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It is the first full day of the inaugural Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors National Summit, and 500 such warriors are listening raptly as Florida governor Ron DeSantis delivers the keynote address. They fill tables in the grand ballroom of the Tampa Marriott, waving “Mamas for DeSantis” signs, and wearing T-shirts bearing the slogans “I don’t co-parent with the government” and “Stop woke indoctrination.” They jump to their feet and cheer when DeSantis, who is obviously considering a presidential run in 2024, brags about having stood up to Disney’s “leftism” and again when he refers to President Biden as “Brandon blundering around every time you go get gas.”

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The moms have been primed by a morning program that has been nothing short of a pep rally. First came a deluxe version of the national anthem, replete with a rarely sung verse added in 1986. A color guard of four teenagers looked on, flags, sabers, and rifles by their sides. A prayer followed, enlisting God in the fight against the scourge of progressivism in schools. When DeSantis finally took the stage, three Moms for Liberty leaders presented him with a bright blue sword, emblazoned with the group’s logo. “It is what the gladiators were rewarded with after they had fought a long, hard battle for freedom,” said the group’s founder Tina Descovich. “So this is a representation from all of us moms here in Florida and across the country that appreciate all you’ve done to stand up for parents’ rights.” Clutching the sword, DeSantis grinned at the crowd as the press at the back of the ballroom snapped pictures.

Governor Ron DeSantis is presented with ”The Liberty Sword” during the Moms for Liberty National Summit in Tampa.

Lauren Witte/Tampa Bay Times/Zuma

“Parents’ rights” is Moms for Liberty’s rallying cry. But they don’t mean every right. They’re decidedly unconcerned about a parent’s right to ensure that their gender nonconforming child is safe at school, for instance, or that their immunocompromised child is protected from Covid. Rather, the Moms who are for Liberty have mobilized around parental concerns that are decidedly conservative. They want to excise lessons on systemic racism, LGBTQ-friendly books, accommodations for transgender students, and Covid mitigations like vaccine and mask mandates. They want to defend the Second Amendment rights that have allowed school shooters to obtain weapons. They work toward these goals with an unflagging spirit of good cheer—hence the “joyful warriors” conference theme. “People want to be around joyful people,” one presenter said. “They don’t necessarily want to be around angry, screaming, yelling people, or it’s not going to grow.”

Moms for Liberty isn’t the only parents’ rights group that has coalesced around the culture wars in the last few years, but it’s one of the largest. The organization was officially founded in early 2021. Just 19 months later, it has more than 100,000 members in some 200 chapters across 38 states.

Already, the group has made national news for its followers’ extreme positions on education. In New Hampshire, a local chapter recently offered a $500 reward for anyone who caught an educator teaching about systemic racism. And last year, after Moms for Liberty founder Tina Descovich lost her school board race in Brevard County, Florida, her opponent, Jennifer Jenkins, reported that the group incited protests that turned threatening, with people showing up at her house to accuse her of being a pedophile. “‘We’re coming for you,’ they yelled, mistaking friends standing on my porch for me and my husband,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in October. “‘We’re coming at you like a freight train! We are going to make you beg for mercy. If you thought January 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!'” Someone reported her to the Department of Children and Families, falsely claiming that she had abused her 5-year-old daughter. “If there are differences of opinion about what’s fair for all students, I’m happy to discuss them,” she wrote. “But I have rights, too, and that includes the right to be free from harassment and assault.” (Justice denied that members of Moms for Liberty participated in the harassment campaign. “We are joyful warriors, and our chapter has never been involved in anything like that,” she said.)

Media coverage of Moms for Liberty often tends to portray them as kooks who can’t possibly be taken seriously. But it’s a mistake to underestimate their power or the possibility they could be a deciding factor in the midterm elections. While billing itself as a grassroots organization—a loose coalition of like-minded moms who are concerned about the liberal bent of education—its supporters include heavy hitters in the conservative movement. Influential Republican strategists populate its leadership team, and major right-wing think tanks support it both financially and with expertise.

