“Well, you know, you’re a mom,” the mom in front of me said, gesturing in my direction. I paused. “Yeah, okay, sure,” I answered. I was not a mom—nor a mother—but the woman was talking about how I’d need to protect my family come Judgment Day and I did not feel like antagonizing her with the information that I had not used my uterus to spread God’s message of love here on earth. I was not sure how she’d react given my advanced age.
If I weren’t a mom, why would I even be here, in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, at the Mom’s [sic] March for America that was not a march—more like a Mom’s Milling Around—to hear speakers like Sarah Palin, Candy Carson (wife of Dr. Ben, the inexplicable head of HUD), and an aggressive bottle blonde called Activist Mommy? Why was I making small talk with a woman waving around a small rubber fetus (a medically correct representation of a twelve-week pregnancy, she said, right before “you can have one for free if you want”) and enduring hours of speakers in a venue that didn’t even seem to have alcohol for sale?
I would say, what were any of us doing here, but no one was here. For an event that had booked conservative superstars like Palin and rented out a 4,500+ seat arena, there were maybe a dozen exhibitors and a couple hundred attendees. When a friend logged on in the middle of the event to watch the livefeed, he reported that Facebook showed only sixty-five other streamers. The Mom’s March, set to be a right-wing answer to the anti-Trump Women’s March back in January, was a bust. It was such an insignificant blip on the timeline of the culture wars that no one even thought to protest it in return.
The word “mom” has long been weaponized, ever since the Working Mother vs. Stay-at-Home Moms debate started decades ago. “Mom” is an identity that conjures up mental images of cat sweatshirts and dopey texts and embarrassing displays of emotion and cheap, practical haircuts. It is a word of sacrifice, someone who has forsaken sleep, pleasure, sex, education, career, a social life, all for you. It is an identity to be proud of. The mother, she is the selfish one who thinks it’s okay to have a child and a life and a career. There were no mothers here.
It was a very specific type of mom being pandered to at this event: the right-wing, Christian, traditional, home-schooling, six-to-eight-seat-capacity-vehicle-driving, assumed-to-be-white mom. In other words, these were the moms of my family and I was a little surprised not to see any of them here. The Quiverfull movement was represented (a conservative Christian movement that wants to outnumber the heathens and so requires you to keep birthing babies until your reproductive organs fall out of your body), the Gold Star moms were represented, the God Made Adam and Eve Not . . . moms were represented. These moms populate and repopulate the Kansas town of my childhood, and I know all of their variations well. These are my people.
These moms populate and repopulate the Kansas town of my childhood.
Despite being absolutely ideologically opposed to every firmly held belief of these moms, I do really like them. It’s their toughness, their sense of humor, their sense of community and duty. They seem to have an endless supply of love and attention (for the right people), and they pour it out every which way. I even like their food, like the radioactive yellow potato salad, deviled eggs, and buckets of fried chicken bought from the grocery store.
I liked Bev, who looked strikingly like the photo of her grandmother she had in her quilting booth, and who cried speaking of how proud she was of this woman who had run a one-room school house on the Wisconsin plains and who she was so sad never to have met. (I even still liked her after I saw that one of her quilts was the Axis of Evil, and had photos of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama next to Stalin and Hitler.) I liked the teen girl who will definitely turn into one of these moms and who runs a charity with her own mom, sewing burial gowns for infants who have passed, gifted freely to families who can’t afford to buy something special for their dead son or daughter. I liked Sue, who was selling jewelry she made of her original paintings of women saints and who was thrilled to have someone at her booth who knew who St. Hildegard was. (I bought a necklace.)
But this wasn’t a potluck—alas, or I’d be sure to get some of that green pea cheddar cheese mayonnaise salad I love/think is disgusting—it was a political rally. The lights went down and all the moms—maybe 300 of them total—claimed their place among the thousands of empty seats in the arena. There was a video introduction with a lot of American flags and the results of what must have been a thorough search through stock photography with the key words “white family.”
It was a political rally that felt a lot like a Midwestern potluck because it had the shared experience of some cute preteen being trotted out to sing a song about God, some funny anecdote about the carpool lane, and all of a sudden something wildly transphobic comes out of someone’s mouth and you’re too stunned to figure out how to respond before the conversation just moves on to something else. “We let the schools take over sex ed and now our kids don’t know what sex they are!” Applause. Then there was a joke about how God made Adam first “but then had a better idea.” In the middle of some bland pandering about how motherhood is the toughest job in the world, suddenly we lurched toward Sodom and Gomorrah and America’s “moral plunge toward darkness and perversion,” and volleyed back to mothers being incredibly powerful.
But when the Women’s March organized here in Omaha, local media estimated that 12,000 women showed up. The Mom’s March, an event that cost $10 general admission and $25 VIP, was not even at 10 percent capacity. Women around me speculated it was advertised poorly, but the organizer, Kimberly Fletcher, accused Facebook from the stage of sabotaging both their donate button and their livestream. Other than that moment, no one on stage even addressed the dismal turnout. They soldiered on as if the place were packed, saying things like “Great to see all you beautiful mothers out here today!” to the cavernous space, frantically keeping up appearances and refusing to admit weakness.
