Image: Kristi Noem
Harry Hamburg  /  AP
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. has been a prominent defender of her party against claims they're waging a "war on women."
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updated 6/22/2011 9:48:29 AM ET 2011-06-22T13:48:29

An early skirmish for women's votes in 2012 has broken out in the House — among women. A prominent Democrat fired the first shot by claiming that majority Republicans are waging a "war on women." And now, Republican women are returning fire by raising their profiles, making clear what they stand for and, implicitly, who they are not: Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

Neither of the GOP's most visible women rated a mention by a series of House Republican women who on Tuesday defended their party against Democrats. Bachmann, a three-term congresswoman, presidential candidate and chairwoman of the Tea Party Caucus, was not among the speakers on the House floor.

Those who did described themselves as every-women who run businesses, farms and families and wove their life stories into a broader narrative designed to help the GOP hang onto its gains among females in the 2010 elections.

"The Republican agenda is indeed pro-woman," said freshmen Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. "It is pro-woman because it is pro-small business, pro-entrepreneur, pro-family and pro-economic growth."

Democrats, reluctant to cede their advantage among a powerful constituency, have aggressively framed the Republican agenda as an affront to the nation's women.

Topping their list of offenders is the GOP plan to restructure government health care for seniors. The proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program would punish women disproportionately, Democrats say, because women live longer than men. GOP efforts to strip President Barack Obama's health care overhaul of money for Planned Parenthood clinics as long as they pay for abortions are anti-women as well, Democrats argue. They say the same about the Republicans' drive to undermine collective bargaining rights, pointing out, for example, that women comprise nearly three-quarters of the American Federation of Teachers' 1.5 million members.

"The war on women that the Republicans have been waging since they took over the House, I think, is going to not only restore but possibly help us exceed the president's margin of victory in the next election," Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the new chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last month.

For Republicans and GOP women in particular, those were fighting words aimed at the very constituency in which the GOP's message had shown some new resonance.

In political terms, the story of the Republican woman is the tale of a slow climb up the rungs of power through the ranks of a party overwhelmingly dominated by white males. Even after the 2010 elections put Republicans back in control of the House with a record nine new GOP women, men still dominate the party's ranks, its leadership and its committee chairmanships. Of 75 women now serving in the House, 24 are Republicans in a chamber the party controls 240-193. Only one of those 24 GOP women, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, chairs a full committee.

But the story is peppered with progress in recent years. Palin became the first woman on a GOP presidential ticket when Sen. John McCain chose her to be his running mate in 2008. Two years later, exit polls show that women split almost dead even between Republican and Democratic congressional candidates and helped drive the GOP into the House majority. And now, the Republican field of presidential hopefuls includes Bachmann, the only woman among eight GOP candidates. Palin, too, is a valuable draw of cash and passion for a party trying to deny President Barack Obama a second term.

Story: Bachmann brings flair, tea party clout to race
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But Palin's and Bachmann's rises have been fueled by their own, distinct appeals as a former governor and member of Congress, respectively. But they also both have polarizing styles and credibility problems rooted in their tendencies to whiff on historic and other facts.

For the House Republican women speaking Tuesday night, telling their own stories on national television was a chance to raise their profiles apart from Palin and Bachmann.

"I think it's important that people see that there is a broad spectrum of Republican women serving in Congress," said Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking GOP woman in the House as vice chairwoman of the Republican conference.

The main impetus for the Tuesday night speech-fest, they said, was Wasserman Schultz's charge that the GOP agenda was "anti-women."

"There's been some misconception about who are the Republican women," said Florida Rep. Sandy Adams, who as a single mother put herself and her daughter through college and went on to serve 17 years as a deputy sheriff in the Orange County.

"There have been some comments made about us," Adams added. "We are responding. We are not attacking women; we are women."

Video: Why aren’t there more Democratic women leaders? (on this page)

To some, it's an entirely symbolic effort to close the gender gap that GOP candidates will be able to use during the election campaign next year. And the proof of being pro-family or pro-women is in the policy these lawmakers support — just like their male colleagues.

"The credibility of having done this event probably matters more electorally than the content of what they say," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.

As for Wasserman Schultz' "anti-women" war cry, Ros-Lehtinen brushes it off as the words of a new political committee chairwoman looking to build support.

"She's got to fire up her base," Ros-Lehtinen said, describing Wasserman Schultz as a close friend. "In her heart of hearts, Debbie knows that the Republican Party is not anti-woman."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Why aren’t there more Democratic women leaders?

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    >>> 2008 presidential campaign historic for many reasons was watched with huge interest among women as hillary clinton fought barack obama for the nomination right to the end. the republicans, can they tap the excitement and spark of sarah palin this time. michelle bachmann and up and coming governors of nicky haley, a national office, big governorships, for example, the counter to the right this time. ask two influential women , debbie wassermann schulz who runs it democratic party and also let's talk about -- let's talk about -- anita dunn now, she served as communications director for the obama white house and senior advisor to the 2008 presidential campaign . thank you so much for this. it seems to me that the republican -- all of the acts, i think michellebackman, your colleague is going to be a real challenger to mitt romney . i think she may knock them out at new hampshire. it will be a lot of excitement. at the convention, you're going to see palin in primetime, going to see nicky haley in primetime. i've heard this from one of our producers over and over again. i repeat it now. the star quality on the right needs to be matched by the star quality on the left and center left . your thoughtings.