All that conservative political prowess fuels one explicit goal: to take over school boards. The “strategy sessions” at the conference were hosted by the Leadership Institute, a conservative training group that counts among its alumni Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former vice president Mike Pence, and activist James O’Keefe. The sessions included “Vetting and Endorsing Candidates” a crash course in “how to identify and endorse the best candidates in an ever-growing pool of people who claim to be pro-parent.” Another, “Win by the Numbers”, promised to teach attendees “the most effective methods of winning over voters, how to drive turnout for your cause or candidate, and determine exactly how many votes you need to win.”

Although the rank-and-file members of Moms for Liberty are squarely focused on school board races, the Republican organizers who court them are thinking bigger. In his address on the second day of the conference, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) laid out the sweeping political strategy in no uncertain terms. “If you guys run, you’re gonna make everybody else win,” he said. “I’m responsible for the next Republican Senatorial Committee. You will make sure senators win all across the country, congressmen and women win all across the country.”

Scott was not just talking hypothetically. In November 2021, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin defeated former governor Terry McAuliffe on a platform of parental rights, courting the self-described “mama bears” of his state. Following his victory, Moms for Liberty wrote in a triumphant Instagram post, “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.”

Robin Steenman, chair of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, delivers a public comment against teaching “critical race theory,” during a school board meeting in Franklin, Tennessee.

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Ron DeSantis is ardently courting this particular constituency. His emphasis on parental rights (especially during the pandemic) could have been torn from the Moms for Liberty playbook. A recent profile in the New Yorker suggested that the governor was almost entirely devoid of charisma—“People who work closely with him describe a man so aloof that he sometimes finds it difficult to carry on a conversation,” Dexter Filkins wrote—but the women who attended the conference seemed to love him. At the podium, he landed zinger after zinger. “I think parents in this country should be able to have their kids go to school, watch cartoons, just be kids without having an agenda shoved down their throats,” he said. He went on to praise the growing army of Florida parents that have enlisted to fight with him in his war on woke-ism. “If you just show people that you’re willing to fight for them, man, they will walk over broken glass barefoot to have your back.”

 

A few hours into the conference, I realized that the Moms for Liberty wasn’t the only group holding an event in this little corner of the Tampa riverfront. Right next door at the city’s convention center was Metrocon, an annual celebration of all things sci-fi, comic, and animé that attracts more than 10,000 attendees, mostly teenagers and young adults, every year. During conference breaks, I watched some of the Moms for Liberty gape at the Metrocon crowd: a teenager in Japanese schoolgirl drag; a twentysomething in a yellow Pikachu fat suit paired with fishnets; someone dressed completely conventionally except for a lifelike prehensile tail snaking out of the back of their jeans. While the Moms for Liberty cheers and expressions of enthusiasm were restricted to the speeches, the Metroconners kept up a constant thrum of jubilant energy, striding confidently around the hotel lobby.

I watched all of this from the second-story mezzanine, where I loitered between sessions. A Moms for Liberty coordinator had denied my request for a press pass to attend the conference, telling me I had missed the deadline. So Mother Jones paid the $199 fee for me to attend as a participant. This came with certain advantages: Registered members of the media were not allowed into the breakout sessions, but I had full access. I never lied about who I was; if anyone asked, I told them I was a reporter for Mother Jones. When I dropped the name of my publication, most of the people I talked to smiled. Maybe they welcomed the scrutiny. Or maybe these Moms for Liberty simply thought I worked for a magazine about, well, mothers. At any rate, no one seemed to mind that I was there—despite the fact that I was one of the only people wearing a mask.

Because after all, the more joyful warriors, the merrier! When I called Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, she described the beginning of their group almost as if it happened by serendipity. In 2020, Justice, a mother of four, had just finished a term on her local school board in Indian River County, Florida, midway down the state’s Atlantic coast. The other co-founder, Tina Descovich, a mother of five, had just lost her school board reelection campaign in Brevard County, Florida, about 40 miles north. The two women connected at an awards ceremony they both attended, and they found they were both dismayed by how little say parents had in their children’s public-school education.

