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.

Single women voters, we’ve been repeatedly told over the past year, sat out the last election in disproportionate numbers and are now ripe for political engagement. As with NASCAR dads, soccer moms (and now, security moms), stereotypes about this potential voting bloc can be frustratingly reductive. Despite press attention to an elusive “Sex and the City voter,” presumably a trendy young thing who is too busy shopping to vote, the 22 million single women who didn’t participate in 2000 include divorced, widowed and never-married women of all ages and classes, many of them parents. In Missouri, the category includes everyone from the moderate single moms of Crane to Diane Pell, the proprietor of Middle Class Values, a knickknack shop in Kansas City, Missouri. Pell, who has repeatedly sold out of Smoosh Bush dolls and “National Embarrassmints,” tins of candy with Bush and Cheney on the cover, plainly says she “despises Bush big time.”

On the ground in Missouri, the practical reality of reaching the alienated single women who might not otherwise vote–while also winning over “security moms” and other undecided women who span the ideological spectrum–is proving complicated for Democrats. Consider the amorphous issue that is the single biggest concern of unmarried women in Missouri: that children learn values and respect. Single women here place this goal above worries about healthcare, the rise in prices relative to income, affordable retirement and prescription drug costs, which, in that order, also matter to them, according to “Women’s Voices. Women Vote,” a group organized around single women’s political potential in the coming election. But how can Democrats reach out to women on an issue that escapes conventional campaign language, not to mention the purview of government (an issue, it should be noted, that is thought of as a winner for conservatives)? And how can anyone convince Missouri’s single women–59 percent of whom voted in 2000, as opposed to 67 percent of the state’s overall voting-age population–that it’s worth their while to go to the polls, when the stuff of their lives clearly eludes politics as we know it? Concerned with matters far from Swift Boats, many of these potential voters have been simply off the political map.

Since three-quarters of single women who didn’t vote in 2000 weren’t registered, at least the first step was clear. In Missouri, several organizations rose to the task of registering female voters. “Women’s Voices. Women Vote” aimed a mail-based voter registration campaign at 118,000 single women here. Meanwhile, the combined efforts of such groups as America Coming Together (ACT), Voting Is Power and Project Vote added some 120,000 new voters to the rolls before the close of the registration period (not an insignificant number, considering that Gore lost Missouri by 78,676 votes in 2000), an estimated 65,000 of whom were women, according to Grant Williams, state director for Missouri ACT.

Getting through to the angry, apathetic or simply overwhelmed woman to convince her to register is itself difficult. Take it from Jo Ann King, a single woman who works for Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, which conducts voter registration among African-Americans. King, who was recently registering women in the waiting room of a local free clinic on weekly “maternity day,” said many of the women she approaches are not registered because they are so “oppressed, depressed, and disillusioned, they don’t believe their votes matter.”

Overcoming such alienation takes persistence. “I was talking to this one woman, she said she didn’t vote, she didn’t want to vote,” King recalled. “But I just kept on talking. I said, ‘Did she have kids? And did she know that this election would affect money for schools?'” After listening to King at some length, the woman decided to register. “She told me it was like she was coming out of a coma and mine was the first voice she heard. And we ended up hugging and crying right there in the parking lot.”

Still, registration might be the easy part. More complicated is insuring that voters actually get to the polls. Lisa Christian, a political consultant in Kansas City, Missouri, insists that the best way to get women to vote is to have female friends or trusted acquaintances reach out to them one on one. Thus she recently invited her yoga instructor to a Kerry rally, and the instructor in turn has begun talking to her classes about the importance of supporting him in the election. She is hoping for a similar payoff from her massage therapist. “I suggested that she say a little something before she begins the massage, like ‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if women didn’t get health benefits because you didn’t vote?'” (Though such a tactic could be bad for business, Christian points out that it could also heighten the need for a relaxing massage.) And Jill Dunlap, who works at the women’s center at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, has begun her own one-woman campaign, placing notes in the stalls of the women’s bathroom urging students to vote.

The Missouri Democratic Party is trying to take this woman-to-woman approach statewide. At an August “Women for Kerry” luncheon held at the Salad Bowl restaurant in St. Louis, Stacey Newman proposed that each of the sixty or so women in attendance adopt five single female registered voters who had been identified as undecided. Newman, who is the only full-time Democratic Party staff person devoted to coordinating the women’s vote in the state, culled these single women’s names and telephone numbers from voter registration records and asked volunteers to call their five adoptees and explain their personal reasons for voting for Kerry.

