State of the Union January/February 2011

Good Ol’ Girl

Dubbed the “Daddy Party” 20 years ago, the GOP suddenly finds itself challenged from within by a wave of conservative women, from Sarah Palin and her “mama grizzlies” to Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party leadership. As an Indian American woman, Nikki Haley broke two barriers to become the governor of South Carolina. Was her hard-won victory over the state’s good-ol’-boy establishment a fluke, or a sign of fundamental change in the Republican Party?

Increasingly, though, the GOP is taking Singh’s side—though in rather less consciousness-raising terms—on the question of whether being a woman is an electoral asset. Following the Republicans’ poor showing among women in 2008, there was a sense, says the GOP pollster Linda DiVall, that the party still resonated as “older, John McCain generation, male, and out of touch.” So DiVall and Republican National Committee Co-Chairwoman Jan Larimer assembled focus groups to gauge voter feelings about female candidates. What they discovered surprised them, and made their task easier than they had imagined. Voters had always associated female candidates with phrases such as in touch with my daily concerns and sympathizes with my problems, says DiVall. But this time, women did just as well as men on the phrase effective at managing a crisis. And they actually performed better on won’t be in the back room dealing with special interests—an obsession of the current anti-incumbent electorate. Republican women, it turned out, could be packaged as having the perfect combination of qualities that voters were seeking: strong, but sympathetic to struggling families; and more loyal to their ideals than to the entrenched establishment. In part thanks to these findings, the RNC launched a nationwide campaign to recruit female candidates, led by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state.

McMorris Rodgers is a near-perfect prototype of the conservative female insurgent. I first saw her speak last September at the Smart Girl Summit, a gathering of Tea Party women in Washington, D.C. McMorris Rodgers is adamantly pro-life. Her first child has Down syndrome, and at the time of the election, she was seven months pregnant with her second. She lists two of her top values as defending the Second Amendment and promoting the “traditional family.” Yet elements of her speech at the Smart Girl Summit could have appeared in a keynote address for the National Organization for Women. She quoted Alexis de Tocqueville on the splendor of the American woman’s “confidence” and “independence.” She listed the kind of upbeat statistics—for instance, that women manage 83 percent of the nation’s household income—you might hear from an overeager feminist. And she invoked the famous Margaret Thatcher maxim, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

In the 2010 election cycle, McMorris Rodgers and the RNC recruited 112 new female candidates to run for the House and Senate. More than 30 took their primaries, and 10, including New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, won their seats. Most of the new arrivals are 50 or younger and many have children at home. “It’s amazing to see the transformation,” says the RNC’s Larimer. “We have a place at the table, and who knows? Someday we might even own that table.”

A crucial element of McMorris Rodgers’s role in recruiting female candidates was convincing them that they could handle the job even if they had young children. There are “different models” for sharing household responsibilities within a marriage, McMorris Rodgers told me. In her case, her husband, who is retired from the Navy, “carries the load at home.” The conservative vision she advocates and her own means of achieving it are still somewhat in tension: the “traditional family” model has never included a pregnant woman running for Congress—and traveling the country to recruit other women—while her husband stays home to take care of the kid. Such contradictions used to be a real stumbling block for conservative women: back in 1995, when I met with Representative Linda Smith, one of the female insurgents of the Gingrich revolution, her husband, Vern, expressed mixed feelings about “sacrificing some of that traditional family life” for the greater conservative good. But over time, this is a bargain that has grown more acceptable both within individual marriages—Palin’s, Haley’s, McMorris Rodgers’s—and in the conservative movement generally.

It is no accident that the rise of the Tea Party has coincided with the rise of conservative women. According to a Quinnipiac poll from last March, 55 percent of voters who identify with the Tea Party movement are women. The movement’s scattered national leadership is largely female as well: four of the seven board members of the Tea Party Patriots group are women, for example, as is the chairwoman of another group, the Tea Party Express. One of the three main sponsors of the seminal 2009 Tax Day Tea Party event was Smart Girl Politics, a group founded by mothers blogging about politics. “For a long time, people have seen the parties as good-ol’-boy, male-run institutions,” Smart Girl Politics spokeswoman Rebecca Wales told me. “In the Tea Party, women have finally found their voice.”

