozen other Democrats, who pose a significant threat to her bid.

Before Moulton’s town hall, 20 protesters gathered in the hallway. The women, mostly over retirement age, held signs that read, “I Stand with Nancy,” and encouraged anyone entering the event to sign a clipboard to show their support for the House minority leader.

At one point, Moulton compared the effort to challenge Pelosi to the ouster of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, according to a video posted on Twitter by an attendee.

“[Thatcher] went to the floor, and she twisted arms, and she didn’t have the votes,” Moulton said of the woman dubbed the “Iron Lady.” “And then they elected a new prime minister. And everything went on, and people were excited about the new prime minister. And that’s okay.”

At another point, Moulton told the crowd that if House Democrats react to their victory in this month’s midterm elections “by reinstalling the same status quo leadership team that we’ve had in place since 2006, then we’re failing the American people.”

“There is a new Democratic energy in this country that is so exciting and so important. And my job is to try to bring some of that to Washington for you,” he said. “What’s going on in Washington isn’t working, and we need a new generation of leadership.”

Moulton has taken heat in recent days for leading the challenge to Pelosi, with some liberal activists openly floating a primary challenge to the two-term congressman.

At the town hall, Pelosi’s age was very much an issue for some. Mark Wojcik of Amesbury, a 56-year-old IT professional, leaned against a table at the perimeter of the room wearing a Harley Davidson hat.

“I think she’s too old and too connected to Wall Street and all the big money,” he said. “I want to see someone younger.”

Frank Czar, 50, of Amesbury, is a self-employed business owner who said he respects Pelosi’s leadership but spoke of the need for a change.

“I would like her to take on the role of the elder statesperson. I would like to see her groom new people, younger people, but I would like to see a younger face, a more dynamic face,” he said.

Others saw the opposition to Pelosi as a gender issue.

“This is clearly a sexist ploy,” said Sharon Jordan, 65, of Lunenburg, Mass. “I have a lot of confidence that Pelosi has made commitments to progressives who are coming in who we really need to help them grow into leadership positions. That’s what I want to have happen.”

In Washington, some Pelosi supporters have contended that it’s in the party’s best interest to avoid a drawn-out fight over the speakership. Some attendees at Monday’s town hall agreed.

Maria Flint, a 40-year-old adjunct professor at North Shore Community College in Danvers, drove to the meeting with her 3-year-old daughter. “It seems like a poor time to be bringing this for a fight,” Flint said, balancing her daughter on her knee. “It seems to me that it is best to present a united front.”

Chaffee Monell, a 75-year-old retired early childhood educator from Amesbury, voiced confidence in Pelosi’s leadership. “It’s not a matter of whether you’re old or young. It’s how effective you can mobilize that body of legislators, and are you good at it?” he said. “Certainly let’s not have things like we need new blood or something like that, something vague. If this is a criticism of her, it needs to be specific.”

Others were exasperated with the fact that Moulton has not identified a new leader to replace Pelosi. Linda Vieira, a 65-year-old piano teacher from Acton, drove 60 miles to attend the town hall. Vieira sees Pelosi as “a skilled statesperson. She’s done this before.”

“You can’t be against somebody if you don’t have anybody to replace her,” she added.

Some of the attendees were undecided. Katelyn Brannelly, 17, a student at Amesbury High School, knocked on more than 600 doors for Moulton’s campaign. She wondered whether Pelosi could adequately understand the fears of students her age in an era in which school shootings are the new normal.

“I go to school every day and I fear that today might be the day. I need someone in Congress that’s going to understand what that is like,” Brannelly said.

“I want you, first of all, to look at Congress and feel like you’re represented as well, that you have a voice, that you have people who get your concerns,” Moulton told the attendees. He argued that another representative would do this better than Pelosi.

Sonmez reported from Washington.