“You can do it in your bathrobe!” enthused Newman, who suggested that the callers acquaint themselves with a handout on why John Kerry is “Strong on Women” and then “speak from the heart” to the politically alienated women they need to reach. A former flight attendant who was apolitical herself not so many years ago, Newman thinks such personalized outreach campaigns, which are happening in twenty counties throughout Missouri, are key to a Kerry victory here.

But the “adopt 5” strategy is slow going. Making her way alphabetically through the undecided single women in the St. Louis area, Newman had reached the K’s at press time. Although the undecided female voters she’s targeting tend to agree with Democrats on issues like promoting jobs, fiscal responsibility and making healthcare more affordable and available, Republicans tend to win their support on defense and national security, according to a July study by the prochoice group Emily’s List. Especially in Missouri, their votes can be crucial. Estimates of the nationwide number of undecided voters are as low as 2 percent, but as many as 5 percent of Missouri voters have yet to make up their minds, and 55 percent of those still on the fence are women.

Meanwhile, the Bush camp is eagerly beckoning to women from the other side of the fence (Laura Bush hosted one of the first “W Stands for Women” events, in St. Louis on August 17). “Republicans have realized there are a lot of segments of this vote who can be theirs: married women, religious women, businesswomen,” says Harriett Woods, a former lieutenant governor and guru of Democratic politics in Missouri.

Indeed, the partisan split is reflected in the record number of women running for statewide office here; among the six female candidates are Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who has a good shot at becoming governor, and two Republicans, one of whom, Catherine Hanaway, is a vocal, antichoice conservative. Says Woods, “The danger for Democrats has been to assume that if they turn out the women’s vote, that’s all they have to do.”

To peel undecided female voters away from the Republicans, Woods suggests homing in on the issue of defense and highlighting the human toll of the war. “I’m convinced women really care about the1,000 people who will never come back from Iraq alive,” she says. The war, which more women than men nationwide believe has made us less secure by a margin of 8 percentage points, clearly nags at some women swing voters in this state, where military participation is high.

“I just don’t know who to support,” says one woman as she leans out the door of her split-level ranch in the suburban St. Louis neighborhood of Concord-Village. “I voted for Bush last time, but I feel like he just went to war as soon as he could,” she says, looking distraught. So why not vote for Kerry? “I’m religious,” she says with a significant frown.

Sarah London, a political organizer for AFSCME in St. Louis, speaks to such conflicted women every day as she walks neighborhoods campaigning for Democratic state legislative candidates. While the women who open their doors to London often warm to the legislators she promotes when told they support stem-cell research and increased funding for education and oppose the right to carry concealed weapons, many let the issue of abortion decide whom they’ll vote for. “I’ve never heard more women say, ‘I vote a straight pro-life ticket,'” says London.

Abortion is the live, painful wire running through Missouri politics. Even though a majority of Missourians are pro-choice–according to a poll conducted by Planned Parenthood in March, 57 percent of the state’s registered voters want to keep abortion legal–the religious right controls the debate. Many Missourians–whether because they truly think abortion is murder, because their church says it’s evil or because openly supporting a woman’s right to end a pregnancy will lose them friends–are terrified of the issue. So are their elected officials: Almost half of Democrats serving in the state legislature now vote anti-choice. And legislators here often tack abortion-related amendments onto unrelated bills as a way to kill them.

In fact, there is little any legislator can do to further limit abortions here, since virtually every possible restriction is already in place: Parental consent is required for minors, as is a twenty-four-hour waiting period before abortions. And a Missouri legislative statute defines life as beginning at conception. Meanwhile, the state attorney general is appealing a ruling that struck down a statewide ban on some abortions, despite the fact that such bans have repeatedly been ruled unconstitutional. Taken together, the state’s antiabortion efforts garnered Missouri one of eighteen “F’s” from NARAL, which issues state reproductive rights report cards.

