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 15th 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 fifty-five 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 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 magazine 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 equal 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 Grizzlies” 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 15 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 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.
Professor Emerita of History, U.C. Davis
Visiting Professor of History, U.C. Berkeley