Hear Them Growl
Miller, Lisa, Newsweek
Byline: Lisa Miller
Sarah Palin says that a new crop of conservative women will 'rise up' to protect their cubs. But will they?
maA*ma grizA*zly noun, pl. -zlies
1. Large brown bear, female of the species, native to North America with big claws. 2. A certain breed of U.S. politician, female, who stands for--what exactly? On some level, the term isn't hard to figure out. A mama grizzly is a conservative woman with "common sense," as Sarah Palin puts it, someone who "rises up" to protect her children when she sees them endangered by bad policies in Washington. She is fearless, and that, in combination with her femaleness, makes her scary--a new kind of political predator. She will take on any foe and, the implication is, rip him or her to shreds.
Palin first described herself as a mama grizzly during her 2008 vice presidential run. She floated the current usage--as a movement--in a speech before a pro-life women's group in May, and soon she was reflecting on the special qualities of mama bears on her Facebook page. "Mama bears not only [forage] for themselves to prepare for winter, they [work] twice as hard to slay salmon for their cubs, too." By late June, Palin's political-action committee had realized the emotional power of the image, and made an Internet ad--nearly half a million views to date, titled "Mama Grizzlies"--which is as plaintive and urgent as a 1960s protest song. It calls America's women to a sisterhood of grizzlies "because moms kind of just know when there's something wrong."
Political pundits and journalists were delighted. Like beauty-contest judges, they began to bestow the mama-grizzly title upon the women Palin endorsed, such as Nikki Haley, who is running for governor in South Carolina; Carly Fiorina, a Senate candidate in California; and Susana Martinez, a gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico. Palin was soon anointing mama grizzlies herself. When she endorsed Arkansas congressional candidate Cecile Bledsoe on Facebook, Palin explicitly referred to her as part of a growing list of "commonsense conservative 'mama grizzlies.' "
Now, as the 2010 elections approach, the term has become a familiar part of the lexicon: like soccer moms or Joe Six?Pack in previous elections, it captures and reflects something in the prevailing national mood. Candidates who want to identify themselves as a certain kind of woman with a certain set of values use ursine language on the stump and in interviews. "Don't get between me and my cubs, or you've got trouble," Sharron Angle, the U.S. Senate candidate from Nevada, told the National Review in June. (She was recalling a fight she'd had with state authorities over a small Christian home school she ran.) Other Republicans who qualify as grizzlies are Michele Bachmann, the congressional incumbent in Minnesota, and Christine O'Donnell, the would-be senator whose recent primary upset in Delaware has caused hand-wringing among members of both parties.
But again, what exactly does the term mean? If the grizzlies are united by an anti-establishment fury rooted in maternal concern, then it's fair to ask what their records show they've done for kids. Not just for their own kids--which in Palin's case, especially, is well documented--but for America's kids, and their families as well. Even some Republicans wonder whether all the fearsome roars are merely election-year antics with little substance. "?'Mama grizzlies' has a catch to it, and you save your cubs--but what they're lacking is solutions," says former Republican congresswoman Connie Morella. "They want to take their country back. Back to where?"
With few exceptions, the grizzlies have been disinterested in the issues and policies that their political opponents say are good for children--despite new numbers from the census showing that rising numbers of America's children are poor. Most of these candidates have vowed to fight to repeal President Obama's health-care plan, for instance, and Bachmann and Haley have taken special aim at CHIP, a federal program aimed at helping low-income kids get health insurance. …