By Marin Cogan
Republicans have a new weapon in their messaging arsenal -- a growing, influential caucus of younger GOP women intent on fighting back against Democratic claims that the party is anti-woman.
The new group doesn't neatly fit the traditional model of women who run for office -- the older, post-career PTA moms with grown children and more time to devote to politics. Four of the nine Republican GOP freshmen are under 50. And they aren't moderates in the mode of Senate GOP women such as Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.
Rather, they are rock ribbed, younger, conservative working mothers, a new breed of GOP representative that Republican male leaders are more than happy to have deployed on the front lines, to act as the public face for a party that still suffers from a gender gap in their rank-and-file. On Tuesday, a handful of them will take to the House floor in a series of speeches titled, "I am a Republican woman" -- a coordinated effort to argue that the Republican Party's priorities, like job creation, lower gas prices and a fiscally responsible budget, are also women's issues.
"I definitely think the women are as conservative as the men are, and I see the women speaking up a lot and starting to have more of an influence within the conference," said South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem, who was tapped to be part of leadership before she was even sworn into office. "At this point we really want to make sure we reflect the people back home and make sure we're speaking for women all across the country."
The series of women-led speeches Tuesday is partly practical, an effort to show the new faces from the GOP side of the aisle in an attempt to reach constituencies that have typically been the tribune of Democrats. But it's also strategic, an acknowledgment it's a lot harder to tar the party as bad for women when the GOP ladies push back.
Don't call them feminists (only one, North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, identified herself as such), but the Rosie-the-Riveter vibe is evident in their offices across Capitol Hill. Noem greets visitors to her office wearing bronze and brown cowboy boots. Ellmers's office is festooned with a model trucks, hard hats and a Home Depot apron signed by the employees in her district. Tennessee Rep. Diane Black, another of the new women in the freshman class, insists on being called "Congressman." Florida Rep. Sandy Adams is a former beat cop, Air Force enlistee and single mother who once fled an abusive relationship.
There is undeniably some pro-woman boosterism taking place. In April, they held a joint news conference to counter Democratic claims that the continuing resolution debate was being held up over abortion. In May, they issued an open letter to newly appointed Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, slamming her for calling their party "anti-woman."
They say their message Tuesday isn't about ideology, but practical concerns, pointing to a Prudential Financial study that says that 84 percent of married women are either the chief or joint financial executors of their families, meaning that many women are the primary consumers and decision-makers of their households.
"For many years there have been some Democrats who want to suggest to women that if you're a woman in America you're a Democrat. It's completely false," said Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest-ranking female Republican in the House and a mentor to the GOP freshman women. "Women have been trailblazers from both parties for many years and we should be celebrating the progress that women have made and the opportunities available to women today."
Their efforts are thanks in part to the party's successes last year, when a record number of Republican women ran for Congress, bringing the nine new GOP women to the House, along with New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte to the Senate. Republican women are still a minority in the House -- 29 to the Democrats' 64 -- but they are working to create a presence outsize to their actual numbers.
The efforts, though novel for the Republican conference, are familiar in one key way: they resemble similar efforts undertaken by Democratic women and interest groups over the last several years.
"I think Republicans are attempting to replicate the success that Democratic women have had in the Senate. Those ladies are among the most effective messengers we have in Congress today, and it's quite powerful when they speak as a bloc," said Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for EMILY's list, a Democratic leaning group that supports women candidates. "But one of the reasons why that was so powerful is because it was women standing up to the anti-woman policies of a party of men. That's compelling. Women speaking on behalf of the anti-woman policies of a party of men just doesn't deliver the same punch."
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and founder of WomanTrend, a company that focuses on the attitudes of women voters, said there's "no question" the House women are more effective counterparts than their male colleagues on certain issues.
"When you have [an] actual Republican woman who ran and holds office step forward say "Hold on, it's not a war against women, let me tell you my story,' not only are they more effective spokespeople, they're more credible messengers," Conway said.
Personal narratives will be a key component of the Tuesday floor speeches. Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who at 32 is the youngest of the freshman women, charted a path to office similar to many of her male colleagues. A former aide to McMorris Rodgers, Herrera Beutler served in the Washington state legislature before winning office in 2010. Like her former boss, Herrera Beutler thinks women in the conference should be working to promote the advancement of women, but doesn't easily accept the feminist label, preferring instead to call herself "pro-woman, just like I'm pro-family, just like I'm pro-man."
"That is one thing we need to be careful of, dismissing our perspective or abilities because we're women," Herrera Beutler said. "The temptation is [there], because we don't believe gender or skin color determines potential, we believe your work, effort and actions develop your potential. That's a Republican philosophy, but in that we need to be careful not to stifle your perspective."
Many of the women described growing up with a father who raised them to believe they were equal to their brothers. Noem said that, while growing up on her family ranch, her father taught her to "drive semis and tractors."
Still, she demurs on the question of political ambition, saying she never aspired to a life in office. "I wanted to grow up and stay on the ranch with my family and raise kids and my favorite thing was horses and cattle. But then when you recognize that this way of life is being threatened by actions that are being taken by people thousands of miles way, and you realize that people need to stand up and defend some of the things that people think are really great about this country," she said.
Of all the new women, Adams might claim the closest understanding of the struggles of working class women. She left high school at 17 to enlist in the Air Force, married a Navy officer and had a child. At 22, she moved out with her 3-year-old daughter to escape an abusive relationship, worked two jobs while studying for her GED, and became a beat cop to support her child. She found her way into the state legislature thanks to her advocacy for victims' rights issues after her second husband, a fellow officer, was killed on patrol in her zone.
"I never even thought of that, it's never been a gender issue for me," said Adams. "I never expected special treatment because I was a female."
Others took an similarly atypical path. Ellmers, a nurse from North Carolina, had no prior political experience when she took on Democrat Bob Etheridge -- and was virtually written off by the national party in her long shot bid for his seat.
"I really felt the need to do it based on Obamacare and where I felt the country was going. As a nurse I knew it was going to be detrimental to health care but also to the economy and to our seniors and to our future. I have a son and I'm worried about where his future is going," Ellmers says. "You see that with women. I said look, I can either sit at home and be a victim, or I can move forward with the knowledge that I have and try to make a difference."
Black, another nurse and former state legislature says that her new colleagues represent "the face of American women, right here in Congress, representing them."
But even as they reject the feminist mantle, the women have clearly benefited from the evolving changes about women in public life long advocated by the feminist movement.
"I can tell you I'm not a feminist; I respect both the male and the female perspective. The creator made us different for a reason, and both of those perspectives are important," Black says. "I am not a feminist, but I do believe that men think differently than women do It's just important that we have more females here, on committees and subcommittees representing our perspective. Our numbers to need to grow so we can reflect that balance."
Ellmers said in the past, some conservative women have shied away from expressing their conservatism.
"We don't like to talk about conservative issues, we don't want to step on anyone's toes we want to be politically correct," she says. "But it's time, especially in our country today with the economy the way that it is that women are more open to having these conversations and voicing their opinions. That's what I'll be working on with my fellow women."