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The mom supremacy

America’s “mama grizzlies” – homely, conservative women with their hearts set on power – are easy to

In Douglas County, Colorado, lives Lu Busse - mother, grandmother, activist and the original "mama grizzly". Long before Sarah Palin conjured up the image of a mother bear "that rises up on its hind legs when somebody's coming to attack their cubs", Busse had been calling herself "Grizzly Granny Lu" on her blog. "I always said that if we give up on the Republican Party and start a new party, we're going to be the Grizzly Bears," she tells me. "These donkeys and elephants, that's ridiculous. In America, if you're not a grizzly bear, you're not really American."

Busse founded her local 9.12 Project group in April last year, just a month after the Fox News presenter Glenn Beck launched the national project based on nine principles and 12 values (numbers one and two: "America is good" and "I believe in God and He is the centre of my life"). Busse now chairs the statewide coalition of 9.12 groups, and works closely with the Tea Party movement. Locally, female membership is dominant; Busse says that around 60 per cent of the activists she works with are women. It mirrors the national picture. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in March this year suggested that 55 per cent of Tea Party sup­porters are female. And they are growing in power. In the past few months, a string of ultra-conservative female candidates, such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Kristi Noem in South Dakota, have won in the Republican primary elections.

Palin calls it a "mom awakening", a movement of newly empowered conservative women who are anti-government, anti-establishment and seeking to destabilise a political system they perceive as elitist and remote. The appeal of candidates such as O'Donnell is their lack of political experience: they are traditional, homely mothers. Yet the ambition of activists such as Busse is huge. She wants to change "the whole direction of the way the country's moving" - and believes she can.

When I ask her if she feels part of a women's movement, Busse reflects for a moment, and then says: "It's not a women's movement in a way that the movement that generated feminism is. This is a movement that wants our country to be the country we grew up in - we want that for our children and our grandchildren. So it gets to our motherly instincts. It's not about women's issues."

It is a telling distinction. For Busse and others like her, feminism is a word laden with alien liberal values, wedded to a time of sexual liberation and immorality. Instead, their bond is motherhood, as reflected in an expanding behind-the-scenes network of activist organisations: As a Mom; Concerned Women for America; Moms for Ohio; Homemakers for America; American Mothers.

Palin gave her "mama grizzly" speech at a breakfast meeting of the Susan B Anthony List in May this year. Founded in 1992 and named after the 19th-century civil rights leader who campaigned for women's suffrage, the List works like an engine room behind conservative female candidates, providing financial backing and mobilising supporters. With 280,000 members, it has funded and campaigned for O'Donnell, Noem and about 25 other candidates across the US. It also has one specific aim, says the group's chair, Marjorie Dannenfelser, which is to "help elect and involve pro-life women in the political project": to end the practice of abortion.

“What we're seeing," Dannenfelser tells me, "is a correction of the term feminist, an editing - women who feel very strongly about the talents and skills and power of women, but who don't feel that abortion is an avenue to that." For Kathleen Blee, a professor of sociology at Pittsburgh University, the idea that women such as Dannenfelser describe themselves as feminists is extraordinary. "It's a terrible distortion," she says. "It strips most of the meaning away from feminism . . . They don't support equal rights, they don't support abortion - you name the feminist issues, they are on the other side." Dannenfelser says that the election races she gets most excited about are those featuring "women running against women where there's a clear contrast between the type of feminism the two candidates represent"; as in, one is pro-life, the other pro-choice. It's
a strange kind of sisterhood.

Conservative feminism in the US is hardly new. One of its early incarnations was the Women's Christian Temperance Union, established in 1880 as part of the temperance movement campaigning for the prohibition of alcohol (a movement in which Susan B Anthony was heavily involved). According to Blee, early rightist women's activism often had a racist tendency. Those involved in the pro-suffrage movement, for example, were galvanised to ensure that white female voters could out­number black men. A number of those women, Blee says, became an influential presence in the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership included at least half a million women at its peak in the 1920s.

Women were also involved in the pro-fascist movements in the Second World War, and in anti-desegregation campaigning during the civil rights movement. But rightist women's movements "exploded", Blee says, with the emergence of an organised Christian right in 1979, the year the pastor Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority.

As an evangelical movement that coalesces around issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the Christian right has played a significant role in US politics ever since. The Republican strategist Karl Rove's direct appeal to its base was seen as a deciding factor in George W Bush's re-election in 2004.

The Tea Party has proved to be a magnet to the Christian right, and has been infused by the movement's socially conservative values, even though its original objectives were ex­clusively fiscal. (Busse is typical in citing the bailout of the banks after the 2008 financial crisis as the trigger for her activism.) For Tea Party purists, the infiltration by Christian groups is not necessarily welcome. One activist I spoke to felt their preoccupation with moral issues was potentially divisive, and diluted the Tea Party's central messages around tax and spending. But Dannenfelser sees it differently. "There is so much overlap in the Tea Party movement between economic and social issues that there is really no discontent," she says. "It is simply a matter of emphasis."

For activists such as Dannenfelser, who have been fighting abortion for decades, the events of the past two years have been a perfect storm: the financial crisis, the election of Barack Obama and the consequential birth of the Tea Party have given social and Christian conser­vatives a wave to ride and, in the form of Palin, a ready-made, pro-life, "hockey mom" leader with a direct line to Fox News and, some seem to think, God.

