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.
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."
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."