Book Reviews

Women Can Be Racists, Too

The jarring story of the major role played by white supremacist women in the South during the twentieth-century—and beyond.

By Marjorie J. Spruill

Tagged Racism

Mothers Of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy By Elizabeth Gillespie McRae • Oxford University Press • 2018 • 343 pages • $34.95

After the 2016 election, many Americans expressed shock that large numbers of women voted for Donald Trump, a man known for vulgar sexism, anti-feminist positions, and admitted groping. Many experts had therefore predicted women would rally around Clinton in a display of gender solidarity, yet in 2016 she got only 54 percent of women’s vote. And among white women, Trump beat Clinton 53 to 43 percent.

This shouldn’t really have been shocking. Yes, the “woman’s vote” tends to go to the Democrats. But as Republicans hasten to point out, white married women have tended to vote for them instead. These women have been important in Republican politics, and not just as voters. As I argue in my book Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics, in the 1970s, white conservative women played a major role in moving the GOP to the right. After mobilizing to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), they remained active in politics, demonstrating the power of antifeminism to politicize and unite religious conservatives. By the end of 1977, their single-issue campaign against ERA ratification had morphed into a multifaceted “Pro-Family Movement” against “ungodly” feminism supported by the federal government, and intent on “taking back their country” via the Republican Party.

In 1980, conservative white women convinced the Republican Party to abandon its previous support for the ERA, adopt an anti-abortion stance, and become the party of “family values.” They campaigned successfully for Reagan’s nomination and election. In 2016, they campaigned for Trump. Yet white married women who vote Republican are largely invisible in the media, which often speaks of the Republican base as a body of “angry white men.”

Segregationist women planted their ideology in the minds of their children, groomed and nourished it, and protected it from all threats.

Well, it turns out there are angry white women, too. And they were angry and organized long before the battle over the ERA began in the 1970s. They cultivated political skills as major players in the protracted struggle against desegregation and civil rights for African Americans. It is this under-explored and chilling story that Elizabeth Gillespie McRae explores in her book Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy.

McRae describes how white women have played an essential role in the transmission of white supremacist ideas in American culture. Segregationist women not only planted their ideology in the minds of white children, they groomed and nourished it, protecting it from existential threats and against all enemies, making whatever adaptations were necessary for white supremacy to survive to this day. White women were, writes McRae in her introduction, “segregation’s constant gardeners.”

These women have received far less scholarly attention, though, than the white Southern women who supported the civil rights movement or the white men who opposed it. And so McRae’s goal here is to offer a new narrative about massive resistance with white women at the center. This well-researched book is surprisingly timely, helping us to understand not only the election results but also the shocking displays of racism in recent months, beginning with the torchlit parade in Charlottesville last summer.

As McRae reminds us, the term “massive resistance” refers to conservative white Southerners’ defiant response to the 1954 Brown v. Board decision. In a familiar story, white Southern leaders pledged to avoid school integration at all costs. In 1956, 101 members of Congress signed the Southern Manifesto, proclaiming their intent “to resist forced integration by any lawful means.” To justify rejection of federal authority, they dusted off the antebellum precept of “interposition,” which held that state legislatures could intercede between the federal government and the citizens of a state and nullify federal laws considered threats to their constituents. Citizens’ Councils founded by middle-class white professionals, mostly men, spread across the region and, supposedly eschewing the violent methods of the Ku Klux Klan, employed other methods to disarm integrationists and defeat all attempts to promote racial equality. The Mississippi legislature established a well-funded Sovereignty Commission to protect state sovereignty against “federal interference.” Its activities ranged from extensive, secret surveillance of civil rights workers to sponsoring films and speaking series extolling the virtues of segregation. Several other states followed suit. In the 1960s, Southern governors including George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and Ross Barnett, masters of fiery racist oratory, stood in schoolhouse doors and called on states to eliminate public schools rather than integrate them—a drastic and destructive recourse that some states chose to follow.

According to the usual story, massive resistance was short-lived. Faced with the grassroots activism of Southern African Americans supported by the federal government, the reluctance of white moderates to eliminate public schools, economic pressures from concerned white businessmen, and national outrage at violence against civil rights activists, massive resistance crumbled. By the mid-1960s, Southern segregationists had been overcome, and moved to the political margins. So the story goes.

Yet McRae successfully challenges this top-down, male-centered narrative. She points out that “maintaining racial segregation was not solely or even primarily the work of elected officials” and emphasizes the role of white women in shaping and sustaining white supremacist politics. In addition, she challenges the chronology and the geography of the standard narrative, insisting that anti-integration arguments employed in the decade after Brown “had broad and deep roots across the South and the nation” and “did not debut in 1954 as a reactionary response to the Supreme Court’s decision.” She insists that political support for racial segregation was “generations in the making” and that “truncating massive resistance to a decade obscures its political evolution.”

