Is the Tea Party a Feminist Movement?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 12 2010 12:03 PM

Is the Tea Party a Feminist Movement?

It's becoming an insta-network for aspiring female candidates.

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Christen Varley is the president of the Boston Tea Party. Last year, her husband spent some time without a job. And so, after 11 years of staying home with their daughter, Varley got part-time work at a nonprofit. She also got involved in local politics and last year, started a tea party branch. At the meetings, equal numbers of men and women show up. But women end up being more dedicated. They write the newsletters and put together the database. When the group first put together the steering committee, it had four men and two women. "We ought to have a few more women," she thought, so she added some. "We're more likely to get fired up," she says. "Women take it personally. These are my kids they're coming after."

Mostly what Varley likes is that the movement feels like an actual tea party. She used to go to Republican town committee meetings, but except for the annual Christmas party, it was all "work, work, work." At Tea Party meetings, the women "get together and commiserate, and cheerlead each other. When the media and the culture demonize us, we feel good that there are other people just like us. We're building a lot of friendships."

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The mama bears are not the only type of women in the movement. Local parties in Seattle, New York, and California, for example, breed more-straightforward feminists. (Remember annaforhillary.com.) Some of the women I interviewed are longtime women's activists who feel alienated from both parties and are happy to have a fresh start. Betty Jean Kling runs a group called Majority United, dedicated to getting more women in office and fighting violence against women. Like many activists I talked to, Kling thinks social issues such as abortion are just wedges to drive women apart. (Varley, who is Catholic and pro-life, said the same thing: "We would be stupid to bring up abortion at a meeting.")

Kling says the two parties "just throw crumbs to women" and insult them. She has given over her radio show to women Tea Party activists and candidates, and started a network of local chapters. "Each woman has her reasons for joining," she says, "but I would like to believe that deep down she has a degree of pride in knowing that when she is voting out the incumbents she may be voting in a new woman with new ideas who will be really amenable to women's rights."

Like other Tea Party ideologies, the movement's feminist streak is not always consistent or coherent. But affiliated women candidates take away a unifying narrative that taps into both traditionalism and feminist rage. It's the feminism of the 1980 Dolly Parton movie 9 to 5, part anger against the good ole' boys and part "leave me alone." Candidate Liz Carter complains about the lack of women in any congressional seats in Georgia. Fox analyst Angela McGowan, running for Congress in Mississippi, calls herself a "warrior." Christine O'Donnell, running for Senate in Delaware, claims she's an antidote to the "lords of the back room." Lords of the back room. There's a phrase Germaine Greer would have liked.

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