Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and cohosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
When Moms for Liberty met in Philadelphia last week, they attracted the kind of attention, and controversy, that they have become accustomed to courting. Founded two years ago in the wake of President Joe Biden’s election, the organization attracted the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. They also drew a crowd of protesters and activists who oppose the group’s reactionary political projects, such as book bans and anti-LGBTQ curricula.
While the organization is new, its politics are anything but. The mobilization of right-wing women, particularly mothers on a mission to protect children by battling educators and school boards, has been central to conservative politics in the US for much of the past century. And while schools might be the focal point of their activism, groups like Moms for Liberty aren’t composed primarily of education activists concerned with “parental rights.” They also have to be understood as a core part of a broader and longstanding reactionary movement centered on restoring traditional hierarchies of race, gender and sexuality — a movement in which conservative mothers have always played a particularly powerful role.
Consider an example that takes us back a century: the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, which had a women’s auxiliary (the WKKK) that brought the Klan’s anti-Black, antisemitic, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant politics to places like schools and churches. Women of the WKKK were not political pathbreakers; Though White women had only just secured the right to vote in the United States, women had been mobilizing politically for decades. Precisely because women had long been excluded from electoral politics, however, they had tended to be most active in institutions considered part of the “women’s sphere”: schools, churches, charities and settlement houses.
For the women of the WKKK, schools were central targets. As historian Kathleen Blee documents in “Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s,” the WKKK regularly protested schools that they felt were riddled with Catholic and foreign influences. Particularly because they were so invested in countering Catholics, the WKKK sought to secure more funding and support for public schools as counterweights to private parochial schools. But they wanted those public schools to be segregated and overtly Protestant. They sought to purge public schools of all Catholic influences — banning Catholic encyclopedias, firing Catholic teachers — while lobbying for mandatory (Protestant) Bible readings.
White women did not have to be members of the WKKK to push for reactionary politics in schools during this period. In her book “Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy,” historian Elizabeth Gillespie McRae recounts how Mildred Lewis Rutherford, former historian general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, argued that Northern textbooks were polluting the schools of the South. In 1919, Rutherford created criteria for evaluating both textbooks and teachers, calling for a loyalty test for school officials to ensure they understood the “true” history of the South.
These battles over schools would continue as the movement for Black civil rights gained traction after World War II, particularly with the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in schools to be unconstitutional. White women who had not been activists before became major players in the massive resistance to school desegregation — not just in the South, but across the US. As they battled desegregation, many White mothers argued that the Supreme Court had superseded local — and parental — authority. They sought to wrest back control by adopting segregationist textbooks, promoting private academies and, at times, shutting down public schools altogether while conducting private lessons at home.
And, as desegregation moved North, right-wing women again became central players in school politics. Louise Day Hicks, an activist who once ran for office, proclaiming herself “The only mother on the ballot,” founded Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) in 1974 to resist school desegregation in Boston. Protest marches featured mothers pushing strollers as they called for more parental control over the local schools.
Race was not the only issue motivating right-wing mothers to organize. In 1977, Anita Bryant — a famous singer and mother of four — founded Save Our Children, an anti-gay organization that framed its opposition to gay rights as an effort to save children from sexual predation (an antecedent to today’s “groomer” slurs). Arguing that gay people “must recruit the youth of America” because they could not have children of their own, Bryant leveraged her own identity as a mother to make a moral case for stripping gay men and women of legal and civil rights. And she did: Her campaign to overturn anti-discrimination laws in Miami, Florida, successfully eliminated employment protections for gay workers. (It would take more than 20 years for Miami to reinstate its ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.)
These mothers’ movements, from the WKKK, to massive resistance to Save Our Children, all relied on the image of mothers protecting children. But they were in service of a much larger political project: shoring up traditional hierarchies of race and sexuality. They were about motherhood and education, but as a means to an end. Moms for Liberty operates in precisely the same way, building on this century-long tradition. The book bans, the curricula battles, the efforts to fire teachers and disrupt school board meetings — little here is new.
Except, perhaps, the proximity to presidential power. The WKKK, massive resistance, ROAR and Save Our Children were all influential political movements with profound consequences for US politics. But they did not draw former (and potentially future) presidents into their circle of influence so quickly. Around the time Bryant was lobbying against gay rights in Miami, Ronald Reagan, a former governor and future US president, was arguing against a proposition promoting similar discrimination in California. “I don’t approve of teaching a so-called gay lifestyle in our schools,” Reagan assured voters, but he argued that the proposition could impose on essential rights that had to be protected.
That is not the case with today’s movement. Both Trump and DeSantis have marked themselves as allies of Moms for Liberty, seeing them as an important constituency promoting a core set of policies and prejudices capable of mobilizing the base. That makes Moms for Liberty — and its agenda — a powerful political force. The organization may only be a few years old, but its politics have been powering reactionary movements in the US for over a century.