Anna Bartha sat straight and tall in her chair on the floor of the Republican National Convention, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her hair pulled back in a severe ponytail. Wearing a crisp white shirt and black sweater, the 29-year-old delegate from Colorado had something of the Puritan about her. She glowed with sober conviction as she discussed her feelings about the GOP. “I believe in conducting yourself with dignity and honor,” said Bartha. “I feel like the party embraces that for women.”
That sentiment was echoed by Rebekah Staples, a sparkly 19-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi, who proudly modeled the elephant-emblazoned sash that was part of her page’s uniform. “Some people might think the Republican Party oppresses women,” said Staples, who was riding high after attending the Bush twins’ Monday-night party. “But I think it allows us to uphold our morals and still pursue our goals. It gives us another route. You don’t have to be a feminist to be a successful woman.”
The Republicans know they need to cultivate the women’s vote to stay in the White House for another four years. (Full disclosure: I have donated money to the Democratic National Committee for this election.) Polls indicate that the 11-point gender gap that bedeviled Bush in the 2000 race has narrowed only slightly. Young women are a particularly hot commodity. And so on Tuesday night (theme: “People of Compassion”), fat stacks of signs reading “W Stands for Women” were handed out on the convention floor in anticipation of Laura Bush’s speech. The party faithful waved them assiduously, although the word women was conspicuously absent from the rhetoric.
Instead there was plenty of generalized talk about family, the sanctity of life, a strong economy, and national security. That seemed to be more than enough for the women I talked to over the course of the convention; each put her own spin on the “W” slogan. They seemed oblivious to or accepting of the convention’s macho rhetoric, from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s jeer at “economic girlie-men” to Dick Cheney’s snarling dismissal of John Kerry’s call for a “more sensitive war on terrorism.”
Many supported the party’s strong anti-abortion position, and several praised the GOP’s “family values.” And what they called the deeply traditional relationship between the president and his wife kept coming up.
“I’ve seen how some previous presidents have treated women, and that did not appeal to me as a woman who is proud of being a woman,” said Jennifer Knutson, an unaffected 26-year-old delegate from South Dakota wearing a slightly rumpled button-down shirt and a simple skirt. “The relationship George Bush has with his wife is clearly a loving and friendly relationship. And he shows respect to other people.”
“Laura Bush is such an amazing, classy woman,” said 19-year-old Brittany Lathan, whose parents were both Alabama delegates and who said she was attending her fifth convention. A sorority medal dangling around her neck, she was scarcely less effusive about the president. “I met George Bush last year, and he is a gentlemanly, wonderful person.”
“I have a special love for George Bush,” said Becky Prall, a 22-year-old guest of the Tennessee delegation. “I admire his values as a person and the way he integrates his faith into leading our country. His family appeal is important to me. Laura Bush is just a wonderful lady and a wonderful role model for our country.”
For Nancy Crate, a 37-year-old delegate from Massachusetts with flowing dark hair and an outdoorsy vitality, the slogan “W Stands for Women” had a more concrete meaning. “What it means is this president is going to make sure the war on terror takes place not on our shores, but offensively in other countries,” said Crate, a stay-at-home mother of four children.
Safety is important to Terri Stewart, too; she lives not far from the Pentagon. Stewart, a guest at the convention, is just the kind of woman the Republicans will need if they are going to swing this election. A 26-year-old lawyer who works in government affairs for a pharmaceutical firm in Washington, Stewart says she’s attracted to the Republican Party for the same reason a man would be: She sees it as the side that will butter her bread. “I support George Bush because of my federal-income-tax margin,” she says. “I worked really hard to pay to go to college and law school, and I take home less than half my paycheck after my student loans and my 401(k) and my taxes.”
She is firmly pro-choice. But she is unperturbed by the GOP platform’s uncompromising anti-abortion plank. “I don’t think that my right to choose is seriously in question,” says Stewart with a shrug. “And I don’t think it’s going to be. Besides, having choice isn’t going to make much difference to me if I can’t strive economically and be safe.”
It’s an attitude that could mean four more years of “W Stands for Women.” Whatever that means to you.