In the Land of Conservative Women

A diverse group of womanactivists, including many young people and small-business owners, are bringing new energy to the Republican Party.

MOVED by a sense of panic in the wake of the Republican takeover of Congress, American feminist leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., last February to lay the groundwork for the counterrevolution against Republican assaults on abortion rights, affirmative action, and funding for a wide range of social programs. "This is a Congress that has harmed women too much," Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic congressional delegate from the District of Columbia, told the crowd at Feminist Expo '96, urging that the Republicans "be targeted for retirement in return." Expo organizers announced that they would launch an ambitious female-voter-registration drive designed to capitalize on the gender gap--the imbalance between American women's tendency to vote for Democrats and the growing preference of American men for Republicans. By exploiting that gap, which was as high as 19 percentage points last spring, they hope to send enough Republicans packing to give control of Congress back to the Democrats.

Meanwhile, across town at the offices of the Republican National Committee, the co-chair Evelyn McPhail and her staff were also plotting a mobilization of the women's vote--to a very different end, and in accordance with a very different and less well publicized set of statistics. Whatever the long-term survey numbers indicate for women in general, in the 1994 election most of the white women who voted cast their ballots for the Republican Party. Women under fifty of whatever race are evenly divided in their party identification; women under thirty are actually leaning slightly Republican. Leaving party affiliation and race aside, two women identify themselves as conservative for every one who identifies herself as liberal.

McPhail and others have spent the past several years attempting to make their party more attractive to women. She and a group of prominent Republican women--including the columnist and activist Arianna Huffington; Marilyn Quayle, the wife of the former Vice President; and New York's lieutenant governor, Betsy McCaughey Ross--have flown from state to state conducting workshops designed to encourage Republican women to get off the defensive. Last October, four months before Feminist Expo, Republican women held their own gathering, the Women Leaders Summit, which brought together 600 women chosen by members of Congress. Republican women have also formed a counter to the liberal feminist political-action committee Emily's List. It is called RENEW--the Republican Network to Elect Women.

During the 1994 election campaign Newt Gingrich created a "buddy system" linking female Republican members of Congress and female congressional candidates around the country. When he rose to the speaker's office, he appointed women to serve, for the first time, as the clerk of the House and as the House counsel. Jan Meyers, of Kansas, and Nancy Johnson, of Connecticut, became the first women to chair congressional committees in nearly two decades.

Representatives Susan Molinari, of New York, and Barbara Vucanovich, of Nevada, were elected to the Republican leadership. And Gingrich also began to meet biweekly with the Republican women in the House--one of the few regular meetings he keeps on his calendar. In a recent interview Gingrich, who went so far as to describe himself as a feminist, spoke at length about the opportunities he was trying to create for women and contrasted his efforts with those of the previous leadership. "It's very hard to change institutions," he said, "especially where you have real power. These are not cosmetic changes. Ask the Democrats: Why does a Pat Schroeder [of Colorado] leave here as the senior woman never having been a chair? How can that happen?"

Gingrich likened his role to that of a head coach. "What they needed," he said of his female party colleagues, "was two things. They needed coaching. They needed somebody to say to them, you know, if you want to get on Ways and Means, here's how you do it--because what women don't tend to have in any large corporate structure is a network and a pattern of relating that allows them to teach each other to rise. The second thing they needed was a fair level of opportunity, because of the mathematics of their numbers." (One thing he discovered, Gingrich said, was that "women in fact are collectively more energetic per person than males are. They are also, frankly, probably slightly brighter. It's true. The kind of woman that has gotten this far has worked harder to get here than the average male who's gotten here.")

The 104th Congress vilified by Eleanor Holmes Norton is the most heavily female Congress in the nation's history, bolstered by the election of seven freshman Republican women who epitomize the kinds of American women that the party is courting. Linda Smith, of Washington, who now has two grown children, couldn't afford to attend college. She gave beauty school a shot, and eventually wound up working for H&R Block. Her colleague from Idaho, Helen Chenoweth, a single mother of two, started her own business after her husband left her. Barbara Cubin, of Wyoming, raised two sons and managed a medical office before making a bid for the Wyoming state legislature, and from there a bid for the House. And Sue Kelly, of New York, not only took care of four children but tried a little of everything in the work force, from rape-crisis counseling to hospital administration to medical research, and even owned a flower shop.

The 1994 election increased the number of Republican women in Congress to twenty, even as it decreased the number of Democratic women in Congress from forty to thirty-five. Republicans have depth when it comes to women: Today forty-five of the eighty-three women holding statewide executive office are Republicans. The country's only female governor, Christine Todd Whitman, of New Jersey, is a Republican, as are eleven of the nineteen woman lieutenant governors. While Democratic recruiters are scouring the country looking for women to run for high office, Republicans brag that women are coming to them. McPhail points to the Republican roster: three women vying for nomination to run for the governorship of Washington, seven women running for Senate seats, and dozens running in congressional races from Mississippi to Connecticut to Nevada.

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