Politics -- September 1996
In the Land of Conservative Women
activists, including many young people
and small-business owners, are bringing
new energy to the Republican Party
by Elinor Burkett
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.
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.
This women's revolution has overtaken the Republican Party virtually unnoticed. Although many of the party's traditional female supporters--the "Ultrasuede-and-pearls crowd," as they're sometimes known--have cooled in their
In Washington and in state capitals, at party caucuses and other gatherings, Republican women are there in strength. They are running the National Rifle Association (the president, the executive director, and the chief lobbyist are all women), defending the rights of militia members on the floor of the House of Representatives, and governing cities from San Diego to Orlando. They see themselves as representing a challenge to feminist assumptions that "real" women are necessarily liberal.
I became aware of these people as I watched the Republican revolution get under way in Washington: twentysomething women cheered Newt Gingrich the way women of my generation cheered Eugene McCarthy; a woman, Mary Parker Lewis, was running the presidential campaign of the conservative black Republican Alan Keyes; lobbyists for Concerned Women of America, a predominantly Christian group that calls itself the largest women's public-policy organization in the country, complained that social issues had been excluded from the Contract With America. These women were more remote from me and my experience than were, say, woman journalists and academics in Paris, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires. Raised by liberal Jewish parents, I came of age during the 1960s. Everyone I knew criticized the government, but always for being too inactive, never for being too big. Everyone I knew believed in affirmative action, rigid separation of Church and State, and, later, gay rights. In the 1970s, when the issue arose, no one I knew seriously considered the possibility that the availability of abortion should not be an inviolable right.
I was aware that there were people who disagreed with these views, but I also knew that they were the pawns and playthings of the "ruling class," and were indifferent to the plight of the poor, intolerant of diversity, and willing to level entire countries to maintain American hegemony. I didn't actually know any of this firsthand, of course, because America is not so much a heterogeneous society as a patchwork of homogeneous societies living together cheek by jowl yet remarkably isolated from one another.
I entered the land of conservative women, then, with the interest and trepidation of an anthropologist visiting a tribe she suspects might include headhunters. Six months later I emerged with my head, and my politics, intact. I am still not persuaded that the federal government is an evil empire, that affirmative action is unjustifiable, or that paradise will be gained by giving local government a lot more control. I am, however, persuaded that conservative women are too substantive to dress anyone's window, and I know that they are tough and principled. They are also as diverse a company as the liberals I have known all my life.
When the Republicans swept into power on Capitol Hill, scores of young conservatives were suddenly emboldened, sure that they now represented the cutting edge--socially as well as politically. These were Hill rats--that horde of ambitious, idealistic, and underpaid young people who work as press secretaries and floor assistants in congressional offices, as researchers at think tanks and public-relations companies, and as rising associates at law firms and in special-interest lobbies. They see themselves as a generation wresting the Republican Party away from the country-club set.
"For us, there's been no galvanizing event to connect us to the government; therefore we don't trust or need it," says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, who at twenty-nine runs her own firm, The Polling Company, and sees herself as one of the nation's only truly conservative pollsters. She is also a regular election commentator for CNN. "We grew up in car seats while Ma and Dad pumped gas on odd and even days. We watched Challenger blow up. We were the children of no-fault divorces. When I was seventeen, I watched Geraldine Ferraro accept the vice-presidential nomination at the Democratic convention, and thought it was interesting. Then I listened to Ronald Reagan and saw someone four times my age, of a different gender, and from a different coast, who was communicating a message that appealed to me as a young adult. Being a liberal is no longer fashionable. It went out with bell-bottoms. We're never going to be Stepford Democrats. Most of us make Ayn Rand look like a leftist."
For the party that Thursday evening hundreds of young women, and a surprisingly large number of men, lined up outside the front door. By 8:00 P.M. a top assistant to Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist (and Equal Rights Amendment opponent), was poised on the edge of a couch in a skirt that barely covered what her mentor would undoubtedly call her "private parts." She puffed on a cigar as she bantered about the importance of abstinence-oriented sex education in the schools.
