“My husband and I don’t want a reporter at our residence, for confidentiality purposes,” Christi Becker says when I ask if I can set up an interview with her and her friends, so we agree to a neutral meeting place, the St. Cloud, Minnesota, public library. I’m on the first leg of what will stretch into a many-month journey to understand the new restlessness of conservative women. It’s a cold October afternoon in 2010, and a hard rain pounds the sheet glass windows of the second-floor conference room where we’ve gathered, snacks in hand, a jumble of purses and cell phones on a table in the back. From here we can see Lake George and its surrounding park, the place where this previously apolitical group of moms attended their first Tea Party Patriots rally—which so stirred them up that they soon signed up for a 23-hour bus ride to Washington, D.C., in November 2009, to protest the health care bill.
Becker, a trim woman in a miniskirt and high-heel boots, pops a baby carrot in her mouth and leans forward as she describes the moment of her political awakening. “I realized it wasn’t organizations organizing the buses” going to D.C., she says. “It was two moms. At the time, I was totally broke. But I just felt so strongly about it.” The trip from Minnesota cost $200, so Becker, a freelance artist, asked her parents to “sponsor” her, which they did. “My husband thought I was crazy,” she says.
Tracy O’Connor, another recently converted activist, also went to the D.C. protest, after learning about it on a conservative website called As a Mom. “It was Friday night, and I’m like, ‘We need to get in the car right now and get down there!’ ” O’Connor says. Her political awakening occurred around the time Barack Obama became president, which is when she started visiting As a Mom. Founded by Lori Parker, a Texas mother of four, the members-only site dubs itself “a sisterhood of mommy patriots” and says it aims to “mobilize principled mothers” and “stand up for our nation’s Constitution.” It became a hit after Parker made an appearance on the Glenn Beck program in 2009 and the clip went viral on -YouTube; the site has since become a gathering place for women who want to air their grievances about government. “I felt the things that made this country great were being systematically crushed, and I just felt helpless,” says O’Connor, whose son served in Iraq. “I had these views for so long, but I felt alone. People agreed with me, but they weren’t passionate about it like I was.”
“Nobody was talking about it,” says Becker.
“Nobody was doing anything,” says Berni Doll, Becker’s mother.
Conversations with other women on As a Mom made O’Connor feel part of an instant community. “I was like, ‘Yeah! That’s how I feel, too!’ ” she says. Suddenly she couldn’t sit at home anymore. “Conservative women, we didn’t get up and start moving around until we felt like, ‘This is it . . .’ when you feel like your kids’ future is threatened.” Besides opposing the health care bill, O’Connor blames Obama for the country’s economic troubles. She has become politically active as a way of protecting her children, and she says her 23-year-old son, who is back from the war, feels the same. “He brings up stuff that I didn’t know,” she says. “He plans on voting this year for the first time.”
Becker is equally critical of Obama. “The health care bill is not a health care bill. It’s a big tax bill,” she says. She has always been conservative but got more involved after one of her daughter’s teachers showed his eighth-grade class Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth without letting them know that some scientists dispute the message of the film. “He wanted to know why I was asking all these questions,” she says. “Well, I’m her parent. I want to know what you’re telling her in class!”
“All this is part of worrying about what world we’re going to have for our children,” Doll says. “I have a great-granddaughter in this city.”
“It’s not fear. It’s not anger,” says Becker. “It’s vigilance and concern.”
“We’re not angry people,” says Doll. “I don’t think we’re afraid of anything, or we wouldn’t open our mouths.”
When I ask if it’s fair to compare the rise of their movement to the birth of feminism, Doll bristles. If anything, she says, today’s conservative women reject feminist ideals. She remembers when “the feminism thing,” as she calls it, began “creeping into our magazines” in the 1960s. Women were being inundated with articles about the “drudgery” of being a mom and how to avoid the boredom of housework by finding paid employment. “They were really putting our job down,” Doll says.
Not that it’s easy to do right by a family and be politically active; for Becker, juggling both has been a challenge. “I think that’s part of the problem we all have, because we are moms and we all volunteer for stuff, whether it’s the school or the library or church . . . it’s hard to get involved,” she says. “I don’t necessarily say I’m into politics; I say I’m in this to fight for my freedom. I don’t care about politics. I don’t care about marketable politicians. I want a statesman who will be a good public servant for me and everyone I care about.”
