Women may have more power than more than they realize — certainly more than they used at the polls in the last election. More than a quarter of a million women who voted in Indiana's 2008 primary did not vote in the 2010 general election.
An effort is now underway to encourage these voters to return to the polls.
Watching the post-2010 fallout, in which Indiana lawmakers passed such initiatives as the defunding of Planned Parenthood and defining marriage within heterosexual terms, a group of Democratic women, including former Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis, came to the conclusion that Indiana would champion more constructive policies if more women were involved in the process.
"We took a look at what happened in the 2010 election when the Democrats lost the majority in the House, we lost some congressional races, (then) we lost the mayor's race in Indianapolis and Democrats became a super-minority in the Senate," said Sarah Steele Riordan, an attorney and partner in the Indianapolis firm Frost Brown Todd.
"Whatever messages went out in 2010 to these lapsed women voters, they didn't work. What we needed to do was craft a way to contact them that would work differently. ... We wanted to reach out in way that would be a woman-to-woman effort to say 'Hey, you voted in 2008, you didn't vote in 2010, take a look at what happened.'"
From this discussion grew the 51 Percent Club.
The club powers phone banks in 56 counties plowing through lists of women voters (including Republicans and independents), offering personal encouragement to return to the polls.
"We have added more phone banks so that we can scoop up some of our counties that don't have anything happening in them," said Katie Blair, the club's executive director.
"We are getting great responses around the state. One of our members did a piece on her experience phone banking in St. Joseph County for her local public radio station, a woman in Dubois County took out an ad in her local paper encouraging women to vote, and we had 32 women gather in Sullivan, Ind., this Sunday to talk about the role women's issues are playing in the upcoming election."
Watching all-male panels of lawmakers make women's health care decisions prompted Ann Stack, a founding member of the 51 Percent Club, to action.
"When I say to young women, 'My generation fought hard for rights to women. ... Are you concerned contraception will be eliminated?' It begins to open some avenues for being more engaged," Stack said.
"My generation worked so hard for the rights of women and I see them being chipped away ... forcefully, aggressively chipped away. ... We value men and we want them to value us and I don't believe that will happen until more women are put in decision-making positions."
Another founding member, Betty Cockrum, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Indiana, was inspired to action by watching "prolife" lawmakers advocate positions that undermine the availability of birth control.
"Help us reduce incidents of unintended pregnancy, so we can all see the incidents of abortion decline," Cockrum said. "It's a worthy objective for all of us. There are two ways to get that done: Educate and provide access to birth control ... period, period, period."
Women disagree about strategies for providing, regulating and funding women's health, particularly with regard to abortion, but the phone banks offer the platform for women to have those conversations and more.
"For me, it's not just a matter of whether you support choice or not," Riordan said. "It's just the general tenor of the Republican Party and their policies to limit or take women back to where they were before I was born or when I was kid, not supporting things like equal pay for equal work. ... Really just looking at everything from the perspective of men and not recognizing woman perspectives are varied and vibrant but really, really matter.
"I guess I took for granted that my legislators, Republican and Democrat, would take that into consideration, but this last year hasn't seemed that way."
In the club's founding meeting, members considered that women are 51 percent of the population and ought to take a more active role in electing women to office and electing representatives of either gender to advocate for woman. Thus, the name 51 Percent Club.
If any Hoosier women are feeling like they don't have the power to make a difference, Riordan said the club is there to remind them, "Oh, yes, you can: You're part of the majority, so get in it!"
Aside from the phone banks, the 51 Club is also working to capitalize on a study published in the journal Nature(supported in part by the University of Notre Dame's Science of Generosity Initiative) suggesting that social media can inspire greater participation at the polls.
In analyzing "a randomized controlled trial of political mobilization messages delivered to 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 U.S. congressional elections," the study authors concluded that messages displaying friends who voted "directly influenced political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behaviour of millions of people."
Voter participation is one area in which Indiana lags the nation.
According to the 2011 Indiana Civic Health Index, "Indiana ranked 48th in voter turnout in 2010, with a turnout rate of 39.4 percent, 6 percentage points lower than the national average of 45.5 percent."
The 51 Club aims to change this dynamic by encouraging voters to post pictures predicting the effects of greater female participation at the polls.
"In this next four and a half weeks [now two and a half weeks], we all need to be activists," Cockrum said, noting that 238,000 women who voted in the primary in 2008 didn't vote in the general election in 2010.
"We need to make sure people vote and we need to make sure that they are informed voters. And that they need to reach out, too. We don't want to wake up Nov. 7 and play the woulda, coulda, shoulda game — 'wish I'd paid attention, wish I wouldn't have taken it for granted ... '"
So the club advocates for three basic forms of action: Get on the phone, post a "when women vote ..." picture and vote.
Blair has sensed an air of passion among the phone bank volunteers.
"There are woman not willing to give up on Indiana," she said.***
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