When did coalitional organizing between feminists and conservative women become impossible?

I’m not sure, but as a feminist there is one place and time that I remember vividly: Indianapolis in the spring of 1984. There, led by Mayor William Hudnut, III Republican politician Beulah Coughenour and local movement conservatives, that city became one of the few municipalities where the model anti-pornography civil rights ordinance written by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin was passed. Hudnut signed the bill on May 2 1984, and almost immediately found himself in court. The law did not survive scrutiny by the Supreme Court of the United States; even worse, in the two-year fight to sustain the ordinance and pass it in other cities, radical feminist anti-pornography activists like MacKinnon and Dworkin found themselves characterized by other feminists as censors, “anti-sex,” and – the worst slur of all on the age of Reagan – conservatives.

The similarities between the two movements – feminist antipornography campaigns, and the far longer history conservative campaigns against pornography and sexual freedom – have seemed too perfect to resist. In fact, a very few feminist anti-pornography activists actually did become conservatives, although MacKinnon and Dworkin were not among them. Laura Lederer, a founding member of San Francisco’s Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) joined George W. Bush’s State Department as an expert on the international trafficking of women and children and was born again during her term there.

Yet, this is dead wrong. As my research and conversations with former activists have revealed, at a moment of increasing polarization between left and right, radical anti-pornography feminists believed they could find common ground, and partner successfully, with conservative religious and political stakeholders in Indianapolis, creating a newly diverse women’s movement that included, not just conservatives, but the poor, people of color, Christians and men – to name a few.

But what was the incentive for Indianapolis conservatives to partner with feminists, who they had successfully defeated in the fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment less than five years earlier. I propose that in 1984, for mayor William Hudnut and the ambitious new city councilwoman Beulah Coughenour, it was not primarily family values, but an economic and urban development agenda they had already embarked on. Indianapolis had been hit hard by de-industrialization in the 1970s, and its sluggish economy had not been improved by Ronald Reagan’s economic policies. Like many cities, when legitimate businesses had moved out of working class neighborhoods over the past decade, the porn industry had moved in.

Coughenour, a doctor’s wife and a mother who had leveraged her leadership of Indiana STOP ERA to run for City Council, was an urban renewal activist, spearheading major infrastructure projects to jump start the re-development of Indianapolis’s urban core and its residential neighborhoods. For Hudnut, who had declared Indianapolis an “All-American City,” the suppression of smut was also consistent with a boosterish, pro-development agenda. This included building a large, new football stadium to attract an NFL franchise. Indeed, a month before Hudnut signed the anti-pornography ordinance, the Baltimore Colts loaded their belongings into a convoy of trucks in the middle of the night and moved into that stadium.

What is difficult to grasp in an era in which political polarization has become the norm is that, a little more than three decades ago, two groups that wanted the same thing could work together without accepting the other’s ideology. And while the goal was the same, the rationales for suppressing pornography in Indianapolis were starkly different. Anti-pornography radical feminists viewed the porn industry as the architect of a matrix of violence, one that served as a barrier to women’s freedom and equality as public citizens. Conservatives, however, viewed pornography as a dangerous realm of free sexual choice for both men and women that endangered heteronormative family formation and the safety of the private sphere. And city boosters, regardless of their politics, saw porn as a form of urban blight.

Working class people, who often saw grocery and hardware stores replaced by peep shows and adult bookstores as their neighborhoods deteriorated, were also often not interested in the civil liberties and intellectual freedom of porn customers. Working class women were also more likely to feel the negative effects of porn. MacKinnon’s Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1979), a pioneering study that made her a rising star as a legal and a feminist scholar, may have even given her credibility among Indianapolis’s white working-class women. By 1980, numerous lawsuits and federal studies had demonstrated that displaying porn, male fondling women workers, jokes about sexuality, and insisting on the exchange of sex for professional advancement, were significant barriers to workplace equity. MacKinnon’s work on behalf of Linda Boreman, of Deep Throat fame, also demonstrated that porn sets were workplaces too, where women were also subject to coercion and criminal violence.

In fact, protecting the integrity of working class neighborhoods was part of the model ordinance’s origin story. Written for the Minneapolis City Council in the fall of 1983 when Dworkin, a visiting scholar in women’s studies at the University of Minnesota, was co-teaching a course with MacKinnon, the ordinance was conceived as an alternative to zoning. An interracial progressive community group, Neighborhood Pornography Task Force, was opposing a re-zoning that would shift the city’s sexual commerce out of a neighborhood being gentrified by whites and into nearby poor, working-class, and black neighborhoods. To the surprise of many who were present that evening, MacKinnon and Dworkin explained that zoning was not a strategy that would ultimately contain pornography. In fact, zoning, historian Pamela Butler has written, accepted “the notion that pornography must exist somewhere, and that the role of public policy is simply to keep it in its proper, nonresidential place.” (2010) That “nonresidential place” was often a working class and/or people of color community.