As we start to wind down our conversation in the library, Sue Bican, cochair of a Tea Party Patriots group in Milaca, Minnesota, presses into my hands a stack of cards. In big red letters above a photo of an adorable infant, the cards read, “Protect Baby DNA: Say NO to Government Ownership of Newborn Blood Spots and Baby DNA Warehousing.” The cards refer to the government’s policy of keeping blood samples (“blood spots”) from infants, which started in the 1960s with screening for genetic defects and diseases. The women raise the issue of privacy and wonder aloud if it could be part of an attempt to clone babies. Soon my lap is filled with Bican’s literature: A bumper sticker urges me to “Join the revolution. Health care: Resist. Repeal. Reclaim”; a 40-page booklet called “Sustainable Development or Sustainable Freedom?” bashes the United Nations’ Agenda 21 policy on the environment.
“This has everything to do with all your freedoms,” Bican tells me. “This is the head of the snake.” She says I need to read this material to understand the threat posed by the Democrats. “Are we too late, folks?” she asks the group. The other women allow her to get on a roll, and they tell me that Bican is happy to let me keep all these brochures and flyers because she has more in her truck. “You probably have a file cabinet in your truck,” Doll cracks.
“I have two totes full!” Bican says.
Three of these women went to D.C. for the health care rally. Bican and Becker became friends on the bus and later spent five hours pounding the pavement, going from Senator’s office to Senator’s office to urge their elected officials—in the words of their heroine, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann—to “read the bill!” Joined by a friend passing out IMPEACH OBAMA stickers, Becker headed to the front lawn of the Capitol to watch Bachmann rip sections out of the 1,990-page health care bill and hand them off to the crowd of thousands to distribute to lawmakers. And that’s how Becker and I first met—in a sea of American-flag clothing, somewhere between the man in the tricorn hat waving a DON’T TREAD ON ME flag and the women with the bullhorn singing their own Tea Party version of “Yankee Doodle” (“Stop the spending and the debt, we don’t want communism . . . We are here in Washington, please read our Constitution/Can you hear us now, you fools, our voices are in the millions”). “I’m here representing 1,000 people,” Becker told me then. “I don’t think it’s the quantity of the numbers that matter; it’s the passion of the people who are here.” She’d made the trip because she’d heard Bachmann publicize the event on Fox News: “She exudes truth. I completely trust her.”
Faced with that kind of devotion, I want to know whether Bachmann returns the favor. I try to reach her while I am in St. Cloud, but she is in the heat of her 2010 re-election campaign, and her spokesman tells me Bachmann is “focused on meeting with constituents over the next two weeks.” In late November, following the election—which Bachmann wins by 13 points after spending $11 million, making hers the most expensive House race in the country—we chat on our cell phones as I scribble notes from our conversation on the back of some scrap paper.
The queen of the Tea Party, who is considering a presidential bid, says this conservative-mom movement “really sprang out of nowhere,” and she credits Twitter, Facebook and the Smart Girl Politics blog for lighting what she calls a fire in the heartland. “These women aren’t going away,” Bachmann says, noting that they’re not necessarily asking to see a woman on the ballot. “You’re not going to see conservative women demand an affirmative action spot on a presidential ticket. You’ll see conservative women rise to the national stage based on their own merit.”
One conservative woman who’s already reached the national stage—and taken her lumps—is Christine O’Donnell, whose failed run for the U.S. Senate in Delaware made national headlines. That is why one month after speaking to Bachmann, I’m speeding through Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, trying to keep my eyes on the road as I frantically text O’Donnell’s spokesman to find out what time she plans to sit down with me. It’s my fourth attempt to meet her after more than 20 requests, and if I’m feeling disconnected, perhaps it’s because almost all of our communications have been via text messages. I spot the creaky, classic Morrison House Hotel on my left and pull up to a parking meter. I don’t have enough quarters, but I don’t care; nailing this interview is worth the cost of a ticket.
