The Tea Party and the New Right-Wing Christian Feminism

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Ruth Rosen, a former columnist at the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, is also an historian who currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America" (Viking, 2006). This article originally appeared at openDemocracy.

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, 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 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 twenty-five 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 that 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  magazine, they view Sarah Palin—who ran for the vice presidency in 2009, has five children and a supportive husband, describes herself as a feminist, gave up the governor's office in Alaska to become a celebrity and millionaire—as the leader, if not prophet of the Tea Party.  As a result, Palin is mobilizing right-wing religious women across the nation.  They like that she wears make up, still looks like a gorgeous beauty queen, and yet is bold and strong minded.  They don't seem to care that she uses "Ms." instead of Mrs., nor are they bothered by her crediting Title IX (legislation passed in 1972 that enforced gender equality in education and sports) for her athletic opportunities.  On ABC News she told her interviewer, Charles Gibson, "I'm lucky to have been brought up in a family where gender has never been an issue.  I'm a product of Title IX, also, where we had equality in schools that was just being ushered in with sports and with equality opportunity for education, all of my life.  I'm part of that generation, where that question is kind of irrelevant because it's accepted.  Of course you can be the vice president and you can raise a family".

Palin belongs to a group called Feminists for Life whose slogan is "Refuse to Choose."  When she described herself as a feminist at the start of her vice-presidential campaign, she explained that she was a member of this group, led by Serrin Foster, who has carved out a successful career on the lecture circuit by trying to convince young women that you can be a feminist by making the choice not to have an abortion.  When I interviewed Foster several years ago, I asked her how very poor or teenage girls were supposed to take of these unwanted children.  Since she is against taxes and government subsidies for social services, she evaded my question.  She said that women should not be alone, that others should help.  In the end, the only concrete solution she offered is that adoption is the best solution for these young women.

Just recently, Palin once again dubbed herself a "feminist" and set off an explosive debate about what constitutes feminism in the United States.  She describes religious conservative women as "Mama Grillizies" and urges them to"rise up" and claim the cause of feminism as their own.  Palin encourages her followers to launch a"new, conservative feminist movement" that supports only political candidates who uncompromisingly oppose abortion.

The response to Palin's effort to draw women into the Tea Party varies widely.  Her"sisterly speechifying", writes Jessica Valenti in the Washington Post,  "is just part of a larger conservative bid for the hearts and minds of women by appropriating feminist language."

Writing in the conservative National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez, responds, "Palin isn't co-opting feminism.  She's reclaiming a movement that was started by Susan B. Anthony and other women who fought for the right to vote—and were staunchly pro-life."  This is true; nineteenth-century suffragists wanted to protect the status of motherhood and were against abortion.  "The"feminist" label doesn't have to be so polarizing," argues Meghan Daum in the Los Angeles Times.  "Boiled down, feminism just means viewing men and women as equals, and seeing your gender 'as neither an obstacle to success nor an excuse for failure.'  So if Sarah Palin"has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she's entitled to be accepted as one."

Here is a great irony.  Since 1980, when the backlash began attacking the women's movement, young secular American women have resisted calling themselves feminists because the religious right-wing had so successfully created an unattractive image of a feminist as a hairy, man-hating, lesbian who spouted equality, but really wanted to kill babies.  Now, Palin is forcing liberal feminists to debate whether these Christian feminists are diluting feminism or legitimizing it by making it possible to say that one is a feminist.

When I read what women write on Christian women's web sites, I hear an echo from the late nineteenth century when female reformers sought to protect the family from "worldly dangers."  Frances Willard, leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, urged millions of women to enter the public sphere in order to protect their families, to address the decadent consequences and casualties of capitalism, to win suffrage, and to fight for prohibition, all in the name of protecting the purity of their homes and families. 

For many contemporary evangelical Christian women, their motivations are similar.  They want to enter the public sphere or even run for office to eliminate abortion, protect marriage, contain sexual relations, oppose gay marriage and clean up the mess made by the sexual revolution.  All this is part of a long and recognizable female reform tradition in American history.