They began to organize friends and neighbors who were also outraged by Covid policies, and by what they were witnessing in their children’s school Zoom sessions. “Many were astonished to find that, instead of being simply taught reading, writing and arithmetic, their kids were being fed lessons on highly divisive topics of questionable academic benefit,” the two founders wrote in a November 2021 Washington Post op-ed. “We started with just two chapters here in Florida in our communities,” Descovich said in a June 2021 YouTube video. “The real power of Moms for Liberty happens in your own backyard,” adds Justice.

What the founders don’t mention is the big assist they’ve gotten from powerful conservative organizers, starting with the third (and much less visible) founder of the group, Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County school board whose husband, Christian Ziegler, is the vice chairman of Florida’s Republican Party. “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic,” he told the Washington Post in 2021. “But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.” Moms for Liberty’s executive director for program development is Marie Rogerson, a prominent Republican campaign strategist in Florida.

Because Moms for Liberty is so new, it’s hard to get much information about their finances—the 501(c)(4) nonprofit’s tax filings aren’t yet available. Justice declined to disclose the group’s annual budget, saying only that the main source of funding is “donations and T-shirt sales.” At the conference, there were hints that some of those donations are sizable. According to a chart posted in the exhibition hall, the Leadership Institute was a “presenting sponsor” of the conference, meaning it donated at least $50,000. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, donated at least $10,000. Several groups that rail against progressivism in education, such as Parents Defending Education and Turning Point USA, contributed at least $5,000. 

In late June, Moms for Liberty’s brand new political action committee received a $50,000 donation from Julie Fancelli, whose father founded the supermarket chain Publix. Fancelli also played a role in funding the groups whose events preceded the January 6 insurrection, according to the Washington Post, including paying $60,000 to Kimberly Guilfoyle, the fiancée of Donald Trump, Jr., in exchange for her appearance at the rally that day.

The speed and effectiveness of Moms for Liberty’s political force have astounded pundits and those who’ve tangled with it alike. Quinn Hargett, a stay-at-home mother of three in Union County, North Carolina recalls that in 2021, seemingly out of nowhere, members of the group began posting in local social media forums, inviting parents to their meetings. Curious, Hargett looked into the public Facebook page of the local chapter leader, Britney Bouldin. She was flabbergasted by what she saw. There were posts downplaying the seriousness of the January 6 insurrection. One accused “mainstream media” of having helped Nazis during the Holocaust. In another more recent post, she wrote, “Biden’s open border matters and Uvalde happened because of it!!” (Justice told me that inflammatory speech isn’t allowed on chapter leaders’ group-affiliated pages, but that the group doesn’t monitor members’ personal social media accounts, and Bouldin didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Several members of the Union County local school board have joined Moms for Liberty. The public meetings, which previously were quiet and polite affairs, now draw an entirely different crowd of parents’-rights true believers. Recently, someone showed up carrying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Hargett worries about the outcome of the school board elections this fall—five of the ten candidates are currently or have been affiliated with Moms for Liberty. “I’m not worried about someone grooming my son to be a drag queen,” she told me. “I’m worried about someone grooming my son to be a White nationalist.”

Moms for Liberty is new, but the ideas that fuel it are ancient. Moral panic over children’s well-being pervades early European conspiracy theories that accused Jews of murdering Christian babies and harvesting their blood. Hysteria reared its head during the American Civil Rights Movement when White parents fighting desegregation claimed that their daughters would be raped by Black boys. It came back in the 1970s, when Anita Bryant, a singer, former Miss America second runner-up, and passionate opponent of gay rights, warned parents that gay people would molest their children in order to recruit them into a homosexual lifestyle. In the 1980s, as more American women entered the workforce and enrolled their children in daycare, a rash of false accusations of sexual abuse at childcare centers, known as the “satanic panic,” appeared. Some of the culture-war tactics used by Moms for Liberty seem to be deployed every decade or so—the practice of banning certain books from schools and protesting language in textbooks, for example, has a long history in the United States.

