The Old Belle is Still Ringing: the Tea Party and white women's activism

Kevin Drum offers an interesting short history of right-wing populism and its rise after the election of Democratic presidents since the 1930s over at Mother Jones (via RealClearPolitics.)  He writes:

When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the ’60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the ’90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it’s the tea party’s turn.

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[S[hared tropes [of these movements] include a fear of “losing the country we grew up in,” an obsession with “parasites” who are leeching off of hardworking Americans, and—even though they’ve always received copious assistance from business interests and political operatives—a myth that the movement is composed entirely of fed-up grassroots amateurs. Take, for example, this description of Pam Stout, the star of a seminal tea party profile written earlier this year by David Barstow of the New York Times. After Obama took office, he writes, “Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated—even manufactured—by both parties to grab power. She was happily retired, and had never been active politically. But last April, she went to her first tea party rally.” Compare that to the description of Estrid Kielsmeier in Suburban Warriors, Lisa McGirr’s history of ’60s-era right-wing activism in Orange County, California.Kielsmeier, a resident of my hometown of Garden Grove (my mother acidly recalls PTA meetings at my elementary school as hotbeds of John Birch Society activism), was a homemaker who ran the local gubernatorial primary campaign headquarters of ultraconservative oilman Joe Shell against Richard Nixon in 1962: “Her baby played in a playpen next to her desk while Kielsmeier participated in what she later called her first real involvement in politics. ‘Up to that time…it was education and just kind of…networking, really.'”

Apparently, Kevin’s been reading some good books lately. 

The media trope of the politically-clueless-white-woman-turned-activist is an interesting connection between the 1960s and the Tea Party.  Casting a white woman as politically out-of-touch until inspired by the awfulness of everything these days is absolutely necessary.  I’m sure you’ve all heard about 2009’s own Estrid Kielsmeier, Tea Party star Kelli Carender, aka “Liberty Belle,” the “Seattle hipster” and adult literacy educator who awoke to the horror that in the United States under President Obama, “other people decide what the needs are in society. They get to decide. But in order to fund those things, they have to take from some people in order to give to the other people.”  White American men who are cast as politically clueless for so long wouldn’t be taken seriously–whereas white American women, whose citizenship has always been qualified, are useful symbols for dramatizing the urgency of their movements.  (After all:  isn’t that the pose that Betty Friedan struck, too?  “Oh, I’m just a suburban housewife, no history of leftist journalism or CP membership here!  Nothing to see here–now move along,” at least according to Daniel Horowitz’s brilliant and authoritative intellectual biography.)

I’d argue that this trend goes well beyond twentieth-century political movements and back to the founding days of the Republic.  White women–at least respectable ones who kept to their separate sphere of domesticity and motherhood–were convenient symbols for the urgency of nineteenth century movements like temperance, abolition, and feminism.  “Things are so bad that the wives and mothers are enlisting in the cause!”  Mary Ryan has written about this brilliantly in chapter 4 of her recent book, Mysteries of SexShe shows how white women manipulated separate spheres ideology to serve their political interests through the nineteenth century, and how they thereby made their first claims on American citizenship.

What cause do you think will mobilize Mad Men’s Betty Draper, if any?  She seems pretty immune to the Civil Rights movement and to feminism, and I don’t think Bobby will be old enough to get drafted.  The whole white cast of Mad Men seems immune to the Civil Rights movement, now that Don’s living in his bachelor pad and has left his old firm, we never see Carla his maid or the elevator operator in his old building, so there are exactly zero permanent African American cast members.  (By the way, if you’re watching Mad Men in real time, check out Chauncy DeVega’s review of this week’s episode, “Hands and Knees.”  As the kids say on the internets:  SPOILER ALERT!)

0 thoughts on “The Old Belle is Still Ringing: the Tea Party and white women's activism

  1. It is interesting that political movements recycle the trope of women “suddenly awakening” to politics, which conveniently ignores that women have always been actively (and publicly) involved in political discussions. This post also brings to mind Louise Michele Newman’s _White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States_ in which she argues that political access for white women hinged on their mobilizing interrelated discourses about imperialism and social Darwinism. Some suffragists suggested that white women needed the ability to vote in order to counter the supposedly illegitimate and dangerous votes of black men.

    In terms of the fictional Betty, one might imagine that school busing debates would mobilize her.


  2. Some suffragists suggested that white women needed the ability to vote in order to counter the supposedly illegitimate and dangerous votes of black men.

    I think that statement may need to be more fully situated in context and time. For example, was this argument made before or after the 15th Amendment was passed? Does it matter when it was made, given that prior to the Civil War suffrage for women wasn’t going to include enslaved women anyway? Does it matter that many (most? all?) prominent suffragists were also abolitionists? Was it an argument of conviction or political convenience? Does that matter?

