They will be crucial in November's election: and they're not impressed by the Republicans. Now President Obama is reaching out to women voters - with a co-ordinated campaign.
"I believe Democrats have a better story to tell women," Barack Obama told supporters last week and today, according to the New York Times, the party will fire off mailings to a million women in key battleground states around the country. It'll be followed by special events, house parties and phone banks, all culminating with a special week of action at the end of this month. Another effort, called Nurses for Obama, will enable community advocates to rally support for the president's healthcare bill.
I believe Democrats have a better story to tell women. Barack Obama
It is a story that could have been written very differently, just a few months ago. Then, it seemed that women, who helped to propel Obama to power in 2008, were deserting his side: more women chose to back the Republicans in 2010, when the GOP swept to victory in the midterms. Obama was accused of ignoring womens' issues, while the economic downturn, unemployment and home foreclosures were rapidly alienating voters in suburban areas. The macho infighting on Capitol Hill didn't win over many female fans, either.
War on Women
But all that was before the Republicans appeared bent on declaring a cultural "war on women" with a series of increasingly outspoken attacks on reproductive rights, on abortion, on single parents, on women working outside the home. Driven by the Republican race for the White House, it was as if the cause of feminism had been hurled back 100 years. It didn't take long for women voters to begin switching back to Obama in droves.
A poll by the New York Times and CBS last month revealed the switch: in January women disapproved of Obama's performance by 48 per cent to 46 per cent; a month later that had changed to 53 per cent in favour, 38 per cent against. The president easily out-polled either of his main Republican rivals, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, by a margin of around 20 points, according to Pew Research. "Women are going to make up their own minds in this election about who is advancing the issues they care most deeply about", Obama declared last week, and at the moment all he needs to do is sit back, and let the Republicans drive women away, all by themselves.
If it's not Rick Santorum trying to mess with women's right to birth control, or railing against single mothers, then it's Republicans in Congress trying to cut off funds to the women's health care group, Planned Parenthood - or GOP-controlled states bringing in draconian restrictions on abortion. The disgraceful comments by right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who branded a young student a slut and a prostitite, after she gave evidence on the Hill about birth control, merely confirmed a mean kind of hostility that was already overwhelming the political debate.
For some women, the Democrats' response was more about political expediency than a still small voice of calm: Elizabeth Drew, in the New York Review of Books, wrote that the "noisy and often passionate argument over insurance coverage for contraception" came down not to a straight argument about religious freedom, or womens' health, "but to a contest over whether the issue would be more efficacious for turning out the Democrats' or the Republicans' base in November".
Cherchez la femme
But right now, it is the Republicans who are suffering the backlash. President Reagan's former speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, summed up the ugly mood on NBC's Meet the Press: "Somebody has got to stop and notice this sounds like a horrible misogynistic war on women. We have got to stop it." But who's around to spearhead that kind of effort, inside the GOP? There's a noticeable dearth of prominent women in the Republican party who could champion their voice, while veteran senator Olympia Snowe is retiring after 33 years, fed up with the way the current political debate has descended into partisan nastiness.
Somebody has got to stop and notice this sounds like a horrible misogynistic war on women. Peggy Noonan
How different from 2008, when the leading roles of Hillary Clinton and, yes, Sarah Palin, seemed to be heralding a new era for women power on both sides of the aisle. Or perhaps women do still wield the political power, albeit through the ballot box. And if the Republicans continue to preach about everything from women's bodies to their right to work - they will continue to drive away the very people who turn out to vote - and who decide elections, especially in those key suburban battlegrounds.
That's bad politics, in anyone's book. And you can bet the Democrats are seizing every opportunity to make sure this particular story has the happy ending they're after.
Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News.