Years ago, when I was cutting my teeth on politics in Des Moines in the late 1970s, I had the opportunity to work with one of the great Republican voices of our time, Mary Louise Smith. She was the first female chair of the Republican National Committee and led the party through the mess that followed Watergate.
Mary Louise was a class act who was a civil rights activist and a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. At the time, she was a part of a group of leading Republican women – fiscally conservative (by the standards of the time) but socially progressive. They worked across party lines on issues from child care to reproductive choice, and they worked on both a national scale and within their own states.
One day in the early 1980s, I pulled Mary Louise aside and asked her (as I often did) why she was a Republican when our values and issues were so aligned. She usually just chuckled, but this time she answered: “If you knew what was happening in our party, you’d be on your knees thanking me for being a Republican.”
During the Iowa straw poll build-up and climax, I thought of Mary Louise, and I wondered how it would feel for her to watch Michele Bachmann win the caucuses as the first woman to ever do so. Mary Louise had her Bachmann moments in her own time as she watched buses of conservative women arriving in Iowa, promoting policies she thought were wrong for America. And even the sainted Ronald Reagan, who appointed her to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, eventually embarrassed her by replacing her during his second term. “Mary Louise,” I thought to myself, “it’s been downhill for the party since you tried to re-establish a moderate wing.”
Iowa 2011 has brought us a woman from Mary Louise’s legacy without her values – Michele Bachmann, in effect, stands on her shoulders without her compassion. She speaks from her heart, but her policies are narrow minded, and I doubt she will have any conversion experience on her road to power.
Over the last several years, many Republican women have pulled me aside, knowing I am a Democrat but seeing that our values are aligned. These women want to know where they can find allies. They have grown up in Republican families and, despite the disconnect, they cannot bring themselves to switch parties. They, too, are Smith's legacy – and they are looking for a place to be, a leader to follow. They are out there, waiting to stage a revolution. Waiting for the next Mary Louise. If you know who she might be, or if you are her, please stand up. You will have an army behind you.
Marie Wilson is the founder and president emeritus of The White House Project, co-creator of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World.
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