After strong support from women voters helped re-elect President Obama in November, the right-wing Independent Women's Forum convened a panel to discuss how to bring women into the conservative fold. The four female panelists explained to a room packed with both young and older women as well as some men how the conservative movement was failing to appeal to young women. In particular, they took aim at conservative men.
Hoff Sommers, an author and American Enterprise Institute fellow known for her attacks on the feminist movement, instead saved her most pointed criticisms Wednesday night for the older, male politicians who she said were alienating young women voters.
"We have some problematic allies," Hoff Sommers said in her opening remarks. "Conservative leaders and funders, they don't take women's issues seriously."
"I'm not sure what's worse: conservatives ignoring women's issues, or conservatives addressing them," she said as the audience laughed.
But despite the joking tone, most women on the panel expressed exasperation that despite being 53 percent of voters in the last election, the Republican Party was failing to reach out to women. The event invite noted that women had voted for the president by an 11-point margin. Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at AEI, ran off a list of polling data about how women's opinions lined up with Democratic principles more often than Republican ones. Though the night's criticisms were not without references to failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin and the "stupid" things Republican men said over the past year, there seemed to be an agreement that the problem was more than just a few bad lemons who had ruined things for everyone else.
Sabrina Schaeffer, the executive director of IWF and a panelist, complained that Republican indifference to women's issues was a problem she runs into. "I know sometimes when I go into a donor meeting and I see someone's eyes just glazing over, like, 'why would I care about women?'"
Broadly, the panelists offered some ideas for reversing this trend. They cheered the fact that Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) is part of the Republican House leadership and urged Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to "glue" her to him because the optics of having a visible woman in the GOP are important. They reluctantly applauded the fact that 20 women now serve in the U.S. Senate even though, as one panelist put it, 16 of them are Democrats who will vote for higher taxes. They wanted more Republican women legislators and conceded that the GOP should take a page out of Democrats' playbook and simply ask more women to run for office. Schaeffer urged Republicans to address women's issues. Both she and conservative blogger Mollie Hemingway talked about the importance of changing the way Republicans relate to women.
They needed more Laura Ingraham and less Rush Limbaugh, Bowman said.
Schaeffer said Republicans needed to invest in the same research and scholarship strategies that enabled liberal women's groups like EMILY's List to connect with women voters. "I think we need to take a new tact (sic) when we're talking about a lot of the issues," Schaeffer said. "We don't have to concede our principles, but we do have to embrace the notion that society is not necessarily going to see things our way."
She also argued that rising energy costs, not contraception, was a big women's issue in 2012 and that Republicans had missed an opportunity in not connecting with women over rising energy costs, even though energy was one plank of presidential nominee Mitt Romney's five-point plan he touted on the trail this fall.
When prodded by audience questions, the panelists said that contraception was a non-issue. As Hemingway put it, contraception was thought up by Democrats who found it tested well in focus groups despite being a completely settled issue. Her response was to urge Republicans to respond with their own accusations that are "just as crazy," something like, "they're stealing your hot dogs!"
"I just want to say one small word and the word is sex," audience member Leslie Paige, 55, said when she got the microphone. She works for advocacy group that pushes for smaller government and described a situation in which college-aged women see Republicans as "a bunch of prudish, anti-sex, anti-reproductive freedom people."
Paige suggested Republicans create a bumper sticker that reads, "We Like Sex Too." After a moment's pause, this drew a big round of applause and even some supportive hoots from the audience.
Hoff Sommers wrapped up the event shortly after that. "Support the Independent Women's Forum," she urged. "And don't let anybody steal our hot dogs!"