By Shauna Shames, Associate Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University
Motherhood language and symbolism have been part of every U.S. social movement, from the American Revolution to Prohibition and the fight against drunk drivers. Half of Americans are women, most become mothers, and many are conservative.
The U.S. is also a nation of organizing, so conservative moms often band together. Lately, the mothers group dominating media attention is Moms for Liberty, self-described “joyful warriors stoking the fires of liberty” with the slogan “We Don’t Co-Parent with the Government.”
Others see them as well-organized, publicity-savvy anti-government conspiracists.
The rambunctious two-year-old group was founded in Brevard County, Florida, to resist COVID-19 mask mandates. It quickly expanded into the Southeast, now claiming 120,000 members in 285 chapters nationwide. Their mission is to “figh[t] for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”
By “parental rights” they mean limiting certain content in schools and having local councils and boards run only by “liberty-minded individuals” – which sounds like rhetoric from the American Revolution.
There’s historical precedent in this. Change the clothes and hairdos and these ladies could look like the conservative white women who opposed busing in 1970s Boston, supported McCarty anti-communism or blocked integration in Southern schools. Those women also formed mom-based groups to protest what they saw as government overreach into their families’ way of life. But as a scholar of American politics with a focus on gender and race, I also see differences.
21st century conservatism
Moms for Liberty skillfully leverages social media, drawing on a population activated by the 2009-2010 rise of the Tea Party followed by the Trumpian MAGA movement. Mask mandates were the trigger for the group’s formation, but opposition to gender fluidity and queerness has become its bread and butter – more 21st century than 20th.
How racial equality is talked about animates its work also, in a distinctly new way. The conservative position on race and government’s role in the past century has pivoted from enforcement of segregation and hierarchy to a kind of social “laissez-faire” – hands off – position to match the Reaganite view that government is bad.
The extreme, hyper-male form of this anti-government, pro-traditional gender-roles ideology took shape as the Proud Boys, a number of whose leaders are now under indictment and sentence for their part in the January 6 Capitol attacks. Moms for Liberty, while not going this far, shares similar beliefs and apparently has ties to the Proud Boys organization and leaders. They don’t march with guns, but their actions undermine and impede local government.
New kids in town making themselves heard
The group’s roots stretch back to a heated 2020 school board election in Brevard County. Incumbent school board member Tina Descovich, a local conservative activist mom, was challenged by progressive newcomer Jenifer Jenkins. When Jenkins won, the conservative board majority ended.
Having lost electorally, Descovich – and the corps of like-minded moms she now represents – began to shift the conversation from the outside. They joined with moms in many red states angered by what seemed fast-moving changes involving race, gender and sexuality, like the increasing numbers of people identifying as trans, queer or nonbinary, even at young ages, the vast changes in marital laws and family structure, and changing ideas about whiteness, inclusion and equity.
Moms for Liberty soon found success with disruptive tactics a VICE News investigation called a “pattern of harassment” of opponents that include online and in-person targeting of school board members, parents or even students who disagree with the group.
Members in many chapters generate ill will by turning up to school board and other meetings – sometimes to the homes of public officials or teachers – yelling insults like “pedophile” and “groomer” at opponents.
For a newcomer, Moms for Liberty has had real victories. It has disrupted countless meetings, forcing local governance bodies to focus on topics important to the group such as lifting mask mandates and, more recently, removing curricular content that they deem controversial, such as texts on gender identity and racial oppression.
The group’s success in getting talked about is perhaps its greatest strength so far, moving it from outside disruptor to political player, at least locally. It has successfully supported many local candidates and book bans.
Specific examples of banned books include “Push,” which inspired the award-winning movie “Precious,” and “Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl,” also made into a movie.
Despite its many chapters, Moms for Liberty is untried nationally, its total membership is still relatively small, and Federal Election Commission filings show it raising and spending little money. The group lacks control over members, who have publicly embarrassed it. In one case, the Hamilton County, Indiana, chapter quoted Hitler in a newsletter – later apologizing.
At another point, an Arkansas member avoided criminal charges for saying, in a discussion about a librarian, “I’m telling you, if I had any mental issues, they would all be plowed down by a freaking gun right now.”
These incidents mark the group not only as green, but also as part of the new right wing. Republican-leaning groups used to take a top-down approach to setting agendas and managing people, while Democratic organizations historically cited democracy and equality as both tools and goals, even if it meant disorganization and failure.
In the traditional top-down Republican party of yesteryear, Moms for Liberty would likely be marginal. In today’s disorganized, divided, hyperpolarized GOP, it may do quite well – which is not good news for democracy.
Out of step, but useful
Pro-mom language is sometimes, in the old idiom, the velvet glove hiding the iron fist. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks organized hate activity, labeled Moms for Liberty “extremist.” Its empirical evaluation concluded that the group’s chapters “reflect views and actions that are antigovernment and conspiracy propagandist.”
Moms for Liberty is ideologically out of step with the country and more anti-government than most Republicans. The majority of Americans are not in support of lifting mask mandates in the middle of a pandemic or banning books.
Among Republicans, there is disagreement over the teaching of controversial topics like racial justice, but book bans find low support. Despite the current bitter political climate, most in the U.S. appreciate government and want it to work.
Yet, some media refer to Moms for Liberty as a “power player” – and no wonder, when Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis show up to court the group. Moms for Liberty may be fringe, but its members could be of use to presidential hopefuls.
Why? The answer lies in some distinctly post-2010 electoral math. These days, only a quarter to a third of voters align with each major party, and less than a third of registered partisans turn out for primaries.
So a sixth of each party – a small fraction of the overall population – now selects the nominees. And that sixth is not representative – it is far more opinionated and angry. Moms for Liberty, having organized small, ideological voting armies in swing states, is in the envious position of representing a concentrated and potentially decisive voting bloc.
The mom rhetoric may be real, but as a political scientist, I can say confidently that the framers of the Constitution would not endorse this brand of liberty. Book bans are weapons of autocrats, and democracy ends where political figures call each other “pedophiles” in public.
Matt Rourke (AP)