    I bring this up b/c the popular conversation about these topics assumes deep-seated racism on the part of the suffragists and thus the illegitimacy of every “white woman’s” movement that came thereafter. I’m not an historian, obviously, but I think I would benefit from such an exploration.


  3. The whole trope of “the menz are messing up so badly that the women have to step in and fix things – that’s how bad things are right now!” is fascinating, particularly at this moment when it intersects rather nicely with a certain kind of postfeminist “girl power” rhetoric. From this perspective I can see more clearly how conservative operatives thought/think that a figure like Sarah Palin could mobilize a women’s base.

    It’s also an old trope in the Western world, although not always in a way that made space for women’s political involvement. Some medieval commentators used the Old Testament story of the judge Deborah as an example for a similar idea, but turned on its head (ie that male leadership failed so badly that God had to bring in a woman, and this in turn should be deeply shameful to the Hebrews, because they couldn’t get their acts together). This reading of Deborah was usually used as a critique of women as political leaders (queens in their own right, etc). Or more positively, they could Deborah in the same vein as you highlighted in Ryan’s argument. Both readings, though, rest on the same premise – women are only allowed public space when the men are doing very very badly.


  4. It makes me think of the great article (whose author and journal are lost to me at the moment) that dissected the presentation of Rosa Parks in the decades since the 1960s. Basically, as her iconic bus ride was recast from a conscious action by an involved member of the Black Civil Rights movement to “a lady tired after a long day’s work.” Following the reasoning in the original post (which I definitely do), Parks by her being forced into political action was “whitened” and made more of a “woman” like these conservative narratives do. Interesting…


  5. Emma: I’m thinking in particular of the debates that swirled around the National American Woman Suffrage Association (founded in 1890). As I said, it was *some* suffragists (not all) who adopted these positions, but those some included some very prominent members. Carrie Chapman Catt, who served as the president of that organization, included the following statement in a speech in 1919:

    “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by woman suffrage. In the fifteen states south of the Mason-Dixon line. . . the total Negro population is 8, 294,274 and white women outnumber both Negro males and females by nearly half a million. Women suffrage in the South would so vastly increase the white vote that it would guarantee white supremacy if otherwise stood in danger of overthrow. If the South really wants white supremacy, it will urge the enfranchisement of women.”

    So, you be the judge.

    There is much written about this topic and it is well worth reading the literature on it. As I mentioned, the Newman book _White Women’s Rights_ is a great place to start. I also recommend reading the chapter on Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Gail Bederman’s _Manliness and Civilization_. Susan Lebsock makes an important intervention in noting that it was actually the antisuffragists who first mobilized the discourse on white supremacy, thus forcing suffragists (many of whom did support racial equality) into a curtailed position (See Lebsock, “Woman Suffrage and White Supremacy: A Virginia Case Study,”in _Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism_). For another take on the issue of race and suffrage, consider Gail Landsman’s “The ‘Other’ as Political Symbol: Images of Indians in the Woman Suffrage Movement,” _Ethnohistory_ (Vol 39, no. 3) which explores the ways that white feminists used images of Native American women for their political purposes.

    Historical figures who championed some forms of social justice were often times wrapped into the equally unfair discourses that legitimized the subordination of others. Acknowledging that does not undermine their contributions, but instead should prompt us to be mindful of the complexities of social discourse and power.


  6. I wonder how Carly Firoina (sp?) fits into this. She’s claiming never to have voted and never cared about politics, while she climbed the corporate ladder, and now she’s out for Barbara Boxer’s job, a woman whose been in politics a long time.


  7. There are a number of men who benefit from being cast as “outsiders,” successful CEOs who can run government like a business, like Michael Bloomberg and George W. Bush. Then there’s the actors, Arnold Schwartzenegger and Ronald Reagan. The “disinterested outsider” is kind of a classic pose for Presidential candidates, from George Washington on.

    Fiorina seems like an especial dip$hit–with the outsourcing of American jobs and the scandalous absence of a voting record. Unfortunately, Jerry Brown is looking like a relic, so I’m not seeing him make the sale. And we all know that California elects some far out governors.


  8. Following up on what Perpetua, Squad, and GA each touched upon, there also seems to be an element of anti-intellectualism, or at least anti-politics to the way these women’s political movements are figured in the historiography. Rosa Parks is a good example: the move to figure her not as an engaged member of the Civil Rights movement but as a simple, tired lady seems representative of the tendency. In that narrative, women’s movements aren’t truly about politics as practiced by men, with its jockeying for power and influence, and its implication of compromise and dealmaking. Rather, when the men have screwed up — a la the pre-Deborah Hebrews — women can step in out of sheer (untutored, unintellectual, etc.) common sense, clean things up (metaphor used advisedly!), and then step back into the background so the duly shamed men can get it together again. That idea of women ‘suddenly waking up’ looks to me like code for “even a simple woman recognizes this political travesty for what it is.” It’s a trope that Sarah Palin and her handlers have used well, since it plays not only to people who consider intellectualism and intelligence material failings in politicians, but also to those who distrust ambition in women. Dizzying levels of irony in all of it.


