In a different political season, Lou Ann Zelenik would be too much an outsider to run for a congressional seat in Tennessee. A single mother, she owned a heavy construction company until she retired in 2007. She likes to remind people that she's a "licensed blaster," which refers both to her technical skills and her Rosie the Riveter attitude. "She's bucked every trend, and if there's ever an obstacle put in her way she breaks right through it," says her spokesman, Jay Heine. Zelenik only really broke through in electoral politics, however, when she got involved with the local Tea Party. She put together a rally in Murfreesboro, and 3,000 people showed up. She hooked into a network of activist local moms who agreed to volunteer on her campaign. "A lot of the tea party women are inspired by seeing a strong woman run for office," adds Heine.
Is the Tea Party a women's movement? More women than men belong—55 percent, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll. And while no movement that uses Michelle Malkin as a poster girl could fairly be described as feminist, the party has become an insta-network for ambitious women like Zelenik. Some are aspiring candidates who could never get traction within the tight, local Republican Party networks. Some are angry-mom-activist types who, like their heroine Sarah Palin, outgrew the PTA. But some would surprise you with their straightforward feminist rage. For the last few years Anna Barone, a Tea Party leader from Mount Vernon, N.Y., has used the e-mail handle annaforhillary.com: "The way they treated Hillary is unforgiveable, and then they did it to Sarah Palin," she said. "I've been to 15 Tea Party meetings and never heard a woman called a name just because she's powerful. I guess you could say the Tea Party is where I truly became a feminist."
If the Tea Party has any legitimate national leadership, it is dominated by women. Of the eight board members of the Tea Party Patriots who serve as national coordinators for the movement, six are women. Fifteen of the 25 state coordinators are women. One of the three main sponsors of the Tax Day Tea Party that launched the movement is a group called Smart Girl Politics. The site started out as a mommy blog and has turned into a mobilizing campaign that trains future activists and candidates. Despite its explosive growth over the last year, it is still operated like a feminist cooperative, with three stay-at-home moms taking turns raising babies and answering e-mails and phone calls. Spokeswoman Rebecca Wales describes it as a group made up of "a lot of mama bears worried about their families." The Tea Party, she says, is a natural home for women because "for a long time people have seen the parties as good-ole'-boy, male-run institutions. In the Tea Party, women have finally found their voice."
Some of Wales' mama bears are the heirs of old-timey political movements like the Temperance Movement, which women led as keepers of moral purity and domestic harmony. Their more immediate inspiration is the conservative-mom revolution of the mid-1990s. During the Gingrich revolution, a crew of evangelical moms came in, vowing to protect traditional family values. At that time, there was still some ambivalence among conservatives about women abandoning their domestic duties to run for public office. I recall back then interviewing Vern Smith, husband of Linda Smith, then a new Republican congresswoman from Washington. "It's funny, with Linda away, we end up sacrificing some of that traditional family life to pass some of that heritage to our children," he told me.
Now that ambivalence is mostly gone. The conservative woman in public office or otherwise working too hard is an accepted breed. Her rise was accelerated by the recession, which pushed millions more women into the work force, sometimes as the family's only breadwinner. The stay-at-home mom is a vanishing type anyway; only one in five families has a working father and stay-at-home mother. And then there's Sarah Palin, who created a whole new model of mother activist. None of the contradictions got worked out: She works; she has small children; she defends the traditional family although she's probably home only one day a week. Never mind, after 20 years, conservatives have made peace with her type, and embraced it.
And so the conservative mama bear has become a fully operational, effective political archetype. She is mother as übercompetent CEO, monitoring with vigilance her own family bank account, the local school bank account, and, as a natural extension, the nation's. "Women are sitting at home and balancing their checkbook, leaving money for groceries and utilities and fun stuff," says Jenny Beth Martin, one of the Patriots' national coordinators. "They realize that these things that apply to their household budgets also apply to government." In explaining their view on the stimulus money, several Tea Party mama bears used examples they'd heard at PTA meetings. Why should the school waste money on a part-time Chinese teacher who gets full benefits? Why should the government waste money on ant farms and exotic fish?