Beyond a steady rightward shift and an increasingly reactionary rhetoric, conservative leadership is taking on another characteristic — it’s becoming more female. Both nationally and in Tennessee, the most beloved and vocal conservative leaders these days seem to be women.
Exhibit A is the 2008 presidential campaign and the continued popularity of Sarah Palin.
In Tennessee, conservative women are not just minor leaders or lawmakers; they’re powerful and prominent ones — and looking to become more so.
Next year in Tennessee may see not only Marsha Blackburn returning to her 7th District seat in Congress but also former state GOP head Robin Smith winning office in the 3rd and state Sen. Diane Black (or Lou Ann Zelenik) winning election in the 6th. That’s a possibility of three — and the strong likelihood of at least two — strong conservative women among the state’s nine-member congressional delegation.
That’s to say nothing of state legislators such as Sen. Mae Beavers, Rep. Susan Lynn, Rep. Debra Maggart and Rep. Donna Rowland — all very conservative and outspoken. Women, in fact, represent a sizable percentage of attendees at the myriad tea party protests held around the state.
Blackburn herself recently observed the phenomenon. “The amazing thing to me about the tea parties is, when you look out across the crowd, the crowd is predominantly female. ... It’s amazing, the number of women attending these events, and women are speaking out as never before. ... They are looking at what’s happening with the cost of health care, they are truly concerned about the strong arm of government reaching into their lives and into their pocketbooks.’’
So what gave rise to this modern matriarchal Right? What does it say when a movement that has historically stood for keeping females in traditional “women’s” roles now celebrates women who cast traditionalism aside to assume leadership?
Conservatives who claim their party is devoid of racism still must concede that their movement opposed the majority of the 1960s civil rights agenda. And modern female conservative leaders must admit that the movement they serve once sought to keep them in the shadows.
But it’s not merely a cultural shift that has brought conservative women to the fore. This influx in female leadership is not an accident of history. These women have been pushed into these roles.
Not reluctantly, mind you. To a man, er, to a woman, these new leaders are independent-minded and authentically ambitious. They are not puppets in any sense of the word.
But just because there are no strings doesn’t mean they aren’t being used. This is more than simply a slow and natural capitulation to the broader culture’s norms.
Whether it’s state Sen. Mae Beavers on the Tennessee Firearm Freedom Act, Rep. Susan Lynn spearheading the effort for a state sovereignty resolution or Rep. Marsha Blackburn taking on Al Gore in congressional hearings, the more confrontational political work is increasingly being left to women. These days, if you’re talking about an unapologetic, unequivocating public conservative, there’s a good chance you’re talking about a woman.
Politically, maybe this trend is good for the GOP, which has long been perceived as the party of white men. Putting too many people of color out front when there are so few in the party looks a bit too on the nose. But white women straddle a middle ground that can serve the movement well. They soften the image of the GOP without smacking of obvious tokenism.
But if the current political culture requires conservatives to leave the dirty work to women, haven’t they lost already? Women should seek political leadership, but if their promotion is simply a cover for timid men peddling a timid ideology, is that really progress — for the movement or the women?
Women need to be embraced as leaders — but not out of fear or necessity. It should happen the right way, or else the Right will merely be seen as a bunch of weak-willed reactionary little boys sending their women out to do their fighting for them.
Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com’s political blogger. Visit him at http://postpolitics.net.