international analysis and commentary

The rise of female conservatives


Christine O’Donnell has “dabbled into witchcraft,” ridiculed the theory of evolution, called masturbation “a sin,” advocated for abstinence and against abortion-rights, defaulted on her home mortgage, failed to pay her college tuition, gotten in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and used campaign funds to cover, illicitly, personal expenses.

In any other election cycle, O’Donnell would stand no chance of rising to the forefront of America’s political scene, and in fact, over the course of the last several years, she failed to do so repeatedly. 2010, however, is a different matter altogether.

Her quick and unexpected rise, made possible thanks to the support of the Tea Party, a disorganized and decentralized group of angry conservatives, made her the latest addition to a growing crowd of conservative women, like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Sharron Angle, who have recently emerged as the movement’s more successful spokespersons. 

This uprising of female conservatives, some people have dubbed them “right-wing feminists,” rides the wave of social achievements attained by an earlier generation of more liberal counterparts. Yet, they tout what many would consider anti-feminist credentials, running on a traditional homophobic, pro-life, pro-family agenda.

Unleashed by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 elections, this rising tide of conservative women has clustered around the Tea Party movement for two main reasons. Healthcare reform, the opposition to which ranks prominently in the Tea Party agenda, touches on issues that directly affect the running of a household, a domain in which women are engaged, even non-political conservative women. Therefore, this issue spurs their interest in a way that others may not. Additionally, as a spontaneous, non-hierarchical movement of outsiders, the Tea Party offers conservative women an accessible path into politics, while the tight-knit, male-dominated local branches of the Republican Party probably remain harder to penetrate (among the 90 women serving in Congress, only 21 are GOP members.)

Whatever the reasons, the Tea Party is, comparatively, a women’s movement. According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 55% of its members are women. Even at the leadership level, women seem to occupy a majority of posts, although, with a movement as diverse as the Tea Party, it is hard to draw reliable generalizations. Five of the nine national coordinators of the Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella group, are women. So are fifteen of the twenty-five state coordinators. Of the groups responsible for launching the movement-at-large, one is called Smart Girl Politics.

However, one need be careful in cobbling together under the same label all “the women of the Tea Party.” They come, in fact, from a range of political backgrounds.

Those women who rode the Tea Party wave first (and who initiated it) strive to establish an image of successful, if angry, mom, a definition that Sarah Palin encapsulated perfectly in her new campaign-slogan “mama grizzlies.” They are good-looking, have busy careers, multiple children (one may consider them superwomen), and have decided to get involved in politics to defend the future of their kids from what they consider a US government gone mad. They tend to be more provocative, and are more likely to label President Obama a socialist.

Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota Michele Bachmann, who is running for reelection in a safe conservative district, has five children, like Sarah Palin. She thinks global warming is a hoax and, in 2009, contributed to spreading the rumor, started by Palin, that Obama’s healthcare reform would set up “death panels” with the right to make end-of-life decisions for the elderly. At the beginning of the year, she threatened that her family would not complete the Census 2010 because it was too intrusive, one of her issues being an over-sized government wanting to control every aspect of people’s lives (the Census form included 10 questions that took no longer than 10 minutes to fill out.) 

Sharron Angle, mother of two, is running in Nevada for the Senate seat now held by Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader. She has advocated for abolishing the Education Department and against abortion rights even in case of rape. She supports privatizing social security and has said that the American people may resort to “2nd Amendment remedies” if their frustrations are not addressed, hinting to the possibility of a violent uprising (the 2nd Amendment of the Bill of Rights protects the right to bear arms.)

Below this first rank of women, who are some of the most dedicated members of the Tea Party, there exists another cadre of conservative female candidates running for Congress and governorships across the country. These include GOP candidate for the US Senate Carly Fiorina and for Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley. They are campaigning in states where the Tea Party is not as influential, especially Fiorina in California, and are not necessarily active participants in the movement. In the run-up to the vote, however, they are moving to the right on the issues and hope to collect whatever Tea Party support they can get. They are the “businesswomen.” They have had successful careers in the private sector running profitable companies (Fiorina was, for a while, the CEO of Hewlett Packard, and Haley ran a lucrative clothing business). Not surprisingly, they are all proponents of a heavily pro-business platform – an agenda of tax cuts and deficit reduction that is very appealing to American voters today (although they don’t say how they plan to cut taxes and simultaneously balance the budget).

Then there is Christine O’Donnell, who is neither one nor the other. She is not a working mother (she is unmarried and childless) and she has never run a business. She has moved from one temporary job to another, surviving on her good looks and bubbly personality, which work wonders on TV and which made her the testimonial for a number of conservative causes throughout her life. Recently, she has turned into a permanent candidate, living mainly off of campaign contributions.

Rather, O’Donnell represents another facet of the Tea Party. What is often considered a popular uprising of political outsiders is, instead, the most recent attempt of those who have unsuccessfully tried to become insiders to find yet another way into the circles of Republican power. In short, the Tea Party is also a movement of failed politicians. O’Donnell already lost twice the race for the same Senate seat she is running for this year, in 2006 and 2008.  She is, hardly, a new face in Delaware politics.

Yet, no matter how extreme or improbable some of these conservative women may sound, their chances of success should not be discounted. Even Vice President Joe Biden, the only Democrat to have defeated both Palin and O’Donnell, said recently in an interview with MSNBC: “Take them both very seriously […] Don’t get diverted by all these silly things that they may or may not have said that have nothing to do with policy.” This is true for O’Donnell as well, although even Republicans say she has little hope of winning in November. She came from way behind to win the September 14th Delaware Republican primary against the state’s highly respected Congressman Mike Castle, and it is not inconceivable that she may pull off another upset in the few weeks that remain before November 2nd.

At the end of the day, in this economy and political climate, Biden is probably right. These conservative women won’t win or lose based on their gender or on the irreverent things they may sometimes say or do. Rather, their performance will depend on how convincing they are in selling their populist, anti-tax agenda to this year’s electorate, which is seemingly all-ears when it comes to voices advocating for a smaller government.