One way the Tea Party has benefited female candidates—and the conservative movement generally—is by consciously steering clear of social issues. When I asked one activist at the Smart Girl Summit about the role of abortion in the movement, she replied, “No one cares about that.” A more accurate response would be that plenty of Tea Party women—and men—care, but the issue is no longer a central part of their self-­presentation. When Tennessee’s Diane Black, one of the freshly minted mama grizzlies in the House, ran for state senate in 2004, she did so on a pro-life, traditional-marriage platform. But in her 2010 congressional race, she stuck to the Tea Party talking points: taxes, job creation, and repealing Obamacare. Throughout the Smart Girl Summit, I felt that the word Bible, which would have been invoked constantly at such an event 10 years ago, had been replaced by the word Constitution. By decoupling conservative values from explicit appeals to traditional Christianity—and its teachings about the proper role of women—the Tea Party has helped open up space for an unfettered kind of conservative feminism. This, in part, could help explain why Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle fared worse than many of their mama-grizzly sisters on Election Day: neither quite made the pivot from social-values Christian radical to economic-values Tea Party reformer.

By contrast, Haley has presented herself less as a moral crusader than as a whistle-blower—another frequently female role. In 2002, for instance, Time magazine named as its Persons of the Year three female whistle-­blowers: Sherron Watkins of Enron, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, and Coleen Rowley of the FBI, who disclosed mishandling in the Zacarias Moussaoui case. The financial crisis brought a fresh round: FDIC Chair Sheila Bair, former Commodities Futures Trading Commission Chair Brooksley Born, and the Bernie Madoff investigator Genevievette Walker-Lightfoot. Indeed, some researchers have speculated that women tend to be more willing to take social risks—such as blowing the whistle on their superiors—while men tend to take financial risks.

Given Sarah Palin’s astronomic trajectory, it’s easy to forget that she initially earned her name in Alaska as a whistle-blower, when she resigned her post on the Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission citing ethics allegations against a fellow Republican member, and later joined in filing a bipartisan complaint against the state’s Republican attorney general. Haley’s career followed a similar path: in her second term in the Statehouse, she embarrassed her fellow state legislators by introducing a bill that would require elected officials to vote on the record, ruling out the practice of voting with hand gestures (touch your eye for aye, touch your nose for nay) that enabled legislators to discreetly approve pork projects, hefty retirement packages, and other perks. As if that weren’t enough, Haley traveled the state making the case for term limits and tighter financial-disclosure rules. In 2008, her colleagues responded by removing her from a committee whose chairmanship she desired. So she decided to go over the heads of the GOP establishment and run for governor. “I was disgusted,” Haley said of that period. “That was an arrogance that I just wasn’t going to stand for. It was an embarrassing moment for the Republican Party. And I knew I had to fix it.”

What exactly that fixing will entail—on Haley’s part, and on the part of her fellow female insurgents—remains to be seen. It may be that this gender insurrection within the GOP proves, like its Gingrich-era precursor, to be temporary. Or this may be the tip of the iceberg, with the congressional mama grizzlies recruited by McMorris Rodgers and powered by the Tea Party gradually assuming more-prominent roles in the GOP. At the moment, it’s certainly easy to imagine that the first female major-party nominee for president will be—in Thatcherian, Nixon-goes-to-China fashion—a Republican, whether it’s Palin, Haley, or a player yet to be named.

After her victory, Haley abandoned terms like arrogance and disgusted, and offered an olive branch to the good-ol’-boy network she had defeated. “This is a new page we’re turning,” she told a gathering of state lawmakers. “Historically, it’s been the House and Senate against the governor … Starting today, that all stops.”

The rapprochement seemed mutual. Jake Knotts told me he was “proud that we elected a woman,” and he sent e-mails to supporters and fellow legislators saying he is “looking forward to working with Governor Haley,” and acknowledging the “need for change in our state.” For now, at least, the Daddy Party has accepted its ascendant Mommies, and vice versa. But it’s an uneasy marriage. If the conservative women become too dominant, working-class men may once again find themselves without a comfortable home.

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Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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