Mum's the word

There is, as yet, no Concerned Women for Britain, or Mums for Basingstoke. Perhaps the closest thing we have to a mass women's movement is Mumsnet. But while the social networking website has political influence - all three party leaders raced to interact with its 1.1 million users before the last election - it is resolutely non-partisan. Its co-founder Justine Roberts tells me she can't imagine the site ever aligning itself with a party or ideology, given the diverse political views held by the mothers who contribute to its discussion forums.

Yet Britain, like America, has a history of conservative women's activism. The British Women's Temperance Association was formed at almost exactly the same time as its US counterpart. With campaigns for sexual purity and chastity, it played a central role in the women's suffrage movement. And Margaret Thatcher (a "heroine" to Palin) is a role model of sorts for British conservative women - although the feminist writer Natasha Walter argues that Thatcher was an anomaly, and one of her own making: "She didn't put in place any policies to encourage equality or to encourage women."

Today, Theresa May is conspicuous as the only woman in a senior cabinet position in the new government. Lower down the ranks, however, there has been a shift. A raft of new female Tory MPs entered parliament at the last election - up from 17 to 49. One, Louise Bag­shawe, chick-lit author and MP for Corby, says this is partly a result of May's efforts to alter the gender balance of the party by starting the Women2Win campaign in 2005. Bagshawe defines herself as a feminist and describes May as the "godmother of a movement".

Like some of her American sisters, Bagshawe is also anti-abortion. "I've never had a problem with being pro-life and a feminist," she says.
“I don't consider them to be at all incompatible." She reveals that she is a member of a prominent US pro-life lobby group, Feminists For Life, and that she admires Sarah Palin. "I watched her acceptance speech at the Republican party conference and it seemed to me that it was a glorious moment, a birth of a new political star." Bagshawe acknowledges that the campaign exposed "various problems" (such as a glaring lack of policy knowledge), but is impressed by the comeback Palin has achieved since the 2008 election, and the power she now wields. "She's a remarkable figure."

Bagshawe's adulation is echoed by one of her colleagues in parliament, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries (who is also pro-life and has campaigned vocally for a reduction in abortion term limits). "I think Sarah Palin is amazing," Dorries says. "I totally admire her." She particularly likes how Palin has spoken up for a certain type of woman - the same women, she believes, who are ignored in Britain today. "Do you know the people who have no voice in this country? Who are never written about, who journalists never talk about? The mums. Mums who decide that they will give up their careers and stay at home and look after their children."

She directs me to a blog post she has just written, "The Invisible Woman", which contains a link to a video of a motivational speech given by an American woman, Nicole Johnson. The central message is one from God to mothers: "You are not invisible to me. No sacrifice is too small for me to notice. I see every cupcake baked, every sequin sewn."

Dorries says she has been inspired by recent events in the US - the primary victories of O'Donnell and others. With a new government in place, she senses a "wind of change" in the political atmosphere in Britain. In the last parliament, she says, it was "very difficult to talk about the family unit, and to talk about mothers and children . . . as the foundation of society, because it was seen as a very unsexy, untrendy thing to do and the opposite of what a woman should be doing". Now, she feels these issues can be discussed.

Her assessment is borne out by Walter, who tells me of a recent meeting she attended with coalition ministers in which they discussed the sexualisation of children. The ministers said they felt it was their duty to provide moral leadership to the country. "That's something I am not comfortable with," Walter says. "But I can see that a Conservative government would think that's where they have to lead."

It is certainly what Dorries thinks. And not only that. Given the sympathetic political climate, she sees an opportunity to mobilise a perceived constituency of ignored, stay-at-home mothers. "I think it's time somebody started to represent those mums," she says.

Not to be dismissed

Since the Tea Party rose up across the US in 2009, a common response to its more extreme factions and candidates has been amusement. Conservative female politicians such as O'Donnell are routinely dismissed, even by leading figures within the Republican Party. Karl Rove recently described O'Donnell's rhetoric as "nutty". Yet the mass appeal of these women is already translating into votes and victories. To discount them is to underestimate their growing power, and also makes for ineffective opposition. As Blee says: "People here do not take women very seriously, they do not take the Tea Party as a whole very seriously, and I think it's clear that's a mistake."

The point on which all the women I spoke to agreed, whatever their shade of politics or feminism, was how often female politicians of all parties and ideologies are patronised. "I wouldn't want to claim Sarah Palin as a sister," Walter says, "but I don't like it when she is despised and trivialised simply for being a woman." And it's not just the Americans. Parliamentarians such as Dorries (nicknamed "Mad Nad") are derided and disregarded as a matter of course.

The "mama grizzlies" are undeterred as they gear up for the midterm elections in November. Dannenfelser is optimistic, pointing out that she has "four strong viable pro-life women who are running [for the Senate] and could win, and three governorships in the same situation". Blee, however, is doubtful about the Tea Party's political longevity. She suggests that the range of views and motivations within the wider movement will make it hard to sustain. Electoral success in the midterms, she believes, might precipitate a collapse by exposing factions and splits.

Nonetheless, uniting all these women and issues is one woman, a de facto leader who appears to be on her way to the very top. "The prospect of Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate is not worth discounting," Blee says.

But could she win the presidency? "Yes, as crazy as that is." As Lu Busse says, laughing, just before she hangs up the phone: "The folks in Washington ought to know that they're in real trouble . . . They've got the women after them now."

Sophie Elmhirst is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
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Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster