A thousand miles from the Republican National Convention in Tampa and the approaching winds of Tropical Storm Isaac, Sharon Barnes and Janice DeWeese were busy in the heart of conservative America, battling their own gusts of wind, setting up a white tent and arranging tables to keep the “Defending What’s Sacred!” pamphlets from blowing away.
“Whoa!” Barnes said as a strong gust rotated the ornament on top of the flagpole they’d just lashed to the tent. “Our eagle’s backwards!”
She fixed it and then stabbed a dozen campaign signs into the dirt, including some for Rep. Todd Akin, the U.S. Senate candidate whose recent comments about rape caused such controversy — and who happens to be the local congressman. By 11 a.m. Saturday, Barnes and DeWeese had claimed a corner of a grassy field for the Federated Republican Women of Missouri, 2nd District. Fenton Days, a fair in suburban St. Louis, was underway, and so was their mission to stand for the cause of conservative values.
“Hello, there!” Barnes said to a woman looking at the $3 tins with President Obama’s face on them. “Did you see the Disappoint-Mints?”
In many ways, the two women, and others who would drop by as the day went on, are the audience that liberal America understands the least and that Ann Romney, wife of Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, will be addressing in her speech at the convention in Tampa on Tuesday night: conservative women whose energy and turnout are crucial to her husband’s campaign.
They are women who think that they have in some ways become less liberated in recent decades, not more; who think that easy abortion, easy birth control and a tawdry popular culture have degraded their stature, not elevated it. Though the women here were of varying faiths and economic backgrounds, they were white and bound by a shared unease with Obama in particular and liberals in general, who seemed so often to hold them in contempt.
“So you’re not upset about the ‘war on women’?” joked a man in a golf shirt who stopped by for a Romney bumper sticker, referring to the slogan Democrats have used to cast Republicans as hostile to women.
“Do we look battle-scarred?” DeWeese quipped.
“We’re doing perfectly fine,” said Barnes, who was cheery — considering that she’d recently been called a “monster” and a “blasphemous disgrace,” and had her soul condemned to hell for defending Akin after he said in an interview that in instances of “legitimate rape,” pregnancy is rare because women’s bodies somehow shut it down.
His remarks were quickly discredited by many doctors and provoked condemnation from across the nation, including from Romney. But they found sympathy here in Akin’s solidly conservative 2nd Congressional District.
Barnes, a local Republican committeewoman, told a reporter that if a woman is raped and becomes pregnant, then God has “blessed this person with a life” that should not be taken.
“I didn’t mean a loving gift,” Barnes later clarified. “The whole concept of rape is so violent, so horrific. I was just trying to say — it’s just hard to express that the child should not be punished.”
She did not understand the wrath directed at her, only that she would bear it.
“You wonder where all that anger is coming from,” she said. “They don’t even know me.”
She sat in a folding chair by the tent, the daughter of union Democrats from central Illinois, brushing away the American flag that kept flapping in her face.
“No anger issues here,” Barnes said to the man still looking for the Romney bumper sticker.
A band was starting to play Willie Nelson songs, barbecue smoke was in the air and kids were in the moon bounce, and Barnes, who is 60, was in good spirits.
“The more they attack, the more I dig my heels in,” she said, defending views that she traces back to a civics teacher who had students vote in the 1964 presidential election between Republican Barry Goldwater and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. Barnes, 12, picked Goldwater.
“He was the underdog,” she said. “Then later, when I really got into it, I thought: ‘Yeah, I’m for liberty. Yeah, I’m for fiscal responsibility. Yeah, I believe everyone should be responsible for their own actions,’ ” she said, describing values she considers conservative. “It sort of stuck.”
Barnes had always understood life through the prism of her own experience, and little had happened over the years to change her politics. She went to college at Illinois Wesleyan University in the 1970s and heard about women burning bras and demonstrating for equal rights, which never really made sense to her, she said.
“I don’t know, I personally never felt that I needed liberating,” Barnes said. “I guess that is thanks to my parents. They always said: ‘Do whatever you want to do. Work hard and you will get where you want to be.’ ”
She took that to heart, never questioning whether she got more or less than she deserved. After college, she moved into an efficiency apartment and worked two jobs, as a secretary and at Burger King. She was so poor that she applied for food stamps but got rejected for making too much money, she said.
She survived on peanut butter and crackers, and came to expect that others facing tough times could, too, if they were as determined. She eventually saved enough money to move to St. Louis, where she held several more secretarial jobs until she finally “married the boss,” as she put it.
She and her husband never had children, which she called a “conscious choice” of the sort she figures all women have. Instead, they traveled the world for his work, she started a small business making clothespin dolls, and these days she enjoys dancing with her husband at local Twilight Tuesdays concerts in the fall. She has also become immersed in Republican politics, a passion that began when she volunteered during the 2000 election.