In the hopes of being both politic and polite (an esteemed value in this semi-Southern state), pro-choice Missourians are extremely careful with their words when forced to discuss the topic. “I don’t say ‘I’m pro-choice,’ I just say that I’m for leaving these matters to a woman and her pastor,” explains Sara Lampe, a Democratic candidate for the state legislature in Springfield, Missouri’s third-largest city, which is home to two Bible colleges and the international headquarters of the Assemblies of God church. “And then,” adds Lampe, “I move on.” Lampe has plenty else she’d like to discuss. A former teacher and principal who lives with and cares for her 91-year-old bedridden mother, she would like to focus her campaign on elder care and public funding for education. As a divorced mother of three, she’d also like to ease the multiple burdens shouldered by other single moms (who, she says, won’t vote in substantial numbers until the polls are located in supermarkets). But running against a Republican incumbent who has worked as a Christian counselor using “conversion therapy” on homosexuals has meant spending considerable time and energy staving off questions about abortion and its more ambiguous though equally potent cousin: “values.”

For Chere Chaney, the GOP push on values–a mix of same-sex marriage, abortion and vague ideas about personal piety–is a constant frustration. “They keep saying ‘God, guns and gays’ and we say ‘jobs and the war,'” says Chaney, western Missouri political coordinator for the Communications Workers of America. While her members are severely hurt by Bush policies, including recent restrictions on overtime pay, Chaney says some are still pulled away from the Democrats by local churches peddling the message that Kerry is not the “moral” candidate. “As long as they’re beating them to death every Sunday telling them they’re going to hell, we’re in trouble,” says Chaney. “It wouldn’t be so bad if [churches] were just registering voters, but they’re threatening folks with losing their soul if they don’t vote for the President.”

Many saw Missouri’s vote on a state constitutional amendment that eliminated the possibility of gay marriage as a flexing of local churches’ political muscle. But, while the amendment passed by a whopping 71 percent, the results may not be particularly relevant to the presidential race here, mostly because Democrats succeeded in putting the measure up for a vote during the primary instead of the general election, when increased turnout among religious conservatives would have helped Bush. (Unfortunately, in eleven other states, including embattled Oregon and Ohio, state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage will be on the ballot in November.)

Missouri Democrats are even less eager to talk about gay marriage than abortion. Melba Curls, a Democratic State Representative and member of Freedom, Inc., an African-American political group based in Kansas City, says she felt the debate sidetracked her constituents. “I told folks, It doesn’t matter who’s in bed together. It matters that you got a bed,” says Curls. Still, Freedom, Inc. remained silent on the issue, as did the local La Raza Political Club. For his part, Kerry said he would have voted for the gay-marriage ban. (To the glee of the flip-flop brigade and the confusion of everyone else, Kerry went on to say in a September interview with a gay newspaper that he wouldn’t have voted for the amendment had it been a “simple prohibition” on gay marriage, though, in fact, that’s what it was.) Meanwhile, in Crane, Deanna Hodges, who shrugged off e-mail responses to a prochoice radio ad calling her a demon, a communist and the Antichrist, feels she can’t address same-sex marriage. “We just can’t bring that up here,” she says. “No one would talk to us.”

It’s hard to see the frightened look in Hodges’s eyes without thinking that the culture war is a lost cause in Missouri. “We’re not going to win at the ballot box at this point,” concedes Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, though he argues that today’s ballot initiatives are just skirmishes in a longer war. While their opponents have prevailed thus far by galvanizing the grassroots to protect the traditional family, gay advocates, Foreman insists, will eventually mount their own populist campaigns in places like Missouri, convincing people of the unfairness of denying legal rights to unmarried couples.

With the bitter battle over the same-sex-marriage referendum behind them, most people here seem happy to talk about the burning issues that don’t ignite religious outrage. For Sara Lampe, the single mom who cares for her mother while she runs for office in Springfield, one of those issues is lowering healthcare costs. For Deanna Hodges, in Crane, where the public schools have recently suffered major cuts, restoring education funding tops the list. For Chere Chaney in Kansas City, who went to work in a factory after her divorce to raise her two young sons, the primary concern is that workers make a living wage. Melba Curls, who represents many African-American families who have children fighting in Iraq, is deeply concerned about the war.

Focusing on these goals–or values, if you prefer–might help Democrats win the desperately needed women’s vote in Missouri and other swing states. Given the increased time and resources people would have to spend with their children if they were achieved, such policies could even help give single women what they tell pollsters they so desperately want: a better shot at having well-behaved and respectful children.