The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Blue’ suburban moms are mobilizing to counter conservatives in fights over masks, book bans and diversity education

From left: Julie Collins, Katie Paris and Julie Womack, the leaders of Red Wine and Blue, a group of about 300,000 liberal suburban moms. (Maddie McGarvey for The Washington Post)

Dozens of suburban moms from around the country dialed into an Ohio-based Zoom training session last month with the same goal — to learn how to combat the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric from parents whose protests over mask mandates and diversity education have turned school board meeting rooms into battlegrounds.

The lessons: Show up at meetings with fact-based speeches ready and create text groups for real-time strategizing. Wave “jazz hands” if told not to clap at meetings. Avoid using the divisive language of their opponents, such as “CRT” for critical race theory, and instead replace it with alternatives like “culturally responsive instruction.”

Katie Paris, the founder of Red Wine and Blue — a national network of like-minded, mostly Democratic suburban women — believes the only way to fight back is to present a calm face to counter the angry groups that have dominated and disrupted board meetings and in some cases threatened officials. Her network of more than 300,000 women recently broadened its focus to fight the rising number of book bans across the country, launching a case tracker on Jan. 31, and is running training sessions to help women testify and manage highly charged government meetings.

“We believe it’s time to get off defense,” Paris said. “Why should we be the ones explaining ourselves? This is not why we moved to the suburbs. We moved to the suburbs for high-quality schools.”

Their mission has taken on new urgency after the wave of Republican parents who began showing up at school board meetings last summer using scripts written by right-wing think tanks, denouncing the teaching of topics such as transgender rights and labeling anti-racism curriculum as critical race theory — a college-level academic framework that examines systemic racism. They then moved on to books, mostly those focused on race and racial history, including by some of the country’s most renowned authors — as well as books with LGBTQ content. They often were the same parents who protested mask mandates and school closures related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Paris argues that these parents — while vocal — don’t represent the views of most parents, and in some cases books have been removed and curriculums changed after complaints from just a few.

“I don’t think that they represent any kind of majority but they certainly are part of what I would say is a pretty massive orchestrated effort to undermine public education and teachers in the country, impose a political agenda and win back suburban voters,” Paris said.

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Conservative parents in Tennessee, for example, were so well organized and aggressive that those trying to marshal opposition found themselves outmaneuvered, according to Revida Rahman, 48, a Brentwood, Tenn., mother of two and co-founder of racial equity group One WillCo. The parents had scoured the second-grade curriculum looking for what they considered inappropriate content. They packed raucous school board meetings and papered carpool lanes with fliers warning that school curriculums were promoting the ideas of “Bad Angry White People” and “cannibalism.”

“I get frustrated with the Democrats’ lack of movement, to be quite transparent,” said Rahman, who recently joined Red Wine and Blue. “I think the other side has an engine that is always moving. They have a playbook. They’re playing chess and we’re playing Go Fish or something.”

Moms for Liberty, a controversial Florida-based political action group started by two former school board members and a Republican activist, has made parental rights its rallying cry and is hoping to harness anger over mask mandates and diversity education in schools into power at the polls.

Campaigns by Moms for Liberty and similar groups have resulted in what the American Library Association (ALA) called an “unprecedented” number of book challenges last fall.

The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded a record 330 challenges to books from Sept. 1 through Dec. 1, compared with 377 cases for all of 2019. In recent days, a school board in Tennessee pulled the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus,” about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum, and school officials in North Carolina removed “Dear Martin” — a novel about a Black teen who is racially profiled — as assigned reading.

“It is absolutely unprecedented to see so many school districts with so many challenges at this scale, at this speed, at this pace,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at the free speech group PEN America.

“A lot of parental anger is being channeled into this in the wake of the pandemic, and people who have been wanting to remove books from schools see an opportunity to do so and wage a broader cultural war at the same time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Friedman said, Republican lawmakers, politicians and organizations are “trying to make this the issue of the moment for the Biden administration — and they’re succeeding.”

Republicans have embraced this riled-up “school board moms” energy as a pathway to victory in the November midterm elections. “This is how we are going to win,” former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon told Politico in June.

Legislatures in 14 states have passed laws or restrictions on the teaching of critical race theory, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is pushing a slate of bills called the Stop W.O.K.E. Act that would give nearly anyone the right to sue schools and teachers over what they teach, based on student discomfort. Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Henry McMaster of South Carolina have called for investigations into school library books, and Virginia’s newly sworn in Gov. Glenn Youngkin made parents’ frustration with public schools a hallmark of his upset victory in November.

