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Reading the Tea Leaves
In her latest book Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right, political science Professor Melissa Deckman examines how and why women have emerged as political leaders in the Tea Party and how they continue to influence American politics.
When the Tea Party movement first took off in 2008 after the election of President Barack Obama, Melissa Deckman—long a student of conservative political movements—was struck by one thing in particular: women were leading the charge.
“Not only were women active in the Tea Party, they were beginning these new organizations out in front of the movement,” says Deckman, chair of Washington College’s Department of Political Science and the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs. “I wanted to see to what extent women were involved in the Tea Party, why they were doing it, and what effect it would have on American politics.”
Through 2012 and 2013, Deckman interviewed dozens of Tea Party activists for Tea Party Women, published in May by NYU Press. She also analyzed national survey data from the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that polls regularly on political issues, to better examine the Tea Party demographic and compare women who identify as Tea Party versus two other groups of American women—Republican women who do not identify as part of the Tea Party and women who identify as Democrats and Independents. She wanted to determine if the Tea Party’s message of reducing the size and scope of government would hold appeal to many women.
Her timing could not have been more spot on, as the presidential primary has seen the rise of Republican GOP nominee Donald Trump, a polarizing figure among conservative women, who will likely oppose Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election this fall. Among the women she interviewed was Katrina Pierson, who founded a local Tea Party group in Texas and has gone on to become Trump’s national spokeswoman. Deckman’s unique insight into this slice of American politics at this moment has earned her repeated interviews with Maryland and national media, including The Baltimore Sun, Time magazine, Bustle, salon, and the Washington Post.
“I try to let these women speak for themselves, let them tell their stories,” Deckman says. Among the findings that surprised her is the extent to which conservative women felt shut out of the traditional GOP establishment and how that gender bias pushed them into developing their own political leadership on their own terms.
“These women have a love-hate relationship with the GOP,” Deckman said in a May 9 interview on Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks’ “Roughly Speaking” program (http://bsun.md/1sd29Lw) . “Certainly they’re not going to jump ship and vote with the Democrats; they’re far too conservative for that. But many of them have recognized that in order to change policy, they’re going to have to essentially go with the Republican Party. And when a lot of these women tried to challenge officials of the party or become members of its central committees, they were often rebuffed or discouraged.”
To bypass this roadblock, Tea Party women turned to the grassroots, as well as social media, which enabled them to skirt traditional political channels to network and make their voices heard on a national level.
“Women can’t be overlooked with this platform,” Pierson tells Deckman. “It used to be that men in the GOP or male leaders could take a woman’s idea as their own—I have had that experience—but with social media women can be attributed, they can define their own brand, and define yourself and have your ideas heard. You don’t have to go through the good old boys’ club any longer, and that has been huge for women.”
Deckman’s research also challenges the notion that Tea Party women are single-minded conservatives. While her analysis of national survey data shows that Tea Party women nationally are far more conservative than most American women on numerous policy positions, “on some issues, like raising the minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and government-mandated sick leave, more than half would say that they agree with those policies. They’re not as inclined to march in lock-step with [national conservative] leaders.”
As to whether the rise of Tea Party women is a new brand of conservative feminism that is signaling a national shift of women voters from their traditional left-leaning status further to the center, Deckman says her analysis of women across the political spectrum shows that Tea Party women “nationally are pretty far to the right of most American women. There’s no evidence to suggest to me that most of the positions they espouse will find broad support among American women. They have interesting rationales for why they think their policies are better for women. But generally speaking, they face a lot of uphill battles trying to get women to support their cause.”
“Tea Party Women delves deeply into how gender, ideology and activism intersect,” says Ronnee Schreiber, author of Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics. “Deckman’s thorough and scrupulously researched account of why and how women have emerged as leaders of the Tea Party movement is essential reading for scholars of women and politics, interest groups, political parties, social movements and conservative politics. This accessible yet comprehensive book provides firsthand insights into how women have found their voices through conservative politics and what motivates them to promote Tea Party causes. The book is thematically timely, but will also stand the test of time, as it addresses enduring political questions of strategy, power and identity.”