In the Values Voter Summit exhibit hall, amongst the expected array of conservative propaganda — the latest evangelical and right-wing books; recruitment booths from conservative universities; and political and advocacy organizations with pamphlets describing — one poster seemed out of place with its massive image of a lipstick-red stiletto.
The poster read, “She Votes 2012,” and in smaller letters, “A Get Out the Vote Project of Concerned Women for America,” while young women wearing the same image on form-fitting T-shirts staffed the CWA table. Although certainly an iconic image, the lipstick red stiletto is not normally associated with Christian conservative politics. In an environment such as VVS where members tout being the bearers and protectors of “Judeo-Christian” values, values ever vulnerable to the encroachment of pop culture “demagoguery” led by leftist secularists, how does the lipstick red stiletto image become “respectable” and embraced, even deployed as a conservative women’s voter empowerment strategy?
According to their website, CWA has a “32-year history of helping our members across the country bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.” Six central issues guide their advocacy work: “traditional marriage”; “sanctity of life”; public school reform that would give “authority” back to parents; obscenity and pornography; religious liberty; national sovereignty. CWA’s mission and areas of focus would seem diametrically opposed to branding its advocacy agenda with an image associated with female promiscuity.
Perhaps the stiletto and the “She Vote” message is in part an homage to an electric moment in recent Right-wing political history that embraced a conservative feminism, a sexual liberation if you will, allowed to exist in a staunchly patriarchal movement due to the rise and appeal of former beauty pageant winner, governor, and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In her first-hand account speaking to participants at the 2008 Values Voters Summit, Abby Scher, interim director of research at Political Research Associates writes, “The young people I spoke with (2008) were inspired by her sense of possibility as a liberated woman embracing ‘traditional’ Christian, heterosexual, anti-abortion—and gender egalitarian—values.”
Is this why, today, CWA can re-imagine the lipstick red stiletto as a “respectable” symbol of their voter empowerment campaign? Perhaps something more is at play. The Right-wing model of “traditional” marriage and family means that women must find ways to participate politically without disrupting their role within a heterosexual hierarchy—and a red high heel is a non-threatening symbol that delights the heterosexual male gaze. This eye candy strategy is not unlike the use of sexualized images of young women’s bodies for the purpose of selling a wide variety of consumer goods. At the same time, it distances its form of feminism from the Left’s feminism, which is often critical of the male gaze and embraces imagery of women demonstrating physical strength (such as the classic “Rosie the Riveter” image) as protest of the sexualized gaze.
The brand of empowerment espoused by conservative women leaders of late, such as Palin and Bachmann, has proven to resonate more with white male voters than with women. An article in The Nation, “Sex and the GOP,” cites the findings of political scientist Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota, who found “before the 2008 contest Bachmann received support from 49 percent of men and 42 percent of women. In a recent poll, she got the support of 56 percent of men versus just 39 percent of women.” Surprising, that the rhetoric and images of Palin and Bachmann would appeal to conservative men more than women? No, and why at VVS, where of the 40 listed plenary speakers only 7 were women, a lipstick red stiletto as a symbol of conservative women’s voter empowerment is accepted.
Currently, CWA and their “She Vote 2012” campaign is engaged in an extensive bus tour through major swing state, sporting a flashy style and impractical political agenda divorced from the lives of women facing a rapidly increasing cost of living and inching job growth—but, hey, at least they’ll grab the men’s attention.