While fellow Republicans have tried to paint Greene as an aberration — outside of the mainstream of their party, someone for whom they bear no responsibility — the truth is far blurrier than they are willing to admit. The congresswoman is actually part of a long line of radical far-right White women who have animated American politics dating back to the 19th century. By consequence of their conspiracy theories and extreme rhetoric, they have managed to stretch the margins of what is considered politically respectable. Their politics have also stoked the radical wings of their respective parties (Democrats in the early 20th century; Republicans in the late 20th and early 21st centuries). With her advocacy of violence and condemnation of party leaders and American officials, Greene fits squarely in this inglorious tradition in American politics.
One of Greene’s most prominent foremothers hailed from the outskirts of her 14th congressional district in Cartersville, Ga. Rebecca Latimer Felton was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, albeit only for a day. Felton was a suffragist, proponent of public education, opponent of convict leasing and advocate for working-class White women. But she was also a virulent white supremacist who used rumor and fantasy to support her racist politics.
In 1897, ignoring the structural economic issues plaguing Southern farmers, Felton told a Georgia farm convention that the most significant problem facing farm women was “Black rapists.” She faulted White men for not supporting their wives and leaving them at the mercy of Black men. Her solution: lynching Black men, “a thousand times a week.”
This rhetoric from a prominent political leader helped fuel the one coup in American history. The following year, as White North Carolina Democrats tried to defeat interracial fusionists, Felton’s speech appeared in a White Wilmington newspaper. The editor of a Black newspaper responded by suggesting that interracial relationships actually resulted from White women seeking Black men as romantic partners.
White supremacists used this claim as cause for destroying the newspaper and unleashing the terror that became the Wilmington Massacre. They threatened violence to keep Black Republicans from the polls, elected White Democrats and conducted a successful coup against the democratically elected interracial city government. Killing Black Wilmington residents and running off others, white supremacists took over the city.
The fear Felton had whipped up helped justify this sort of extreme action. And this violent overthrow received the tacit approval of the federal government. Anti-lynching legislation, introduced more than 200 times, failed to pass the Senate for the entire 20th century. The willingness of a political leader like Felton to traffic in such bigoted and false stereotypes also helped produce a culture in which false accusations of rape led to the murder or imprisonment of Black men and boys — a problem that persists to this day. She helped to pull politics in an extreme, racist direction with long-lasting impact.
Felton would not be the last prominent White woman to help inculcate radical ideas on the right. In 1943, Mississippi newspaper publisher Mary Dawson Cain blamed both the wartime resurgence of lynching and the 1943 insurrection in Detroit on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for raising expectations for social equality. Cain trafficked in other conspiracy theories and bigotry, as well, joining in anti-Semitic charges against the Anti-Defamation League, accusing the Supreme Court and Congress of being communists, the United Nations of being Godless and Americans of being duped by humanitarianism.
Far from ostracizing her, this incendiary and at times delusional rhetoric landed Cain at the center of right-wing politics. As president of the Congress of Freedom, she honored, among others, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Democratic Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. Her politics served as a forerunner of the rise of the new right, with everyone from Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) to Goldwater embracing similar rhetoric in the years to come. Within two decades, Goldwater would be the Republican presidential nominee, and future president Ronald Reagan would later receive the award created by Cain.
Fellow Mississippian Florence Sillers Ogden, sister of Mississippi’s speaker of the house, trafficked in similar rhetoric as Cain. She charged that the United Nations Genocide Convention, which condemned mass murder by national governments, would permit the rape of White women by Black men and then prevent their punishment. Ogden’s arguments won over, among others, the Daughters of the American Revolution. In speeches to DAR chapters, Ogden and other radical White women like her claimed that the U.N. meant “[A] Negro, a Chinese, or a member of any racial minority, could insult you or your daughter. Your husband might shoot him …. If so, he could be tried in an international court. It would also make it a crime to prevent racial intermarriage and intermarriage would destroy the White race which has brought Christianity to the world.”
This incendiary rhetoric propelled the Vigilant Women for Bricker movement in the early 1950s. This organization accused internationalist senators of being communists and supported amending the U.S. Constitution to move treaty ratification out of the federal government and into state legislatures. Again, instead of the members of the movement being ostracized, the American Bar Association’s president saw fit to speak to the group, which included Cain and a young Phyllis Schlafly. While the latter did not profess to fear the U.N. because of interracial rape and marriage, she happily forged political alliances with White women who did, taking advantage of their political capital as part of her rise to becoming maybe the most prominent female political activist on the right.
The conspiracy-mongering among radical White women in this era knew no bounds — even fueling claims that 14-year-old Emmett Till’s murder was a hoax created by the NAACP to arouse federal condemnation against Southern segregation.
Such extremism did not damage, let alone doom, the women associated with it. Instead, it helped elevate them to prominence in conservative politics. During the 1960s, radicals like Cain and Ogden shifted to colorblind — yet still white supremacist — rhetoric and formed organizations that pledged to “save the Constitution,” in response to school busing to achieve racial equality. In the 1970s, they extended this argument to the Equal Rights Amendment, ultimately gaining traction among other conservatives. This language portrayed the right as conservers of constitutional government and the left as its destroyers, but it was rooted in the conspiracy theories and bigotry of decades past.
History has forgotten much of this extreme activism, in part because it has been whitewashed, and in part because of a gender bias that shifts political seriousness away from “nutty” (read: not dangerous) White women. Antibusing extremists in Boston leveled death threats at elected officials, destroyed cars of “integrationists,” called in the Ku Klux Klan and stood outside playgrounds yelling racist epithets at young children. And indeed, they recycled Felton’s arguments, expressing fear that their daughters would sit beside Black boys. Yet, history remembers them as antibusing advocates, not white supremacists.
Resurrecting this history and labeling it correctly helps to place Greene in the proper context and exposes the real danger of her ideas. While her colleagues have condemned her rhetoric, history teaches us that they won’t cast Greene out of the Republican Party. Instead, they’ll welcome her supporters, and perhaps repackage her claims in less incendiary terms, making them the new mainstream of conservative politics.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified George Wallace as a Republican. For most of his career, Wallace was a Democrat, though he ran for president in 1968 under the banner of the American Independent Party.