In Minneapolis, where the ordinance was passed by the city council but vetoed by the mayor, MacKinnon and Dworkin learned that community activism was not enough to defeat a well-financed pornography industry. Hudnut’s reassurance that he would sign the bill if it was passed — not Indianapolis’s broad conservative base — was why that city became the next stop for their campaign. But because it was overturned, and never enforced prior to Supreme Court review, we will never really know whether, as its opponents asserted, the ordinance would have fueled a return to conservative anti-smut campaigns; or created the “chilling effect” that American Booksellers v. Hudnut asserted would have caused bookstores to purge themselves of any materials that might have made them vulnerable to a civil suit.

What we do know is that the attacks on the ordinance outside the courtroom were an object lesson for any feminists who might have imagined partnering with conservatives in the future. MacKinnon and Dworkin were smeared as conservatives. Major news outlets also promoted criticisms of them, some promoted by the pornography industry and some be their feminist opposition, as facts. An Associated Press story (May 2 1984) explained that the ordinance “authorizes women offended by violent pornography to file complaints with the city’s Equal Opportunity Office,” (emphasis is mine) when in fact it permitted civil litigation against pornographers by people of all genders and sexualities who could prove that their human rights had been violated in the making or forced exposure to pornography.

Similarly, after the Supreme Court affirmed the decision made in the Seventh Circuit that the ordinance was unconstitutional, The New York Times proposed that feminists had “joined with conservatives and others in seeking to pass similar laws elsewhere, including Minneapolis, Cambridge, Mass., and Suffolk County, L.I.” (February 25 1986.) Actually, in every city where the ordinance had been introduced, Republicans had joined with Democrats to support the bill. But only in Indianapolis and Suffolk County, Long Island were movement conservatives crucial to the ordinance campaign, and the version that was proposed in Suffolk County was so different from the model ordinance written by MacKinnon and Dworkin that neither supported it.

What is most remarkable is that, by 1986, the idea that conservatives and liberals could have any common ground or cooperate had evaporated completely, making it impossible for feminists to work in ideologically diverse communities of women without risking the hostility and derision that were aimed at Dworkin and MacKinnon. Yet MacKinnon, at least, had originally imagined the opposite possibility. In an unpublished interview with University of Minnesota women’s studies colleague Susan Geiger done just prior to the Indianapolis campaign, MacKinnon speculated that anti-pornography politics had the potential to produce the diverse coalitions of which feminists had dreamed in the 1960s, building a bridge to conservatives that could bring them back to feminism and push back against an increasingly polarized political culture. But she also understood the risks “We may see women of the right speaking against pornography,” hoping to see “the mobilization of some of them in favor of this ordinance, although we haven’t seen it in Minneapolis so far. People will then say this is just a right-wing plot or an idea.” As she pointed out, the multi-racial, left-liberal, gay-straight coalition that had formed in Minneapolis had not persuaded ordinance critics that it was a progressive initiative; nor had it drawn conservatives into the fight.

Yet, she hoped that conservatives would join the campaign in Minneapolis – as women, and supporters of women. “If pornography affects all women the way our analysis says it does,” she argued, “women regardless of political tendencies may see that, which would then include women of the right. This hasn’t happened here, but it may happen yet. This may represent the beginnings of a real change in the way women see themselves and organize as women.” MacKinnon was “willing to work with anyone who sees the issue this way. Anyone who wants to occupy the ground that has been staked out is welcome to do so. I say that knowing that this has a real potential for backfiring politically.” But she also thought the campaign might have the power to transform values traditionally held by the right as well. “I don’t think someone can agree with the fundamental analysis of pornography we have here and still hold to fundamentally anti-women views in other areas. So, I think it has the potential for basic change.”*

But that wasn’t how it worked out. Almost 35 years later, it is almost inconceivable to many activists, progressive or conservative, that they could have anything in common with each other. However, a conversation I had a few months ago with a libertarian who is running a death penalty abolition project, revealed that on the local level, he actually does partner with his counterparts on the left. But when I mentioned that publicizing such alliances could be powerful at such a polarized moment, he shifted uncomfortably, “We don’t really like to talk about it,” he said. I received similar responses from conservative activists working on behalf of marijuana legalization, and another who is working to end the militarization of the police. Activists on the left are probably just as reluctant to face the consequences of going public about alliances with the right.

When did coalitional organizing with conservatives become impossible? Perhaps it isn’t. But since it’s far too dangerous to talk about it, it might as well be.

Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.

*This excerpt is from folder 8, box 100, the Andrea Dworkin Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.