    >> my thoughts are this -- women voters in this country are not superficial. they go to the polls based on substance. the issues that matter to them, particularly when you've got a -- an economy that is continuing to -- to need to push forward and pick up the pace of recovery, women make the majority of the economic decisions. so when you've got quote/unquote star power on the other side that's appealing to the extreme right wing fringe, i think actually that will repel most women and just the fact that you've got some women who happen to be on the ballot on their side, i don't think that's going to find -- i think that's going to leave most women voters in this country wanting because they're dramatically out of step with the priorities of women voters.

    >> that may be right. because florida congresswoman schulz is from, sarah palin scares the bejesus out of people in south florida . let me look at some things, the facts. the cabinet right now, four are women in the top ranks, secretary clinton in the top eight positions. shouldn't a party that owes most of the votes to women , who most of the voters are women . should they be more represented in the top in cabinet posts, in governorships, in top positions.

    >> you know, chris , it's interesting when you raise these issues, i hook at the democratic party right now. and debbie can't say this, i will. we have a next generation of women stars who will be equally exciting when all of the coverage of democrats isn't as focused on the white house in the add administration. so, for example, it was almost 20 years ago that we had the year of the woman, right, in 1992 . yes, think about it.

    >> i remember it very well.

    >> a big year for senators.

    >> it was a huge -- but also for the members of the house of representatives so we had a huge number of democratic women swept into office. what's interesting now is we had the next generation of stars coming on, people like debbie wassermann schulz who is the chairman of the democratic party when you talk about women in leadership positions, the junior senator in new york, senator kirsten gillibrand , how can anyone say she's not a rising star .

    >> she is a rising star .

    >> getting something done here. deb beau wassermann schulz . i'm sorry for calling you debbie . it's my faux pas of the night.

    >> i did too, chris .

    >> you can, you're a colleague. i'm covering her. let me ask you this -- people come up to me, i don't know the answer. just forget, jennifer, for a second, who are the rising stars . you cover politics, who's the one running for president where barack obama has gotten the run, mitt romney has gotten a run, whatever happens. who are the women , for example, 2016 , 2020 . msnbc signed contracts for the olympics. when you look ahead politically, who's coming around the corner.

    >> anita just said, jillen brand, so many women like those two. we have a next generation of women , hilda solis who is the -- the cabinet secretary for labor. i mean, we have a number of different women around the country that are in the next generation who are going to have a opportunity to excite voters, you'll see them evolve over the next two years and they will pick up the mantle and carry on with the issues that matter to women . because like i have to go back to the substance, chris . women care about making sure we don't devastate the education system in this country, that we make sure that we make those investments so our kids can get prepared to be the best they can be on the path they choose in life. kids -- women want to make sure that we're not cutting the legs out from under our seniors by cutting medicare as we know it. the bread and butter issues that matter to women voters are driven by women candidates all across the ballot. and nine times out of ten, the exciting -- the exciting candidates, the exciting elected officials and the exciting women appointees are democrats. that's why there's a hugely lopsided number of women that serve in congress as democrats as opposed to republicans.

    >> we're going to watch the republican fight. i believe -- i've had her on this program. in many ways, this program made her, for better or worse, congresswoman michelle bachmann .

    >> don't say absolutely.

    >> you will live with that. i think she is what she is. i don't think there's any fraud in that woman -- that person at all. i think there are people like romney and pawlenty and rick perry who are thinking every day, what am i going to be tomorrow. she knows who she is. on the right. you as a woman, not as well as me, but you watch it and say, i wish we had a woman fighting it out on the top of the democratic side this year?

    >> you know, chris , i'm happy we have barack obama fighting it out at the top of the democratic side. and frankly, i can't think of anybody better. but let me make a point because you raise a really good one, first of all, it's healthy for the system that the republican party finally has women moving up its ranks the way the democratic party has for decades. i think then senator now secretary clinton 's race in 2008 did say to women , come on, take a chance. look, i'm going to --

    >> you think she may be partially responsible for the move on the right.

    >> let me add one other name to the list of the people on the right, that's anna martinez, the governor of new mexico who i see as a rising star also. it's a good thing. in 2008 after then senator obama defeated clinton for the nomination, there's a lot of cross speculation about well women aren't going to vote for obama. sarah palin was chosen and now all of the women are going to vote for sarah palin , which is insulting. women like any other people in this country are going to make an independent educated choice and it goes back to what congresswoman wassermann schulz is saying that at the end of the day , it's authentic a person as you're going to see anyone who watched the debate as i did, walked out of it saying, wow, the 23 foster children , what an admirable person. being admirable doesn't make her something that i would vote for for president.

    >> not you.

    >> not me.

    >> can i just --

    >> critical of a lot of women .

    >> i wanted to follow up on the heels of what anita is saying. to put a little meat on the bones of what president obama has done for women . that's going to drive women voters to the polls. the first bill he signed to wall was the lilly led better equal pay act . people could fight for equal pay for equal work in court. he apointed only two supreme court appointments, both of them women . he has passed the affordable care act to finally end the discriminatory practice that private insurance companies had against women , treating women just because of our gender as a pre-existing condition. and the list goes on and on, fighting to protect the woman's right to choose. there's dramatic differences between the priorities of republicans and the extreme radical candidates that they've got on the other side. and president obama 's main stream policies for women talking about the issues that women -- that matter to women economically making sure that women can stand up for their kids, and making sure that -- that's all women care about. most women care about making sure that they want to press forwa forward. the difference is president obama 's leadership.

    >> we have to do more shows on this. thank you very much. the chairwoman of the democratic national committee and anita dunn. what does he

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