Though much of the book is set in the South, McRae, like other recent scholars such as Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, insists that white supremacy was and is a national, not regional, problem. Though few would contest that point, she offers plenty of evidence to support it, devoting considerable attention to Southern white women’s interaction with women and men outside the region, but also engaged in other conservative crusades.

“Far from being regional retrogrades and outsiders in the nation,” McRae writes, “the South’s female segregationists participated in the same eugenics movement that social workers in southern California did. Protestors against Social Security joined segregationists in Texas with anti-income tax advocates from Massachusetts.” In the 1950s, “coalitions opposing the United Nations welcomed Mississippi’s female segregationists who made political alliances with right-wing West Coast anti-communist organizations. When female segregationists called for limits on the Supreme Court in the aftermath of Brown, they received support from conservative organizations in Chicago and Seattle.” Working through organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the John Birch Society, and inviting non-Southerners into organizations of their own creation, white Southern women were part of a widespread national network of committed segregationists.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, “Massive Support for Racial Segregation, 1920 – 1941,” McRae expands the timeframe for massive resistance to the inter-war years. Here she picks up the baton from Karen L. Cox, whose seminal work, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, describes the role of the UDC in perpetuating white supremacy through monument building and Confederate-style political correctness, focusing on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to McRae, white women—concerned that whites would become complacent and apathetic after the restoration of white political supremacy and the establishment of a thorough Jim Crow system of segregation throughout the region—took “central roles in disciplining their communities according to Jim Crow’s rules and were central to massive resistance to racial equality.” Taking advantage of teaching positions and other new social-work jobs available to middle-class women in state agencies established during the Progressive Era—and of women’s presumed talent for sniffing out “mulattos” or people attempting to pass for white—they reported violations of state “racial integrity” laws.

Motherhood provided both the opportunity and a sacred obligation to uphold racial purity. As McRae puts it, “being a good white mother or a good white woman meant teaching and enforcing racial distance in their homes and in the larger public sphere.” Women, most believed, had a special role in overseeing public education, including making sure that correct versions of history, especially the history of the “War Between the States” and Reconstruction appeared in school textbooks. During these years, there was widespread support for white supremacy. Most of America embraced the Dunning School interpretation of Reconstruction, which painted it as a massive blunder by the federal government that empowered newly freed slaves who were as ignorant and inept as they were corrupt. Many across the nation were willing to accept white Southerners’ contention that blacks needed white supervision and were generally content with Southern race relations.

The book’s second section, “Massive Resistance to the Black Freedom Struggle, 1942-74,” on the other hand, explains how white women continued to defend white supremacy against threats raised by World War II and the civil rights movement. While earlier they had promoted white supremacy “largely unopposed,” counting on national and state-level institutions including the Democratic Party, Congress, laws, and customs “to be at least complicit if not co-workers in their white supremacist project,” World War II proved to be an agent of change, emboldening African Americans and engendering comparisons between fascism abroad and America’s white supremacist practices.

Southern white women, clearly committed to beating back all challenges to white supremacy and segregation, reassured white Southern soldiers fighting abroad that they “would return to a community that they recognized in part because white women had overseen racial segregation’s wartime health.”

A Southern diaspora, magnified by war, gave African Americans more electoral power outside the South, which, together with outrage at vicious attacks on returning black veterans, eventually led some national Democratic leaders—most notably Harry Truman—to defend blacks’ civil rights. Defenders of a segregated South began to feel abandoned and betrayed by the party that had been “one of its most reliable institutional allies.”

Southern white women were especially angry with Eleanor Roosevelt, though, seeing her as the true embodiment of Democratic Party betrayal, as well as a cause of it. They were outraged at her violations of Southern rules of racial etiquette, not only in Washington, but on visits to the South. Rumors spread of non-existent “Eleanor Clubs,” supposedly “secret organizations of black domestic workers who sought to invert the social and economic order by making white women wait on them.” McRae suggests that white Southern women were notably ahead of their male counterparts regarding exodus from the Democratic Party, in part because they had no political careers to protect. White women in Mississippi began to demand a more central role in the state Democratic Party in order to promote anti-Roosevelt positions and elect anti-Roosevelt delegates to the national convention.

After Truman’s President’s Commission on Civil Rights called for federal anti-lynching, anti-poll-tax, and school desegregation legislation, as well as desegregation of the armed forces, they attacked him viciously and began to escalate efforts to bring about party realignment. When Southern Democrats walked out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention, writes McRae, “they finally did what some white Southern women had been advocating,” in other words severing ties with the national party.

