Emily Johnson: Review of Michelle Nickerson's "Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right" (Princeton, 2012)


Emily Johnson is a graduate student at Yale University, where she is completing a dissertation on the role that prominent women played in shaping the politics of the New Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Pundits may not be able to agree on whether there is a “War on Women” in Washington, but the current election cycle has made it abundantly clear that women, gender, and family remain fraught topics in national political rhetoric in this country. Women’s voices are audible in these debates among the liberal supporters of President Obama’s proposed “birth control mandate,” and within the ranks of a conservative movement that advocates premarital abstinence and a return to “traditional” gender roles. Yet if the reactions to Michele Bachmann’s belief in wifely submission or Sarah Palin’s identification as a “conservative feminist” are any indication, conservative women are still confounding to many political observers. Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism offers vital historical insight into conservative women and their political significance in the twentieth-century United States.

Building on a growing body of literature that traces the origins of modern conservatism to the postwar Sunbelt, Nickerson focuses her study on Los Angeles County in the 1940s and 1950s. Conservatism did not emerge as a self-conscious movement until the 1960s, she argues, but in the preceding decades women helped lay the groundwork for, and shape the rhetoric of, what would become a significant political force. Conservative women’s activism in the first half of the twentieth century established an evolving idea that Nickerson labels “housewife populism,” which presented white, middle-class housewives as ideal conservative activists: selfless political outsiders concerned with maintaining the sanctity of family and community against an imposing federal government and the menace of communism. She traces this idea to women’s isolationist and anticommunist activism in the context of the First Red Scare, but argues that it came to fruition after the Second World War “when the American housewife became iconic” and “conservative discourse affirming simplicity, ordinariness and pious humility as patriotic values gained currency” in the broader culture (34).

Drawing primarily on oral history interviews with five women and movement literature (including books, newsletters, and pamphlets), Nickerson argues that conservative women made their greatest impact in local battles that identified threats posed by communism, internationalism, and liberalism in their everyday lives. She traces familiar ground in emphasizing the significant role that postwar battles over local school curricula played in fomenting a conservative movement indebted to women’s grassroots activism. But by situating these battles in a longer history of women’s conservatism in particular, she provides an original and cogent interpretation of how the fight against progressive education drew together right-wing concerns about communism, race progress, and internationalism (in UNESCO-sponsored curriculum modules) in a “powerfully localistic” discourse that placed women and family at its center. She further adds to this discussion by connecting the concerns about “brainwashing” and cultural alienation expressed in these education battles to women’s prophetic and largely unrecognized contributions to the nascent antipsychiatry movement.

Like any significant book, Mothers of Conservatism raises new questions that it leaves for future historians to answer. While Nickerson frequently mentions that religion was influential for many of these women and that piety was a key component of the “populist housewife” image, there remains a great deal more to be said about the specific connections between religious history, gender politics, and the rise of the New Right. And because Nickerson offers such a detailed account of women’s contributions to modern American conservatism writ large, she cannot always address the diversity of that movement or clarify the relationships that various factions bore to one another. That said, this is a remarkable book that makes significant historiographical contributions while also offering fresh insight into the politics of the day.

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