At Tea Party rallies, you often see women carrying signs that read "Take back America."  Not everyone is sure what that means.  At the very least, however, it means taking back America from an expanding government, from taxes, and more symbolically, from the changing racial complexion of American society.

Within a few decades, the non-white population will constitute a majority of the citizens in the U.S.  Many white evangelical Christians feel besieged and the women, for their part, feel they must publicly protect their families from such rapid and potentially dangerous changes.  They feel that some faceless bureaucrats or immigrants or minorities, described as "they," have taken over our society and threaten the moral purity of American society.  What they don't fear is that corporations have taken over the American government and have distorted its democratic institutions.

Washington Bureau Chief Adele Stan of AlterNet, who has fifteen years of close scrutiny of the extreme Right under her belt, has warned that we take the Tea Partiers seriously and dismiss them at our peril.

The Tea Party panders to fear and resentment.  But they are hardly a lonely minority.  A recent USA Today/Gallup survey found that 37 percent of Americans said they"approved" of the Tea Party movement.  It is not a movement that Americans should ignore.  History reminds us that the politics of fear and resentment can quickly turn into a dangerous and powerful political force. 

But the Tea Party is not only a grassroots movement.  Behind the women at the kitchen table, there is money, and plenty of it.  Writing in the The New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky  reminded readers that"Money is the ultimate lubricant of politics and that the potential money supply for Tea Parties and other….contributions is virtually limitless." 

Tomasky also underscores the fact that the Tea Party is not about short-term electoral victories.  It's about the long term project of resurrecting the power to protect free markets, deregulation, and for the religious Right to gain political power.

Men and women may not join the Tea Party for the same reasons, but 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. 

For good or ill, Christian women have moved mountains before in the America past.  The abolition of slavery and the prohibition of liquor are just two examples.  Now they have helped organize the Tea Party and their new conservative feminism may just affect American political culture in unpredictable ways.  Perhaps they will gain a new self-confidence and political influence by straying from the Republican party.  Or, as in the past, they may disappear into their homes and churches and become a footnote in the history of American politics.  For now, it is too soon to tell how the Tea Party, let alone its female members, will fare in the future.

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Peter Kovachev - 7/14/2010

Ms Kursten, we can spin about in circles on this moderates issue until the cows come home. A discussion in which the terms have not been (or cannot be) properly defined is merely an exercise in rhetoric; it may be pleasant, and I enjoy sparring with you, but such a discussion will not meet its manifested aims.

You choose to disqualify, or at least question, my positions on the grounds that I don't live in the US and that, unlike you, I'm presumably not privy to the anecdotal evidence you believe to be mining by talking to "actual U.S. voters the way (you) have." Not a very strong argument this, for reasons which should be obvious to someone who has been a presidential librarian.

But to continue with this bee in your bonnet, why should I be sensitive to your contention that there may be leagues of moderates on this forum? What is your point, that they won't vote for me? That they'll be turned off something? First of all, the term "moderate" is obviously relative, subjective and thus nearly useless for any discussion beyond explorations of fuzzy constructs like zeitgeists, paradigms, axioms or such. Heck, I see myself as a moderate too, and I wager lots of other people self-define themselves so as well. No doubt others, like you, will disagree and I will counter that it's you folks who are being zealots for pushing an arbitrary outlook nominated as "moderate." Who will adjudicate? The definition obviously depends on the framing of the questions, personal and cultural perceptions and context, and even a properly conducted sociological study will again only reveal temporary and highly relative political designations. Also, most people with a healthy personality are able to recognize when they goof up and to own up, at least to themselves. I have made numerous voting mistakes of the years, outright idiotic ones if you will, in local and national elections as well. Yet my ego survives, so perhaps in spite of what my family and friends may think (I'm afraid to ask), I may actually have a healthy personality. Note that more and more people, including former cheerleaders in the media are admitting that they were taken in by Mr Obama.

What you seem to be talking about is your perception of the effects of partisanship and your belief that the "moderate" stance, however you've defined it, is somehow superior to all others. Perhaps, yet no evidence exists that "moderates" are either more perceptive or pragmatic than "partisans." Nor am I aware that a moderate approach is better than the "hammer" approach; accept the possibility that you are projecting your personal tastes on the whole world.