Genevieve Wood, a producer and talk-show host for Paul Weyrich's Political Newstalk Network, wore a button that read NO LEFT TURN. At twenty-seven, she is still trying to figure out how, in her view, the Republicans got it wrong on key social issues for so long. "I always say to my parents, 'You complain about LBJ and the Great Society, but where were you? Where were your answers?'" What does she think of older Republicans? "So many represent the status quo." The Federation of Republican Women, the mainstream Republican women's club? "Dinosaurs. We don't need tea parties. We need to be tough." For Wood, working at the network is a relief after a stint at NBC. "I was the token conservative," she says, laughing. "One girl told me I was the first girl she'd ever met who was pro-life and still cool. It's so strange. They didn't know we existed."
The standout of the evening was April Lassiter, twenty-seven, who by day works as a policy adviser to the House majority whip, Tom DeLay, and by night sings in a band that plays alternative rock. In a silvery-pink mini-dress and dark makeup she looked like a 1990s version of the 1960s chanteuse Petula Clark, whose name means nothing to her. Her only other even vaguely 1960s characteristic is her certainty that she has the cure for all of America's ailments. For her, issues like abortion (which she would outlaw entirely except to save the life of the mother) and affirmative action (which she finds demeaning) have never been rallying cries. They belong to some other generation. What she and her friends believe in is less important than what they don't believe in: government. In their world no one questions that the federal government has replaced the Soviet Union as the enemy.
The "Merge Right" party was in fact a fundraiser thrown by Lassiter and her friends for an existing group, the Independent Women's Forum, a think tank created in 1992 by and for women who found themselves politically homeless--women who believe that the important feminist battles have been won. For them, the liberal National Organization of Women was definitely out. Concerned Women for America and other traditional conservative women's groups weren't much better: too Christian, too focused on abortion. IWF members fall somewhere in the vast ideological expanse between Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly. The group's monthly speakers' series in Washington attracts dozens of professional women who are rethinking their attitudes toward affirmative action (an article in the IWF's quarterly magazine was titled "That's Not a White Man, That's My Husband"), the wisdom of so much emphasis on federal violence-against-women programs ("What about violence by women?" the magazine asked), and the forced integration of same-sex schools (which they are convinced will harm women's colleges and schools). Mostly they are intent on providing an alternative female voice in the national discussion. "Are you tired of the nonsense you hear from people who pretend to speak for all women?" an IWF brochure asks. "Are you sick of being told that you are a 'victim' of the men in your life?"
The IWF has perhaps received as much press for the attacks leveled against it by liberal feminists as it has for its work arguing for the Virginia Military Institute's right to exclude women (a cause that last summer met a considerable obstacle in the form of the U.S. Supreme Court) and its advocacy of mandatory testing of newborns for HIV. The Washington Feminist Faxnet, a weekly newsletter, has described the IWF as "a pack of she-wolves." The writer Susan Faludi has called its members "pod feminists" and described that organization and sister conservative groups as "a media-assisted invasion of the body of the women's movement: the Invasion of the Feminist Snatchers."
At the "Merge Right" party a scattering of older conservative women circulated through the crowd, but they seemed somewhat out of place. Even in such ideologically consonant circles a generation gap is glaringly obvious. Thirty years earlier old leftists looked with disapproval on the young upstarts cutting their teeth on Marx, Gramsci, and C. Wright Mills. The young people seemed undisciplined, arrogant, too willing to offend the wider society. Young conservative activists elicit strikingly parallel reactions from some of their ideological forerunners. Christian women often find the young women's short skirts inappropriate, a flaunting of sexuality that borders on the amoral. Secular conservatives are less shocked by the flaunting than amused by the flouting of liberal presuppositions about what conservatives wear, how they dance, what they do with their free time. Looking around at the "Merge Right" crowd in a room filled with smoke and long exposed legs, Ricky Silberman, a former vice-chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, kept shaking her head. "In my day young Republicans didn't look like this," she said. "If they had, maybe we would have liked them."
The young women carry different historical baggage. The middle-aged members of the Independent Women's Forum and others of their age grew up at a time when America was discovering its own injustices, and many of them still struggle with a pair of long-held liberal assumptions: that equal protection under the law can mean protecting groups rather than just individuals, and that government inaction tends to breed or perpetuate social injustice. The younger women, in contrast, came of age at the height of identity politics, with the culture of victimhood being explored endlessly on daytime television. They have emerged as rampant individualists who have traded the rhetoric of group empowerment for the philosophy of self-empowerment. It is perhaps testimony to the success of feminism that most of them, like April Lassiter, have never seriously considered the possibility that their options might be limited.
