Many were surprised and disappointed to see white women support GOP candidate Roy Moore by a margin of 63 to 34 in his losing Senate bid in Alabama — just as many were surprised to see white women support President Trump last year. But they shouldn’t be.
White women’s support for conservative and white supremacist politics is not new. The nation’s white conservative women did not magically rise whole-cloth in 2016 from the politics of white evangelicalism, the New Right, Steve Bannon’s new nationalism or even Trump’s populism. Instead, white women’s embrace of these causes has been an enduring feature of our politics for more than a century.
White women worked hard for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, America First in the 1930s, the anticommunist crusade in the 1950s and the John Birch Society in the 1960s. They created their own organizations as well — the Supreme Court Security League, the Minute Women, Pro-America, Women for Constitutional Government, National Action Group and Restore Our Alienated Rights.
Indeed, in many ways white women have helped shaped conservatism, and repeatedly prioritized racially conservative views over solidarity with other female voters. The shock at white women supporting Trump and Moore fundamentally misunderstands that the female vote has always been deeply divided — a misperception stemming from a focus on politicians and not the political foot soldiers working hard, if often anonymously, to further their pet causes.
The most instructive political ancestors of the conservative white women who voted for Trump and Moore might be the white women who worked to reproduce the Jim Crow order and shape racial segregation in the pre-civil rights South. Female segregationists often embraced conservative and white supremacist politics to ensure that their local communities upheld white over black. These white women were early partisan defectors, pushing fellow white Democrats to oppose the New Deal, embrace the Dixiecrats, vote for Eisenhower and become Goldwater Girls.
In 1924, Georgia’s Mildred Lewis Rutherford disseminated a list of banned phrases to her white readers. Never say “the Civil War,” she instructed, instead always say “the War between the States,” a phrase that advanced a powerful historical narrative that elevated the experience of secessionists and worked to obscure Southern culpability for the war. Mississippi’s Florence Sillers Ogden published a weekly how-to-maintain-white-supremacy column in Mississippi newspapers for over 30 years.
As the civil rights movement gained steam, many white women doubled down in their efforts to inculcate segregationist viewpoints and to protect racially discriminatory practices. They were well positioned to do so. For decades they had policed public school curriculums, petitioned politicians, celebrated white paternalism, shaped public history and drawn the color line in their communities. As they confronted new civil rights activism, they drew on these experiences.
Offering an early version of a trope we heard from conservative women who voted for Donald Trump out of concern about the courts, South Carolina’s Cornelia Dabney Tucker repackaged her fight against Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to expand the Supreme Court after Brown v. Board of Education. Tucker sent thousands of letters condemning the “interventionist” judiciary and encouraging white women to advocate greater state control in the judicial nomination process. She couched the court as an opponent of white women, white mothers and segregationists.
In 1959, Sara McCorkle conducted “Why I Like Segregation” essay contests for every white public-school student in Mississippi, passing on white supremacist politics to the next generation and making sure they outlasted segregation’s legal demise. Responding to the few black students who initially integrated southern schools, women from all walks of life joined the protests. With babies on their hips, white mothers in New Orleans harangued black kindergarten children for nearly a year as they walked up the steps of William Frantz Elementary.
Proclaiming their belief in states’ rights, white women like Tucker and McCorkle found that their opposition to the federal government suited a politics of white supremacy, limited government and an America-first foreign policy. Closer to their homes, it let them choose whom their children learned beside, played with and eventually married.
This activism wasn’t limited to the South. In 1950, white women in Pasadena, Calif., forced the resignation of a school superintendent who had embraced a multicultural curriculum and had called for an end to busing white children to racially homogenous schools; 24 years later in Boston, antibusing activist Elvira “Pixie” Palladino screamed racist epithets outside an elementary school playground. Attesting to the existence of long-standing national networks of female conservatives, these women confirmed something that white southern women had long promised: Ending legal and customary segregation would incite white women across the nation.
Beyond explicit political activism, white women took actions in their everyday lives to protect segregation. Average women — midwives, teachers and social workers — often alerted state officials of the suspect racial identity of babies, students and clients to secure the color line, while local PTAs banned “anti-American” textbooks for advocating racial equality.
Thus, for more than a century before Trump entered the political scene, scores of white women supported a panoply of white supremacist, anti-feminist and undemocratic political movements. Which raises the question: Why are we still surprised when a majority of white women vote for candidates who oppose public education, health-care and reproductive rights and who support sexual harassment, harsh immigration policies, a regressive tax code and a hawkish foreign policy?
In part, because the actions of white men have obscured a fuller narrative of American conservatism and white supremacy. Focusing on the prominent rather than the prosaic has meant that the story of white supremacist politics has followed the public proclamations of the George Wallaces, Ross Barnetts and Lester Maddoxes — all prominent segregationist governors — allowing people to believe that segregation suits the interests of white men more than white women.
Likewise, the complicated story of American conservatism has most often been told in a macho pitch. This tendency has drowned out the persistent voices of white women who worked to make conservatism meet their interests, shaping the conservative movement from the ground up and prodding politicians into action.
A narrow formulation of women’s political identity pushed by suffragists — that women would bring more moral, domestic and maternal concerns into the political arena — has never matched what many white women do or believe. For too long, we have mistakenly accepted this notion and its implication — that white women were of one mind about politics.
Once enfranchised, however, women quickly proved that their political views were far messier and less unified. Many women cast their votes for candidates devoted to creating a racially homogenous nation and ensuring maternal health or global disarmament. Just because they supported the latter two did not mean these women were racial liberals. Their political lives rejected a kind of gender essentialism and so should we.
For decades these segregationist women worked to shore up racial hierarchies, refuting any claim to a consensus on women’s interests. Capitalizing on public welfare policies, public education, electoral politics and popular culture, white women guaranteed that white supremacy would last for another generation. White supremacist politics mattered more to them than peace, political party or gender solidarity.
Their history should lead us to ask different questions today, questions that are not laced with surprise about white women supporting conservatives like Trump or Moore: How do conservative white women understand their political identity? How have they disciplined conservative men and shaped partisan politics? How do they mold conservative political movements to meet their interests? How are white supremacist politics the work of white women?
Those questions lead to very different answers, forcing us to confront the uncomfortable truth that many women vote in ways that some of us imagine are bad for them, their children and women more broadly. They are not a unified bloc that epitomizes liberalism.
The sooner we discard this faulty assumption, the quicker we can better understand our politics and stop being surprised by things that have always been true.