JEFFERSON CITY - They call themselves "COWS." And the very use of that name to refer to a legislative organization for women is an indication of the humor they are attempting to bring to the debate over women's issues.
The Conservative Organization for Women--or COW--was launched this session by Representatives Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, and Connie Cierpiot, R-Independence. The caucus membership includes Republican men and women and three Democratic men.
In fact, men like Rep. Todd Akin, St. Louis County, constitute a majority of the organization's members.
Akin describes the organization as a both a spoof on the "bunch of liberal trash" he said is promoted by the National Organization for Women and a place for women who think "'You can't exploit my gender'...to vote on things 'that my conscience tells me are foolish and silly.'"
Since being elected to the legislature in 1992, Ridgeway has seen the issue of women's political involvement come up each year. She said she sensed that women legislators felt they needed to belong to a group and that new members were being herded into the existing caucus.
Ridgeway says that because "the so-called women legislators [were] trying to herd us in the direction of conformity" she wanted to create a "thought-based organization" as an alternative to the "sex-based" Women Legislators of Missouri.
"'Conservative'" comes first" in their name, Ridgeway pointed out. While the group's name shows that they are "for women," they didn't have to stop there. They could have gone on, she said, showing that they are also "for men, minorities" and other groups to the caucus' name.
The emphasis on "conservative" did attract freshman representative Judy Berkstresser, R-Crane.
"I was attracted to the COW group simply because of the name," Berkstresser said. "I am truly a conservative person."
She also said that no one from the Women Legislators of Missouri asked her to join. Women's groups generally do not appeal to her anyway, she explained.
"I didn't belong to ladies' groups at home," Berkstresser said. "I don't do Tupperware parties, don't like showers."
Ridgeway wants to show that "You don't have to be a liberal to be a feminist." She thinks that some liberal feminists "view their sex as a handicap for which they need a support group." No woman in the legislature should feel an "inferiority complex" because but "she worked her tail off to get here."
But not all legislators see an ideological divide between the caucuses.
Rep. Pat Secrest, R-Manchester, is one of several Republican women who belongs to both caucuses.
The Women Legislators of Missouri - the older organization - has played a valuable role in bringing women's issues like breast cancer to the floor, she said.
That caucus has been "doing very valuable work, very quietly," said Rep. Dorathea Davis, D-St. Louis, a member of Women Legislators of Missouri. She pointed to a fund raiser for scholarships organized by the caucus as an example.
"I believe in belonging to any caucus that helps me be a better legislator," Secrest said.
Caucuses are a way for legislators to educate themselves, share information and socialize, Secrest said. She added that most of her energy goes to the Republican caucus because she was "elected with an 'R' after my name."
Echoing the sentiment that belonging to a caucus can be just plain fun is Rep. Bill Gratz, D-Jefferson City.
He said that he is neither infiltrating the Republican-dominated group nor about to make a political shift.
Regarding his membership in COW, Gratz said, "You might say it's a dare...I don't even know what their principles are."
Ridgeway said that less regulation and less taxes are an aim of COW. Issues that are often identified as women's issues "impact families, fathers, husbands, children. They're people issues."
Some areas which may not be identified as such actually are women's issues, Ridgeway said.
"Helping small business owners supports a feminist agenda" because so many small business owners are women.
In the end, Ridgeway hopes to show that the "conservative road is the best path."
"COW will not support the patronizing hand of big government as necessary to female success," Ridgeway said.