"But how do the hash tags work, exactly?" "How can I link my blog to my Facebook page?" The questions were directed at me and came from a retired female cop from upstate New York. Our dining companions, seventysomethings from North Carolina, asked for my professional media expertise. They hadn't yet joined Twitter but planned to after all they'd heard about it at the Smart Girl Summit, a recent conference of conservative—mostly Tea Party—women. They listened eagerly to my answers, then even more eagerly as featured speaker Michele Bachmann told the group that 61 percent of independent voters distrust the "lamestream" media, that the media are even angrier than the Tea Party. The ex-cop blogger clapped loudly and politely passed the rolls my way.
The Smart Girl Summit, attended by about 250 (largely women, with a smattering of husbands and male speakers), grew out of a blog started by a stay-at-home mother. One of the featured speakers, Dana Loesch, a rising conservative pundit and home-schooling mother, initially grabbed attention for her blog, Mamalogues, which she still maintains in addition to her TV and radio work. Another, Rachel Campos-Duffy, a Real World alum, has maintained her media presence through a combination of mommy-blogging and TV punditry. One attendee, a hairdresser turned full-time mother, grabbed national attention during the 2008 election for her blog, Moms4SarahPalin. *
The new wave of Mama Grizzlies believes—and they have some evidence to prove it—that social media is the key to their success. In nearly every session I sat in on, the speaker drove home the point that the easiest way to work for the Tea Party was to be active on Twitter and Facebook—this was the sort of political organizing that a busy mom could do, without even leaving the house. And by many measures, women already dominate social media: They outnumber men nearly 60 percent to 40 percent on Facebook and Twitter, and married women between 35 and 50 are the fastest-growing group of social-networkers. Their usage also tends to be more relationship- and communication-driven, less "transactional." "Nontraditional media will give you the courage to tell your story," one speaker said, echoing a blogger who told me she thinks women are more bold behind the safety of our computer screens.
None of them mentions a recent New Yorker article on Twitter activism by Malcolm Gladwell, which would dampen their cause. Gladwell is thoroughly skeptical of its effectiveness, comparing Twitter activism in Iran and Moldova unfavorably with the activism of the 1960s American civil rights movement. The key distinction, according to Gladwell, is that "Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires" rather than effecting actual change. And true, that's exactly what the online Grizzlies emphasize, how easy it is to be part of the movement online.
Gladwell concedes that "[t]he drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn't interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash." But is that true of the Tea Party moms? Yes, their poll numbers are relatively unpromising for the November general election. But they seem to still want to turn their online power into noise on the streets. The group that sponsored the conference also sponsored the first Tea Party rally last year, and the point of the summit was to take "weak-tie" online bonds and turn them into real-life connections (which, Gladwell says, drive effective activism). To get people to move from just being part of an inchoate network and to think about becoming leaders within a movement. To have women meet the people they'd been retweeting on Twitter, so that maybe they'd volunteer for the other's candidate of choice, or even her campaign. To spawn more organizations, more networks within a network. According to Loesch, "Activism is just as much building relationships as getting out there."
The conference itself, by the way, got most of its publicity through its social media presence—that's where almost everyone I talked to said they'd heard about it and where I was tipped off to it, too. And the organizers told me they were able to attract such high-profile speakers—Bachmann, Liz Cheney, Anita Moncrief—because of a larger-than-life, influential Twitter presence. And when they all get together in person, as Hanna Rosin wrote in Slate earlier this year, "the movement feels like a real tea party." It's social, it's fun for these women; it flies in the face of the bowling-alone trend.
Of course, before the Tea Party, there was Obama's '08 campaign, famous for its online grass-roots activism, which candidates on both sides have imitated to mixed results. It's still unclear what works, though the Tea Party has especially embraced the home phone-bank along with social media, instead of flashy but less effective—and far more expensive—iPhone apps and the like. This particular conference included seminars on how to obtain old voting data for your precinct, how to crunch the numbers and decide when a precinct was winnable, what to say when talking to undecideds, what sort of voter fraud to be on the lookout for, even how to lay the groundwork for your own campaign. (Another Twitter-activism critique from Gladwell: "It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.") There have been plenty of conservative women's organizations before, of course—think the Eagle Forum—but over and over, panelists emphasized that those groups hadn't adapted and that these new tactics were reaching a new audience, a new generation, the "new media." Look no further than Sarah Palin's tweeting for evidence of how large and loud that bullhorn can be: She is followed by fewer than 300,000 users, a relatively modest number given her celebrity, yet her remarks often propel a whole news cycle.
This brand of social activism also happens to perfectly dovetail with the brand of conservative feminism that was being promoted at the conference: You can maintain your duties as a wife and mother but also become involved in the movement through making phone calls, handing out flyers, running for school board if national office seems too disruptive to your family. ("Start small, build big" was another theme—school board leads to county leads to state, etc.) You can organize an entire conference and run a highly trafficked Web site but, since those activities are not professionalized, still call yourself a stay-at-home mom. And those "maternal" skills—organization, communication—are just as good, if not better than, a high-powered professional résumé in a movement that's asking for foot soldiers. (But high-powered résumés are OK, too—cf Liz Cheney.)
Women who stayed at home with their kids might not be able to then land a gig at, say, the National Review if they'd wanted one, but in this movement, the blogs they might start and the tweeting they can do are valued more than "lamestream" coverage. Or at least that's the message. Whether the message—tweeted, facebooked, direct-mailed, blogged—can actually turn into reality remains to be seen. "Victory," said a Smart Girl organizer, setting up for the long view, "is in planting the seed."