Mothers of Conservatism

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Michelle M. Nickerson. Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. xxvi + 231 pp. ISBN 9780691121840 (hdbk)

Contents

Summary

Nickerson examines white women’s involvement in anticommunist and other conservative actions in and around Los Angeles, California, in the 1950s. She argues that conservative women built on “cultural assumptions about female intuition” and existing constructions of motherhood and femininity to justify their involvement in political causes, creating a form of political engagement she terms “housewife populism”.(xiii, 2) These women presented themselves as a marginalized population, engaged in a battle against the state to protect the domestic life of the average American family.

Nickerson begins by establishing the pre-war history of conservative women’s activism, noting in particular the ways in which the suffrage movement and progressive reform contributed to and served as a foil for conservative women. She then brings her focus in to the greater Los Angeles area, examining the ways in which women mobilized for local issues, building political activism onto existing patterns of civic volunteerism. In particular, conservative women were active anticommunists, believing their status as housewives gave them an advantage at spotting subversive behavior.

Schools and education were a particular point of activism for conservative women, falling under their sphere of influence as mothers and as communist spotters. Nickerson looks at the school conflict in Pasadena but also addresses the ways in which new theories of psychology and education criticized the behavior of mothers and threatened, at least in conservative eyes, the sanctity of the home and the authority of parents. Conservative suspicion of psychology was roused by the fact that it pathologized hyper-patriotic and racist behaviors.(102)

By the end of the 1950s, women’s essential role in the conservative movement was confirmed. They continued to justify their presence, and be justified by men, through the argument that their gender conferred on them insight, sensitivity, and innate moral sense. Nickerson closes by considering the ways in which conservative women have been left out of historical analyses of the 20th century, and how the legacy of localistic, “folksy” female conservatism has continued into the 21st century.

Commentary

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

While Nickerson's work considers roughly the same geographic area as McGirr's Suburban Warriors, the difference not only in temporal focus (1950s vs. 1960s) but the former's use of gender as a key lens for analysis allows the books to complement each other. Where they do overlap, they build on one another rather than proving redundant.

Nickerson's examination of the conservative reaction to mental health and psychology adds a new layer to their battles over education in the 1950s. I found the chapters which deal with these issues particularly engaging because of historical tendencies to characterize outspoke women as hysterical or otherwise mentally unsound, and because psychological practice in the 1950s was not without its faults. Although conservatives apparently glossed over it in their attacks on the profession, psychiatrists at midcentury engaged in a Freudian mother-blaming to explain many social ills and mental defects.(111-112) Conservatives, particularly conservative women, were being scrutinized and pathologized by psychiatrists; while their reactions may have been disproportionate to the actual threat, Nickerson makes them more human, if not sympathetic, by discussing this conflict.

I appreciated the very critical way Nickerson used the interviews and oral histories, accounting in the text (not a footnote) for the ways in which memory and the circumstances of the interview influenced the responses of the conservative women she worked with. She was particularly successful at drawing out implications not only from what was said but what was not said, for example noting how Florence Ranuzzis downplayed her own importance, even years later, "implying that the spotlight would un-woman her."(144)

Beth Garcia, Spring 2014

In Mothers of Conservatism, Nickerson focuses on the political activities of Southern Californian housewives in the postwar years, arguing that their activism- particularly their anticommunist protests- contributed to a larger movement and “represented conservatism in formation” (xxii). Emphasizing their roles as protectors of family and community, these housewives worked to mobilize communities, and particularly other women, against “progressive” education, federally-sponsored mental health institutions and other intrusions of state.

The text’s jacket describes Mothers of Conservatism as “a unique history of the American conservative movement.” Indeed, Nickerson does tell a unique story of housewife populism. The housewife activist, though herself college-educated and newly transplanted to southern California, frequently depicted intellectual elites and the federal government as “outsiders” trying to impose liberal policies (read communist) on local communities as well as families. These female activists exploited their roles as mothers and as housewives to claim an insider status that made them best fit to determine what was best for their families and their neighborhoods. One of the most unique histories that Nickerson tells is included in her chapter “Siberia, U.S.A.” where she explores the political backlash against proposed mental health legislation. Conservative female activists published articles and petitioned the government to veto a bill that would grant health professionals exclusive authority to make mental health determinations. These women (and men, including recognized health care professionals) believed that this authority would enable and encourage mental health professionals to commit men and women based on political activities and affiliations. Eventually, the legislation would pass despite this opposition but, as Nickerson argues, “The lasting impact of the California housewife activists is to be found not in immediate legislative victories, but in how their critiques of psychological and government intervention into the sacred home space contributed to the conservative movement’s pro-family assault against the state” (129).

While Nickerson does well in demonstrating that conservatism had its roots in this postwar period and that women played a pivotal role in its development, she doesn’t present quite as strong a case as to why. Her Cold-War women activists are vehement anti-communists, but Nickerson fails to fully place their brand of housewife populism in the larger political or protest narrative. When describing how these women came to be conservative activists, Nickerson writes that the women she interviewed frequently described their shift towards political conservatism as a moment of “awakening.” But without greater context of the economic, political, social realities of postwar America, it is not clear what these women were awakened to or rather what they were awakened from.

In the end, Nickerson does produce a “unique” history that forces one to reconsider not just the origins of conservatism but women’s role in creating a conservative movement.

Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

Nickerson's work examines 1950s housewives and their shift into conservatism, saying that these women "put themselves forward as representatives of local interest who battled bureaucrats for the sake of family, community, and God." (xiii) This book serves as an interesting counterpoint to Daniel Horowitz's Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique[1]. While that book focused mainly on Friedan, it explored the idea that second wave feminism emerged from unhappy housewives, whereas Nickerson's "housewife populism" shows a different reaction to the post-war lives of women and gender dynamics. Nickerson does make a point that these women were more capable of playing a prominent role in the conservative shift in part due to the feminist movement, however, explaining that larger access to education and politics opened more opportunities. (167) They were of the same demographic of the women in The Feminist Mystique, but Nickerson argues that they chose conservatism as their way of impacting politics and culture. (57)

Much like Rightward Bound [2] and Stayin' Alive [3], Nickerson examines an important cultural movement that provided roots for politics into the twenty-first century.

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