Turns out I have plenty of time, as O’Donnell is still meeting over breakfast with some PR professionals who will help her craft her image for the next phase of her career (coming soon: a book, due out in August, about her campaign). Thirty-five minutes later, O’Donnell breezes in with a wide smile and an apology. “God bless you!” she says, laughing when I tell her how I had to harass her spokesman every day for more than a month to get this interview.
She’s prettier in person than on TV. Shivering in her heavy winter coat as cold wind seeps through the door, she sits down on a sofa in the lobby, and I follow. Once settled, O’Donnell tells me that women can’t win on the national political stage. “I don’t think we’re there yet,” she says, staring at me from behind glasses that have purple plastic frames. “I hate to say this: I don’t know if the other female conservatives you’ve spoken to have echoed this, but there’s definitely a double standard.”
She sounds bitter, talking about the “inappropriate treatment” she received during her Senate bid, counting off the handful of females who defended her record. She asks me what I’ve found talking to women around the country, wondering if I am perhaps more hopeful about women’s election chances. I tell her that I don’t believe she had a chance in Delaware, where a majority of voters are Democrats, but that I think in more conservative Pennsylvania, a strong Republican woman candidate could have prevailed.
“You think she could have won?” O’Donnell is incredulous. “I think they would have been calling her a bitch and a whore,” she says. “I mean, I hate to say it, but—you know?”
O’Donnell argues that women won’t be able to reach top political office until they start supporting one another. “Not enough women have each other’s back,” she says. “Women on both sides of the political aisle need to unite so that we can send a message to future female candidates that if you step up into a political arena that is mostly male dominated . . . you’re not going to be alone.”
O’Donnell starts pulling up examples of women who haven’t had it easy. “You think about Hillary. You know she had to come out there very tough. I don’t know her personally—is there a softer side, who knows?” she says. “But then you see someone like Sarah Palin, who comes up carrying her baby on her hip, giving speeches with her family there. She’s not hiding her maternal side. She’s not hiding her Mama Grizzly side, and is the country ready for that?” O’Donnell’s point: Hillary Clinton ran as a woman, but Palin ran as a mom—and that role is what conservative women relate to so strongly. “Can the country see that a mother is very much a leader?” she asks. “The fact that you’re a good mother almost in and of itself qualifies you . . . There is something very profound in that observation—that there’s a difference between female candidates and mother candidates.”
After our talk, I ask if we can snap a picture together. She frets that she’s not wearing any makeup because it was hard to wake up early that morning. Shedding the coat briefly, she exclaims, “It is cold!” and shrugs it back on, but poses anyway.
For the women who supported her, O’Donnell’s candidacy meant more than a seat in the Senate. At O’Donnell’s final rally in October 2010, before she lost the election by 16 points, I met Brenda Brown, a Walmart manager from Laurel, Delaware, and mother of four. Clutching a U.S. flag, Brown acknowledged she knew that O’Donnell couldn’t win. “That’s not going to discourage me. I’m going to vote my conscience and my principles,” she said. “This is a chance for me to stand up and voice what I believe.”
I ask O’Donnell if we’ll see a woman in the White House in 2012. “The more we run, the more we help pave the way for the next woman,” she says, adding that her new political action committee is designed to help inexperienced candidates if they “feel the stir in their heart to run for office” in primaries against establishment Republicans. “[If] the local party won’t return their call because they don’t want these troublemakers in the trenches running for office,” she says, “I want my PAC to return their call.”
One woman who has paved the way for other female candidates is Sarah Palin. She’s a lot easier to track down than O’Donnell because Palin is signing her latest book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag, in 16 cities around the country. At this point in November, most of the national press corps is en route to Des Moines, a stop on the Palin book tour that stokes speculation about her intentions for 2012. But I choose to catch up with her in Nebraska because I figure there will be less competition for good material, and because my in-laws live nearby; there I can score my favorite Thanksgiving leftover—Mary Barker’s corn casserole.
I should feel out of place in Nebraska. After all, I grew up in California, graduated from UC Berkeley, live in D.C. now and have a full-time job in what Palin likes to call the “lamestream media.” But after traveling so much in 2007 and 2008 as the presidential campaign reporter for the Washington Times, I fell in love with the Midwest; I enjoy the starkness of its landscape and the genuineness of its people. I’ve long believed that my in-laws—both conservative—offer more insight into the national mood than any poll, so whenever I can, I ask them about current events to take their political temperature.
