This essay was originally published on July 31 2019.
I recently got asked to sign a public letter in which I was supposed to pledge “as a white woman” that now that I had watched Ava DuVernay’s film series “When They See Us,” I would object to Linda Fairstein (who oversaw the prosecution of the Central Park Five as head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office) and show other white women that they should be against racism. All of which is fine, on some level, except that I thought we already had a deep and important feminist movement against racist policing, arrests, and prosecutions called Black Lives Matter, and have taught about the racist uses of rape stories in my university courses for twenty years. I knew Linda Fairstein was ambitious, racist, and unconcerned with the truth and what she was doing to Black children’s lives when I saw the headlines about the prosecution in 1989 — and went to demonstrations to say so. So, despite my deep respect for the work of Ava DuVernay, why now, and why “as a white woman”?
Mostly, the letter made me squirm because I’m not sure that the exhortations for those of us who are demographically white women to “get our people” makes any kind of political sense. In fact, I think it makes right-wing white women out to be more politically naïve than they are, and converting them, much easier than it is. The Linda Fairsteins of the world should scare the hell out of us. We need a deep-rooted movement that can think clearly about the investments of the Fairsteins and Sarah Palins of our political landscape, much as Steve Bannon did from the right when he directed Fire from the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman. In the 1980s, we were enraged at the “family values” crowd. This was what gave such energy and clarity to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — it belonged to a political movement that thought of right-wing women as dangerous, not just misguided. It’s time we did again.
Katha Pollit pointed out the absurdity of this kind of thinking in a wickedly funny column a while back, saying that right-wing women don’t want to be slutty baby-killers like me any more than I want to be the obedient wife of a porn-addicted Christian bully like them. Or, more personally and more queerly, I would say that these are the same women who are throwing me out of public bathrooms because I’m too butch (I don’t believe for a second that they really think I’m a man. I think they are picking up on a right-wing discourse about masculine-of-center women as dangerous). We can’t even agree that we have a common gender (probably because we don’t), never mind come to some common belief about where our interests as white women lie. They don’t need me explain to them why voting against the Republicans is in their best interest, any more than Offred is going to change Aunt Lydia’s mind.
Misty-eyed pronouncements about how we can change the hearts and minds of Republican-voting white women fail to take the state of conservative America seriously, especially its female members. It’s also dangerous, because it lets us ignore the rising influence of right-wing women. It’s a kind of piety, not politics, full of the thrill of a deeply personalized anti-racism, the pretense of having said something difficult and powerful. But the command to “get [our] people” utterly ignores the hard organizing work it’s going to take to stop Trumpism, racism, and anti-feminism, reducing it to a few words at family reunions.
It is also a category mistake. It confuses our exhortations to each other within feminism that anti-racism is white women’s work with a project beyond the feminist movement. It’s critical to be aware of how much racism and what we call sexism — and those on the right call traditional values — are key to how white women were recruited as a core Republican constituency. Racism and anti-feminism are exactly what brought them into the fold.
As Marjorie Spruill has pointed out, in the 1970s, the Republican Party made a bid to include feminists and feminism under its umbrella, but then rejected it. Richard Nixon promised universal daycare and was stopped by conservative activists — mostly women, who called it “socializing children.” For a minute in the seventies, there was bipartisan support for the Equal Rights Amendment. President Gerald Ford appointed a presidential commission to design an agenda for women’s equality. Republicans in Congress supported funding for International Women’s Year meetings to be held in every state, to elect delegates and design resolutions for an International Women’s Year convention in Houston in 1977. First lady Betty Ford and dozens of prominent Republican women activists spoke from the stage.
This gambit failed because Phyllis Schlafly and others like her organized to make the Republican Party hostile to feminists and anti-racists. Schlafly was a right-wing activist who originally made her mark by arguing that the Republican Party had become too liberal — singling out those like (General) Dwight Eisenhower. Next, she went after supporters of feminism, building a national anti-feminist women’s movement dedicated to the “traditional” family. She organized a counter-conference to Houston, and her work is credited with stopping the passage of the constitutional Equal Rights Amendment. She also gave us the fear-mongering argument that continues to haunt queer and trans folk: that the ERA would put men in women’s bathrooms, where they would rape and terrorize women. Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, together with the Mormons, conservatives within the Catholic Church, and an Evangelical Christian right-wing that was just beginning to find its feet in the late 1970s, welded together “family values” with support for racism and militarism.
Today’s increasingly right-wing Republican Party is exactly what Phyllis Schlafly and other right-wing women wanted. White women are not accidentally members of its coalition; the anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-trans, racist, “pro-family” politics around which they have formed their core identities as female Evangelicals or Conservative women are key to it.
While we’re deluding ourselves that these are “our people,” the right-wing women’s movement is closer to power than it has ever been before. Increasing numbers of them are working at cabinet-level agencies, working to promote the idea that women mostly lie about rape, that sex is binary so trans people don’t exist, that birth control doesn’t work, sex education should be abstinence-only and abortion is murdering a person (so women should have no right to decide when or if to become parents).
We need to stop worrying about converting them and get about the serious work of organizing to oppose the right-wing women’s movement. These are not our people. They stand against everything we are for.
Laura Briggs is Professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and US Imperialism in Puerto Rico (2002), Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption(2012) on how mothers of color lose their children to the state. Most recently, she wrote How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump (2016).