Women in Conservative Politics: The Original Mama Grizzlies

Palin, O’Donnell, and Angle don’t represent a new phenomenon: Women have always dominated the right-wing grassroots.

Christine O'Donnell spoke at the Values Voter Summit on Sept. 17 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)

In 1995, a group of feisty, far-right Republican women rode the country’s roiling populist rage into the House of Representatives, part of the conservative congressional takeover led by Newt Gingrich. There was Idaho’s Helen Chenoweth, dubbed “the poster-child for the militias” by one newspaper, who believed that environmental regulation was a step toward totalitarian, one-world government and wanted to abolish the IRS; and Andrea Seastrand, an antiabortion activist from California, who famously called her state’s natural disasters God’s punishment for sins including feminism, fornication, and church-state separation. Many of these women had overcome the resistance of the Republican establishment to win their seats—Linda Smith, who came out of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, even won her Washington district in a write-in vote.

For all the media hyperventilation about Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, and the rest of the so-called Mama Grizzlies, there’s nothing new about insurgent conservative women. Indeed, one of the great ironies of American politics is that the anti-feminist right has long valued female standard-bearers far more than the egalitarian left. On the ground, women have dominated right-wing movements at least since the McCarthy era. According to the scholar Abby Scher, during the early 1950s, “a majority of the grassroots anti-communist activists were women.” Later, during the Christian right’s ascendancy in the 1980s and 1990s, women made up a majority of the local activists who kept the movement running.

These movements let women access the kind of power and influence that feminism fought for, but without incurring male anger or sacrificing the privileges and prerogatives of traditional femininity. After the 1994 election, the seven new Republican congresswomen presented Rush Limbaugh with a plaque saying, “Rush Was Right.” Barbara Cubin, a freshman representative from Wyoming, crowed, “There’s not a femi-nazi among us!”

Gingrich was smart enough to capitalize on these new female faces. As Elinor Burkett reported in her enlightening 1998 book, The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America, he held regular meetings with women representatives and made sure to put women in leadership roles. After two months in office, he bragged, “We have more women chairmen, and more women members in leadership than the Democrats have ever had, and that’s real power.”

As it turns out, many smart, ambitious conservative women don’t enjoy the traditional lifestyle much at all.

Tina Brown: The Mayors Who Can Revive AmericaTunku Varadarajan: My A-Z Guide to the Tea PartyMark McKinnon: Sarah Palin Can Win the GOP NomMargaret Carlson: Watch Your Back, Sarah Indeed, thought they may have been wont to admit it, these conservative women began to experience exactly the power and freedom that feminists have always fought for. In a 1995 New Republic article about the new crop of right-wing women representatives, Vern Smith, Linda Smith’s husband, explained, “One of the reasons we got into politics, we wanted to preserve some of the traditional lifestyle we’d grown up with. It’s funny, with Linda away, we end up sacrificing some of that traditional family life to pass on some of that heritage to our children.”

As it turns out, many smart, ambitious conservative women don’t enjoy the traditional lifestyle much at all. Beverly LaHaye, the founder of Concerned Women for America, where Christine O’Donnell worked during the 1990s, is archetypical in this regard. In The Spirit Controlled Woman—the same book in which she asserts “Submission is God’s design for women”—LaHaye writes that as a young housewife, she felt insecure, unfulfilled, and afraid to speak in public. “After all,” she asked, “who wants to hear what a young woman has to say whose only accomplishments in life were having four successful pregnancies and keeping a clean house?” By becoming an anti-feminist activist, LaHaye was able to escape the kind of dull misery and ennui that Betty Friedan identified in The Feminist Mystique.

What’s interesting about O’Donnell is that she heightens the contradictions inherent in right-wing women’s activism to an almost absurd degree. It’s not just that she’s an anti-gay activist with a lesbian sister. She’s also a family-values champion who is single, childless, and sharing a house with a man, Christian rock singer David Hust. She cut her teeth working for an organization that railed against government attempts to foster gender equality, and argued that wives should “graciously submit” to their husbands. Then she took a job at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and, feeling herself trapped in a culture that mandated female submission, sued under Title XII of the Civil Rights Act for $6.9 million.

According to her lawsuit, “Because of ISI’s conservative beliefs, subscribing to a particular interpretation of gender roles, during Miss O’Donnell’s employment there, ISI expressed its organizational beliefs that women must serve under a man’s supervision or ‘covering’ and should not have authority without being under the headship and authority of a man.”

It is one thing to preach conservative family values and a minimalist role for the state in protecting employees from their bosses. Submitting to such a system is quite another. Women who are smart enough to make a living as the charming tribunes of right-wing ideology are usually too smart to actually live by it.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.