“Little old ladies in tennis shoes” is a derisive reference to members of the John Birch society.
In 1961, the California Attorney General’s offices investigated the ultra-conservative John Birch society and determined that the group was paranoid and authoritarian but, ultimately, not dangerous to American society. The report called the Birch society “pathetic” and described its members as being chiefly governed by fear:
The cadre of the John Birch society seems to be formed primarily of wealthy businessmen, retired military officers and little old ladies in tennis shoes. They are bound together by an obsessive fear of ‘communism,’ a word which they define to include any ideal differing from their own, even though these ideas may differ even more markedly with the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Khrushchev. In response to this fear they are willing to give up a large measure of the freedoms guaranteed them by the United States constitution in favor of accepting the dictates of their “Founder.” They seek, by fair means or foul, to force the rest of us to follow their example. They are pathetic.
In fact, by the early 1960s the Birch Society had a membership of at least 100,000 Americans with an annual budget of several millions of dollars. The group was well-known enough that Bob Dylan wrote a song about it, “John Birch Paranoid Blues.” The organization was founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, a retired candy maker from Boston. Welch wanted the group to fight back against what he saw as the Communist threat to infiltrate American society. He named the group after John Birch, a missionary who was killed while living in China; Welch saw Birch as the first American casualty of global communism.
The Birch Society says that its mission is to “bring about less government, more responsibility, and – with God’s help – a better world by providing leadership, education, and organized volunteer action in accordance with moral and Constitutional principles.” The group opposes US membership in the United Nations and is strongly opposed to the Federal Reserve; the Birch Society also opposes illegal immigration and amnesty programs.
Membership in the Birch Society declined after its heyday in the 1960s; however, some reports say that the group has been on the rise in recent years. In 2017, a Birch Society spokesperson also told Politico that the organization was seeing its membership rise, although he declined to give specific figures. “There definitely is an increase in [our] activity, particularly in Texas, because Americans are seeking answers, but they can’t quite put their finger on what some of the real problems are,” the spokesperson said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which described the organization’s members as “conspiracy theory-loving, U.N.-hating, federal government-despising, Ron Paul-supporting, environmentalist-bashing, Glenn Beck-watching true believers,” also said that some “Bircher” ideas had made it into mainstream Republican thought. The SPLC, citing a long-time researcher named Chip Barlet, argued that those ideas include
the belief that big government leads to collectivism which leads to tyranny; that liberal elites are treacherous; that the U.S. has become a nation of producers versus parasites; that the U.S. is losing its sovereignty to global treaties; that the “New World Order” is an actual plan by secret elites promoting globalization; and that multiculturalism is a conspiracy of “cultural Marxism.”