It all started with Sarah Palin.
Or did it? Maybe it started a few months earlier, when Hillary Clinton downed a shot of whiskey and made some offhand, wrong-footed comments about "hardworking voters, white voters" who still supported her despite her African-American opponent's lead in delegates.
By "it," of course I mean the rise of the Tea Party movement and other so-called patriot groups, and with them a new group of women on the right in the United States. They're no longer content to pay lip service to male leadership, but they've got an ambivalent, vexed relationship to feminism as well. But one thing is uncontestable: With mainstream media captivated by their fringe appeal, they're having a definite moment.
There's Debra Medina, who failed to win the Republican nomination for governor of Texas but nevertheless managed to energize both her state's disgruntled patriots and 9/11 "truthers." Medina made headlines when she attended a "Sovereignty or Secession" rally, where she called for the "tree of freedom" to be "watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots." (According to The Nation's Bob Moser, when asked if she carried the handgun she kept in her car into the grocery store, Medina replied, "I'd like to, but I don't.")
There's Keli Carender, a 30-year-old Seattle improv performer credited in a February New York Times profile with being one of the first Tea Party leaders. The nose ring on this free market-loving Ayn Rand acolyte got almost as much play in the Times piece as her politics.
Then there's Michele Bachmann, the prolife, pro-Creationism Minnesota congresswoman best known for her vocal opposition to the U.S. Census. Bachmann made headlines in 2008 when she told Hardball's Chris Matthews that she believed Barack Obama held "anti-American" views and should be "investigated"; more recently, she's been a trusty fueler of rumors that Obama's healthcare plan would lead to state-funded euthanasia.
In Arizona, GOP governor Jan Brewer signed the country's harshest immigration bill this past April, codifying into law a Minutemen-friendly nativism that permits law- enforcement officials to harass at any time anyone they believe might not be "American." She then promptly took another step toward state-sanctioned racism by signing a ban on ethnic-studies courses in public schools.
The Tea Party–backed South Carolina state Rep. Nikki Haley could become the first female governor of South Carolina—and the second Republican South Asian governor in the South, after Louisiana's Bobby Jindal. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a Republican challenger, Nevada's Sharron Angle, who, as The Nation's Betsy Reed notes, "makes Sarah Palin look like Eleanor Roosevelt." Angle joined the GOP as a political stepping-stone; as part of her former affiliation with Nevada's Independent American party, she flogged far-out views on both economic and social policy. In addition to advocating against Social Security and the IRS, the party in 1994 advocated for an amendment to the state constitution that would, according to Talking Points Memo, "explicitly permit discrimination against LGBT people by businesses and government."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, recently released a report titled "Rage on the Right," looking at the rise of right-wing radicalization—not just the Tea Party, but more extreme patriot and militia groups, which the report notes have seen a 244 percent increase since Obama's election. "The anger seething across the American political landscape—over racial changes in the population, soaring public debt and the terrible economy, the bailouts of bankers and other elites, and an array of initiatives by the relatively liberal Obama Administration that are seen as 'socialist' or even 'fascist'—goes beyond the radical right," wrote Mark Potok, adding that while the many Tea Party organizations "cannot fairly be considered extremist groups…they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories, and racism."
Right-wing extremists are nothing new, of course. What is new is that, increasingly, the face of these groups is a female one. Statistics are tough to find—the more militant groups are notoriously press-shy—but Quinnipiac found more women than men in its poll of self-identified Tea Partiers; a Gallup poll found 55 percent male to 45 percent female. They come from all over, from Alaska to Alabama, Massachusetts to Montana. And while "Tea Party" has become a convenient catchall, the groups' concerns go well beyond taxation. There are libertarian followers of Ayn Rand and Ron Paul. There are people who were equally angry under the Bush administration and have come together around a desire to, say, audit the Federal Reserve. Nativist groups have found that anti-immigrant rhetoric fits in well with "take our country back" chants. Gun lovers hold Second Amendment rallies and show up armed. And, of course, Fox News's Glenn Beck started his 9.12 Project in an attempt to bring Americans back to the day after the worst terrorist attack in our history, as if we're better people when we're huddled in our homes in front of the tv, terrified and looking to Rudy Giuliani for leadership.
In a May Slate article titled "Is the Tea Party a Feminist Movement?" Hanna Rosin highlighted women's primacy as Tea Party organizers and spokespeople, and posited that the movement "taps into both traditionalism and feminist rage." Anna Barone, a Tea Party leader from Mount Vernon, New York, interviewed for the piece, corroborates this picture, saying, "The way they treated Hillary is unforgivable, and then they did it to Sarah Palin," and adding, "I've been to 15 Tea Party meetings and never heard a woman called a name just because she's powerful. I guess you could say the Tea Party is where I truly became a feminist."
The idea that the Tea Party and other far-right movements are more welcoming to women than mainstream politics is a troubling one. But what's more troubling is that "feminism" has been so swiftly folded into ideologies that espouse racist rhetoric, anti-choice politics (a Gallup poll found that 65 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers considered themselves "pro-life"), and me-first libertarian scorn for social services. Is this the equality we wanted?
The long run-up to 2008's election too easily became a battle of race vs. gender where both sides were brimming with essentializing rhetoric. The idea that, as Gloria Steinem noted in an infamous New York Times op-ed, women should vote for Clinton in solidarity for all women ignored several factors, most notably the race of Clinton herself. The portion of Clinton supporters who shifted loyalty to Sarah Palin after Obama won the nomination was relatively tiny, but incredibly vocal. And their myopic, gender-above-all belief is reflected in the "Year of the Woman" media coverage of Palin and the Tea Party hostesses she helped spawn.
