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Why Are Conservative Women Drawn to the Tea Parties?

Conservative movements have always marshaled women's organizing prowess.
 
 
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There are lots of conservative white women voters in America. In 2000, white women went for Bush by one point; in 2004, 55 percent chose Bush over Kerry; and in 2008, after all we'd been through, 53 percent chose McCain over Obama. In a way, when we feminists and progressives talk about "women voters" in that rah-rah EMILY's List way, we are buying our own propaganda, because really it's women of color, especially black women, who push "women" solidly into the Democratic camp. By speaking so generally about "women" -- whom pundits subdivide into silly pseudodemographics like "waitress moms," "security moms," " Sex and the City voters" and so on, each of which receives a specially crafted message -- we make it hard to see right-wing women as anything but bizarre exceptions or (more kindly) as women just waiting for the brilliant appeal to some self-interest they didn't know they had.

This mindset explains why so many are surprised that the Tea Party is full of women. It's man bites dog, er, make that woman bites cat -- females are supposed to be liberal. A widely cited Quinnipiac University poll reported that the majority of Tea Partyers -- 55 percent -- were women, and Ruth Rosen wrote a thoughtful piece setting out possible reasons why. According to Gallup, women are 45 percent of the Tea Party, but whatever the exact figure, it's safe to say there are a whole lot of Mama Grizzlies out there.

What's strange about that? Men may control political parties and movements, but across the political spectrum women are the workhorses. Indeed, movements have to engage women as well as men or they won't get very far. White women mobilized against women's suffrage and for the KKK, which had hundreds of thousands of female auxiliaries back when the KKK was a respectable family organization. They were grassroots activists in the John Birch Society and the insurgent Goldwater wing of the Republican Party. Then as now, women mobilized as mothers, ordinary women reluctantly laying aside their oven mitts to go out and save America from moral rot. "In the cold war era," historian Michelle Nickerson, author of the forthcoming Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right, told me, "women on the right were...on the phone, knocking on doors, getting signatures, planning events, opening bookstores, going to study groups, etc. They were incredibly effective and they created a powerful anti-statist gender ideology that fuels conservative women's politics still." (As a housewife quoted in Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm told Time magazine in 1961, "I just don't have time for anything. I'm fighting communism three nights a week.")

Historically, right-wing women were put to organizing one another and kept away from real power. That's the sad story of Phyllis Schlafly, who had to concentrate on antifeminism because there was no future for her in foreign policy. But heck, it's 2010, and right-wing women are tired of licking envelopes and knocking on doors to elect yet another jowly good ol' boy. Go Nikki Haley! These days conservative women work, and fundamentalist stay-home moms want to be in public life. They have the same desire for power and respect and a place in the sun that liberal women do. The antiabortion, anti–gay rights and Christian fundamentalist movements funneled right-wing women into party politics; now the Tea Party adds a note of faux kitchen-table "common sense": why shouldn't the government have to balance its budget the way a family does? Why should the virtuous taxpayer "bail out" the lazy and imprudent? Why is this Muslim Kenyan communist running the country?

 
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