DENVER – Wanda Ramey stood on the University of Colorado campus, cane in one hand, "Close The Pay Gap" sign in the other. The rally for equal pay among women in the workplace was the 65-year-old spitfire's second stop in a day of meetings and protests.
A registered independent, Ramey's top priorities this election year aren't necessarily directly related to the "war on women" that Democrats have accused Republicans of waging. She worries about the future of her grandchildren, their education and whether they'll find jobs one day.
But when she read about a proposal in Virginia to mandate a vaginally invasive form of an ultrasound before an abortion, she emailed friends to sound the alarm. And when she learned of the equal pay protest, she decided, broken pelvic bone and all, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of other women, sign held high in the air.
"Men are talking about my uterus? I have a voice. I can talk," she said. "And I think that's what they're finding out."
Everybody, it seems, is talking about women in this campaign — what they should do, how they should act, who they should be in society. But do women see themselves reflected in the dialogue — or is the mirror of political rhetoric distorting their concerns? How, exactly, is all this talk about women playing among women?
You could hear these issues play out on a recent day in this key presidential swing state — first, at the equal pay protest, but later at a hotel near Broncos stadium, where five conservative women led a panel discussion to strategize about reframing the rhetoric and working to woo more women voters to their camp this year. There was passion, but there was also irritation. Some women said talk about contraception was a distracting sideshow; others said the preoccupation of some politicians with abortion showed they were out of touch.
"They really must not know what exactly is going on," said a university student with friends who've had both babies and abortions. "They" are the male politicians who still outnumber women at all levels of elective office, but also the two men running for president who keep trying to one-up each other in reaching out to this vital, but hardly monolithic, voting bloc.
The upshot: Whether seen as real or manufactured, something about the so-called "war" is resonating among American women who could well make the difference on Election Day. Many are acting out and speaking up. Many are, in fact, girding for battle, in one way or another.
As Ramey put it: "They've woken a sleeping giant."
Glimpse a few Facebook pages these days, and you'll find an abundance of exasperation. There is the "Angry Conservative Women" page, which insists: "The only war on women (and on freedom) is being waged BY THE LEFT!" Then there's "One Million Pissed Off Women," which warns: "We have HAD IT. ... We are no longer willing to be compromised or thrown under the bus."
It all follows four months of headline-making salvos that, to some women at least, have begun to feel like a bombardment of sorts. Think: Susan G. Komen ending cancer-screening grants to Planned Parenthood (quickly reversed). And disputes over laws designed to protect women against wage discrimination (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker last month signed a repeal of his state's equal pay law, while a U.S. Senate candidate in Michigan called a federal equal pay law a "nuisance.")
And there's the ongoing fight over abortion. After Republicans made historic gains during the tea party-driven "red tide" of 2010, abortion was back on legislative agendas with a vengeance. In 2011, 24 states enacted a record 92 provisions restricting access to abortion services in some way, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights organization that tracks such proposals.
This year dozens more provisions were introduced in state legislatures nationwide. A measure in South Carolina, for example, would eliminate a woman's ability to get an abortion through the state health plan if she's a victim of rape or incest. Georgia and Arizona have banned most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy; Utah increased to 72 hours the waiting period required before an abortion; Mississippi now requires doctors performing abortions at a clinic to be a certified OB-GYN with admitting privileges at a local hospital.
Not all of these actions have received as much attention — or inspired as much controversy and derision — as the Virginia proposal to mandate a transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion. Hundreds of women converged on the state Capitol in Richmond; Jon Stewart said the bill required a "TSA pat-down inside their vagina." The governor eventually signed a pared-down law requiring abdominal ultrasounds instead.
There was also the battle over whether religious-affiliated employers should have to cover birth control in insurance plans. When law student Sandra Fluke, prevented from testifying before Congress on the issue, spoke instead to a Democratic panel to advocate payments for contraceptives, Rush Limbaugh set off a firestorm by calling her a "slut."
Karen Teegarden saw the congressional hearing from which Fluke was excluded, and saw the all-male witness table. And within days this 56-year-old wife, mother and marketing specialist from Birmingham, Mich., had launched UniteWomen.org. Its mission statement: "Help defend women's rights and pursuit of equality."
