GOP Moms: Between a Rock and the Hard Right

In the elevator of the Heritage Foundation's Capitol Hill headquarters, I run into Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who's about to speak at a networking luncheon for conservative women. She's tall, pretty, and in a black and white pantsuit, looking very pulled-together -- especially considering she's both the mother of a 3-month-old baby and a member of the United States Congress. As we ride upstairs, a young Heritage staffer tells McMorris Rodgers how happy she is that Republican members of Congress are beginning to doubt the utility of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

The Congresswoman nods and smiles. "That's what's important," she agrees. "Don't get caught up in, 'Oh, health insurance for children.' Step back and see the larger picture."

It's moments like these when I want to look at conservatives and say, "Really? I mean really?" Instead, I smile and place my hand over the pro-choice button on my pocketbook.

Up at the event, about 40 women, many of them young Hill staffers or interns, greet one another. I look for sedate pearl necklaces, but instead think, "Damn, conservative girls wear some crazy sexy shoes." After a few awkward moments where I decide it would be risky to make small talk in this crowd (Me? I'm, uh, just a journalist at a small political magazine!), we file into a plush auditorium. Michelle Easton, president of the Claire Booth Luce Policy Institute, a sort of speaker's bureau for celebrity female conservatives, introduces McMorris Rodgers as "a smart conservative woman who is balancing a great job with a great family." I settle in and get ready for some anti-choice, pro-marriage fun.

But McMorris Rodgers surprises me. Despite the event billing her as a multitasking, family values miracle, she keeps her remarks rather tightly focused on her pro-business policy priorities and her history as a career politician. Women's leadership is important to her; she speaks enthusiastically about her work in the bipartisan Women's Caucus and even lauds Nancy Pelosi, saying, "I don't think we should underestimate her. The Democrats have some tough issues coming up, and it appears that she's able to pull it together."

McMorris Rodgers arrived in Congress in 2005 at the age of 36 after serving 10 years in Washington's state legislature, where she rose to House Republican leader when her party was in the minority. At the time of her move to D.C., she was unmarried and figured a husband and kids weren't in the offing. But then she met Brian Rodgers, a retired navy admiral. She beams for a moment, saying, "Lo and behold, I met Mr. Wonderful." But then she gets back to business talking about women's consumer power as the managers of 83 percent of all household incomes and the purchasers of 85 percent of all goods and services.

It's mind-boggling, of course, how McMorris Rodgers can advocate for women's economic mobility even as she opposes programs, like S-CHIP, that help mothers pay for their kids' medical needs. On June 27, she did not vote when the Committee on Education and Labor, on which she sits, passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would overturn a May Supreme Court decision that made it almost impossible to file complaints of gender or race-based pay discrimination. No Republican Committee member supported the bill.

While McMorris Rodgers has a zero percent rating from Planned Parenthood, she isn't at all afraid of the word "choice." Reclaiming the mantle of "women's issues" from liberal feminists means "we need to make sure we're talking about health care in terms of choices, in terms of personal responsibility, and in terms of making healthy choices," she intones.

During the question-and-answer session, a male Washington Examiner reporter asks the Congresswoman what it was like being pregnant during her 2006 reelection bid. She responds that she kept the pregnancy private and fought hard in a close race. (McMorris Rodgers discovered she was pregnant during the race, and did not disclose her pregnancy until after she was elected.) A female law student wonders how McMorris Rodgers balances her job responsibilities with being a wife and mother.

"I quite honestly am guilty of putting most of my time and energy into career for most of my life," she responds. "A key factor for me is that I have a wonderful husband. He's retired and he's at home right now with Cole. He's looking forward to being a caretaker."

It's no wonder McMorris Rodgers feels "guilty." Unlike many conservatives, she seems to recognize she's lucky, and not just in her selection of a husband. She says she wishes more women could have the benefits she enjoys of a flexible work schedule, generous family leave time, and the privilege of working from home. But such policies have never been endorsed by her own political party. Republicans are taking a back seat as Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) leads the fight to expand the Family Medical Leave Act, which would enshrine into law some of the flexibility McMorris Rodgers theoretically endorses. The Women's Caucus claims bipartisan leadership on FMLA, so it will be interesting to see where McMorris Rodgers, the group's Republican leader, comes down on the issue.

McMorris Rodgers paints a picture of a happy, post-gender-ideology family, so it's difficult to understand her fawning reception at the Heritage Foundation. Just last month the think tank hosted an event telling young women that if they focus too much on their careers in their 20s and 30s -- as McMorris Rodgers says she did -- they will alienate men and become "sad, lonely, and confused." How's that for mixed messages?

As we file out of the auditorium for lunch, I look around me at my conservative peers, just starting their own ambitious political careers. For a second, I feel for them. All women are subject to societal schizophrenia when it comes to balancing work with domesticity, but these girls have it especially tough. The ideological cause to which they've dedicated themselves can't decide what it values most in them, their office hours or their ovaries.

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