DENVER – Wanda Ramey, 65, stood on the University of Colorado campus, cane in one hand, “Close The Pay Gap” sign in the other. The rally for equal pay among women in the workplace was her second stop in a day of meetings and protests.

A registered independent, Ramey has election year priorities that aren’t necessarily directly related to the “war on women” that Democrats have accused Republicans of waging. She worries about her grandchildren, their education and whether they’ll find jobs one day.

But when she read about a Virginia proposal to mandate a vaginally invasive form of an ultrasound before an abortion, she emailed friends to sound the alarm. And when she learned of the equal pay protest, she decided, broken pelvic bone and all, to stand with dozens of other women, sign held in the air.

“Men are talking about my uterus? I have a voice. I can talk,” she said. “And I think that’s what they’re finding out.”

Everybody, it seems, is talking about women in this campaign — what they should do, how they should act, who they should be in society. But do women see themselves reflected in the dialogue — or is the mirror of rhetoric distorting their concerns?

You could hear these issues play out on a recent day in this key presidential swing state — first, at the equal pay protest, but later at a hotel near Broncos stadium, where five conservative women led a panel discussion to strategize about reframing the rhetoric.

The upshot: Whether seen as real or manufactured, something about the so-called “war” is resonating among American women who could well make the difference on Election Day.

As Ramey put it: “They’ve woken a sleeping giant.”

Glimpse a few Facebook pages these days, and you’ll find an abundance of exasperation. The “Angry Conservative Women” page insists: “The only war on women (and on freedom) is being waged BY THE LEFT!” Then there’s “One Million Pissed Off Women,” which warns: “We are no longer willing to be compromised or thrown under the bus.”

It all follows four months of headline-making salvos. Think: Susan G. Komen ending cancer-screening grants to Planned Parenthood (quickly reversed). And disputes over laws against wage discrimination (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker last month signed a repeal of his state’s equal pay law, while a U.S. Senate candidate in Michigan called a federal equal pay law a “nuisance.”)

And there’s the ongoing fight over abortion. After Republicans made historic gains during the tea party-driven “red tide” of 2010, abortion was back on legislative agendas with a vengeance. In 2011, 24 states enacted a record 92 provisions limiting access to abortion services in some way, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights organization.

This year, dozens more provisions were introduced in legislatures nationwide. A measure in South Carolina, for example, would eliminate a woman’s ability to get an abortion through the state health plan if she’s a victim of rape or incest. Georgia and Arizona have banned most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy; Mississippi now requires doctors performing abortions at a clinic to be a certified OB-GYN with admitting privileges at a local hospital.

Not all of these actions have inspired as much controversy 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, 56, saw the congressional hearing from which Fluke was excluded, and saw the all-male witness table. Within days, this Birmingham, Mich., wife, mother and marketing specialist had launched UniteWomen.org. Its mission: “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 April 28. All told, hundreds marched in places like Phoenix, Austin and Columbus, Ohio.

The rallies came a day after Republican Speaker John Boehner lambasted 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.”

Said Teegarden, a supporter of President 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.”

Political consultant Mary Hughes heads The 2012 Project, a nonpartisan campaign to increase the number of women running for office. The project’s website features a video with these 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.”

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 responses.

“It all seems very ’50s and ’60s,” said Carroll, citing in particular some of the positions espoused by Rick Santorum during the GOP primary battle. Those included backing a constitutional ban on abortion in all cases and saying states should be free to outlaw contraception.

Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s views aren’t as extreme — he says that Roe v. Wade should be reversed by a future Supreme Court and that state laws should guide abortion rights. But the debates “raised all of these issues … that I think a lot of people thought were settled. And it’s given the Democratic Party something to pounce on,” Carroll said.

In Virginia, a new political action committee, Women’s Strike Force, is raising money to defeat politicians who backed that state’s anti-abortion proposals. Local groups at places ranging from a Cleveland community center to a synagogue in New York have presented panel discussions on how to better fight on behalf of women’s issues.

Conservative women are battling what they see as Democratic pandering that paints all women with the same brush. The conservative group Smart Girl Politics in April launched a “They Don’t Speak for Us” campaign that includes a video focusing on jobless rates and the cost of gas and groceries.

ShePAC, a PAC working on behalf of conservative women candidates, promises in another ad: “2012 won’t be a war on women, it will be a war by women.”

In an opinion piece penned for CNN.com after Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” ShePAC’s women co-chairs said, “More and more women like Ann Romney are standing up and speaking out. … Those women aren’t victims, they are fierce warriors who fight for their principles.”

For better or worse, the debate over gender politics has launched a national dialogue.

To see it, look to Colorado — and a single day in the trenches.

As the equal pay protesters dispersed, a man orating about religion soon took to the University of Colorado commons. When marketing major Sasha Luinstra stopped to watch, she said, “I should get out there and preach.” A male student standing next to her replied: “What are you going to preach about? Makeup?” Luinstra, 21, didn’t bother responding.

Those kinds of comments, along with the different statements about women that she’s heard this campaign season, both rile and baffle Luinstra.

To Luinstra, the virtues of stay-at-home moms versus those who work are a non-issue. She recalls her graphic designer mom in tears when she’d drop her at day care. Her mother eventually quit and stayed home, instilling in her daughter the idea that “I’m free to make any choice I want.”

Luinstra feels the same principle should apply to abortion. She has friends who are now parents but who have also terminated previous pregnancies, and said she’s grateful that those women could choose for themselves what path to take.

Over the summer, she plans to volunteer for Students for Obama. “He backs up my values,” she said of the president.

By evening, 30 or so men and women — members of the Denver chapter of the Coalition for a Conservative Majority — convened at the Hotel VQ for a panel discussion by five Republican women about the so-called war on women.

These women — a lawyer, a former options trader, a businesswoman who tracks government spending, a stay-at-home mom who started a conservative advocacy group and a legislative aide whose mother is a state lawmaker — discussed how conservatives could reach women voters, especially the independents who are key in Colorado.

Several suggested a move away from the debate over contraception.

“Gas or groceries. That’s the real war on women,” said Lori Horn, 50, who co-founded the group R Block Party.

For Horn, a mother of two girls, discussions about contraception have become a distraction that could prove harmful to the GOP candidates she backs.

Panel moderator Linda Hoover cited a March USA Today/Gallup poll of swing states, including Colorado, that showed women favoring Obama over Romney by 18 percentage points.

“It’s absolutely frightening how quickly, once they launched that (war) narrative … the polling data changed. I’m hoping it was a short-term bounce, but let’s not assume that,” said Hoover, 60, a lawyer who has been working voter registration booths to do her part in enticing more women voters.

The gender gap can make a significant difference in presidential elections. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the number of female voters has exceeded the number of males in every presidential election since 1964. And, in every presidential election since 1980, a greater proportion of women have chosen the Democratic candidate over the Republican.

Come November, said Rutgers professor Carroll: “It’s very likely that women’s votes — whether they go strongly for Obama or whether Romney’s able to minimize the gender gap — will make the difference.”