Using social media and the Internet, Teegarden's group organized protests in cities all across the country on April 28. All told, hundreds marched in places like Phoenix, where coat hangers were on display featuring a plea: "Keep Abortion Safe & Legal." And Austin, where a Democratic state representative took to the microphone to quote a famous phrase: "Heed our warning. Hell has no fury like a woman scorned." And Ohio, where women at the state Capitol hoisted signs that read: "'Sluts' Over Nuts" and "My Vagina. My Choice."
The rallies came a day after Republican Speaker John Boehner took to the floor of the U.S. House to lambast Democrats for politicizing issues that he said should transcend partisan politics. He brought up the "so-called war on women," calling it something "entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain."
"Give me a break," Boehner roared as his fellow Republicans cheered.
Said Teegarden, a supporter of President Barack Obama: "If you don't want to call it a war, that's fine. We are fighting something. It's not just us having 'emotions.' We are fighting very specific legislation."
It's worth considering the landscape in which all of this is happening.
This year is the 20th anniversary of what became known as the "Year of the Woman," an election year in which the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate tripled and in the U.S. House went from 28 to 47. Many of those newly elected women were driven to run after watching the 1991 hearings in which an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Anita Hill about sexual harassment claims against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Political consultant Mary Hughes sees parallels between then and now.
"There were a number of things percolating in '91 and '92, just as I think there has been a number of things percolating last year and this year ... that made it appear that women needed to do more on their own behalf. There are similar indignities," said Hughes, who directs The 2012 Project, a nonpartisan campaign to increase the number of women running for office. The project's website features a video with these stark statistics: "While women make up 51 percent of the population, 83 percent of members of the U.S. Congress and 76 percent of state legislators ... are men. And of the 50 governors in the United States, only six are women."
"Don't get mad. Get elected," reads the organization's motto.
Statistics like those, coupled with what Rutgers political science and gender studies professor Susan Carroll calls the "retro" debate over women's issues going on now, are inspiring some of these head-scratching, sign-waving, "What do we do now?" responses.
"It all seems very '50s and '60s," said Carroll, citing in particular some of the positions espoused by Rick Santorum during the lengthy GOP primary battle. Those included supporting a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all cases and saying states should be free to ban contraception.
Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's views aren't as extreme — he says that Roe v. Wade should be reversed by a future Supreme Court and that state laws should guide abortion rights. But the debates "raised all of these issues ... that I think a lot of people thought were settled. And it's given the Democratic Party something to pounce on," Carroll said.
Certainly, what may have started as a war of words among the parties and pundits has become much more than that. In Virginia, a newly created political action committee called Women's Strike Force is raising money to defeat politicians who supported that state's anti-abortion proposals. Local groups at places ranging from Harvard University to a Cleveland community center to a synagogue in New York have presented panel discussions delving into how to better fight on behalf of women's issues.
Conservative women, just as fired up, are battling what they see as Democratic pandering that paints all women with the same brush. The conservative group Smart Girl Politics last month launched a "They Don't Speak for Us" campaign that includes a video focusing on unemployment rates and the cost of gas and groceries.
ShePAC, a political action committee working on behalf of conservative women candidates, promises in another ad that "2012 won't be a war on women, it will be a war by women."
In an opinion piece penned for CNN.com after the brouhaha over Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen's comment that Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life," the women co-chairs of ShePAC said "more and more women like Ann Romney are standing up and speaking out. ... Those women aren't victims, they are fierce warriors who fight for their principles."
For better or worse, the debate over gender politics has launched a new national dialogue that reaches beyond the campaign trail and cable networks.
To see it, simply look to Colorado — and a single day in the trenches.
At the Equal Pay Day rally, Wanda Ramey recalled growing up in the '60s — hearing about friends who'd received illegal abortions, seeing firsthand the battle for an Equal Rights Amendment and, later, waging her own battles as a woman in a mostly male work environment.
"Back in the '60s, we fought hard. And we didn't have Facebook. We didn't have the Internet," said Ramey, who supports Obama. "We're older now and we have the time to research, and we're not going to be led around anymore."