What’s different about the Moms for Liberty—and the other parental rights groups that have sprung up over the past two years—is their leveraging of local school boards to flex political power. Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, told me that school board conflicts—usually over local issues, like tricky budgets or unpopular superintendents—were not historically the stuff of national headlines. “A lot of people felt like local school politics were kind of backwaters, and the real action was in state capitals, and in Washington, DC,” he said. “Folks on the right had a little bit of an awakening, realizing that at the local level, there’s an awful lot of resources.” What’s more, social media helped local groups across the country connect with one another. “It’s a three-dimensional game—it’s local, state, and national, and those aren’t separate games anymore. They’re interrelated.”

So what will the Moms for Liberty do if they take over school boards? They mostly promise the obvious things, like fighting mask mandates and pressuring school libraries to remove books that they consider obscene. If you listen carefully, though, you may hear hints of a far more radical goal: getting rid of public schools altogether. 

They talk openly about “school choice,” the education trend popularized by former US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose tenure was marked by her crusade to funnel public funds into private religious schools. During one session, after a presenter had detailed the myriad ways in which public schools were indoctrinating students with dangerous ideas, a frazzled attendee asked, “How do we stop it? How do we stop this from going through our schools when they lie to our face?” The presenter sighed. “My answer is always to leave,” she said. “The only way you stop it is leaving.”

Rose Jamieson, 64, cofounder of St. Pete for Change, protests outside the Moms for Liberty National Summit in Tampa.

Lauren Witte/Tampa Bay Times/AP

Once more, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is at the vanguard. His policies have paved the way for an influx of publicly funded charter schools, as well as a voucher system that allows parents to use state money for tuition at the private school of their choice. This new guard of Florida charter schools is exempt from many federal education laws, including those that protect LGBTQ children and teachers from discrimination. According to the National Charter School Alliance, Florida charter schools grew by nearly 4 percent from 2020-2021, while district public schools shrank by 3 percent.

Justice expressed deep skepticism about the role of the US Department of Education in schools. “It really seems like the work that the federal government is doing is very concerning, and really far away from what the parents and students and communities want,” she said. She told me that she and Descovich still believe in public education, but “if a parent feels that they need to pull their child out of the public education system, we completely support that.”

At the conference, excitement about alternatives to public school was palpable. In the exhibition hall, one booth advertised Optima Classical Academy, a brand new Florida-based virtual-reality charter school, where children use Oculus headsets from the comfort of the couch. The curriculum is “classical,” meaning a heavy emphasis on the Western canon. In order to learn about, say, the promise of individualism and the powers of big government, the students could travel to ancient Rome, a spokesperson explained. (Optima, I later learned, was a sponsor of the conference.)

During the School Choice Lunch, DeVos herself said the quiet part out loud. And when she did, she received one of the loudest and longest ovations of the whole conference. DeVos reflected on her time leading the Department of Education under President Trump (before she resigned in protest after January 6), musing about her accomplishments. “While I know that everything we did was with the interest of kids in mind, and policies that would really give as much power back to the states and local communities as we possibly could,” she said, “I personally think the Department of Education should not exist.”

If you do choose to send your children to public school, the Moms for Liberty recommend that you approach your child’s government-sponsored education with unyielding vigilance. Should parents let down their guard even for a moment, they warn, scheming progressives can subtly inject their values into the curriculum. On the second day of the conference, I attended the “Education Not Indoctrination Lunch,” featuring a talk by Dr. James Lindsay, a math Ph.D., former massage therapist, and conservative commentator with 311,000 Twitter followers. (A few weeks after the conference, he would be banned from Twitter for calling a Harvard law instructor a “child sexualization specialist.”)