Yes, Obama may well have been chosen by the "moderates" because they yearned for a non-partisan administration. If so, their yearning led them to swallow his (or his PR experts')line about being non-partisan. Oops! And yet, there were plenty of intelligent people who saw things differently, and unlike the moderates, they pointed to a real, pragmatic, body of evidence ...such a track record and current or past associations... to the contrary. Perhaps you can better answer from anecdotal or personal experience why moderates chose to get snookered by ignoring evidence which was so clear to so many.

I continue to be puzzled by what exactly in my post launched you onto this topic of moderacy and allegories of packing plants. This being a history site, it is a place for vigorous discussion of intellectual issues, rather than another venue for political advocacy or cultural therapeutics. Professor Rosen's essay is, at least in my view, intellectually outdated, sloppy and slanderous and I wasn't going to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" with her. So, I commented on a few of many of her howlers. You have yet to comment on the specific content or substance of my critique, focussing instead on the way I presented it. Let's agree that my critique is uncharitable, contentious and probably politically ineffective. So what? I'm not running for office, selling a book, or looking for a bride or new friends, nor do I have any illusions about swaying anyone this way or that, or changing the nature of the American political discourse.

As for your curious allegory, the image of the managerial class, the "philosopher kings" in your mythical factory is, simply, jujune and unrealistic. Since anecdotals are a legitimate source in our dialogue, I work with industry and management on a frequent basis and I know with certainty that any enterprise which would place the kind of people you glowingly describe in positions of authority, has declared its bankruptcy-wish. Also, successful companies don't shut away people like me, or even Prof Rosen, but keep them in the decision process loop, knowing that strong and even contentious positions have real, functional and yes, pragmatic, value.

Maarja Krusten - 7/14/2010

Ah, Mr. Kovachev, you fell right into the trap. Moderates voted like ten year olds, confused and clueless. Doesn't it occur to you that moderates might be reading HNN? It doesn't seem to occur to the academics who write here, either, except for Gil Troy. Well, I'll chalk that one up to your not living in the U.S. and having few chances to talk to actual U.S. voters the way I have.

What people who argue with the tired old right and left models in mind overlook is the fact that moderates, too, are observing what is going on. And for them, it often is as much about tone as solutions and pragmatism. A recent poll showed that independents are disappointed in President Obama because he failed to change the culture in Washington. With the usual "when all you have is a hammer" approach, left and right wingers tend to take slipping poll numbers and cry, look, he's not liberal enough or look he's too liberal for the nation. In truth, anecdotal evidence and poll numbers (your link is dead, btw) suggest that there are people who are sitting out there thinking of Jon Stewart's famously brave confrontation with the childish right and left battling Crossfire folks, "Stop hurting America." That moderates are at play don't seem to be recognized HNN, either with the academic writers (who often display incredible lack of self awareness of the nuances that exist in the thinking of American voters) or for the posters. That's exactly why reading HNN between 2004 and 2008 told me an Obama type would win in 2008. HNN largely showed me that public discourse had become too much like junior high school, leaving a lot of grownups looking for a different place to congregate. Whether they wanted such an outcome or not, the people writing and commenting on HNN who relied too much on painting every issue as right and left Jets and Sharks type battles contributed to Obama's victory. Nowadays, it's harder to get a sense of the zeitgeist than it was back then because essays on HNN draw so few comments. Some of that stems from the articles, which can be mind boggling in their shalloweness.

Peter Kovachev - 7/13/2010

Yes, Ms Kursten, I'm a Canadian, a naturalized one at that, something I point out from time to time whenever I need an excuse for my ignorance on this or that issue. Like many Canadians, I follow US politics closely because when you folks sneeze, we tend to get bowled over and soaked. But not this time. As thing are, not too long after our own liberal types went nuts over The One, things chilled a bit, quite a bit actually. Our government wisely nods away, smiles big smiles at your wild and crazy kids in Washinton and politely averts its eyes from your current embarrassment while steering its own course. As the G20 proved, most of the world's leaders seem to be doing the same thing anyway. Still, in the long run a power vacuum (or profound vacuousness) is not a good thing. So, now we Hope for Change and know that things will get easier after November and better after 2012 ...unless the WH kids manage to ruin things for all by totalling the family car, maxing the credit card and leaving the front door unlocked.

