Kay O'Connor looks every bit the doting grandmother she is, with an inviting smile, bright eyes and neatly coiffed hair. She loves gardening, fusses over her weight and lays the charm on thick for visitors.
She also loves a good fight. And as one of 40 state senators in Kansas, she gets into them often.
But O'Connor was caught off guard by the controversy she stirred up recently after telling leaders of the League of Women Voters of Johnson County that she didn't see any reason to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment -- the amendment, passed in 1920, that allowed women to vote.
"We have a society that does tear families apart," said O'Connor, vice chair of the Senate Elections Committee in Topeka. "I think the 19th Amendment, while it's not evil in and of itself, is a symptom of something I don't approve of."
O'Connor has never hidden her basically conservative social philosophy: A mother of six, she opposes abortion, favors school vouchers and believes that society works best when mothers stay home to rear their children. She doesn't hide her disdain for "women's libbers," whose job she sees as bashing men.
Many were quick to label O'Connor as a hypocrite for benefiting -- as an elected official -- from a system that she did not support. And in the three weeks since the comments were published in the Kansas City Star, O'Connor has been widely taken to task in the local media, encouraged even by some fellow Republicans to resign. A petition is circulating to have her removed from office.
To deflect some of the criticism, O'Connor recorded a public service announcement encouraging citizens to become informed voters. Over and over, O'Connor has said that she has voted since 18 and encourages other women to do the same.
"I've been a legislator for nine years now," she said over lunch at the Kansas Machine Shop, a homey diner in a strip shopping mall in Olathe, just outside Kansas City. "I've been through five elections. And I've asked many thousands of women to vote for me. Doesn't it seem absurd that I would suddenly come out against them, for their right to vote? It is absurd."
But that's exactly what Dolores Furtado, co-president of the League of Women voters, said she heard in late September. Furtado invited O'Connor to attend an upcoming luncheon to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment. O'Connor answered that the group probably would not want her there because of what she would have to say. When Furtado asked whether O'Connor didn't agree that women's suffrage was in the country's best interest, O'Connor responded, "Not necessarily so."
"She was very clear," said Furtado, a retired professor.
Reflecting on it last week, O'Connor said it was all a misunderstanding. Maybe she was a little too flip, the senator admitted, but that was because Furtado and other league members seldom share her political views.
"I was thinking, 'These are not my political friends,' " O'Connor said. "There are times when you get foot-in-mouth disease, and I had it, obviously."
What she doesn't apologize for are her beliefs about what it takes to keep a family strong. Men and women play different roles. "The difference between men and women is real," she said. As children, she said, girls are more giggly and boys more destructive. And as adults, men ought to do the providing, and make most of the household decisions.
O'Connor, who turns 60 next month, has been elected five times in this affluent suburb. In her own home, O'Connor said, her husband of 42 years, Art, is the head of the household and she is the heart. "My husband makes the decisions," she said. "I offer that to him. He does not demand it."
What is most distressing about this situation, O'Connor said, is that family problems forced her into the workplace. After having been a homemaker for 15 years, she went to work as a bookkeeper at a construction company so she could pay medical bills for one of her daughters who died at age 14 after four heart surgeries.
"I had to work outside the home to finish paying off all those doctor bills," she said. "Why would I condemn any other women who felt they had to do it?"
Although her district is mostly Republican, O'Connor said there are likely enough Democrats and "RINOS" (Republicans in Name Only) to garner the 3,000 signatures necessary to force a special election to replace her. No matter what happens, O'Connor said she intends to continue fighting to preserve the family. And some things are not always going to be popular, but are necessary to prevent divorce and other breakdowns in the family structure.
"I think we should be strengthening the family," she said. "The children deserve it. The family deserves it. Our society deserves it."