Lindsay was there to discuss one of the most fearsome bêtes noirs of the Moms for Liberty and the parental-rights movement as a whole: social-emotional learning programs that many districts use to teach “soft” skills like self-regulation, conflict resolution, and perseverance in the face of adversity. Far-right groups argue that social-emotional learning is really just a Trojan horse for critical race theory and gender ideology. Elementary school classes may not actually teach courses in these subjects, they allow. But the graduates of the universities that do teach these subjects, they claim, infuse their lessons with what they learned in college: that the legacy of slavery has made the systems and institutions of the United States racist, or that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary.

Some parents and policymakers escalate the implications of social-emotional learning to an even greater sense of urgency. Lindsay, who hosts a podcast called “Groomer Schools” and changed his Twitter name to “James Lindsay, equipping my war moms” for the duration of the conference, began his talk by telling the crowd about a trend in corporate responsibility. He introduced the concept of “environmental, social, and governance” metrics, a group of principles developed by the World Economic Forum, a coalition of top global businesses that aims to promote corporate responsibility. Over the last two decades, the forum has increasingly used ESG metrics to evaluate a company’s contributions to the good of society—reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, for example, or ensuring that its hiring and compensation practices aren’t discriminatory. By Lindsay’s account, though, ESG metrics weren’t actually about social good at all—rather, they amounted to an “evil plan” to usher in a global era of Marxism.

The orchestrator of this plan, Lindsay said, was Klaus Schwab, a German engineer and economist who is the forum’s executive chairman (and, along with George Soros, a central villain in many antisemitic conspiracy theories). Schwab and his cronies, Lindsay falsely claimed, had turned the principles of ESG metrics into a curriculum that became social-emotional learning, designed to condition school children to Marxist values. To elucidate this point, Lindsay compared Klaus Schwab to Hitler. “Hitler said, ‘What are you? You’re going to pass away. I have your children,’” said Lindsay. “While Schwab says we need social-emotional learning. And the point of social-emotional learning is to teach the children not to be able to be psychologically competent to live in a world that’s not ESG compliant.”

One of the goals of this curriculum, he said, was to inject messages about systemic racism into academics. “They’re going to present critical race theory through Ruby Bridges and statistics lessons,” he said, referring to the civil rights icon of school desegregation. “The point is to turn your regular curriculum into a politics curriculum.” But the critical race theory portion of social-emotional learning wasn’t his main concern. The most diabolical part of Schwab’s plan, Lindsay said, speaking in a terse staccato, was to sexualize children through lessons on gender fluidity. 

When you sexualize children, you destabilize them. It is not developmentally appropriate for children to have their fundamental categories—man, woman, boy, girl—complicated. So, with social-emotional learning, they introduce this complicated topic, and then they tell them how they are supposed to feel about it… [Children] become moldable entities that you can shape into whatever purpose you want, like becoming change agents and activists when they decide that the world they see and inhabit is fundamentally unfair to them. Secondly, you get them to sever ties to their family. And make your kid a little sexual weirdo, they come home, they talk to mom, to you. And you’re like, what? I don’t want you to talk like that. And it’s, ‘Mom, you don’t understand me. You don’t know, things are different now.’”

The closest parallels to social-emotional learning, Lindsay noted ominously, are the Chinese communist reeducation programs. “You have to understand…that you’re sending your children to Maoist thought-reform prisons,” he said. It was up to parents to “fix this system to get this crap seen and identified for the crime against humanity that it is and pulled out of the schools,” he thundered. “You’re war moms, you got this.” The war moms cheered.

