Not all of these actions have received as much attention — or inspired as much controversy and derision — as the Virginia proposal to mandate a transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion. Hundreds of women converged on the state Capitol in Richmond; Jon Stewart said the bill required a "TSA pat-down inside their vagina." The governor eventually signed a pared-down law requiring abdominal ultrasounds instead.
There was also the battle over whether religious-affiliated employers should have to cover birth control in insurance plans. When law student Sandra Fluke, prevented from testifying before Congress on the issue, spoke instead to a Democratic panel to advocate payments for contraceptives, Rush Limbaugh set off a firestorm by calling her a "slut."
Karen Teegarden saw the congressional hearing from which Fluke was excluded, and saw the all-male witness table. And within days this 56-year-old wife, mother and marketing specialist from Birmingham, Mich., had launched UniteWomen.org. Its mission statement: "Help defend women's rights and pursuit of equality."
Using social media and the Internet, Teegarden's group organized protests in cities all across the country on April 28. All told, hundreds marched in places like Phoenix, where coat hangers were on display featuring a plea: "Keep Abortion Safe & Legal." And Austin, where a Democratic state representative took to the microphone to quote a famous phrase: "Heed our warning. Hell has no fury like a woman scorned." And Ohio, where women at the state Capitol hoisted signs that read: "'Sluts' Over Nuts" and "My Vagina. My Choice."
The rallies came a day after Republican Speaker John Boehner took to the floor of the U.S. House to lambast Democrats for politicizing issues that he said should transcend partisan politics. He brought up the "so-called war on women," calling it something "entirely created by my colleagues across the aisle for political gain."
"Give me a break," Boehner roared as his fellow Republicans cheered.
Said Teegarden, a supporter of President Barack Obama: "If you don't want to call it a war, that's fine. We are fighting something. It's not just us having 'emotions.' We are fighting very specific legislation."
It's worth considering the landscape in which all of this is happening.
This year is the 20th anniversary of what became known as the "Year of the Woman," an election year in which the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate tripled and in the U.S. House went from 28 to 47. Many of those newly elected women were driven to run after watching the 1991 hearings in which an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Anita Hill about sexual harassment claims against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Political consultant Mary Hughes sees parallels between then and now.
"There were a number of things percolating in '91 and '92, just as I think there has been a number of things percolating last year and this year ... that made it appear that women needed to do more on their own behalf. There are similar indignities," said Hughes, who directs The 2012 Project, a nonpartisan campaign to increase the number of women running for office. The project's website features a video with these stark statistics: "While women make up 51 percent of the population, 83 percent of members of the U.S. Congress and 76 percent of state legislators ... are men. And of the 50 governors in the United States, only six are women."
"Don't get mad. Get elected," reads the organization's motto.
Statistics like those, coupled with what Rutgers political science and gender studies professor Susan Carroll calls the "retro" debate over women's issues going on now, are inspiring some of these head-scratching, sign-waving, "What do we do now?" responses.
"It all seems very '50s and '60s," said Carroll, citing in particular some of the positions espoused by Rick Santorum during the lengthy GOP primary battle. Those included supporting a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in all cases and saying states should be free to ban contraception.