Though Palin has since vacillated between claiming feminism for the new breed of political woman she's helped to anoint and denying that "this gender thing" is important, the Republican Party has seized on women as the perfect candidates for this particular moment: They're political outsiders within the party (of 95 female Congress members, only 21 are Republican), but hardly ideological ones. And much like on the McCain-Palin campaign, where Sarah Palin took on the role of attack dog, whipping rally attendees into a partisan frenzy with a fervor that many likened to that of George Wallace in the 1960s, women in the Tea Party movement are often the ones making the most outrageous statements. Sarah Palin's coinage of the phrase "death panels" in opposing Obama's healthcare-reform proposal might be the most famous; Michele Bachmann's slew of bombastic, factually shaky assertions on everything from financial reform (she compared it to Mussolini-style Fascism) to net neutrality are so numerous that her reelection opponent has collected them on a blog called Michele Bachmann Said WHAT?!
Sarah Posner, a reporter for the online magazine Religion Dispatches who has covered the religious right for years, sees direct connections between women in the religious right and those who have come to define the Tea Party and other patriot movements. Many female Tea Party organizers, she points out, got their training with Concerned Women for America and other religious-right groups. Women like Phyllis Schlafly have always been leaders in those movements, she notes, but were able to justify their role with religious rhetoric—they were "called" by a higher power to lead. But with the rise of new movements like the Tea Party, more and more women are able to be leaders while still operating using the same strategies, which Posner notes originated because they allowed women to organize while home with their kids, preserving the domestic status quo.
In Rosin's Slate article, she points out that a Tea Party group called Smart Girl Politics operates "like a feminist cooperative, with three stay-at-home moms taking turns raising babies and answering e-mails and phone calls." The protests themselves are often family affairs: Allen McDuffee, a freelance reporter and blogger who covered last April's Tax Day Tea Party in Washington, D.C., recalls seeing almost no women there unaccompanied by men.
Indeed, despite applications of the term "feminist" here and there, the Tea Party tends to frame female leadership less in terms of political power than in terms of family protectiveness. Rosin's piece quotes Tea Party spokeswoman Rebecca Wales calling her group "a lot of mama bears worried about their families." A piece on Politico quotes Lu Ann Busse, head of the Colorado coalition of the Beck-inspired 9.12 Project, saying, "How do you justify figuratively or literally beating up on grandmas and moms with children in tow? It just does not look good." And the post-Palin surge of conservative female pols like Oklahoma's Mary Fallin and Washington's Cathy McMorris Rodgers are now united under the media handle "Mama Grizzlies," joining the idea of mother-as-protector to patriot-group undercurrents of by-any-means-necessary violence.
And escalating violent rhetoric is perhaps the most notable hallmark of the Tea Party with regard to its female leadership. Again, Palin is the pacesetter here, telling Twitter followers "Don't retreat, instead—RELOAD!" and posting a map with targets on it where Democrats held seats in districts that she and McCain carried in 2008. She and her compatriots havejumped on the "security mom" bandwagon of the post-9/11 Bush years, when pollsters reported widely on white, heterosexual married women leaning toward Republican candidates and repressive policies on such that with the treatment of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain U.S. soldier who set up camp outside George W. Bush's Texas ranch to protest the Iraq war. Far from being heralded as either security mom or fiercely bearish matriarch, the progressive Sheehan was mocked as an "irrelevant kook" by conservative columnists like Mark Steyn and pilloried for her antiwar position.
The women of the Tea Party represent the security moms taking the guns for themselves—Debra Medina, packing heat to fight an encroaching government; the sport-shooting Palin; or the more fringe-dwelling women associated with militias, like Shawna Forde, leader of the Arizona border-watch group Minutemen American Defense. Melanie Gustafson, professor of history at the University of Vermont, notes that these women fit into a tradition of Wild West gals—protective of freedom, comfortable with guns, and often tinged with a xenophobic distrust of the unfamiliar. As Barack Obama's "un-American" origins are repeatedly asserted and immigration becomes a more heated topic among the Tea Party faithful, the independent, gun-carrying woman of the American West has met the traditional mom and blended with a version of "feminism" that focuses on individual equality, rather than liberation for all. Now that the healthcare bill has passed, immigration has taken its place as the locus of Tea Party anger. Arizona's Brewer has fired the metaphoric first shots in the battle, and South Carolina is attempting to pass a similar immigration bill. If Haley takes that state's governorship, we'll be seeing a lot more women on the front lines of this fight.
For feminists watching in slack-jawed amazement as this bizarre Year of the Woman unfolds, the immigration focus is particularly disturbing. When the bodies of people of color, particularly women and children, suffer the consequences of the anxieties and actions of white women claiming political and social power for a select few, that ain't feminism. As Kate Harding pointed out in a Jezebel.com post, feminism has been scorned and derided by politicians and the mainstream media until this very select group of conservative, antiprogressive women started claiming the term. So why is the Year of the Woman so powerful an idea only when the women in question are right-wingers? Do they get some sort of credit, as Melissa Harris-Lacewell asserted on GRITtv recently, for being "independent thinkers" because they step outside of their expected identity group? Or is it more like what SF Gate columnist Mark Morford pointed out in a recent dispatch: "With power, glory, and long overdue cultural advancement comes a whole delightful s––bag of downsides, drawbacks, jackals, and bitches to poison the party"? If there is anything to celebrate about the rise of right-wing women and their attendant violent rhetoric, maybe it's that politics and even "fighting back" on a primal level are no longer cast as the province of men. But it's also proved that equal representation alone won't be enough to create real feminist politics.