Mom’s for Liberty’s Tiffany Justice is more circumspect than Lindsay (who didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article). Justice told me that she believes social-emotional learning “was perhaps originally intended for good” but has since been weaponized “to drive a wedge between the parents and the child in American schools.” Even that seems like a stretch when you consider the actual history. Contrary to Lindsay’s claims, there is absolutely zero evidence that the ESG goals are part of a grand Marxist scheme. And while Schwab may have praised school-based programs that teach children skills for navigating their feelings, he certainly didn’t create them. Rather, social-emotional learning was developed decades before ESG principles—it came about in the late 1960s at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, out of the work of Dr. James Comer, who studied the emotional lives of students in under-resourced schools. Comer, the Yale School of Medicine’s first-ever tenured Black professor, found that teaching students to build relationships helped them succeed academically and later in life.  Since then, psychologists and educators have built on Comer’s work to create evidence-based lessons tailored to children’s developmental phases. Robust research shows that social-emotional learning programs raise students’ test scores, reduce disciplinary incidents, and encourage civic engagement. 

But do Moms for Liberty even want to raise civically engaged citizens? During the breakout session on social-emotional learning, the presenter seemed to rail against the virtue of altruism. “’Contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities?’” she asked incredulously,  referring to one group’s description of one of the goals of social-emotional learning. “When did that become their responsibility? Did you guys think you were sending your kids to school to be their own best selves and learn skills and knowledge to improve their own lives? Well, suddenly they’re responsible to co-create the school community and the local community.”

As the session wrapped up, a woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation, asking if I would mind sending her the notes I’d been taking. She told me she could see the sense in social-emotional learning for kids whose families weren’t teaching them good values at home, but she saw no reason for her children to discuss systemic racism since her school district was 90 percent white. Furthermore, “My kids don’t see color,” she told me. She had had no idea that her son’s best friends at elementary school were Black until she met them at the end of the year. Her son had never mentioned his friends’ skin color—just their names, which weren’t “typical Black names,” she noted. She shook her head ruefully. She sometimes wondered if our grandparents and great-grandparents had it all figured out, back when school was just about learning to read, write, and do math. She had looked into the local private schools but found the same kind of curriculum there, and she didn’t want to pay $40,000 a year for her children to learn about “transgender stuff.” Gazing into the future, she worried a lot about her White sons’ job prospects—in this climate of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, who would hire them?

The 500 Moms for Liberty who attended the conference represented just .005 percent of the members, many of whom likely signed up after reading about the group online and have never attended a meeting. Moms for Liberty’s social media accounts have healthy followings: 40,000 on Instagram and 54,000 on Facebook, and that doesn’t even count the individual accounts for many of the hundreds of chapters. But most people likely don’t find out about the group through social media. The most typical pathway is via the thousands of small community-based moms’ groups, where parents across the country discuss everything from potty training to puberty. Once these forums used to hew closely to the topic at hand, with parents exchanging car seat recommendations or reviewing local playgrounds. But as I’ve reported, since the beginning of the pandemic, these groups have become crucibles for extreme ideology.

Online wellness influencers began to visit these groups in order to mine followers. Their newly radicalized adherents used the groups to share Covid conspiracy theory videos, alleging that the virus had been planned by the government. As those chaotic first months of the pandemic wore on, anxiety over the virus gave way to anti-vaccine and anti-mask posts, which in turn opened the floodgates for theories that the virus was not the real danger to children—rather, the greatest threats were the pedophiles in thrall to a shadowy group of global elites. This paranoid fantasy, part of the QAnon conspiracy theory, ran rampant in Facebook moms’ groups and certainly found its way into conversations in local communities. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, as protests swept the country, influencers folded the Black Lives Matter movement into their grand narrative, warning that its organizers had hatched a plan in cahoots with the global elites to destabilize the nation with divisive ideas about race. 

Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, the wife of Governor Ron DeSantis, is joined by her five-year-old daughter Madison after a question and answer session during the Moms For Liberty Summit at the Tampa Marriott.

