"It Is Time for the Mothers to Take Over": Protofeminist Groups in Massive Resistance

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:30 PM
Gallier Room A (Sheraton New Orleans)
Rebecca Brueckmann, Freie Universitšt Berlin
When the U.S. Supreme Court, deciding Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, declared racial segregation unconstitutional in public education, Southern segregationists formed a resistance movement known as Massive Resistance. Although masculinist rhetoric and the concomitant ideology of Southern Womanhood have encouraged a focus on manhood, segregationist women played an important part in the fight for equality. Traditionally, white women were defined as "gate keepers" of white "purity" and mute icons of the "Southern way of life." However, female segregationists exercised power themselves and played a significant role in the defense of white supremacy. This paper will evaluate the rhetoric, conduct and media representation of segregationist women’s groups during the 1950s and 1960s in terms of women’s emancipation and intersectionality. 

Segregationist women’s groups resorted to different strategies when fighting desegregation. The Mothers' League of Little Rock Central High School, aspiring for middle-class respectability, invoked the idea of whiteness as entitlement and appealed to courts and politicians. However, several members also had political ambitions and ran for city council. Defending their idea of the "American form of government," female activists of the segregationist "Grass Roots League" of Charleston, South Carolina, attracted attention by their letter-writing campaigns and the organization of conservative educational programs for women. In contrast, the "Cheerleaders" who protested the desegregation of William Frantz Public School in New Orleans, Louisiana, staged aggressive, vulgarly racist gatherings, physically attacked "integrationists" and were aware of the appeal of and their impact on a gender-separated idea of public space.

This paper examines women as self-conscious agents in segregationist grassroots organizations and their negotiations of gender, race and class. It analyzes whether their protest can be seen as a form of a white, right wing "proto-feminism," implicitly subverting and/or explicitly challenging patriarchal power structures, and assesses their relationship with the emerging women's liberation movement.

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