Missouri's Female Trouble
In July, Deanna Hodges helped organize a meeting of women for John Kerry in the basement of the Presbyterian Church in Crane, Missouri. Composed of a network of country roads where most residents make their living farming chickens or milking cows, Crane is like many towns in southwestern Missouri: small, a long drive from a city and without much in the way of entertainment. But even though Hodges advertised the event in the Crane Chronicle and made phone calls inviting her neighbors, only two women showed up. "The word I got was that their husbands didn't want them to come," she explains. "They think the Democrats are just about gays and abortion."
Undeterred, Hodges started going door to door to talk to her neighbors. A 38-year-old mother of two with a round face and a soothing, Southern lilt to her voice, Deanna has yet to have a door slammed on her. But many of her political chats end quickly. The single women in Crane, population 1,390, are most receptive to her message. "They really want to talk," says Hodges. They are also, unfortunately, less likely to vote. As one single mother recently explained to her, just making ends meet and taking care of her daughter keeps her too busy to follow politics, let alone get to the polls. Hodges listened sympathetically, then tried to convince her of the importance of voting. "I told her, 'We women have a lot at stake,'" Hodges recalls. "I told her even the food stamps she relies on hinge on this election."
Pro-choice Baptists who like to call themselves "pro-family," Deanna and her husband, Craig, have found themselves on the lonely side of a political shift that has swept much of the heartland. In the eighteen years they've been married, their area has gradually become a Republican stronghold, helping the party to gain control of both houses of the state legislature in 2002. You could say Deanna is leading the charge to take it back. While the Presidential Prayer Team bumper stickers dominate here, Hodges has slapped her own political message onto her beat-up white minivan: WWJD and Proud to Be a Democrat.
Recently, this stay-at-home mom ratcheted up her political activity and decided to run for a seat in the state legislature. Scraping up enough to buy some airtime on a local station, she ran a radio spot proclaiming that women should be "masters of their own bodies" and that higher wages make for happier families. She and Craig, both gospel musicians, have taken to pointing out in song the un-Christian ways of many religious conservatives. At the Labor Day picnic in Springfield, while picnickers snacked on bratwurst and ogled flame-painted hot rods, the Hodgeses sang "I'm a Democrat" and "When I Die." ("When I die, I may not go to heaven/Falwell says Democrats can't get in/Pack me up and ship me off to Jesus/Jesus the biggest liberal ever been.")
Even her supporters say the chances that Deanna Hodges will triumph over a Republican incumbent in her local race are slim. But she and other women who are turning traditional political stereotypes upside down may be just what the Democratic Party needs. Dodging the "antivalues" bullet all too often launched against Democrats in these parts, Hodges rises above the din of arguments over hot-button religious issues and talks about what she thinks really matters in rural areas like Crane: poverty, jobs, education and healthcare.
Missouri is often thought of as a political predictor of the country. With a conservative middle flanked by the progressive urban areas of St. Louis and Kansas City, the state has voted for the winner in every presidential race since 1900 with the exception of 1956. Thus it's not surprising that the 2000 election was both close and contested in Missouri; Gore lost the state by less than 3 percentage points, and confusion, and later lawsuits, emerged from the polls. Even though Bush has recently pulled ahead, pollsters expect narrow margins once again (Nader, who got nearly 2 percent of the vote in 2000, failed to get on the ballot this time).
Missouri is certainly a political microcosm of the country this year in one respect: Women here are key to deciding who will get the state's eleven electoral votes. Recent national polls suggest that the gender gap, which has historically benefited Democrats, is disappearing--some even have Kerry trailing among women, with "security moms" shunning him for the hawkish Bush (though some observers have questioned these results, pointing out that they rest on a GOP-friendly definition of who is a "likely" female voter). In Missouri Kerry was seven points ahead among women in August, according to a Survey USA poll of likely voters. By September 10 his lead had shrunk to zero.
What this story line leaves out, however, is the significance of the marriage gap: Single women are considerably more progressive--they're more likely than both men and married women to oppose the war in Iraq, disagree with the direction the country is taking and care deeply about issues such as education and healthcare. At least in theory, these progressives could still swing the election for Kerry, who enjoys a twenty-two-point lead over Bush among unmarried women who are also likely voters, according to a September 9 survey by the polling firm Democracy Corps.