After the kind of heavy sleep that follows multiple helpings of Thanksgiving leftovers, I set out from my in-laws’ house when it is still dark, driving two hours to Norfolk, population 24,210, where a welcoming billboard reads JESUS, I TRUST IN YOU. The event officially starts at 11 AM, and I figure most people will get there by 8 or 9. I plan to arrive at 7, thinking that will give me plenty of alone time to caffeinate myself.
Boy, am I wrong! As I pull into the parking lot at dawn, women are already wrapped single file around the drab cement storefront; there’s a police car parked nearby to manage the crowd and, later, the handful of protesters. In line are women of all ages—great-grandmothers through tweens—most wearing red Cornhuskers sweatshirts under their coats and clutching Palin’s hardcover book to their chests. Some have come from as far away as Colorado and South Dakota and have camped out all night, huddling in lawn chairs under blankets that do little to guard against 20-degree temperatures. The only bathroom is at the Sonic Drive-In at the other end of the parking lot.
The scene reminds me of those days toward the end of my senior year in high school when my friends and I ditched class to camp out overnight three times for the re-release of the Star Wars series. Like our ridiculously long wait for Han Solo, this one seems sort of, well, fun. The women have called it Sarah Saturday on their Facebook status updates. Teenage employees of the store bark instructions to the yawning devotees: “Make sure the jacket is adjusted so the book opens to the title page.” This will speed things up for Palin, who has to hop along to Iowa later.
No one argues or complains that the store won’t let anyone in early. Instead, people are laughing and singing—Christmas carols, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and sometimes Shania Twain. The mood is like that of the voters who swarmed the Obama rallies I covered in 2008: jubilant. Many say they have never cared much about politics but have driven hundreds of miles, some with grandchildren in tow, just to be part of history. People bond as they compare methods of keeping warm and try to decide absolutely for certain who got there first—a prize that goes to Christine Boone, a 44-year-old homemaker from Plainview who made the local news by arriving at 9:30 the night before. When we talk, Boone emphasizes her belief that Palin relates to her struggle as a homemaker with an 11-year-old son. “She knows what we are going through,” Boone says as she collects hugs and the names of new Facebook friends. With hours of waiting still ahead of her, Boone tells me she plans to create a shadow box to display the new signed book, along with her ticket (which indicates her spot at the front of the line) and her well-thumbed -copy of Palin’s first book.
A few hundred people back stands Bernice Archer, a convenience store owner who passes the time by gabbing with her husband and friends. I ask her about Palin’s place in the Republican Party, and Archer cheerfully lifts her pink hooded sweatshirt to reveal a PALIN 2012 T-shirt. Archer says she bought two of them, the one she’s wearing and one for her husband’s father, “a huge Palin fan” who died recently. “It’s in his casket,” she says. Palin inspired her to start listening closely to what politicians say, and when Glenn Beck held his rally on the National Mall in September 2009, Archer felt it was time to “get off the couch and do something.”
Palin is touching down for only three hours, but the local paper has been hyping the event for more than a week, saying she “might just be more popular than Santa.” Palin is “like us,” women in the crowd tell me, an “everywoman,” “down-to-earth,” “relatable” and, most often, “real.” As one woman puts it, Palin has become the “validator-in-chief” for women with Republican leanings, spurring them to get excited about politics.
Mary Ann Herian, standing -midway in the line, is alone but making friends; she’s a great-grandmother, breast--cancer survivor and lifelong Democrat who thinks the rich should pay higher taxes. For her, Palin serves as a “light in the darkness” who can guide other women to power. “I can only hope that she will lead the way to get more women in politics,” Herian says, adding that showing up at this signing is her way to defy friends and family who mock her appreciation for Palin. “I would stand beside her to show them I can vote for who I want in America.”
I’m shocked to see that there is no Palin staffer taking down contact information—e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers—for the 1,000 or so fans, each one a potential fund raiser or volunteer. If Palin is considering a run for president, this is a pretty significant oversight, which makes me think she has no such intention.
