Why Are Conservative Women Drawn to the Tea Parties?

The Right Wing

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?

A lot of liberals are making fun of Sarah Palin's "Mama Grizzlies" ad for her SarahPac. Over scenes of white women waving (or wearing) flags, carrying Tea Party signs (Moms Opposed to Mandates -- Unconstitutional), attending rallies and having photo ops with Palin herself, the weirdly urgent, electric voice of Palin delivers a speech of apparent contentlessness: women are going to "get things done for our country," are having "kind of a mom awakening," "because moms kinda just know when something's wrong." That's right, sisters: you don't want to mess with Mama Grizzlies when someone's coming after their cubs! To an outsider the ad looks vacuous and unprofessional -- didn't they know they had to salt the visuals with more black and brown faces? And how come the only politician you see is Sarah? But the message couldn't be clearer: white conservative women blah blah blah! Tax cuts yes, healthcare reform no! We want our country back! In a country where 55 percent tell pollsters Obama is a socialist, that's really all you need. You can fill in the candidates' names later, when you send in your check.

Are the Tea Party women feminists, as Palin now says she is? The F-word must be on a roll if this canny opportunist is claiming it, but Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would turn over in their graves at the thought. Feminism has made it possible for right-wing women to play a bigger role in politics than their John Birch predecessors -- for example, as Nickerson points out, feminist-driven changes in gender roles have made conservative men more comfortable working with women. But a feminist is someone who, whatever her personal choices, actually supports equality for women -- all women. It isn't someone whose main political goal is akin to the notorious Tea Party declaration, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" -- i.e., let's shred the safety net, except for the bits that help me. When Tea Party darling Sharron Angle, who wants to criminalize all abortion without exception, says a 13-year-old raped by her father should turn a "lemon situation into lemonade" and have the baby, this is not feminism -- it's the saccharine cruelty of the truly oblivious.

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