During a musical interlude, Laura sat down next to me and offered me a granola bar. She had the same no-nonsense haircut and capri pants as my aunt Barb. She was a mother of two who drove in from Iowa. When I mentioned that people were hesitant to talk to me when they found out I’m a writer, she said, “Maybe you should wear a T-shirt that says ‘Not Fake News.’” She assessed me. “Are you a mother?”
“See, every woman is in some child’s life.”
I asked her why she came, and she immediately referenced the Women’s March, saying, “I don’t have a pink vagina hat, and I don’t like to be told how to be something.” I took it that something was “a woman.” The women and feminists who want to tell her how to be a woman are those on the coasts, “who probably couldn’t even find the Midwest on a map.” We shared grievances, like how the women’s movement doesn’t know how to talk for more traditional women, how the Midwest is rarely represented in American culture, and how the news media never cared much about the middle of the country until Trump’s election. The most visible, mainstream feminist leaders of the second wave, like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, took it for granted that women would want to escape domesticity and gain power in the workforce, and there still has not been a reconciling of “women’s liberation” with conservative Christian doctrine or the traditional Midwestern home. There are representatives of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum here, as well as the Concerned Women of America, both formed in the 1970s as direct responses to the feminist movement.
The Women’s March represented something for these moms, something new to define themselves against. Karen Vaughn, a Gold Star mom who lost her Navy Seal son overseas, calls the hats “pink weird [and] creepy” and the crowd cheered. “Some of those women called themselves ‘nasty,’” she begins, and a woman cries out from the audience, “And they are!”
Sarah Palin was the first speaker to use the term “culture war” outright, and she wasn’t the last. Thomas Frank popularized the idea among the left that Midwestern Republicans are foolish or easily manipulated into voting against their own self-interest in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Midwestern voters, Frank believed, would be better served economically by the Democratic Party, but were swayed Republican by cultural issues like abortion, gay rights, and so on. But for many in the Midwest, the family is society, and any cultural policy that tries to interfere with family issues or undermine the strength of the family unit are seen as dangerous. Those cultural policies have always been intertwined with economic policies and can’t be considered separately. Many Republicans are against social welfare programs because they weaken family obligations, as pointed out by Melinda Cooper in Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. If an unmarried mother (definitely not a mom) is supported by the government, she will not seek out marriage. Social Security means grandma can be self-sufficient and abandoned by her grown children. Even taxes for public education are suspect because homeschooling is the ideal, and in public schools they feel their children are “indoctrinated,” as Mrs. Carson put it, by certain teachings. Parents are disempowered from their natural right to decide what a child knows and believes.
There still has not been a reconciling of “women’s liberation” with conservative Christian doctrine or the traditional Midwestern home.
It doesn’t take a village, insisted many speakers, despite the fact that the Hillary Clinton book they were referencing was published twenty years ago. Who Needs a Village? It’s a Mom Thing, as one anti-village book available for sale puts it. For many, there is no society outside of the family unit, and they deeply resent any attempt to interfere with the direct transmission of religion, ideas, money (the estate tax, which Trump plans to eliminate, was mentioned as particularly nefarious) from parents to children. Despite strong communities, the idea that any sort of “village” would be an influence on their child is outrageous to them. When they hear “village” they think of Hillary Clinton, the decadent Hollywood culture, France—all named as enemies by various speakers.
Throughout the day, at the exhibitor tables or even in the bathrooms, the moms talked with me about the real issues of the region: the increasing corporate takeover of agriculture, the disproportionate burden rural areas carry for the U.S. military, and how, while the opioid crisis has not hit this part of the Midwest as hard as it has the Rust Belt or the South, rates of addiction and overdose have risen. There is a drought dragging on through the region that only stands to get worse over time. (I say “climate change” and a mom counters with “Judgment Day.”) Despite these issues being on the minds of the attendees and freely discussed, none of the speakers have addressed them.
Maybe the reason so many women here keep harping on the culture wars is that the moms lost. No amount of prayer or strengthening of family bonds is going to bring rain back to the region, and their own political party would prefer to talk to corporations and lobbyists rather than their constituents. If these moms had any real political power, they would have put a real, wholesome Christian with traditional family values in office, not an economically useful but still philandering sociopath who probably can’t name a single one of the ten commandments, let alone has a cross-stitched rendering of them on the living room wall. (The name of that sociopath—who famously won over white women 52 percent to 43 percent—was not mentioned once by the moms, and he was only passingly remembered when Palin did a lone “Make America Great Again” callback.)
The problem is, it’s not the feminists the moms lost the culture war to; the moms lost to greed—a greed which drives the president to enrich his own family while also denying an obligation to a wider society, and which is as essential to American culture as mom’s apple pie.