Morris, Robin M. Goldwater Girls to Reagan Women: Gender, Georgia, and the Growth of the New Right. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022. ISBN 9780820360690. $30.95. 224pp.

In 1969, political strategist Kevin Phillips predicted that the Republican Party could establish a stronghold in the South by appealing to white people’s anxieties about race, thus capitalizing on the Democratic Party’s commitment to civil rights for the electoral gain of conservative politicians. According to historian Robin Morris, however, Phillips’s southern strategy focused exclusively on the actions and rhetoric of white male elites, neglecting the activism of Republican women across the South who had already set about cementing the region’s allegiance to the GOP years before Phillips articulated this idea. Unlike Phillips, Morris approaches this topic with a comprehensive understanding of the interplay between gender, class, and race in this period, demonstrating that white women constituted the bridge between Massive Resistance to school desegregation and the rise of the Christian Right in the latter half of the twentieth century (4-5).

Utilizing political surveys, campaign literature, interviews, correspondence, and newspapers, Morris assesses the ways that conservative white women tailored their language, appearance, and political maneuvering in an effort to preserve white supremacy without unnerving the men around them (115). Tracing these developments through the activities of three Republican women, Lee Ague, Phyllis Schlafly, and Kathryn Dunaway, Morris highlights the roles of conservative white women in transforming the segregationist rhetoric of the 1950s into a new “color-blind” conservatism which stressed the importance of freedom of choice and “family values” (34-5).

In the early chapters, Morris focuses on the political campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Bo Callaway as case studies for conservative women’s initial organizational experiences. While the Goldwater campaign culminated in his overwhelming defeat, it contributed to the realignment of southern conservatives with the Republican Party and solidified Georgia’s role as a hub of right-wing activism (27). Through her focus on Goldwater, Morris argues that Ague adeptly tapped into women’s undervalued political power by framing negative gender stereotypes as political strengths while capitalizing on social gatherings for political education. Ague’s efforts not only contributed to the resurgence of Republicanism in the South, but they also transformed the very nature of the Georgia Federation of Republican Women (GFRW). As the Republican Party increasingly identified with opposition to civil rights, Morris details how Ague was able to reformulate the GFRW as a conservative group by forcing out moderate white and African American members, a move which impacted Republican political identity in Georgia.

In the 1966 Callaway campaign for the governorship of Georgia, Ague and her followers in the GFRW were primed with knowledge and experience from the Goldwater campaign and, as Morris demonstrates, they were instrumental in placing women at the center of Callaway’s campaign (46-7). Through the GFRW’s appeals to conservative voters, Ague successfully repackaged segregationist ideology to focus on a mother’s need for involvement in her children’s schooling while breaking complex political issues into more relatable terms in her attempts to increase Republican engagement with housewives. By minutely charting the activities of these women between 1964 and 1966, Morris examines how conservative women did much of the practical and ideological legwork required to reformulate the Republican Party in this period. Through political canvassing, these women identified pockets of previously untapped Republican voters that they could exploit in upcoming elections while stressing the commonality between motherhood and politics in an attempt to reconfigure the rhetoric of the right wing.

By identifying fissures in both the state Republican Party and between Georgia’s Republican women, Morris assesses the split between moderate and extreme conservatism in the late 1960s. Through the lens of Phyllis Schlafly, Morris demonstrates how the leadership contest of the National Federation of Republican Women resulted in a skirmish between far-right and moderate Republican women. Motherhood and femininity were key themes in the hotly contested leadership battle, with Schlafly and her moderate competitor Gladys O’Donnell mirroring the divide in the Republican Party more broadly. While O’Donnell was victorious, Morris asserts that Schlafly’s independence from the organization allowed her to devote her time to more extreme causes (78). As these fractures continued to appear within local and state Republicanism, white women in Georgia continued to build upon their political activities in the 1960s. Capitalizing on their dominance in the domestic sphere, Republican women engaged in political activities at supermarkets, county fairs, tea parties, and bake sales (73). Using these seemingly innocuous social events as an opportunity to cultivate the conservative grassroots, Morris demonstrates how these women promoted the Republican platform while utilizing gendered language(78).

In chapters four and five, Morris analyzes the rhetoric used by Ague (now Miller following her remarriage), Dunaway, and Schlafly in their respective opposition to busing and feminism. While addressing distinct causes, all three women exploited their positions as mothers to provide legitimacy to their political activism. Morris details how Miller and other conservative women surveyed white parents over their concerns about their children’s education through initiatives such as Operation Lend-An-Ear (OLAE),. By placing their surveys in specific newspapers, businesses, and churches, they were able to obtain white viewpoints without explicitly addressing race (82). Using this data, OLAE identified white parental concerns over drugs, a lack of discipline, and poor teaching quality. This initiative, Morris argues, enabled Miller to address the “hot-button issues of school desegregation” without engaging in the overt white supremacist rhetoric used by her contemporaries Lester Maddox and George Wallace (82-3). Beyond this rhetorical development, OLAE also offered Miller and her fellow Republican women an opportunity to influence national Republican strategy, as Morris highlights Miller’s cooperation with Republican politicians and even the White House as a result of her political organizing (89).

While Dunaway and Schlafly similarly stressed the importance of the family unit and the responsibilities of American mothers, they also incorporated a religious dimension in their conservative activism. By focusing their activities on fighting against feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment more specifically, Morris demonstrates that these women built on the efforts of Miller while forging the links between conservatism and Christianity (96). In the later chapters, Morris focuses heavily on the STOP ERA movement under Schlafly’s leadership, emphasising how anti-feminist women left the home in their efforts to protect the home. Carefully toeing the line between challenging feminism and protecting their privileged status at housewives, Morris examines right-wing women’s use of domestic metaphors and symbols to attract conservative women to the cause while encouraging politicians to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment (119). While serving as a means to preserve their place in the home, STOP ERA also offered Republican women vital experience in public speaking and political organizing and formed the basis of social networks necessary for increased cooperation between conservative women from across the nation.

Morris concludes Goldwater Girls to Reagan Women by charting the activities of conservative women from the defeat of the ERA in 1982 to the present day. While the women included in this book were largely unpaid activists, they nurtured the ideology of the Republican Party into what we know it to be today. From their homes and civic clubs, conservative women reshaped the party from a somewhat directionless entity into a more cohesive protector of family values, beginning in Georgia but later expanding across the United States. As Morris demonstrates, women like Miller, Dunaway, and Schlafly transformed the South into a Republican stronghold while paving the way for women’s paid involvement in politics, for better or for worse (142).

While Kevin Kruse’s study of “white flight” in Atlanta draws attention to the increased migration of whites to the suburbs in the face of racial integration, Morris builds upon this by highlighting women’s roles in transforming this influx of disgruntled whites into a breeding ground for conservatism. As Morris argues, “white flight” alone cannot account for the political restructuring of the South. Rather, this process involved white women working among the grassroots to identify the ideological appetites of these new constituents. As such, Morris’s study complements Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s geographically sprawling research on Massive Resistance. While both Morris and McRae identify the links between class, race, and gender that impacted conservative women’s activities during this period, Morris situates her research more firmly within the Republican political network. In doing so, Morris makes the contribution of these women central to the story of the growth of the GOP in the South.

Sarah Curry

 

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