The generation gap seems to be widest on abortion, which older Republican women support to a greater extent than do the young. Many IWF members, whose view of the abortion debate was shaped by the debate over a woman's right to control her own body, are dismayed by what they perceive as an absence of any sense among younger conservatives of what it meant to be a woman in America prior to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a woman's constitutional right to have an abortion. For them--as for many older women, whether conservative or liberal--the concept that young college-educated women could be anti-choice is so implausible that they tend to assume the younger women will grow out of that opinion as life circumstances teach them about the moral complexities of women's lives. Others regard the anti-abortion rhetoric as the political posturing of the young. But women like Kellyanne Fitzpatrick resolutely beg to differ. For them, the central issue is not privacy--a woman's right to control her own body--but rather the reality of visibly moving fetuses that they believe to be fully human. "You can't appeal to us through our wombs," Fitzpatrick says. "We're pro-life. The fetus beat us. We grew up with sonograms. We know life when we see it."
For these young conservative women, abortion is not even a women's issue. Indeed, they dismiss the very concept of "women's issues" as a vestige of some paleolithic reality. "I agree with the original idea of feminism, with equal opportunity," Lassiter says, "but it went too far. There is no such thing as 'women's issues.' Men worry about their families and kids, and women worry about the economy and national defense."
In fact, although Lassiter and her friends support the Independent Women's Forum, some of them don't quite understand why they need a women's group at all. "I don't like any word that defines me foremost as a woman," Lassiter says. "I'm a conservative who happens to be female."
Did black people fight and die in the civil-rights movement just for the right to be Democrats?
Do you seriously want me to be a member of a party that brought us George Wallace, Orval Faubus, and Bull Connor?
Depending on the moment, she is capable of uttering any of those responses. Jefferson, a forty-three-year-old marketing consultant, lives in Democrat country--Mississippi's Second District, which was carved out to ensure the election of a black representative to the U.S. House. She threw her hat into the ring to represent it as a Republican. To her, this was a logical political statement.
"People are starting to recognize that the country is out of control, that people are out of control, that the government is out of control," she explains. "We've reached the point where people--common folks, black people, white people, rich, poor--want to return to the strong moral values that have sustained us in troubled times. The Democratic Party has completely moved away from any discussion of Christian values, of morality, of rights and wrongs. That puts it totally out of step with the way people think. Conservative means doing a lot with a little. Black folks have been doing that forever. We're natural conservatives."
According to opinion surveys, Jefferson is not far off the mark. The most recent poll of the nation's black community by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank, found that two thirds of black Americans identified themselves as either conservative or moderate. Almost half--nearly the same percentage as in the general population--favor school vouchers. And according to one Gallup poll, nearly 60 percent of blacks favor the death penalty. Most blacks disapprove of mandatory busing, and two thirds feel that affirmative action needs to be reformed. Despite such conservative attitudes, black Americans remain overwhelmingly loyal to the Democratic Party: more than 80 percent identify themselves as Democrats or as independents who favor the Democrats. Among black women the percentage is even higher.
Judy Jefferson decided to try to turn those numbers around in what happens to be the second poorest congressional district in the nation. For weeks before the March 12 primary she and her husband drove the back roads of Mississippi in a powder-blue 1985 Pontiac Bonneville that had one side smashed in, preaching the gospel of independence, self-reliance, and old-fashioned morality. "The government is supposed to support the citizenry, not deliver life on a silver platter," she told congregations at black churches and white churches, and audiences at schools and community centers. "I believe that any empowerment of local communities is the rebuilding of America." Everywhere she went, the fundamental message was the same: "We need to rebuild America one family at a time."
Jefferson's was a crusade as much as a campaign. From the statehouse, in Jackson, she followed winding roads so far out into the country "that they have to pump daylight in," speaking at churches, arguing with civic groups, shaking hands at country stores. It wasn't enough. The $3,000 she raised, and the weeks of hard work she put in, got her only 20 percent of the Republican primary vote. She suspects that Democrats, who can vote in the Republican primary in Mississippi, had been organized to vote for her opponent in order to keep her out of the general election. "Everybody knows that the only person who can beat the Democrats in this district is a woman or a sports hero," she said shortly before the election. This wasn't just wishful thinking: polls indicate that independents nationwide trust female Republican candidates more than they trust their male counterparts--and are more likely to vote for them.
