In his victory speech on Tuesday night, Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin expressed gratitude to all the usual suspects—campaign volunteers, colleagues, and voters. But afterward, as he made his way through the crowd at his campaign headquarters, Youngkin thanked another group: “Way to go, mama bears!” he said. “You guys were awesome.”
Youngkin wasn’t just referring to a casual group of women supporters, the soccer moms of his race. In the days leading up to the election, conservative Virginia parents coalesced around the phrase “mama bear,” scrawling it on signs in support of the governor and posting it as a hashtag on social media. Virginians aren’t the only ones who have recently embraced this term, which refers to fiercely protective mothers determined to shield their cubs from harm. Nationwide, it has gained a particular political dimension: Self-described mama bears rail against what they perceive as government overreach in matters that concern children.
But the mama bears are not up in arms about every issue that threatens children—they don’t advocate for gun control, for example, or decry air pollution near schools. The particular constellation of conservative causes that unites them is very specific. Mama bears want to banish critical race theory and LGBTQ-friendly books from the school curriculum, oppose accommodations for transgender students, and abhor vaccine and mask mandates. There isn’t (yet) an official Mama Bear organization—it’s more like a rallying cry or set of code words. But its pervasiveness is unmistakable. The hashtag is all over social media. There’s a book (Mama Bear Apologetics: Empowering Your Kids to Challenge Cultural Lies). You can buy T-shirts that say #mamabear from multiple sellers on Etsy, alongside other shirts that say “Make vaccine manufacturers liable again” and “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump.”
Youngkin’s campaign seized upon the growing power of the mama bear movement. Back in August, after Youngkin came out against school mask mandates, conservative Virginia talk show host John Fredericks told the Hill, “This is a winning issue for him. The suburbs are where the mama bears are. This is all about the mama bears, and I don’t care whether you voted for McAuliffe, voted for Biden, or you don’t like Trump’s tweets. When you’ve got to wrap your kid in a mask in the third grade, that doesn’t feel good to you.” In the weeks that followed, Youngkin campaigned heavily on the signature mama bear issues. He slammed vaccine mandates over and over. He even encouraged parents of college students to fill out vaccine exemption forms. And as my colleague Nathalie Baptiste wrote, “Nearly all of his campaign ads hammer on about critical race theory—the latest conservative boogeyman and base-mobilizing tactic.”
Earlier this week, Youngkin posted a meme on his Instagram account that said, “Scary Terry will keep parents out of their kids’ schools.” The implication that Youngkin’s opponent, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, would curtail parents’ rights energized Youngkin’s mama bear base. “I think a bunch of mama bears will speak Tuesday!!!!” wrote one commenter, adding a bear emoji for good measure. “Mama bears and taxpayers who are sick of leftist insanity,” added another.
In several of the anti-vaccine social media accounts I follow, I noticed posts of support for Youngkin even among influencers who aren’t based in Virginia. Allie Beth Stuckey, a conservative Christian pundit star of the mama bear movement who regularly warns her 329,000 Instagram followers about the dangers of vaccine mandates, celebrated Youngkin’s victory in a Wednesday post that said, “Don’t. Freaking. Mess. With. Our. Kids.” In a comment, she listed the “lessons” she took from Youngkin’s win:
LESSONS: 1) Our kids will not be a part of your progressive social experiments. 2) Surprise! People don’t like racial division, sexually explicit reading material for middle schoolers & mask mandates for toddlers, 3) No matter what they call you, DOUBLE DOWN. They’ll call you racist, they’ll belittle your concerns. It doesn’t matter. Keep going. Your kids matter.
The growing conservative group Moms for Liberty, which strongly opposes vaccine mandates, posted on Instagram what they believe Youngkin’s win portends for Republican parents: “We anticipate seeing the same effects throughout the 2022 midterm cycle. Parents are engaged and are seeking elected officials at all levels of government who respect their right to direct the education, upbringing, and care of their children.”
Moms for Liberty is right that the mama bear movement may very well influence the coming election cycles. In setting up liberals in opposition to parents, the right has found a powerful way to whip up supporters. Fights over curriculum and masks will only intensify. With a victory in Virginia now secure, the approval of the Pfizer COVID vaccine for young children has come just in time for the newest front in the anti-vaccine mama bears’ culture wars.