Not being too deep, I have no idea why you brought up such topics, but if I may point out, your moderates and swing voters didn't do too well in your last election for the solution-oriented pragmatists you imagine them to be. Overly peeved at the Republicans and getting caught up in the Hope and Change hooplah, they forgot to read Mr Obama's resume, didn't take a better look at his buddies and voted like ten year-olds would. It made us seriously wonder here whether your moderates are just a polite name for the clueless and confused. I hope not.

In any case, recent stats don't support your belief that "most Americans are neither conservatives nor liberals" (http://www.gallup.com/poll/141032/2010-conservatives-outnumber-moderates-liberals.aspx). Note how the classic "hockey stick" line for conservatives threatens to launch into space.

I must confess that the allegory of your mythical company and the packing jobs is a tad too subtle and nuanced for my admittedly deficient understanding. But I did in fact once work in a plant pounding boxes shut and taping them; precisely as you describe the process. The money wasn't great, but the room was airconditioned, the coffee was great and it was the least stressful and probably the most satisfying job I ever had. If that's what you and your "pragmatists" have in mind for me, I'll keep my lunch box ready; can't think of a better way to sit out the mess you folks south of us made.

Maarja Krusten - 7/13/2010

@Ms. Drake, Ms. Rosen is unlikely to comment here (most authors don’t do so). Her essay is ineffective and counterproductive. She herself must take responsibility for it. Since she is unlikely to comment here, I’d like to point out that you may be interpreting part of it differently than intended. I took her comment about homes and churches to mean that some SAHMs who now are energized may remain so. Others may be active for a while but then return to a more low profile, self and family centered life. That’s different from your interpretation, which seems to be that she is saying homes are churches places are poor bases for activism.

I think an analogy would be to some of the people who were politically active on various sides of issues such as the Vietnam war during the late 1960s and 1970s, when I came to adulthood as a supporter of Richard Nixon. Some who once were active in the Democratic party then, and also in the Republican or as members of the Silent Majority, later dropped out of political activism. Some young adults who once were Republicans, as I was then, later became Independents. A lot of my "don't fence me in or demand conforimity from me" attitude stems from the fact that my grandfather once was sent to Siberia. Browbeating doesn't tend to work for me, whether it comes from the right or the left.

Recent polls show that nearly 80% of Tea Party activists are Republicans, 6 percent are pure independents, the rest are moderate or liberal Democrats.

@Mr. Kovachev, I believe you’re not a U.S. resident although you seem to follow events here closely. You may have missed a recent poll that showed that 37% of U.S. voters identify themselves as moderates. But if you missed it, you’re not alone. As is the case with many academics who write here (Gil Troy excepted), Ms. Rosen too appears to overlook that most Americans are neither conservatives nor liberals. There are a lot of swing voters out there, as a result. Rarely are essays or comments posted here geared towards winning over swing voters. Most people who write here preach to the choir, instead. Indeed, reading HNN’s essays by academics and the comments under them over the last 6 years revealed to me – due to the over reliance on right and left framing -- that a Barack Obama type candidate would win in 2008 long before that particular individual won the nomination of his party. (In theory, an Obama type could have emerged from either party to appeal to swing voters and thereby win the presidency.)

In terms of running a company which sells products, I think most moderates would pick David Brooks, Michael Gerson, Kathleen Parker, Bruce Bartlett from the center right and the Kevin Drum-types from the center left to be the free ranging, outside the box idea people who would study customers’ and clients’ reactions to the products and services and to work on problems. My study of polling data suggests that moderates and independents tend to be pragmatists who are solution oriented. At the mythical company I am envisioning, they would assign academics such as Ms. Rosen to wrap items in bubble wrap and place them in boxes. And assign people who argue as you do, Mr. Kovachev, in to another room, to pound the boxes shut and tape them up.