That is why Evelyn McPhail, at the Republican National Committee, is working to encourage candidates like Jefferson. McPhail and her co-workers have found a cadre of black women committed to persuading members of their community that they're in the wrong party. Their dean is Vikki Buckley, the secretary of state of Colorado, a forty-seven-year-old black woman who was embraced by the Colorado Federation of Republican Women the minute she announced her intention to run for office. Buckley was, in the federation's view, the ideal candidate. When she talked about welfare reform, she had instant credibility, because she had once spent eighteen months on welfare. When she talked about education, she spoke of her battles to ensure that her three sons got no mixed messages about right and wrong. She had started in the office of the secretary of state as a clerk-typist and worked her way up, and thus was the perfect symbol of a new Republican Party in which members don't have to be embarrassed by the blue blood coursing through their leaders' veins.
Buckley admits that she, too, spent years thinking that the Republican Party was a rich white men's club: no minorities need apply. "I didn't wake up one morning and decide to become a Republican," she explains. "But the Democrats are too flighty. People in the African-American community care about family unity, education, a decrease in taxes. For twenty years they haven't believed in these social programs. They gripe and moan about politics, yet they keep that ugly little D behind their names. That's got to change."
Most black liberals find anathema any support in their community for Republicans. But Nona Brazier, of Seattle, the former chair of the King County Republican Central Committee and a candidate for Washington's governorship this year, regards the knee-jerk, pro-Democratic response as nonsense. Brazier, who runs a company that hauls trash, is a member of the board of a group called Industrial Strength Women, an organization for Washington State businesswomen. It is patronizing, Brazier says, to assume that black self-determination is dependent on white good will--that blacks will wither without government help. All that the Democratic social-welfare state has succeeded in doing, in Brazier's view, is to make blacks dependent. "Dubois's strategy of litigate, legislate, and integrate might have helped the talented tenth," she says, "but it didn't do much for the rest of the community. Malcolm X was right when he said, 'A dollar has to change hands six times before it leaves the community, or the community dies.' People need commerce, not programs, and black leadership has ignored that basic principle of nation-building. The principles of Kwanzaa are family, self-determination, and cooperation. That's my route to rebuilding the community, and that's the Republican message."
Other observers urge caution. "This is probably the most important segment of the electorate in 1996," says Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. "And it is absolutely up for grabs." Both parties know that Greenberg is correct. The gender gap, after all, has come about not so much because women have deserted the Republicans as because men have abandoned the Democrats. The women's vote for Republicans has remained remarkably constant--about 47 percent--for fifteen years. Men have moved to the right, and there is no indication that this trend is about to be reversed.
There will be no contest for certain groups of women: Democrats will reel in single and college-educated women; Republicans can count on the Christian right, which is heavily female, and on married women, especially homemakers. But the anxious women--blue-collar women, who are traditionally Democrats but whose refusal to vote in 1994 helped to bring about the Democrats' loss of control of Congress; and the growing ranks of female small-business owners--aren't so easily tracked. "These women are torn," explains the Democratic political consultant Bob Beckel, who managed Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. "They are not comfortable with the Republicans or the Democrats. They have the least social safety net of any group, and enormous responsibility. They are hard to categorize and even harder to find."
Pat Millette has every reason to be anxious. Four and a half years ago she and her husband, Paul, used their savings to buy a small catering business in Providence, Rhode Island--Gallimaufry Good Food. Pat had worked as a construction estimator and painting contractor, Paul as a mechanical engineer. Suddenly they had to write their own paychecks. The mortgage payment on their house was due on the first of the month, but some of their clients habitually paid late. The price of food kept rising. The paperwork to prove that they were complying with city, state, and federal regulations became a mountain. Then Paul developed a neurological disorder and could no longer carry his share of the burden. Worse, their health insurance was inadequate. By the time they could convince Social Security that Paul truly was disabled, they owed the city, state, and federal governments almost $25,000 in taxes. All this occurred at a time when the Millettes' business was in fact growing beyond expectations.
