Why you should care
Because these ladies on the right are helping define the future of conservatism.
This is the first story in a multipart series on the Ladies in Red, chronicling the work of Republican women as they influence the future of conservatism. Our coverage of their Democratic counterparts include the new Elizabeth Warren, the pro-fracking environmentalist and this daring heroine from Georgia.
There was a man at the gavel, but he was flanked by two women. To the right of the GOP platform committee chairman sat co-chair Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin; to his left sat the other co-chair, North Carolina Congresswoman Virginia Foxx. When a male rep from Maine proposed a platform addition banning junk food from federal food stamps, it was Hawaii’s Adrienne King, the tanned, spunky prosecutor and business owner, who added a dose of common sense by asking, “Is there going to be a definition of junk food?” Sure, some women made a case for the controversial ban, but it was California’s Noel Irwin Hentschel who took the kill shot: “We’re trying to tell people what to eat?” she said. “We’re supposed to be the party of individual freedoms.” The amendment failed.
The proceedings were erratic at times, as delegates struggled over whether porn was a public health crisis (it was, according to the adopted statute), whether the Bible should be taught as literature (it should, as decreed) and whether they should be the “anti-prairie chicken” party (yes!). As Republicans gathered to discuss a party platform that strove to be an aspirational brochure for conservatism — yet included strong language opposing LGBT rights and immigration — it became clear that here, at least, women had a firm seat at the table. Of the 112 delegates, exactly half were Republican women.
Their growing influence is visible in the female-flush congressional offices, party committees and talk-show rounds, on issues including medical marijuana, criminal justice reform and national defense. Here in Cleveland, the role of women in reshaping the platform is televised on C-SPAN and available to the public for praise or ridicule (unlike the Democratic platform, which is led by a DNC-appointed 25-person committee and conducted away from the cameras). That transparency comes with risk, though: “It’s where all the worst political fights take place,” one longtime RNC official who played a role in the 2012 platform tells OZY. “Nothing good comes out of it.” And some wonder how much a platform matters when the message can so easily be shrugged off by a candidate, as Donald Trump has largely ignored the 2012 platform’s dreams of inclusiveness.
Adding to the challenge is that Republican women are already set to lose three of their 28 representatives in Congress. “We don’t seem to be able to make steady progress,” says Foxx, who was elected in 1994, shortly after the “Year of the Woman” in 1992 that led to six women sitting in the U.S. Senate. (Today there are 20.) “Until they get close to 50 percent, it’s very difficult for women to feel like they have made a huge difference,” says Foxx.
While Trump has a reputation for hiring and promoting female executives in his businesses, he’s also been criticized for presenting a problem for women trying to define conservatism. “It’s very concerning what he says about women,” says Larissa Martinez, a former Carly Fiorina campaign hand. “But when it comes to what he’ll do policy-wise, it gets trickier.” While many conservative women think Trump’s rhetoric is insulting, some believe Hillary Clinton’s leadership would hurt them worse. “Policy trumps gender for me,” says Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion candidates, mostly women, for office. “Donald Trump has said contradictory things in the past, but he’s always corrected himself.”
Some women are also pushing the party down roads it isn’t ready to cross.
Still, center-right women are playing center stage in the party’s evolution. U.S. Rep. Stacey Guerin of Maine fought for a proposal mandating that the federal government gets approval from state legislatures before designating monuments or parks as federal land, a departure from historically conservationist Republicans like Gerald Ford and Teddy Roosevelt. As Republicans discussed language to require colleges to shuffle rape investigations to police, it was California’s Henstchel who suggested that delegates “show as a party that we care about young women and their safety,” advocating a greater emphasis on counseling and heightening awareness of date rape. When the party approves language to further cut abortion funding, it doesn’t hurt to have female messengers to stave off liberal criticisms of sexism. “Women are uniquely able to be mothers,” Quigley says. “The issue means something to us.”
However, some women are also pushing the party down roads it isn’t ready to cross. The GOP’s first openly gay platform delegate, Rachel Hoff, a D.C. defense analyst, made a plea to ax measures against gay marriage. “In high school, I chose to be a Republican,” she said, before adding, humorously, “so I wasn’t born this way.” Other Republicans, including New York platform delegate Amy Dickerson and Margaret Hoover, the granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover, have argued that individual freedoms include a right to marry. And Juanita Cox of Nevada came out in favor of cannabis oil, a medical marijuana derivative that doesn’t get patients high but can help children with severe seizure disorders. “This gives them a chance for more of a normal life,” Cox said.
Many female conservatives, including Foxx, prefer to downplay the role of being a minority in the Grand Old Party. “We eventually want to be seen as not just women, but leaders, policy professionals,” says Martinez. Many Democrats, meanwhile, “are looking at this and saying, we just need numbers,” she says. “They get behind sisterhood, women’s bills and issues.” Take the case of Martha McSally. Even as Republicans talked admiringly of the respected congresswoman who was the first woman to fly in combat in 1991, they passed a stance that would prohibit women from combat roles.
— Martha McSally (@MarthaMcSally) December 16, 2015
It’s a reticence that some women adjust to as they garner more influential roles. Television mainstays like Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and CNN’s Mary Katharine Ham are emerging as thoughtful leaders and ambassadors of the right. Senators Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Joni Ernst of Iowa have led efforts on the Workplace Advancement Act, a response to liberal suggestions on equal pay that’s meant to encourage female-led businesses and end retaliation for women inquiring about their pay. Martinez is executive director of RightNOW, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization dedicated to creating spaces for center-right women to network and educate themselves politically. “I constantly get asked: ‘Why are you a Republican?’” the millennial Latina, who is often mistaken for a Democrat, says. “Limited government. Strong national defense. Strong economy. Do I believe in every stance on the platform? No.”