Octavio Jones/Getty

Moms’ groups seemed an odd fit for far-flung QAnon musings about the deep state. But to the people who study the spread of conspiracy theories, it made perfect sense. Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, focuses on the spread of disinformation in online communities of women. It’s not that women are any more credulous than men, she explains. Rather, underlying social structures—those that disproportionately place the burden of childcare on mothers—make women susceptible. Purveyors of disinformation deliberately exploit those vulnerabilities. Women are charged with the unfathomably heavy burden of keeping children safe from all harm—often without paid family leave or affordable childcare. The threat of child abduction and molestation—a central part of many online conspiracies targeting women—leaves many mothers feeling desperate, and others in a low-level state of constant anxiety. This obsessive preoccupation with children’s safety in a world filled with predators can make for fertile ground for the spread of conspiracy thinking. “You’re at a very uncertain period of your life, in a period of incredible uncertainty that we’ve been under, and paired with that, isolation,” says Moran. It’s understandable why women would “go online where it’s all too easy to find not only misinformation but incredible communities that surround that misinformation.” 

Such immersion in online anxiety was an excellent setup for the conference, where the presenters appeared intent on painting a picture of a progressive movement that preys on children. This strategy was on full display during the session on “gender ideology,” during which the speakers used the word “transition” as a transitive verb, referring to teachers who strategize about “how not to tell the parents that they are transitioning their children,” as a session leader said. Along with teachers, she said, school counselors weren’t to be trusted, because “they do interventions, without your knowledge. Your kids could be having targeted intervention.” The same went for school nurses, who, the speaker implied, could even give out hormonal medications to students. (Not true.)

Teachers too were in on the plot. In two different sessions, speakers showed a handout supposedly used in elementary school classrooms, a diagram of a figure labeled with terms like “identity,” “attraction,” and “sex.” (“Is that a piece of candy on his genitals?” a woman next to me hissed, horrified. “Um, I think it’s supposed to be DNA?” I offered. “Like a double helix.”)

The presenters warned parents not to believe trans youth advocates who cite dire statistics about the high rates of suicide among people who suffer from gender dysphoria. “The vast majority [of parents] would never agree except for this emotional blackmail,” one said. Another speaker at the session, a Florida mom named January Littlejohn recounted how she had been appalled to learn that her school district would support her 13-year-old in coming out as gender nonconforming. Littlejohn became convinced that her teen had been swept up in a kind of mass hysteria,” she said. “We tried for many weeks to resolve this issue with the district because I naively thought, if they just know what I know, if they know this is a social contagion, that these girls are falling prey to this ideology, they’ll be just as horrified as I am.” When her attempts failed, she filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, which served as the inspiration for Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. The lawsuit is ongoing, but Littlejohn proudly announced during the session that she had stopped her child from transitioning. “My daughter is living proof,” she said, “that the weaponization of suicide is a lie.”

Her claims missed an important piece of nuance. It’s true that teens who experience gender dysphoria do have a high risk of suicide—about half of trans boys and a third of trans girls reported that they had attempted to end their lives, according to a 2018 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But gender-affirming care can significantly reduce those risks, a 2022 study in JAMA found. Even more divorced from reality is the notion of proselytizing trans advocates who threaten parents with child suicide, an echo of the old myth that queer people seek to “convert” straight people.

Steve Lynch, candidate for Northampton County executive, poses for a photo with supporters at a Moms for Liberty rally at the Pennsylvania state Capitol.

Paul Weaver/Sipa USA/AP

All of this leads to a more fundamental question: Exactly who do Moms for Liberty consider enemies? According to the speakers at the sessions, it’s the “woke left,” the “government bureaucrats,” and sometimes “the socialists.” But once I sat through these sessions, it became clear that their true targets were people who have been marginalized. They refused to entertain the idea that transgender people’s lived experiences might genuinely enhance classroom discussions, or that learning about Black suffering might sharpen a White student’s moral compass. When I suggested to Justice that Moms for Liberty’s ideas might come off as threatening to people from marginalized groups, she accused me of speculating. “There’s no reason to fear anyone at Moms for Liberty, she said. “As I said, we are joyful warriors.”

