Why Women Dominate the Right-Wing Tea Party
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Why have American women become so active in the right-wing Tea Party movement? Could it be that they are drawn to the new conservative Christian feminism publicized by Sarah Palin? Without its grassroots female supporters, the Tea Party would have far less appeal to voters who are frightened by economic insecurity, threats to moral purity and the gradual disappearance of a national white Christian culture.
Most Americans are not quite sure what to make of the sprawling right-wing Tea Party, which gradually emerged in 2009 and became a household name after it held nationwide Tea Party rallies on April 15, 2010, to protest paying taxes. Throwing tea overboard, as you may remember, is an important symbolic image of the colonial anger at Britain’s policy of “taxation without representation.”
Many liberals and leftists dismissed the Tea Party as a temporary, knee-jerk response to the recession, high employment, home foreclosures, bankruptcies, and an African American president who had saved American capitalism by expanding the government’s subsidies to the financial, real estate, and automobile industries. Perhaps it is a temporary political eruption, but as E.J. Dionne, columnist at the Washington Post has argued, the movement also threatens the hard-won unity of the Republicans. “The rise of the tea party movement,” he writes, “is a throwback to an old form of libertarianism that sees most of the domestic policies that government has undertaken since the New Deal as unconstitutional. It typically perceives the most dangerous threats to freedom as the design of well-educated elitists out of touch with “American values.”
Who are these angry people who express so much resentment against the government, rather than at corporations? Since national polls dramatically contradict each other, I have concluded that the Tea Party movement has energized people across all classes.
One important difference, however, is race. At Tea Party rallies you don’t see faces with dark complexions. Another important distinction is that men and women are drawn to this sprawling movement for a variety of overlapping but possibly different reasons. Both men and women seem to embrace an incoherent “ideology” which calls for freedom from government, no taxes, and an inchoate desire to “take back America,” which means restoring the nation to some moment when the country was white and “safe.”
Men drawn to this movement appear to belong to a broad range of fringe right-wing groups, such as militias, white supremacy groups, pro-gun and confederacy “armies." Some of these groups advocate violence or vow to overthrow the government, and have even begun to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread their hatred through social media.
Women also play a decisive role in the Tea Party and now make up 55 percent of its supporters, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll. Hanna Rosin reports in Slate magazine that “of the eight board members of the Tea Party Patriots who serve as national coordinators for the movement, six are women. Fifteen of the 25 state coordinators are women.”
Why, I’ve wondered, does this chaotic movement appeal to so many women? There are many possible reasons. Some of the women in these groups are certainly women who love men who love guns and who hate the government and taxes. Professor Kathleen Blee, who has written widely about right-wing women, suggests there are probably more religious right-wing women than men in general, that Tea Party rallies may attract more women who are not working and therefore can attend them, and that the Tea Party emphasizes family vulnerability to all kinds of external danger.
Many men and women attracted to the Tea Party also belong to the Christian Identity Movement. They are right-wing Christians who promote fundamentalist views on abortion and homosexuality. But women come to the Tea Party from new and surprising venues, like the Parent-Teacher Association or groups organized specifically to elect women to political office. As Slate recently noted, “Much of the leadership and the grassroots energy comes from women. One of the three main sponsors of the Tax Day Tea Party that launched the movement is a group called Smart Girl Politics. The site started out as a mommy blog and has turned into a mobilizing campaign that trains future activists and candidates. Despite its explosive growth over the last year, it is still operated like a feminist cooperative, with three stay-at-home moms taking turns raising babies and answering e-mails and phone calls.”
Some of these religious women also have political aspirations and hope to use the Tea Party to gain leadership roles denied by the Republican Party to run for electoral office. To counter Emily’s List, which has supported liberal women for electoral politics, right-wing conservative women created the Susan B. Anthony List, which is successfully supporting right-wing women in their efforts to run for electoral office. To blunt the impact of liberal feminists, Concerned Women for America, a deeply religious group, supports women’s efforts to seek leadership positions within the Tea Party. The Women’s Independent Forum, a more secular group of right-wing women, seeks to promote traditional values, free markets, limited government, women’s equality and their ability to run for office.
Some of these women are drawing national attention because they have embraced a religious “conservative feminism.” Among them are evangelical Christians and, according to a recent cover story in Newsweek, they view Sarah Palin -- who ran for the vice presidency in 2009, has five children and a supportive husband, describes herself as a feminist, and gave up the governor’s office in Alaska to become a celebrity and millionaire--- as the leader, if not prophet of the Tea Party.