  9. Excellent analysis, Dr. Koshary. I meant to comment on the inclusion of Rosa Parks in my cavalcade of white women. I think ga is correct that she fits in–not just because women in general aren’t expected to be political in an organized fashion, but also because her sex made her protest less threatening. Had a young, black man been the spark for the Mongtomery Bus Boycott, he might have been beaten, or worse, and violence against him and the black community, rather than organized political action, might have been the result.

    But the reason I wrote the post to focus on white women’s activism is that the trope really precedes abolition, so therefore there’s a much longer history of white women’s visibility in political activism, and many more examples of the “Just a housewife/now an activist” trope. I also think that African Americans suffer from a kind of double-bind when it comes to politics: if they’re not politically active, then they’re just dumb and clueless, but if they’re activists (esp. men), then they’re threatening, intimidating, scary, etc.

    I think in general that lack of engagement with politics is a luxury of whiteness. It’s easier to be clueless if you’re part of the dominant culture.


  10. Thanks GayProf, both for the resources, and for the thoughtful analysis which furthers my own thinking on the subject. I really appreciate it and will follow up on the books!


  11. The Tea Party is a garden variety fascistic movement full of lies, wrong axioms and pushy attitude. There is limited experience in European history of such movement led by anything but violent men. When I listen to Tea Party women the most obvious effect is the hatred and fuming at the mouth.

    I wonder whether previous movements such as the John Birch Society were actually looking for the old days way before FDR. It seems to me to be the most surprising trait of the Tea bags. Are there any previous examples to such a Reactionary movements?


  12. Isn’t it interesting that all the prominent dynamic young women in politics these days seem to be “mama grizzlies” or at least conservative republicans? Could this be the start of a new wave of feminism? And where are the leftie equivalents? Inquiring minds want to know!


  13. Maybe, we’ll see how the mid terms turn out before deciding that O’Connel is part of a “wave”, Jack.
    In the mean time, I seem to remember a woman of a certain age going pretty far in the Democratic primaries only two years ago, winning a majority of the popular vote as a matter of fact, as well as earning sincere admiration and praise from Sarah Palin. Real accomplishments take time.


  14. @Jack – I guess I’d have to see evidence that some of these women were actually feminists before I’d call it a new wave of feminism. Just because they’re women in the public eye, or even important political movers-and-shakers, doesn’t mean they’re feminists.


  15. Fratguy, I was talking about dynamic young women today, not tired older women yesterday. In any case, if I were a Democratic feminist, I do not believe that I would be inspired by the example of Clinton in 2008–looks to me like she hit the ultimate glass ceiling.

    Perpetua, I guess it all depends on your definition of feminist. All I know is that the strong, dynamic women seizing political leadership today mostly seem to be conservative Republicans, and I think this should be of interest to feminist women everywhere. Why isn’t this happening in the Democratic party?


  16. Jack, conservative women are getting press because a) they’re a novelty: women still overwhelmingly vote Democrat and the Republicans are not generally known as a female-friendly party (even less so than the Dems!), and b) there are a lot of conservatives saying crazy things right now and the media has more fun mocking ignorant or wacky statements when they come from female politicians, thus the obsession with Palin and O’Donnell. They may be generating a lot of noise, but conservative women are not a majority -especially not among younger demographics. Nor is the deployment of (white) women by conservative factions a new phenomenon, as Historiann just pointed out in the post above.

    As a young woman, albeit not in any way one “seizing political leadership,” I’m tired of the trope of conservative young women rebelling against those stodgy old feminists like Clinton. Some of my peers may be uninterested in the feminist label, but the majority of us are still solidly liberal.


  17. Aishlin, I don’t think what we’re seeing now is the “deployment of (white) women by conservative factions”; I think it is the leadership by white women of conservative factions, a different thing entirely. Like it or not, Sarah Palin has a shot at being our next President — just as big a shot as Barack Obama had at this stage of the last Presidential campaign. And surely you can’t be happy with the way the Democratic party treated Hillary Clinton last time around?


  18. “Palin has a shot at being our next president”. A handle or two of your namesake liquor says she’ll collapse like a flan in the cupboard. At the very least you are saying she is as empty as the current president, which I wholeheartedly agree with.


  19. Pingback: White women’s political work: still impulsive, never strategic : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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