As the equal pay protesters dispersed, a man orating about religion soon took to the pavement of the university commons. When marketing major Sasha Luinstra stopped to watch, she remarked that "I should get out there and preach." A male student standing next to her replied: "What are you going to preach about? Makeup?" Luinstra didn't bother responding.
It's those kinds of comments, along with the many different statements about women that she has heard so far this campaign season, that both rile and baffle the 21 year old.
How, for example, can Americans in 2012 still be debating the virtues of stay-at-home moms versus those who work? To Luinstra, it's a non-issue. She recalls her graphic designer mom in tears when she would drop her at day care. Her mother eventually quit and stayed home full time, and instilled in her daughter the idea that "I'm free to make any choice I want."
Luinstra feels the same principle should apply to abortion. She has friends who are now parents but who have also terminated their pregnancies, and said she's grateful those women could choose for themselves what path to take.
Over the summer, she plans to volunteer for Students for Obama. "He backs up my values," she said of the president.
By evening, as a group called 9to5 gathered at a local bar to talk women's wage issues, another 30 or so men and women — members of the Denver chapter of the Coalition for a Conservative Majority — convened at the Hotel VQ for a panel discussion by five Republican women about the so-called war on women.
These women — a lawyer, a former options trader, a businesswoman who tracks government spending, a stay-at-home mom who started a conservative advocacy group and a legislative aide whose mother is a state lawmaker — discussed how conservatives could work to reach out to women voters, especially the independents who are key in Colorado.
Several suggested a move away from the debate over contraception — whether it's framed as a reproductive rights or a religious freedom issue.
"Gas or groceries. That's the real war on women," said Lori Horn, 50, who co-founded the group R Block Party. "We have to feed our families. We have to decide whether we need to forgo a few things because we need to put gas in our cars. So take that contraception argument away from them, and come up with some ... different words about what the real war on women looks like for us."
For Horn, a mother of two girls, discussions about contraception have become "noise," a distraction that could prove harmful to the Republican candidates she supports.
"I'm all for birth control. I use it," she said in an interview. "Jobs and the economy, creating the security that families and single women need, that's the most important thing. I'm a powerful woman. ... I can take care of those other issues."
Moderating the panel, lawyer Linda Hoover cited a March USA Today/Gallup poll of swing states, including Colorado, that showed women favoring Obama over Romney by 18 percentage points.
"It's absolutely frightening how quickly, once they launched that (war) narrative ... the polling data changed. I'm hoping it was a short-term bounce, but let's not assume that," said Hoover, 60, who has been working voter registration booths to do her part in enticing more women voters.
The women gathered on this night may know better than most the power of the gender vote. They saw it in action in 2010 when, despite sweeping GOP victories elsewhere, a Democrat edged out a tea party-backed candidate in Colorado's U.S. Senate race. Republican Ken Buck was targeted as "anti-woman" in advertisements and mailers — first for joking that voters should pick him over a female GOP primary opponent "because I don't wear high heels" and then for favoring a constitutional ban on abortion. (He had also opposed exceptions in cases of rape or incest.) In the end, exit polls showed that women voters went for the Democrat by 17 percentage points.
That gender gap can make a significant difference in presidential elections as well. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the number of female voters has exceeded the number of male voters in every presidential election since 1964. And, in every presidential election since 1980, a gender gap has been apparent — with a greater proportion of women choosing the Democratic candidate over the Republican.
Come November, said Rutgers professor Carroll: "It's very likely that women's votes — whether they go strongly for Obama or whether Romney's able to minimize the gender gap — will make the difference."
All across Denver, women themselves seemed to clearly recognize that. So did a few men.
As the conservative panel began to wrap up, audience members took turns offering their take on how to win the war, and one unidentified man took the microphone to impart these thoughts: "We've had a lot of women's movements. I think soccer mom was the last ... but this election is the 'economic woman.' What women want now are jobs for their husbands, jobs for themselves, jobs for their teenagers. ... It's the 'economic woman' that's going to dominate this election.
"And all you women have to get on board and all these men in here have to get on board, or we'll lose the argument."
Horn, Hoover and the other women on hand that night believe firmly that the "war" is little more than political gamesmanship. But make no mistake: They're fighting, too.
And as night fell and the ballroom emptied, they headed home, battle-ready.
Pauline Arrillaga, a Phoenix-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.