In a different political season, Lou Ann Zelenik would be too much an outsider to run for a congressional seat in Tennessee. A single mother, she owned a heavy construction company until she retired in 2007. She likes to remind people that she’s a “licensed blaster,” which refers both to her technical skills and her Rosie the Riveter attitude. “She’s bucked every trend, and if there’s ever an obstacle put in her way she breaks right through it,” says her spokesman, Jay Heine. Zelenik only really broke through in electoral politics, however, when she got involved with the local Tea Party. She put together a rally in Murfreesboro, and 3,000 people showed up. She hooked into a network of activist local moms who agreed to volunteer on her campaign. “A lot of the tea party women are inspired by seeing a strong woman run for office,” adds Heine.
Is the Tea Party a women’s movement? More women than men belong—55 percent, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll. And while no movement that uses Michelle Malkin as a poster girl could fairly be described as feminist, the party has become an insta-network for ambitious women like Zelenik. Some are aspiring candidates who could never get traction within the tight, local Republican Party networks. Some are angry-mom-activist types who, like their heroine Sarah Palin, outgrew the PTA. But some would surprise you with their straightforward feminist rage. For the last few years Anna Barone, a Tea Party leader from Mount Vernon, N.Y., has used the e-mail handle annaforhillary.com: “The way they treated Hillary is unforgiveable, and then they did it to Sarah Palin,” she said. “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.”
If the Tea Party has any legitimate national leadership, it is dominated by women. 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. 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. Spokeswoman Rebecca Wales describes it as a group made up of “a lot of mama bears worried about their families.” The Tea Party, she says, is a natural home for women because “for a long time people have seen the parties as good-ole’-boy, male-run institutions. In the Tea Party, women have finally found their voice.”
Some of Wales’ mama bears are the heirs of old-timey political movements like the Temperance Movement, which women led as keepers of moral purity and domestic harmony. Their more immediate inspiration is the conservative-mom revolution of the mid-1990s. During the Gingrich revolution, a crew of evangelical moms came in, vowing to protect traditional family values. At that time, there was still some ambivalence among conservatives about women abandoning their domestic duties to run for public office. I recall back then interviewing Vern Smith, husband of Linda Smith, then a new Republican congresswoman from Washington. “It’s funny, with Linda away, we end up sacrificing some of that traditional family life to pass some of that heritage to our children,” he told me.
Now that ambivalence is mostly gone. The conservative woman in public office or otherwise working too hard is an accepted breed. Her rise was accelerated by the recession, which pushed millions more women into the work force, sometimes as the family’s only breadwinner. The stay-at-home mom is a vanishing type anyway; only one in five families has a working father and stay-at-home mother. And then there’s Sarah Palin, who created a whole new model of mother activist. None of the contradictions got worked out: She works; she has small children; she defends the traditional family although she’s probably home only one day a week. Never mind, after 20 years, conservatives have made peace with her type, and embraced it.
And so the conservative mama bear has become a fully operational, effective political archetype. She is mother as übercompetent CEO, monitoring with vigilance her own family bank account, the local school bank account, and, as a natural extension, the nation’s. “Women are sitting at home and balancing their checkbook, leaving money for groceries and utilities and fun stuff,” says Jenny Beth Martin, one of the Patriots’ national coordinators. “They realize that these things that apply to their household budgets also apply to government.” In explaining their view on the stimulus money, several Tea Party mama bears used examples they’d heard at PTA meetings. Why should the school waste money on a part-time Chinese teacher who gets full benefits? Why should the government waste money on ant farms and exotic fish?
Christen Varley is the president of the Boston Tea Party. Last year, her husband spent some time without a job. And so, after 11 years of staying home with their daughter, Varley got part-time work at a nonprofit. She also got involved in local politics and last year, started a tea party branch. At the meetings, equal numbers of men and women show up. But women end up being more dedicated. They write the newsletters and put together the database. When the group first put together the steering committee, it had four men and two women. “We ought to have a few more women,” she thought, so she added some. “We’re more likely to get fired up,” she says. “Women take it personally. These are my kids they’re coming after.”
Mostly what Varley likes is that the movement feels like an actual tea party. She used to go to Republican town committee meetings, but except for the annual Christmas party, it was all “work, work, work.” At Tea Party meetings, the women “get together and commiserate, and cheerlead each other. When the media and the culture demonize us, we feel good that there are other people just like us. We’re building a lot of friendships.”
The mama bears are not the only type of women in the movement. Local parties in Seattle, New York, and California, for example, breed more-straightforward feminists. (Remember annaforhillary.com.) Some of the women I interviewed are longtime women’s activists who feel alienated from both parties and are happy to have a fresh start. Betty Jean Kling runs a group called Majority United, dedicated to getting more women in office and fighting violence against women. Like many activists I talked to, Kling thinks social issues such as abortion are just wedges to drive women apart. (Varley, who is Catholic and pro-life, said the same thing: “We would be stupid to bring up abortion at a meeting.”)
Kling says the two parties “just throw crumbs to women” and insult them. She has given over her radio show to women Tea Party activists and candidates, and started a network of local chapters. “Each woman has her reasons for joining,” she says, “but I would like to believe that deep down she has a degree of pride in knowing that when she is voting out the incumbents she may be voting in a new woman with new ideas who will be really amenable to women’s rights.”
Like other Tea Party ideologies, the movement’s feminist streak is not always consistent or coherent. But affiliated women candidates take away a unifying narrative that taps into both traditionalism and feminist rage. It’s the feminism of the 1980 Dolly Parton movie 9 to 5, part anger against the good ole’ boys and part “leave me alone.” Candidate Liz Carter complains about the lack of women in any congressional seats in Georgia. Fox analyst Angela McGowan, running for Congress in Mississippi, calls herself a “warrior.” Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate in Delaware, claims she’s an antidote to the “lords of the back room.” Lords of the back room. There’s a phrase Germaine Greer would have liked.