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07.30.11

Smart Girls Back Bachmann

The congresswoman wins a straw poll of conservative women at their annual summit, but it wasn’t a landslide. Eleanor Clift on the group’s evolution from one mom’s blog.

Billing it as the first ever women’s presidential straw poll, nearly 300 conservative women activists cast their ballots in St. Louis this weekend at the third annual Smart Girl Summit to give their favorite presidential candidates a boost.

Michele Bachmann came in first—no shock there—but it wasn’t the complete blowout many expected from an audience of conservative women. Entrepreneur and inspirational speaker Herman Cain finished a close second, underscoring that the women are looking for conservative grassroots leadership regardless of gender.

This is the season for straw polls, and it’s always fun to measure the candidates against one another. But it’s unclear how much they mean in a primary contest that doesn’t get underway for another six months, and when two potentially major candidates, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, were left off the ballot, since they were at the summit.

Many of the women were undecided and agonized over their choice, with some wanting to write in Palin or Perry, but the voting was limited to declared candidates. Conservative women are an important constituency for Republicans—in both the primaries and in the general election. “Women are a key to winning elections,” says Jennifer DeJournett, cofounder and president of Voices of Conservative Women. She pointed out that women have outvoted men in every election since 1980 and that having their voices heard early in the selection process will be “a key indicator” of who they will choose.

The results may have been a bit skewed: Cain was the closing speaker Saturday, wrapping up the summit as the straw ballots were being tallied, and Bachmann may have lost votes because she didn’t attend the summit. “She turned us down, which all our members know,” said Rebecca Wales, the group’s communications director, acknowledging “that could hurt her.”

Bachmann and Palin did get cinematic boosts from screenings at the summit of the documentaries of conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon, The Undefeated, about Palin’s rise to fame and political career, and Fire from the Heartland, about the contributions of conservative women and starring Bachmann.

What the Smart Girl Summit lacked in star power, it more than made up for in sisterly zeal and a host of state and local elected officials, mostly women, who spoke from the stage about battling for conservative values in a hostile political arena. The buzzwords for smart girls are “engage ... empower ... educate,” and their mission is to get more conservative women blogging, commenting, and running for political office.

The group grew out of a blog by the same name by stay-at-home mom Stacy Mott, who began blogging about her political frustrations in June 2008 when her husband told her he was tired of hearing her complaints. After John McCain lost the election, she asked her readers if they would be interested in forming a new conservative group, and within two weeks, she had 60 responses. By February ’09, Smart Girl Politics (SGP) had 2,000 members, and now, not three years later, claims 55,000 nationwide. Cofounder Teri Christoph, also a stay-at-home mom, credits the beginning of SGP to the perfect storm of Palin arriving on the political scene, conservatives flocking to social media, and Barack Obama becoming president.

One of the main speakers at the weekend summit was the venerable Phyllis Schlafly, who four decades ago was instrumental in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment, calling it “a direct threat to the protection that mothers and working women enjoyed in American society.”

“Women are a key to winning elections,” says Jennifer DeJournett, cofounder and president of Voices of Conservative Women.

Schlafly has emerged as a role model for young conservative women, who are balancing their social activism with raising families and preserving what they see as traditional values. Schlafly had six children, traveled extensively speaking around the country, yet made a career urging women to reject feminism and embrace full-time motherhood. 

Rebecca Wales, the only one of SGP’s three board members who works outside the home, says of Schlafly, “there are certain women who transcend time and politics, and can speak to each generation of activists.”