Back in my hotel room after the gender ideology session, I texted about what I had seen with my oldest friend, the White trans parent of an adopted Black toddler. “I am going to bed because I have a long day of Liberty tomorrow,” I wrote. “Keep me posted,” they responded. “Don’t tell anyone about me or my baby.”

At the cocktail party before the final awards dinner—during which exemplary members would receive prizes named after the country’s Revolutionary War-era “founding mothers”—a woman came up to me and asked if I was a journalist. When I said yes, she smiled and introduced herself—she was a doctoral candidate in gender theory at Ohio State University, working on a dissertation about the privatization of education. We swapped stories about our experiences at the conference. We marveled at the fact that we hadn’t been the pariahs of the conference. On the contrary, at tables in the grand ballroom and during sessions, the attendees we talked to seemed to assume that we shared their beliefs, that we were like them.

And why shouldn’t they? The women at the conference contained multitudes. They were from Florida and Texas, but they were also from Massachusetts and California. They were lifelong Republicans. They considered themselves independents. They never cared much about politics until they began to wake up politically in 2020. They love everything about Trump. They loved some things about Trump but hated some of the excesses. They considered themselves feminists. They couldn’t stand feminists and described them as “shrill.” They were in bright red Talbots dresses with spike heels. They had dyed purple hair and wore T-shirts and jeans. Almost all of them were White, but a few were not. They were mama bears. They were grandma bears. A few were papa bears. They were not all members of Moms for Liberty—yet. I talked to several people at the conference who were there on their own, without their local chapter. Sitting alone at a table in the ballroom, the mother of a preschool-aged child in Florida told me she had come to learn. “I still don’t have kids in school yet,” she said. I’m just trying to get a full picture. It’s hard to know.”

To kick off the awards dinner, Allie Beth Stuckey, a conservative podcast host and influencer with 421,000 Instagram followers, told the crowd about the kind of woman she had in mind when she was writing her podcast script or crafting an Instagram reel. The woman in her mind’s eye, she said, leaned conservative, but didn’t pay much attention to politics, because she assumed that lawmakers’ decisions didn’t have much to do with her own life. “I think about that moment when she wakes up, when the danger shows up at her doorstep, in her child’s classroom, at her local library, her church, her job, her community,” said Stuckey. “Her naiveté then is shattered. And she’s confused. And she’s scared and she’s angry. She wants to know, am I alone? And that’s where we come in.” 

Jeffrey Henig, the Columbia education and politics professor, told me he wasn’t yet sure whether Moms for Liberty’s parental-rights crusade would leave an enduring mark on school curriculum and policies. There was a possibility, he said, that parents would be turned off by these groups’ extremism. The uproar over critical race theory, for example, made a big splash among parents at first. “But I’m not sure that when they actually started looking in their communities that their fears were substantiated,” he said. “What’s gonna happen? My answer is, I don’t know. It seems like a jump ball.”

The Moms for Liberty seemed to know how to whip up their cheering section. After a meal of grilled chicken and steak, plates were cleared, and the awards ceremony began. While we ate white chocolate cake, about a dozen winners were announced. The Mercy Otis Ward Award, for “activating liberty-minded leaders to serve in elected positions,” was given to a New York member. The Sybil Ludington Award, for “understanding the limited role of government,” went to a South Carolina member. By the time the last award was handed out, both Descovich and Justice were teary. “I hope you know that we are on this mission for good,” said Justice. “For good for our children, and the future of this country.”

When the program was over, I took the escalator down to the lobby and left the hotel. In the pressing heat of the July evening, I watched the Metrocon crowd stream by. I saw a girl in an octopus suit and two elaborately outfitted pirates clutching swords, not unlike the one DeSantis had been presented with. I saw Black and Brown and White kids wearing pink wigs and combat boots. Thunder rumbled, and the rain poured down, but the Metrocon kids didn’t seem to notice. They were incandescent. A big group shrieked with laughter as they crossed the street, high on the thrill of trying out being someone else, or maybe just of being in a place where they belonged.

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