McRae’s chapter on the response to Brown focuses on 1954-1957, the years that represented the high-water mark of a vibrant segregationist movement. Women claimed a major role, seeing their children’s schools as extensions of their homes. “For many, segregated schools were necessary to reinforce the lessons taught in white homes about racial distance,” McRae writes. She makes the interesting point that, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “segregation and white supremacist politics had been ushered in with rhetoric about the alleged rape of white women by black men,” but in the 1950s, “many white southern women protesting desegregation worked as if interracial marriage was a more likely threat….worrying about consensual sex and romantic attraction” if the races mingled. The segregationists also argued that the academic preparation of their children would suffer in integrated schools and they would lose their ability to control the version of history that was taught.

While the Citizens’ Councils were at first limited to men, women played an important role in urging men to join them, and as the organizations spread across the region, white women soon joined. According to McRae, they also did much of the grassroots work; they were, in other words, the “mass in massive resistance.”

They formed their own organizations, often joining forces with mainstream organizations whose Southern chapters came out against school integration. White segregationist women also worked hard to defeat moderates and elect more dedicated segregationists willing to take increasingly defiant positions. Many lent the power of their pens—or their presses—to the cause. Far more participated in petition drives.

The most visible, indeed notorious, women in massive resistance campaigns were working-class women who, in the full glare of national publicity, harassed black children trying to enter previously all white schools. Lacking the political clout of middle-class women, they felt powerless to protect their children in other ways, says McRae. They also mobilized their children to bully would-be classmates who were black, or those white children who tried to support them. Through their protests, they taught their own children that “preserving whiteness and racial segregation mattered more than a high school diploma, a college scholarship, or even Friday night football,” writes McRae. A major goal of white segregationist women was to teach their children to become the future champions of white supremacy.

McRae emphasizes that, as overtly racist tactics failed, segregationist women learned to adopt a more subtle approach, widening their appeal and making their message more palatable by rendering it more “color blind.” Increasingly, McRae’s segregationist women described themselves as champions of states’ rights and federalism, and the real defenders of the Constitution.

After James Meredith’s enrollment, one Southern women’s group backed “free enterprise, the Christian faith, and racial self-respect.”

A prime example of this was an organization founded in Mississippi. It came right on the heels of African-American student James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi, which took place despite mob violence and with the aid of federal marshals. Between 1,500 and 1,800 women from eight states created this new organization, Women for Constitutional Government (WCG), to protest this “federal invasion” and the supposed endangerment of the children of the state. Rather than taking to the streets or announcing their devotion to segregation, they pledged to work for “free enterprise, the Christian faith, racial self-respect, and national sovereignty.” Their speeches emphasized that “this is not an organization on racial issues”—a statement clearly nullified by their stated goals and the circumstances leading to the WCG’s creation.

McRae insists that, as these and other segregationist women revised their language and approach, they paved the way for the growth of the New Right. This is a convincing argument. Many scholars have noted this decision to turn away from overtly racist language to “coded language,” which was more acceptable to moderates and to supporters outside the region, and often embraced by disgruntled white Democrats turned Republicans. In my own research, I found that many of the women who worked with leading conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in establishing state chapters of “Stop ERA” in 1972 were also leading members of Women for Constitutional Government.

The book concludes with a chapter on “The New National Face of Segregation,” which focuses on the campaigns of the 1970s opposing court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance. A major focus is the Boston women’s campaign against busing in 1974. As some Southern segregationist women had predicted, notes McRae, when integration came to the North in the form of court-ordered busing, this de facto segregation came to be as bitterly contested as the Southern de jure version; white women facing this “threat” to their children would react much like they had in the South.

And so, like latter-day segregationists in Southern cities who fought to stop busing, they adamantly denied racist motives. Instead, they framed their protest “under the larger umbrella of parental authority, conservative integrity, limited government, national sovereignty, or school choice,” though unofficial statements warning against interracial marriage and attacks on buses carrying black children suggested otherwise.

White women, segregationist and conservative in the South, the North, and the West, McRae concluded, “practiced similar politics, invoked similar white supremacist tropes, capitalized on their identities as mothers, and tied themselves to a broader conservative political language.” What this tells us, she concludes, “is that a political ideology that was ostensibly race neutral by the 1970s must be understood against a history that reached well back into the 1920s and in conjunction with political involvement that was rarely race neutral.”

In the face of legislative defeat, these women, McRae insists, “continued to craft a broader politics of white supremacy.” As a result, the “deep roots they had long nurtured continued to bear this particularly enduring and familiar fruit.”

Familiar indeed. Although in 2017, as Americans watched protestors parading through American cities chanting racist slogans and carrying Confederate battle flags, coded language suddenly seems quaint, a thing of the past. Our President, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis alike, defends these mobs as including some “fine people.” Segregation’s constant gardeners—at least those who have passed to the other side—must be cheering from the grave. d

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Marjorie J. Spruill is a historian and Distinguished Professor Emerita from the University of South Carolina. She is the author of Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics.

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