The Other Mothers Fighting the School WarsHistorians in the News
tags: moral panics, teaching history, education history, critical race theory, Moms for Liberty
Today’s battles have old roots, said Dr. Adam Laats, a historian of education at Binghamton University and the author of Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. “Our current pattern of school culture-warring goes back about a hundred years,” Laats said, and women were often in the forefront. During World War I, new textbooks began to incorporate the ideas of progressive historians such as Charles A. Beard, who emphasized the role of socioeconomic conflict in American history. In the early 20th century, the Daughters of the American Revolution argued that “schools were intentionally sexualizing kids and teaching badly on purpose to make kids soft for a kind of socialist message,” he said. Further to the right, the women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan “was large and very much about moms and liberty and defending the traditional family and traditional schooling.”
Conservative figures understood motherhood to be a potent political force. Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist founder of the Eagle Forum, suppressed the Equal Rights Amendment by claiming that it would harm housewives and homemakers. Singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant said she knew, as a mother, that children needed to be protected from gay people as she attacked Miami’s LGBTQ+ community in the 1970s. Earlier, in the 1960s, Texas mother Norma Gabler discovered that the state was obliged to hear citizen objections to curricula, and she decided to participate. “She prepared reams and reams of really scathing criticisms of these textbooks,” Laats said, and over time, she helped convince Texas “to adapt to what one person … decided was proper Americanism.” In 1970, her efforts led Texas to require the publishers of science textbooks to include disclaimers that evolution was a theory, not a fact. Despite the sophistication of her strategy, and the fact that her organization employed eight people to review textbooks, she would tell the public she was “‘just a mom. I’m a homemaker,’” Laats said.
In 2016, another conservative mom decided to take a run at politics. Tina Descovich was elected to the Brevard County, Florida, school board and became chair two years later, when she also assumed the presidency of the right-leaning Florida Coalition of School Board Members. When she lost her seat in 2020, observers were shocked. The loss could have been the end of her political career, but she had sweeping ambitions. She co-founded Moms for Liberty in 2021, and since then, she has taken her agenda nationwide. At the group’s inception, members railed against COVID lockdowns and masking requirements in public schools. Now they’ve moved on to fighting sex and diversity education.
Moms for Liberty can “come off as wanting to be these parents who want more input in their child’s education,” said Jen Reinagel, an executive board member of the New York State Pride PTSA and the mother of a trans young adult. “But when you look at their actual agenda, you can realize that it really isn’t focused on the students as much as it is on their own personal and — a lot of the time — religious beliefs.”
The members Descovich calls “joyful warriors” aren’t subtle about their views, which tend to be vitriolically anti-LGBTQ+ with a fixation on transgender youth and adults. “Imagine believing your ‘modern ideas’ are so bold and virtuous that it’s only natural that they cancel the existence of women,” read one April post on the Facebook page for the Orange County, New York, chapter of Moms for Liberty. “The persistent erosion of Womanhood has permeated every crevice of society including, science, sports, workplaces, healthcare, classrooms, restrooms.” The post deadnamed college swimmer Lia Thomas, a trans woman who has become a right-wing obsession. “At what point do we put out the SOS for the feminists?” the chapter asked.
Although Descovich says that Moms for Liberty is politically diverse, she and co-founder Tiffany Justice have deep ties to the Florida GOP. “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic,” Christian Ziegler, the vice-chairman of the state party, told the Washington Post. “But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.” Ziegler’s wife, Bridget, was originally listed as a co-director of Moms for Liberty, which has also endorsed a number of conservative candidates in school-board and municipal elections across the country.
If conservative extremists can make motherhood a tool, so too can their opponents. At the same time Schlafly was rallying white conservative women around the notion of full-time motherhood in the 1970s, liberals and feminists responded by deploying their own versions of parental language. “Women, especially in the Equal Rights Amendment fight, were really sensitive to this false attack that they were against homemakers or motherhood or family,” said Dr. Stacie Taranto, a professor of history at the Ramapo College of New Jersey and the author of Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in New York. When Eleanor Smeal was elected president of the National Organization for Women in 1977, she identified as a homemaker, and that was part of her appeal. Feminists “tie some of that into the push at the state level for no-fault divorce in different states because they say that a lot of full-time homemakers get screwed over because they can’t initiate divorce on their own terms,” Taranto added. “They’re really clear that they’re not against motherhood. They’re not even against full-time motherhood and homemaking; they just want it to be a choice.”
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