This week, the politics column of the Lilith blog presents a special guest blogger. Laura Matson, the woman who first introduced me to Minnesota and all its charms, was our blogger-on-the-ground for the Republican Convention in St. Paul. She and I spent a lot of prep time discussing one main question: what are the issues that drive a Jewish Republican woman? What political concerns create such an identity? (For Laura, who recently left the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to continue her studies, these sorts of religion/identity questions are meat and potatoes. Hard to imagine what we talk about, right?)
As a ferociously liberal woman who ties her Jewish values into her political identity, I have to say it’s a question that fascinates me. And Laura, who as you’ll hear was not raised Jewish but is vastly Jewishly literate, it was a question she sought to answer by speaking to as many women at possible at a special event put on by the Republican Jewish Committee. Hearing women’s own words, we agreed, was the feminist way to find our answers.
As you’ll hear, it is an interesting landscape, populated mostly by people concerned about the issue of Israel. (A group I’ve written about here before.) While I don’t have to agree with this line of thinking, I can at least applaud the sentiment. And, as the election enters its final phase and some of us (cough cough) turn into partisan nutjobs, I think being able to empathize even a little with one’s political opponents is important. Someone’s going to win this election, and someone’s going to lose. I have pretty strong feelings about who’s on which end of that, but when we wake up on November 5th, we’re all still Americans. It was something Laura, a consummate Minnesotan who always manages to be both feisty and kind, picked up on. “Actually,” she said on to me on the phone from the Xcel Center parking lot, “everyone’s been really nice.”
Onwards and upward…
My day with the RJC Women
At the beginning of the week, I attended an event sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis. I am not Jewish, nor am I, truth be told, a journalist, but since the GOP had chosen my hometown for its festivities, my good friend Mel Weiss offered me the chance to do some on-the-ground reporting. I jumped at the opportunity, and despite our inability to secure a press pass for the actual convention (in hindsight, this was probably in my best interest), I stumbled upon a luncheon honoring Hadassah Lieberman and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The luncheon, sponsored by the RJC, was a project of its woman-centric branch, the National Women’s Committee.
I arrived at Neiman Marcus in the late morning, while the attendees claimed their nametags and perused the silent auction items. Initially, I wandered around, observing the guests and trying to get my bearings in this bastion of high fashion. I overheard one woman describe her fashion and expenditure tastes to another as they admired the auction items, “I’m into maximalism—not minimalism.” Though not everyone in attendance was there for the Tory Burch boots, I spoke to a few women who had attended at the behest of their employer, a lobbying firm representing non-union construction shops, as well as a few legislative representatives and members of their staffs.
Eventually the women were ushered to their fuchsia-clothed tables by various Neiman Marcus employees and RJC volunteers for the dining and fashion show portions of the afternoon. Yes, there was a fashion show. Tall, thin models walked down the aisle while the few members of the press corps sent text messages and one of the ladies at the table next to me quipped, “Jewish ladies are eating, they’re modeling. We’re all doing what we do best.” The fashions were Urban Outfitters meets Jackie O, neon leggings and wide collars. The women nearest me were particularly enamored of the shimmering floor length gowns.
My suspicion that the benefit was mainly geared towards political wives along on the convention ride was confirmed when Linda Law, founder and national chair of the National Women’s Committee welcomed a laundry list of legislators’ and governors’ wives. Also among the attendees were Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro. After speeches by Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of Komen, and Hadassah Lieberman (who serves as a global ambassador for the foundation), I got the opportunity to speak to some of the ladies in attendance about their identities as Republicans and Jewish women. Given the focus of the speeches and fundraising, I asked many of the women that I spoke to how they felt a McCain administration would benefit women in America, mainly in terms of reproductive issues, and healthcare more generally. None of the women to whom I spoke divulged particularly strong feelings on either of these issues. I spoke to one woman who responded that the Bush administration had given more money than they were credited for to stem cell research, which signified an interest in children and promoting healthcare. Between that and the Republican emphasis on family values, she felt that Republican policies were better for women, children, and families. Another woman mistakenly believed that McCain shared her pro-choice inclinations, and when informed of his contrary stance, told me that she cherry-picked because “the world wasn’t perfect.”
The glossing over of women’s social policy issues that I encountered at the luncheon seemed fairly consistent with thepolicy platforms of the RJC. The closest thing to any discussion of women’s issues, namely, reproductive freedoms, is a fairly bland and sort of bizarre section on Adoption, which seems to promote adoption as a good idea and encourage the stability of the foster care and adoption systems. It seems that this platform creates a window for the RJC to avoid contention with the Republican line on abortion by supporting adoption as an alternative without actually taking a stand on reproductive rights.
Lisa Spies, Executive Director for the RJC, is one of the most prolific fundraisers for Republican candidates in the US. Her husband, Charlie, was the Chief Financial Officer and Counsel for the Romney campaign. When I spoke to her she told me that her Republican and Jewish identities were separate. She spoke very little about her ideological support for Republican candidates, but did extol the NWC as a great opportunity for women who happen to be both Jewish and Republican to come together and organize. Because of her impressive resume I was a little surprised when she told me that the “organization lets women actually do something to get involved.” The one-woman fundraising machine is a testament to the fact that women do not need an organization to let them be involved in political life, but in terms of the particular demographic of Republican Jewish women, Ms. Spies pointed out that “there are not that many of us so we all need to be together.”
For most of the women that I interviewed, Israel was paramount among their voting interests. America’s homeland security was a close second. Wrapped up in both of these policy matters was a pervasive concern about Iran, which was broached by nearly every woman that I spoke to. They all voiced appreciation for McCain’s tougher stance on Iran, and didn’t trust Obama to adequately support and protect the state of Israel. I spoke to Suzanne Kurtz, press secretary for the RJC about the values that should endear Jewish voters to the Republican Party, “Recognizing the importance of the American-Israel relationship, making sure that relationship is strong… These are really critical issues that we believe the Republican Party is right about… The fact that Iran is—the clock is ticking and they are aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons…We believe that the Republican Party recognizes that threat and has a much clearer stand as far as how to handle it—to not negotiate with them.”
In her opening remarks, Linda Law predicted that “women are going to be key to this election and victory in 2008.” If my day with the RJC was any indication, conventional “women’s issues” end with the fashion show and Israel trumps all for Jewish Republican women voters this election season.