Weekend Reader: ‘Mothers Of Conservatism: Women And The Postwar Right’
Today the Weekend Reader brings you Mothers Of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right by Loyola University assistant professor of history, Michelle M. Nickerson. Nickerson unveils a unique history of the grassroots conservative political movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Historians often credit men with the success of the conservative uprising during the height of the John Birch Society, but as Nickerson points out, it was women who led this initiative. Women were not merely domestic housewives, they were passionate and deeply involved in evolving the political landscape. They were arranging the meetings and rallying each other around traditional, anticommunist, and small government conservative principles.
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Incubated not only by the political and economic conditions of the postwar era, conservative female activism thrived in a flurry of organizational enthusiasm that gripped American women across the political spectrum over the 1950s. Legions of doers and joiners adapted political culture from the patterns of their everyday lives—their routines, priorities, itineraries, and living arrangements. If it was 1955 and you were walking a dog on the freshly dried pavement of a new San Fernando Valley neighborhood, you might pass women in automobiles on their way to meetings. Suburban communities of the post-war era bustled with volunteerism. Civic groups discussed strategies for getting sidewalks built in their neighborhood; junior leagues installed officers; and Democratic women’s clubs hosted meet-the-candidate coffees. As the County of Los Angeles sprawled steadily outward with families taking advantage of the economic boom, interest in community building bred zeal for meetings, including political meetings. Men liked to participate, but the metropolis teemed with volunteer activity because middle-class women had the flexible hours, mandate, and fervor to coordinate such gatherings. Indeed, a growing body of literature about women involved in peace, labor, and other progressive movements significantly undermines the typical periodization of feminist history that marks the 1950s as a political “doldrums” for female activism. Women on the right, similarly possessed of organizations skills, time, and political urgency, shaped conservatism from the grassroots upward.
Men participated in many of these activities, but grassroots political culture in the 1950s conformed to the women’s lives. Some female activists congregated at the Immaculate Conception Hall of the Los Angeles Archdiocese for the midday meetings of the American Public Relations Forum, where they discussed the evils of progressive education as well as communist uprisings in Africa. One evening a month, many drove into the Wilshire District downtown with their husbands to the monthly Freedom Club meetings at the First Congregational Church. As conservative magazines, books, and speaking events proliferated in the mid-1950s, the ranks of conservative female activists grew. While ink dried on the first issues of the National Review, mimeograph machines across Los Angeles County spat out newsletters, many of them composed and printed by teams of housewives. When not clipping newspapers or poring over the political literature stacked on their credenzas, women attended lectures or gave their own prepared talks to audiences. They squeezed meetings, study, writing, and printing into daytime and nighttime hours between trips to the grocery store, meal preparation, and help with homework. Conservative women approached political work like other forms of civic work—as an extension of their household duties that fulfilled feminine responsibilities to the family and community.
Many activists developed their earliest feelings of political community and identity in Republican women’s clubs. Since the 1920s, the GOP had been recruiting female voters to the party by appealing to popular beliefs about the inherent differences between men and women—an approach described by historians as the “politics of difference.” After the female suffrage amendment passed in 1920, party leaders fashioned what historian Catherine Rymph describes as an “outsider” political style that emphasized women’s moral superiority. Officers framed involvement with the Republican Party in moralistic terms and conducted party work in settings familiar to women—homes, churches, and libraries. GOP women’s clubs thus functioned as a feminine outlet to the traditionally masculine world of partisan politics. Democratic women’s clubs offered the same menu of activities and relied on the similar politics of difference, but did not adhere to sex-segregated institutions in the party nearly as long. By the 1950s, women Democrats were pushing more vehemently than their Republican cohorts for integration into the party’s male-dominated power structure. The model Republican woman nevertheless changed over time. Still distinguished by her virtuous motivations, club rhetoric of the post-World War II era shifted focus to emphasize women’s influence in the community. Republican women’s club literature stressed the importance of the warmth, sparkling personality, and overall positive attitude that it believed women could contribute to politics.
