This election broke the mold in many ways, including the role that women played in the political arena. In fact, while the tug-of-war between champions of limited government and supporters of activist, big government will undoubtedly continue for decades, expectations for women in our political system may be permanently altered.
Americans have seen women seeking high office before. We’ve had the (now former) speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, presidential contender and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and vice-presidential candidate and political phenomenon Sarah Palin. Yet this election witnessed numerous high-profile women seeking office.
Results were mixed for these women: Nevada’s Sharron Angle, California’s Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, Connecticut’s Linda McMahon, and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell lost. However, Nikki Haley won the governorship in South Carolina, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte won a Senate seat, and there were several women among the new Republican pickups in the House.
Those races dominated the media’s spotlight, but one race off the mainstream radar may be the most emblematic of what happened in this election. New Mexico’s gubernatorial contest featured two women, which guaranteed that the state would have its first ever female governor. The new governor, Republican Susana Martinez (a former Democrat), ran as a conservative. She touted her commitment to shrinking government, lowering taxes, and protecting gun ownership rights. She won by about ten percentage points in a state that went for President Obama by 15 percentage points just two years ago. Martinez is the nation’s first female Hispanic governor.
Throughout the midterm campaign, much of the American media appeared uncertain of how to treat conservative female candidates, at times seeming to create different criteria for these women and their competitors. Nevada’s Sharron Angle, for example, was lambasted by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for campaigning at times with a .44 Magnum revolver in her 1989 GMC pickup. Yet Angle is hardly alone in showcasing her commitment to gun rights by playing up her own gun ownership. In fact, the victorious Democrat in West Virginia, Governor Joe Manchin, actually shot a rifle in a campaign ad. Some political theater that would be considered ho-hum for a male candidate still raises eyebrows when it comes from women.
While the campaigns naturally dominated political headlines, women were also breaking ground in other ways. The Tea Party movement proudly has no official leaders, but women have certainly helped drive the new movement. In fact, surveys suggest that women account for a majority of Tea Partiers. This movement has helped grow influential grassroots groups, such as Smart Girl Politics, and launched blooming media stars such as Dana Loesch, whose radio show, “The Dana Show,” continues to grow in popularity.
Women voters have also defied traditional stereotypes about skewing liberal. While it will take some time to get complete exit poll data, polls taken shortly before the election suggest a major shift in women’s voting habits. Early reports suggest women split nearly evenly in this election. As Mary Kate Cary reported in U.S. News, a recent New York Times poll showed undecided women breaking heavily for the GOP. In fact, women went from favoring Democrats by 7 points last month to giving the GOP the edge by 4 points in the New York Times’ latest polls. In other words, the famed gender gap — which somehow always refers to women’s tendency to vote disproportionately for Democrats rather than men’s tendency to vote Republican, has vanished.
Pundits will spend the next two years debating the meaning of the 2010 Election. But a few things are clear. The conventional wisdom that women all prefer government-provided safety over freedom has been put to rest, and female political leaders do not come in one mold. There are strong, unabashedly conservative women throughout the country who are prepared to fight for limited government and greater freedom. And they can win.
Carrie Lukas is the Vice President for Policy and Economics at the Independent Women’s Forum. This is the eighth in a weekly fall series discussing women’s issues from the Independent Women’s Forum.