Much has been made of the rise of conservative woman candidates: from Nikki Haley in South Carolina to Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California.  Certainly, it’s nice to see strong women pursuing office, and reminding the public (particularly the media) that women don’t all believe in big government and agree with the National Organization for Women on what’s best for women or how to define “women’s issues.”

Yet – as I’m sure these women running for office would agree – the gender make-up of the next Congress isn’t what will be important to the country.  In fact, 94 percent of politically independent voters surveyed during a poll for Independent Women’s Voice this fall said the sex of a candidate wouldn’t influence their vote.  Voters know it’s a candidate’s agenda – not his or her sex – that makes the difference.

This will be particularly true in this election.  Our country is at a crossroads.  Not only is government spending more than ever before and incurring record levels of debt,  the federal government has taken unprecedented new roles in the health care sector, the financial services industry, and in shaping other industries.  If we continue on this path, America will be forever changed, with slower economic growth, less prosperity, and fewer freedoms.

Too many politicians and pundits mistakenly believe women voters are influenced disproportionately by issues that relate only to gender.  Yet, in reality, all issues are women’s issues.  Women don’t need a new federal daycare program or more stimulus spending.  Women – like men – need a dynamic economy that creates jobs today and that will continue to innovate and expand for future generations.

Restoring America’s long-term prospects and prosperity requires reducing government’s burden on the private sector and returning resources to the people of this country: the entrepreneurs, investors, workers, and families.  Simply put, government must contract so that the private sector can expand.

Specifically, the next Congress needs to extend any tax cuts that are allowed to expire in January 2011.  Congress needs to consider ways to reduce the tax burden on individuals and businesses, not just by lowering rates, but by simplifying the tax code so that people don’t waste time and resources on inscrutable paperwork.

Congress needs to cut government spending and find ways to bring down government’s future costs.  Yes, politicians, that means you can talk to the American people as grown-ups and discuss common sense reforms to Social Security.  Today’s 30 and 40-year-olds can prepare for slightly smaller retirement checks and should prefer such reductions to crushing tax burdens today and for their children.

More than anything else, women want greater job creation.  We want jobs for ourselves and for our husbands and children.  Congress has been pushing in the wrong direction.  It’s been adding new regulations and responsibilities for employers and contemplating adding even more.  These mandates make it more expensive for companies to add new employees.  This has to stop.  Sure, many women would welcome a position with paid maternity leave, but the first priority has to be creating sustainable private sector jobs.  Washington should trust negotiations about specific compensation packages and benefits to individuals, rather than imposing costly one-size-fits-all mandates.

Mandates like these are why a majority of the American people opposed the new health care law last spring and support its repeal today.  The current health care system is far from perfect, but the new health care law moves the system in the wrong direction.  Empowering bureaucrats to dictate what all health insurance policies must contain reduces individual choice and will drive insurance costs higher.  Forcing employers to spend more on health insurance will discourage job creation and can reduce take-home pay.  Granting government so much control over the treatments made available to Americans can discourage investment in research and medical innovation, which is critical to improving the prospects for those suffering from the deadliest diseases.

The next Congress needs to focus on new reforms that make insurance more affordable and accessible, without sacrificing medical quality and granting so much control to Washington’s bureaucracy.

Finally, politicians all talk about education reform, yet years slip by while schools tinker with the status quo.  Throwing money at public schools will not make them better.  Policymakers need to consider meaningful, systematic reform in which everything is on the table.  They should focus on empowering parents, giving families more options, and supporting teacher excellence in all of our public schools.  America’s K-12 public schools need to compete for customers just like every other entity in America.  This will be the best way to ensure quality and efficiency.

This November, women voters won’t be focused on a small set of “women’s issues,” and they certainly won’t cast ballots out of a feeling of sisterhood.  This election will determine the role of government in our lives for years to come, and women know their ballots can make the difference.

Michelle D. Bernard is President and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and a Political Analyst for MSNBC.  Hers is the seventh installment in our fall series, “Stiletto Nation.”