Reflecting the broader culture’s celebration of domesticity, Republican clubwomen discourse of the 1950s and early 1960s also celebrated the American housewife. Literature, rituals, and speeches exhibited an optimistic view of how the nation’s wives and mothers could harness their compassion, warmth, and femininity for the good of the party. The so-called “natural” political virtues of women, like moral superiority and mothering instincts, still found their way into the rhetoric of Republican leaders, yet its emphasis shifted to other attributes, namely feminine cheeriness and hospitality. “Organize your enthusiasm,” commanded the president of the National Federation of Republican Women, “if you want to elect the nominee of the Republican national convention….” Catherine Gibson assumed the office in the late fifties, stressing “neighbor-to-neighbor contacts.” Club leaders added new symbols to their campaign slogans, like the Republican “saleswomen,” which invoked both of the growing importance of women to the retail industry as well as traits assumed to be intrinsically feminine, namely good manners and friendliness. Events designed for fun and sociability—teas, bridge games, fashion shows, and garden parties—became especially popular in this period. Club leaders extolled graciousness and affability as natural female qualities that could be marshaled for the benefit of the party.
Though the ideal American housewife, so ubiquitous in Republican clubwomen rhetoric of the 1950s, ventured forth as a social and charitable community-builder, she also remained symbolically and spatially linked to the home. Activists opted increasingly to utilize their Formica kitchen tables, polyester living-room sectionals, and outdoor patio furniture for organizing-entertaining. These domestic settings provided a warm and nonintimidating atmosphere meant to promote the overlapping goals of political discussion and sociability. The National Federation of Republican Women encouraged women to use their homes through a variety of campaigns, including “Operation Coffee Cup.” Launched during the 1956 Presidential campaign, the television broadcast presented Eisenhower and Nixon in conversation with different women’s groups. The NFRW encouraged club leaders to watch alongside women guests to initiate discussion. Indeed, study groups thrived in the home-centered atmosphere of postwar Republican women’s clubs, especially as leaders took greater interest in promoting community relations skills among volunteers. One Republican women’s study group that met near the San Fernando Valley house of Jean Ward Fuller, who became president of the California Federation of Republican Women, proved formative to her political career. “We’d have a little circle meeting in a home,” she remembered, “and anybody was welcome to come.” Fuller’s own success in the federation can be attributed, in part, to how she made use of her own house. Her spacious abode, with housekeeper, in Encino helped to accommodate the sizeable number of clubwomen who hauled their bridge tables over to do mailings for political candidates. Her group claimed Fuller, could turn out 60,000 pieces of mail within three days. “Everybody would bring their sandwiches,” she recalled later, “and I’d have coffee for them and everybody would just work like beavers.”
Southern California became a hub of Republican clubwomen activism in the 1950s. Indeed, GOP women’s clubs in California experienced their highest rate of growth in these years. In 1949, at 12,000, the California Federation of Republican Women became the sixth largest state federation in the nation, and by 1957 its ranks had swelled to 50,000 women. The Southern Division, always the strongest, included 123 clubs, more than the Central and Northern divisions combined. By 1958 the Los Angeles County Federation alone counted 74 different clubs. The San Fernando Valley, Glendale, San Marino, and Long Beach clubs represented its largest units.29 And in 1958 the National Federation of Republican Women boasted half a million members, while the Democratic National Committee counted only 100,000 women in female clubs.
While the Republican women’s clubs that met throughout Southern California’s valleys politicized women, the Freedom Club, located in downtown Los Angeles, further encouraged militancy on the right. James Fifield’s Freedom Club became a gathering place for conservatives, where like-minded suburbanites connected with each other as they eagerly imbibed the orations of speakers they admired. Established in 1950, the monthly series offered dinner, lectures, and discussion. With their hands busy with plates of jellied cranberry salad or turkey with gravy, participants listened and chatted about the evils of the income tax or mental health legislation. While Fifield’s Spiritual Mobilization politicized clergymen, his Freedom Club politicized activists, especially female activists. Fifield attracted women to his ministry by appealing to both their sense of patriotism and their piety. Reared in a preacher’s family, he acted on his familiarity with the ways that churches had historically relied on women to show spiritual devotion, inculcate religious values in children, and arrange church functions. Forceful women speakers like activist Phyllis Schlafly and foreign correspondent Freda Utley inspired housewives in the audience to shake off their timidity and push the boundaries of politeness on behalf of their families and the nation.
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Excerpted from Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right by Michelle M. Nickerson. © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
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