When will Republicans awaken to the dangers of alienating women, a growing number of whom now regard them as anti-female, not just anti-feminist? Maybe some GOP leaders, if there are any these days, already have seen the potential disaster such an image portends. But they seem helpless to avoid it in the tidal wave of male-dominated religious fervor over reproductive rights.

Women make up over 50 percent of the nation's population and no party can hope to win by losing great handfuls of them. But if the polls and interviews are to be believed, large numbers of independent women and those who considered themselves affiliated with the Republican Party are rushing headlong away from candidates who insist on making the bedroom the main battleground of the day.

After writing a column about the uncivil tenor of today's debate over birth control, as best exemplified by Rush Limbaugh's now infamous slander of a Georgetown law student, I received well over 100 emails in a relatively few hours. Ninety-five percent were from males excoriating me for having the temerity to criticize Limbaugh. Two women joined them. The rest were from women thanking me for standing up for their rights and decrying the nasty attacks by, as one woman called them, the "Viagra thugs" whose medicine is covered by health insurance.

The issue ostensibly is about whether taxpayers, particularly those who are following church-ordered edicts opposed to contraception, should have to pay for birth-control advice and aid as required under the law. The main focus is on employees of institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church, whose pope has reinforced strict edicts against birth control and whose bishops have launched an all-out fight against the health care bill's mandate. This ignores the fact that an estimated 80 to 85 percent of American Catholic women, many of them otherwise devout, utterly ignore the church's admonishments on sexual freedom.

The real issue for women is the right of self-governance when it comes to their own bodies, beliefs and behavior. They are not chattel, at least not in this nation, to be told how to live by the males of the species or their candidates for office or, for that matter, their priests or ministers. They won the right to vote early in the last century and they intend to use it according to their own dictates.

No one is more aware of this than Barack Obama's political team, which is pointing toward a re-election campaign stressing the president's support for unfettered women's rights. The impact for Obama regarding independent women voters could be quite large. That doesn't count Republican women turned off by the campaigns of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both of whom have made a leading issue of state-sponsored contraception or birth control of any kind. Nor was GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney's tepid response to the Limbaugh furor ("I wouldn't have used that language") well received by women voters.

One woman who said she voted for Sen. John McCain in 2008 reportedly described the GOP campaign as an ugly attempt to tell women how to live while the important problems of the day fell through the cracks. That may be a bit harsh. But the constant barrage of ideological commentators, conservative and liberal, wears on the political discourse. There is in reality very little space as the curve bends between the extreme right and extreme left of the spectrum — between Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher.

It may be very difficult for the Republicans to change the misogynist perception without altering the party's current overall direction. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a highly regarded potential Republican presidential candidate who ultimately decided not to run, warned early on that to recapture the White House, the party's concern for things that might not always be its business had to be put aside. He called for a moratorium on social causes in favor of solving larger issues and was roundly criticized by conservatives.

Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at