Barnes’s business card now lists positions in eight local Republican organizations, including the one sponsoring Fenton Days, where she sat in a lawn chair in the sun.
“Did you see ‘2016’?”asked a woman under the tent, referring to a new film that claims Obama’s upbringing infused him with anti-colonial attitudes that make him uncomfortable with American preeminence, and that describes a diminished nation if he wins reelection.
“I did,” said Barnes, who’d gone to a 10 a.m. showing the day before, when a packed theater of mostly elderly people sat silently through the pre-movie Patti Smith medley and mmm-hmmed through the film until its apocalyptic final scene featuring a shot of a gray-toned cemetery.
“Which dream will we carry forward?” the narrator asked. “Obama’s dream? . . . Or America’s dream? The future is in your hands.”
“Scary,” Barnes said then, and repeated it now.
“Scary,” said the woman under the tent. “I went to the 11:10 at Ronnie’s 20. Then I went to see ‘Sparkle.’ ”
“Hello!” Barnes said to a woman perusing the Akin lawn signs, which were fluttering in the wind.
“So how are you guys coming back on the Akin thing?” asked Betty Rottler, 67.
“Well, he’s our candidate, and we’re all working to defeat McCaskill,” said Barnes, referring to Akin’s Democratic opponent in the Senate race.
“I’m for Todd,” she said. “Life is right.”
Rottler said that for her, being a conservative woman had to do with being a Christian and a Catholic woman, with upholding a moral order that places respect for life at the center. She said she is against abortion and against the death penalty. She is against anything that in her view degrades the value of life.
“All this premarital sex everywhere, all these abortions, all this violence just becoming normal,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
She looked out across the grassy fairground, where there were booths for the Girl Scouts, for beer, for funnel cakes and for a cellulite-reduction system promising women that it would “bring your sexy back.”
To Rottler’s way of thinking, American culture has become too indulgent, too reckless with life. Sexual permissiveness has cheapened a woman’s value. Legalized abortion, she believes, has allowed a woman to kill an essential part of herself.
“Is a ‘liberated woman’ really freer?” asked Rottler, who has two adopted children. “To me, a woman should be on a pedestal. We are special — we bear children, we take care of children, we’re working. Actually, if we had our heads on straight, women could really run the world. Actually, we do run the world.”
Around 4 p.m., Barnes and DeWeese began discussing upcoming political events they were organizing. There was a luncheon and a dictionary giveaway and a speaking engagement in Colorado.
“Okay,” Barnes said to DeWeese over the band. “Are you doing the first-responders lunch?
DeWeese said Barnes probably does four times as much work as any Missouri Republican she knows. Barnes said she was inspired by her favorite Ronald Reagan quote, words she appends, in red type, to every e-mail: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
“That’s part of being a conservative Republican woman,” said Barnes, who said she enjoys going to state conventions, where she feels useful and where she gets to wear her GOP-red stilettos — also part of being a Republican woman. “You do everything!”
It rained, and she and DeWeese packed the buttons and the candidates’ pamphlets under the tent. Then the sun came out and they put everything out again, anchoring it against the wind.
Tricia Sousan, 42, walked up with her 7-year-old son.
“So are you guys still supporting Akin?” she asked.
DeWeese and Barnes nodded as they searched for a Constitution for Sousan’s son, who kept poking his mother with a stick, which she endured patiently.
Sousan said she had been married 23 years, had a 17-year-old daughter, worked as a nurse and then quit to stay home with her son. She was only just now paying attention to politics.
“I was appalled at everyone slamming Akin,” she said.
She is pro-life; she believes in working on a marriage instead of getting an easy divorce; she believes in staying home to raise your children, if possible.
“And see that?” Sousan said, pointing to a young couple kissing unreservedly on a park bench.
She thought they should have some sense of decorum.
She was figuring out what DeWeese had been taught since she was a little girl by a family that traces its roots to the Mayflower.
“It’s an honor being a conservative woman,” said DeWeese, who started her own food-packaging business, has a daughter who is a pilot, packs a handgun and gave her age as “somewhere between menopause and death.” “You are representing all that is good. You want to be a role model for those who come after. I am a woman, a mother, a grandmother, and I don’t want to diminish that. I’m a daughter of the American Revolution.”
A young man walked up.
“So what do you all think about Akin?” he asked.
“Well, he’s our candidate,” Barnes said once again.
“I mean about what he said,” the young man persisted.
“We’ve moved on,” Barnes said, and soon it was 5 p.m.
She and DeWeese began putting pamphlets back in boxes, folding up tables, pulling the Akin signs out of the ground and putting away the flag, at which point DeWeese paused.
“Are we going to fold this flag properly?” she asked Barnes.
Barnes was exhausted in the eighth hour of standing for conservative womanhood on a hot and windy day. She and DeWeese rolled it, carefully.