Pat Millette is the quintessential Baby Boomer small businesswoman, a member of the fastest-growing sector of women's economic life. Almost eight million of the nation's 22 million small businesses are owned by women, and their number nearly doubled from 1987 to 1992 alone--growing twice as fast as the number of businesses started by men. The growth has been spurred by a variety of factors beyond the usual ambition and quest for self-fulfillment: a widespread sense of economic insecurity, marital breakup that suddenly pushes women into the labor force, the sometimes stultifying atmosphere of corporate America, and the opportunities offered by computers and faxes to work out of one's home. Women like Pat Millette who own small businesses are fed up with taxes, regulations, and government mandates: in a 1994 post-election poll conducted by the Small Business Survival Committee two thirds of them said the federal government was an "opponent" rather than an ally in the pursuit of the American Dream. Even worse for the Democrats is the fact that owners and employees of these businesses vote at almost twice the rate of the population in general, favoring Republicans more than two to one.
Millette does not want to vote Republican. She hasn't lost any of the liberal idealism that made her choose VISTA over the University of Rhode Island after high school, in 1968. She is a fervent supporter of a woman's right to choose an abortion. She voted for Carter and Mondale. As for the Republicans, she says, "there's still a part of me that feels that the Republican Party stands for big business, that it doesn't support the poor and minorities. But I can't afford to be a liberal Democrat anymore. I can't afford to support illegitimate babies, women who have five abortions, and poor people who don't want to work. I can't afford incompetent saints like Carter. Right-wingers scare me, but so do left-wingers. It feels like everything has gotten out of hand." So she suspects that she will cast her ballot for Bob Dole in November, although grudgingly. "I'm not enthusiastic, and it feels weird to be voting for a Republican," she says, "but I just want Bill Clinton out of the White House."
In search of the female vote that earned Bill Clinton the 1992 election, Clinton's campaign managers have instructed government-agency heads to organize "women's events" at which the President might appear. A female-outreach office has been created. The neo-feminist author Naomi Wolf was called in to help campaign advisers design a presidential image that will appeal to women. Her suggestion: depict Clinton as the "good father" protecting the national home from Republican bulldozers.
That would do nothing to win over someone like Millette. She is glad that Clinton supports abortion, but says she won't cast her vote on the basis of that issue. She's not persuaded that affirmative action makes much sense. Although she likes the idea of giving certain groups special support, she has seen too many "woman-owned businesses" in which nonworking wives simply front for their husbands. The only thing that still pushes her toward the Democrats is that she, like most women in the anxious class, is worried that heavy-handed budget cuts will damage the safety net she believes is necessary for the poor and the vulnerable. The Republicans have not persuaded her that they share this concern. The Democrats have persuaded her that they are incapable of maintaining such a safety net rationally.
IN that final sentiment Pat Millette finds common ground with April Lassiter and Judy Jefferson. But not in much more, and that is why it is still unclear whether such women represent fragments coming together into a larger movement. To be sure, it would be easy to dismiss them as individual voices of protest and rebellion--but how unified and homogeneous were the women who marched under the banner of feminism? They were union workers and corporate executives, suburban homemakers and urban maids. Yet they managed to carve out enough of a shared agenda to reshape parts of American politics and thought--at least for a while.
Needless to say, Newt Gingrich is determined to help women come together, and is open about the fact that his party is making a play for their attention. It was no accident, he said when I spoke with him, that Christine Todd Whitman was chosen to give the Republican response to President Clinton's 1995 State of the Union address. It was no accident that Jo Baylor, a black woman and former congressional candidate from Austin, Texas, introduced Gingrich at the unveiling of the Contract With America. Gingrich is pleased that the mayor of San Diego, America's sixth-largest city and the setting for this year's Republican National Convention, is not only a Republican but also a woman, Susan Golding.
With some polls suggesting that the gender gap might widen into a Grand Canyon in November, Bob Dole announced that Representative Susan Molinari, of New York, would give the keynote speech at the convention. And he and other party leaders have vowed to redefine "women's issues" to appeal to female voters by persuading them that a balanced budget, lower taxes, and school choice will do more to improve their lives than will affirmative action, abortion, and funding for rape-crisis centers. "When you start down this road," Gingrich said when we spoke, "you realize that if we effectively communicate the real-world difference between the two parties, we could have a surprising shift in the gender gap in two or three months."
"If we could do as well with women as we do with men," he went on, "we'll be
the dominant party for the next generation."