Around lunchtime, Boone emerges from having her book signed and, flashing the autograph at the waiting line, declares, “She’s here!” The crowd cheers. Boone wipes tears from her eyes and steps up to a radio reporter’s microphone. “I was shaking,” Boone says, then compares the feeling of meeting Palin to the one she got when she met Poison rock star Bret Michaels. As Boone tells it, when she stepped up to the signing area, Palin (“She’s sooo petite!”) greeted her with a firm handshake. “She stood right up and asked my name,” and when Boone told the former governor she’d been waiting since the night before, Palin exclaimed, “Oh, you have! Oh, I’m so happy to meet you!” Seconds later, the meeting was over, but Boone says it “made my year.”
I’m thinking about getting a copy of the book signed for myself. The press hasn’t been allowed anywhere near Palin today other than for a minute when the bookstore door cracked open to let Boone in, so getting close would be a coup. Plus, my aunt back in Clyde, California, a Palin fan, would be excited to have it. I nab a ticket but am so busy interviewing people and tweeting photos that I keep letting others jump ahead of me. Finally, there’s no one left, and I reach the head of the line. What the hell, I think. Palin and I had been in the same room only once before, back when she was still governor and Obama had just won the presidency. But my Palin moment evaporates as an aide takes my book and hands me one that’s been presigned. Still, I tell Palin my name, and she reaches out. Her grip is strong, and I am impressed with her eye contact. Then she’s on to the next buyer. I’m annoyed at myself because I didn’t blurt out a question, even though I know it’s not the time or place.
A month later, in mid-December, I call veteran conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly to ask for her perspective. “2010 was the real year of the woman, the conservative woman, the pro-life woman,” she says. “These women had a big impact in the November elections. When you taste victory like that, you want to stick with it. They will play a big role in 2012.” She surprises me by comparing today’s Mama Grizzlies to other female revolutionaries. “Those women were pro-life, pro-family, and they were working for a specific goal that was good,” she says. “Suffragette women were more like the Tea Party and the anti-ERA movement.”
Some of this sounds not unlike what I hear when I call Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Congresswoman from Tennessee, who tells me her GOP colleagues know they’ll be voted out if they don’t deliver. “[Women’s] engagement is going to set the tone for much of what is going to happen in 2012,” Blackburn says. She believes she is supported by women not because she’s a Republican but because she knows “what it’s like to work all week and go home and work all weekend. My decisions will be closer to the decisions they make. [Conservative women] think, I am not going to sit still and let politicians spend away my child’s future. I am going to get up and do something about it. Women do a great job of holding people accountable.”
Blackburn and Schlafly are convinced that these women will have a real say in who gets elected in 2012. But as I end my journey, I’m not so sure. I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm and emotion, but political activism requires much more—money, time, willingness to make cold calls and ring doorbells. When I contact -Christi Becker again in March, she admits she has been too busy with her family to do much for a female candidate since we last spoke; Christine Boone says the same.
But then I remember Rebecca Bahret, 35, a stay-at-home mom in Pinellas Park, Florida, whom I found over Twitter in October 2010 with a message reading, “Hoping to speak w/Republican women who are fired up on the right. Are you one? Know one? Send ’em my way!” One might look at her lifestyle—her son eats only organic food, and she never buys him Happy Meals—and think she’s a progressive. But as a conservative, she prefers to do those things by choice, not because of a government mandate. “As a mom, I have a lot of fear for where our country is headed, and I don’t like it,” said Bahret, who told me she voted in a midterm election for the first time in 2010. “And getting involved in the Tea Party is the only thing I think I can do to turn that around.”
And that’s when I realize: It’s her involvement that’s important right now, not what she does with it. As someone who cares deeply about politics, I am thrilled that a huge group of previously uninterested women is participating in the process for the first time. It’s impossible to predict where they will take us—or if long lines at a Palin book signing can ever turn into a Bachmann presidency—and it’s a mistake to try. There’s no way to know now if Becker and Boone and their friends will show up next fall to stuff envelopes and pass out petitions. But that doesn’t matter. Change has come to conservative women. It’s as Bahret said: “I feel like I’m awake now. And I can’t imagine going back to sleep.”
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI is the associate politics editor at Roll Call. See the rather blurry picture of her and Christine O’Donnell here.
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