Suburban female voters remain a hard-sought prize of the electorate in a polarized country. In the 2020 election, Joe Biden won a bigger share of that demographic than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, according to exit polls. But in the Virginia governor’s race in November, Youngkin was able to attract a slightly greater percentage of suburban women (47 percent) than those who voted for Biden in 2020 (41 percent), network exit polls showed.

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‘Not political? No problem’

Paris, 42, lives in the affluent Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights with her husband and two children, but she spent a decade in Washington working for liberal political causes, including helping found the website Media Matters, which monitors conservative media for disinformation. She started Red Wine and Blue shortly after the 2018 midterms — a record year for female candidates — to focus on Ohio, and expanded the group nationally last year.

The group embraces a deliberately low-key vibe: “Not Political? No problem. In fact, it’s perfect,” the banner on its website reads, with the tagline of “Channeling the Power of Suburban Women.” The group tries to foster the kind of political discussion women might have over a glass of wine with friends, Paris said. It also has a podcast, “The Suburban Women Problem,” with guests such as actress-activist Alyssa Milano and Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

On the training call, Paris praised the women for being “organized and cheerful and clapping for each other,” she said. “What we’ve seen consistently all across the country really work is having that decorum! It creates such a contrast with the other side,” she said, adding that it gives moms a “permission pathway” to join the group.

Tina Descovich, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, which is based in Melbourne, Fla., said the Williamson County, Tenn., chapter of the group recently spent 1,000 hours evaluating grade-school curriculum and creating a spreadsheet of concerns after the Asian mother of a biracial child said he had come home at the conclusion of a civil rights module worried that he should “hate” his White heritage.

The women found a wide range of content objectionable. They complained that a book about sea horses describes the animals’ sexual activity, and an autobiography of civil rights icon Ruby Bridges — who in 1960 became the first Black child to integrate an all-White elementary school in the South — “causes shame for young impressionable White children to read this dark history.”

On Jan. 28, the Williamson County school committee removed one of the books, “Walk Two Moons,” a Newbery Medal-winning novel about a Native American teen journeying to her mother’s grave, saying its emotionally freighted subject matter was of “great concern.”

Descovich says the group’s efforts to promote age-appropriate content for children are being unfairly vilified as censorship.

“It’s frustrating because parents absolutely have the right to vet and evaluate and pick what their children are exposed to,” she said. “In the good old days Blockbuster never put [adult-themed] movies next to ‘Finding Nemo’. Why are our children finding them in school libraries?”

Since its founding in January 2021, the group has grown to 167 chapters in 33 states and 70,000 members around the country. They’ve declared 2022 the “Year of the Parent.”

Moms for Liberty has turned 'parental rights' into a rallying cry for conservative parents

“I think it’s been very clear if you look at the political climate that parents in general are feeling silenced and are feeling shut down and feeling ignored by school boards and elected leaders,” Descovich said.

The group is attracting parents who have never been involved in politics before, she said, “so the momentum is on our side.” She believes these parents will be turning out both to run and vote in school board elections in the coming year.

Paris of Red Wine and Blue, however, cites a recent study by Ballotpedia, a website that tracks U.S. politics, that identified 96 school districts with 302 seats up for election last year where social issues and the coronavirus response were major campaign issues — including mask mandates, sex education, rights for transgender students and teaching about race in the classroom. Ballotpedia found that only about 28 percent of the winners were conservative.

Red Wine and Blue plans to continue with friend-to-friend organizing and using digital media to mobilize suburban women. It recently founded a charitable education arm to raise money from nonpartisan donors.

In Florida, where some of the school board battles have been the most bitter, Jules Scholles, who has a child in public school in Sarasota County, founded Support Our Schools late last year to be an equally loud counter to Moms for Liberty. She’s trying to build numbers by forming coalitions with existing groups such as the NAACP, and worries about what Moms for Liberty and others will demand next.

“They’re ruining our schools, and they’re not stopping,” the 41-year-old said. “You’ve got no masks, you’ve got no vaccines, you’ve got no CRT, you’re about to get no teaching anything that makes White children feel bad, why are you still so effing angry? Like why are you still coming to these meetings so juiced up and angry?” said Scholles, who is White.

When all the furor started “there were already a ton of groups on Facebook that were trying to fight back. But there were literally, and this is very typical on the left, so many ideas, and no action,” she said. “The thing is we can sit here and talk all day long about what our ideas are, but until somebody just puts one into motion, we can’t test whether or not it’s right and will work.”

Emily Guskin and Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.