Peter Kovachev - 7/12/2010

Sad to see "paleo-feminism" sink to a new low, in this case with another therapeutic vent from a bewildered member of the Perpetually Entitled Mediocracy.

Rosen asks, "Who are these angry people who express so much resentment against the government, rather than at corporations?" Wait, let me guess; these would be the people who can still think and chew gum at the same time. See, corporations create wealth and jobs ...remember jobs?... which improve quality of life, create possibilities, provide luxuries and a fairer environment with choices and freedoms. All these things cost. Governments, on the other hand, take money and spend it, hopefully well, in which case evryone's ok. When they take too much and waste it, some people ...usually smart people and the ones who earn rather than receive money... tend to get very unhappy. Fairly simple, really.

Next, Rosen repeats the tired old canard: "One important difference, however, is race. At Tea Party rallies you don't see faces with dark complexions." Well not exactly true, should this matter. Regardless of how MSNBC chooses to crop and edit its footage of the rallies, stats have shown that the percentage of visible minorities at Tea Parties reflects the overall American racial makeup almost to a percentage point. On the other hand, the present admin has the solid support of about 90% of people with "dark complexions." Must be because they love Rahm Emanuel or the swell job the White House is doing.

Or, "...Tea Party rallies may attract more women who are not working and therefore can attend them..." Maybe or maybe not. Or maybe we can look at the stats and see that the opposite is true, that the majority of the Tea Party women are better educated than the national average, are parents, hold productive jobs in the private sector or as independent entrepreneurs. Just the kind of women feminism once believed in.

And, "...Palin is mobilizing right-wing religious women across the nation. They like that she wears make up, still looks like a gorgeous beauty queen, and yet is bold and strong minded." Yup, that's it. But for the hair-dos, Clinton and Pelosi could have been the role models. Did I hear "meow, hiss" somewhere?

And so on. Well, Ms Rosen has good reason to panic about the emergence of conservative feminists. They spell the beginnings of the end of a decades-long cosy preferential treatments and oodles of funds for a minority of mostly white liberal women in academia and unions. One is entitled to fear and loathe the end of an era. But the fictional composite portrait of Tea Party women as shallow, racist, Bible-thumping stay at home shadows tailing behind their gun-toting Cracker men sounds almost like old fashioned cattiness, classism and sexism, somewhat unbecoming for a progressive intellectual writing about the working class and her sisters.

Janine Giordano Drake - 7/12/2010

two points: First, Feminists for Life's slogan is "Women Deserve Better." They maintain that women should not have to abort children, and that it is societal stigma against having children that force many women to choose abortion over choosing single or inconvenient motherhood. This is a far cry from fundamentalist religious views. Let's not be sloppy!

Secondly, since when do women who "disappear into their homes and churches" mean they constitute a "footnote in the history of American politics"?! Are we suggesting that social and cultural change only comes from Congress and the courts? Come on--- as historians of women's history, Prof. Rosen, we can do better.

William J. Stepp - 7/12/2010

I've long noticed that libs refer to conservatives as "right-wingers," but never refer to their fellow libs
as "left-wingers."
This was a vacuous essay, even by the shallow standards of hnn. Typical from a tax consuming resident of the People's Repubic of Berkeley.
The technical libertarian term for this person is New Class Parasite.

A Gondring - 7/11/2010

Note the author's use of "right-wing" for conservatives, but not "left-wing" for liberals. No wonder her work has such a rotten reputation!

Bruce Hodge - 7/11/2010

Ms. Rosen's article is too long and confused to address in a brief Comment.

However, one question will be sufficient to convey my reaction: Does Ms. Rosen seriously believe that "Tea Party" adherents are angry because "...an African American president who has saved American capitalism"?

This is some kind of double-speak mind game, right?

Bruce Hodge - 7/11/2010

Ms. Rosen's article is too long and incoherent to be fully addressed in a brief Comment.

A question will be sufficient to convey my reaction: Does Ms. Rosen seriously believe that "Tea Party" adherents (men and women) are angry because an "African-American President saved American capitalism"?

This must be some farcical, double speak mind game, right?