Read Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 midterm elections.
Sharron Angle had all the breaks that should have allowed her to take the Senate seat in Nevada. She was running against a wildly unpopular incumbent in a state that leads the nation in unemployment. She raised and spent a record amount of money for a Senate race. She ran a race-baiting campaign in a style that almost always works for Republicans. She had the Mama Grizzly hype behind her. Despite all this, she managed to lose the race for Senate by virtue of her inability to stop saying crazy things, talking about “Second Amendment remedies,” calling the unemployed “spoiled,” and telling a group of Latino students that they look Asian to her.
Still, it all seems a little unfair. Angle, for all her hard-right views, was no worse and often better than some of her more successful male colleagues running in swing states, such as Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio. In the world of gaffes, she fell short of Rand Paul, who called for the repeal of the Civil Rights Act before backing off and who kept having to let go of volunteers and employees for doing things like celebrating lynching and stomping on the head of a MoveOn activist.
Call it the curse of the Mama Grizzly. Candidates bestowed with this label were supposed to clean up at the polls, not just picking up the traditionally conservative male vote but also sweeping up some more left-leaning women by simply being female. In reality, Mama Grizzlies performed below expectations in many high-profile races. Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell lost, and Nikki Haley in South Carolina barely squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote in one of the most conservative states in the country.
The main problem with Mama Grizzly candidates is that they present a contradiction, laying claim to feminism while denouncing most feminist ideals. Sarah Palin, with her peculiar genius, created the term Mama Grizzly to rationalize this contradiction. The Mama Grizzly could be ambitious without being feminist, could be fierce without being threatening, because her feminist means are in service of anti-feminist ends. To an extent, the metaphor worked. But the contradiction hurts Mama Grizzlies in two major ways.
First, the contradiction sits uneasily with the true believers of the Christian right. Despite being about as right wing as you can actually get in American politics, Angle faced exit polls that showed 13 percent of voters deemed her “not conservative enough.” Despite having almost identical views to Sen. Jim DeMint, Haley received 12 overall percentage points fewer of the votes. Fundamentalist Christian beliefs are highly motivating to the strongly conservative in our country, and one of those beliefs is that women shouldn’t work outside the home or outrank their husbands in any way. Abandoning such a rock-solid belief for political expedience is clearly easy for many of these believers, especially when candidates such as Sharron Angle rationalize their choices by pointing out that they have no children at home. Still, for many fundamentalist Christians, a woman who displays ambitions is, by definition, not conservative enough.
Christine O’Donnell embodied this contradiction in such an overt way that even people who had very little understanding of Christian-right beliefs could see it. Everything about her life as an independent single woman of 41 years spoke to the tremendous cultural shifts brought on by feminism. The most annoying aspect of the Gawker story of her night on the town with a gentleman friend was that it didn’t reveal anything that most adults couldn’t have guessed already about her life. If anything, the most shocking aspect was her feeble but sincere attempts to try to live by her conservative values in the long-standing “technical virgin” tradition.
Which shines a light on the second problem the Mama Grizzlies bring upon themselves by living the contradiction—it draws media attention. When right-wing men say over-the-top crazy things, there’s a tendency to let it go. Part of it is that we’re used to it, but the other part of it is that the unforgiving rhetoric and aggression of movement conservatism seems masculine. But when a woman spouts right-wing nuttery, that’s a man-bites-dog story, and it gets attention.
Christine O’Donnell is by far the worst example of this, exuding as she does a “good time girl” energy while spouting platitudes that seem to fit better in the mouths of dour old men. Half the fun of watching the old videos of her on Politically Incorrect was the eager-to-please giggling femininity she displayed, the overt sexiness in her pose as an anti-sex crusader. We couldn’t look away, and the spotlight on O’Donnell ended up driving home how out-there her views were, in a way that would never happen to a man.
To a lesser extent, conservative unease with female sexuality quite likely hurt Haley, as well. Allegations that she had an affair were quickly shown to be almost surely false. But as anyone who went to middle school can attest, once those rumors get out there, they’re impossible to tamp down completely. As a point of comparison, David Vitter won far more handily, even though he was demonstrably guilty of adultery and had committed the crime of paying for sex, as well.
Sharron Angle faced a somewhat different problem. The female stereotype she ran up against was “sweet old grandmother,” an image of Christian piety that Angle tried very hard to cultivate. Unfortunately, her desired image as a kindly grandmother conflicted dramatically with the vicious, often hypocritical rhetoric that came out of her mouth. Sweet old Christian grandmothers are rarely imagined in the public as women who talk about picking up guns to fight a revolution, who call the down-and-out spoiled and lazy, or who argue that because they’re old now, they see no reason to help out their children or grandchildren’s generation.
This contradiction exposed why it’s so critical to the fundamentalist worldview that women stay at home and abandon ambition. In this world, women are supposed to be the light, the caretakers, the homemakers, those who smooth feathers and wipe brows. Aggression, meanness, ambition, and even lustiness are considered more masculine traits, even by the public at large. As Dave Weigel reports, the Republicans are beginning to feel that Sharron Angle, at least, spent too much time in the public eye. The longer the public stares at a Mama Grizzly, the more painful the contradiction between her ideals of femininity and her actual behavior.