The New Female Reformers: Nikki Haley

BlogHer Original Post

The Atlantic has an interesting profile of Governor Nikki Haley. Written by Hanna Rosin, who also writes for Double X, the piece focuses on the rise of Haley and how conservative women are working to reform government.

Rosin captures the cesspool of South Carolina politics, such as this conversation with State Senator Jake Knotts. He made the infamous "raghead" comments about Haley, and his comments to Rosin aren't much better:

Knotts later claimed that his comments had been “intended in jest.” But when I caught up with him just before the November election -- which Haley won, becoming the state’s first Indian American governor and first female governor —- his complaints, though less coarse, had if anything grown broader in scope. “Let me say this: people going into politics these days are different than the people I always served with. Strom Thurmond, Fritz Hollings -- one Democrat, one Republican, but they had mutual respect for one another,” he told me. “You had to be one of us to get elected. Now we’ve gone so far down the ladder and backwards. We don’t know who it is, or what it is. As long as it’s got an R in front of its name, we vote for it.”

Ew, ew ew ... how can people like him still exist? I'm not just working to fight socialist liberals, but Neanderthals in my own party. You can promote the values of limited government, free markets and family values without being a racist or a misogynist.

One of the remarkable factors about Haley's victory, and even Governor Bobby Jindal's win in Louisiana, is how racist the South was towards Indians. Haley downplayed her ancestry, but her success is remarkable. Some of the experiences from her childhood were terrible, such as the time she and her sister entered a beauty pageant. Rosin writes:

Like Palin, Nikki Haley had a beauty-pageant moment, but one with a more discouraging outcome. When her sister was 8 and she was 4, the two of them entered the Little Miss Bamberg pageant, Singh told me. In previous years, the judges had crowned one white and one African American winner, but they were baffled over what to do with the two Indian American girls. At intermission, they called all the contestants on the stage: white girls on one side, black girls on the other, with the Haley sisters standing alone in the middle. The judges then announced that they had to disqualify the sisters, and handed each of them crayons and a coloring book. Before ushering them off the stage, they let Nikki sing the song she had prepared, “This Land Is Your Land.”

How could you do that to little girls? Not only is there the issue of segregation, but kicking out two girls of Indian-descent because they don't fit into the pre-selected categories of segregation? So, so wrong!

More than a "mama grizzly," Haley fits the mold of reformer, which is actually a better description of women within the Tea Party. We want to reform this country starting with corruption within our own parties. Many conservative women have had to take on the good ol' boy network before moving onto actual policy debates. I agree with Rosin's assertion here:

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.

While Rosin doesn't quite understand what Christianity teaches about women, I think she understands women on the right better than most writers, particularly regarding O'Donnell and Angle. Abortion is still important, but we've expanded our focus to other issues since they're just as critical to the future of our country.

Another perspective that the left typically misses, and Rosin is almost grasping, is that the activists on the right today are very different that the Moral Majority/Christian Bible-thumpers of the 80s. While many of us are devoutly religious, we don't like our faith politicized. When you wield the Bible as a political weapon, it can be wielded against you. Personally, I think much of the 80s activism ultimately hurt the cause of Christ. This is a frequent debate I have with my family, and it's more reflective of generational differences among the Christian community than an elevation of the Constitution over the Bible.

This is an important difference that liberal women fail to grasp. Conservative feminism -- or the feminism that I've articulated over the past few months -- in no way conflicts with my Christian faith. There was no "decoupling" that Rosin sees. We're just a different generation with different perspectives. Of course there are ranges of views and beliefs among Christians, but Rosin seems to think that most Christians on the right -- even politically active ones -- are extreme fundamentalists. We aren't. It just shows how little writers like her actually interact with average Christians in America while continuing to perpetuate stereotypes.

Social conservatives and fiscal conservatives have a strange, symbiotic relationship. If you are a social conservative, you are more likely to be a fiscal conservative. Right now, fiscal conservatism is ascendant because threats against it are greater. The messy social vs. fiscal debate is still going on, but it isn't at the forefront of the movement. The debate will more attention at some point, but it will be very different than the debates in the 80s and 90s.

This why so many conservative women are bewildered when liberal women reject us from the ranks of feminism. Compared to fighting the sexism and corruption that still exists within some pockets of the Republican Party, whining about choice seems frivolous. We're working to weed out corruption and eliminate barriers to political involvement. They're parading rusted coat hangers around. While we're advocating for policies that reduce taxes and help everyday Americans, they seem stuck in a time warp.

Right now conservative women are focused on issues that affect every single man, woman and child in this country. What are liberal women focused on? Truthfully, I can't think of one topic that even vaguely unites the movement aside from hatred of Sarah Palin.

Did liberal feminism become too diverse in order to stay relevant and admit more members? Did mission creep cause women to become so fragmented that their small niches were constantly fighting over funding, media attention and access to political power? In the past 10 years, what issues have liberal feminists taken on that are absolutely critical to the future of this country?

In many ways, conservative women are on a proactive track. We're looking at ways to cut wasteful spending to build a better future. Liberal women seem hell-bent on fighting for policies that haven't worked, require bigger and bigger budgets and slowly erode personal freedom. Conservative women have grabbed the mantle of reform. The next question is what will we do with it?

Adrienne works in the conservative movement and blogs at Cosmopolitan Conservative.

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