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Mothers of Massive Resistance

White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy

Elizabeth Gillespie McRae

Publication Date - March 2020

ISBN: 9780190088392

368 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock


Why do white supremacist politics in America remain so powerful? Elizabeth Gillespie McRae argues that the answer lies with white women.

Examining racial segregation from 1920s to the 1970s, Mothers of Massive Resistance explores the grassroots workers who maintained the system of racial segregation and Jim Crow. For decades in rural communities, in university towns, and in New South cities, white women performed myriad duties that upheld white over black: censoring textbooks, denying marriage certificates, deciding on the racial identity of their neighbors, celebrating school choice, canvassing communities for votes, and lobbying elected officials. They instilled beliefs in racial hierarchies in their children, built national networks, and experimented with a color-blind political discourse. Without these mundane, everyday acts, white supremacist politics could not have shaped local, regional, and national politics the way it did or lasted as long as it has.

With white women at the center of the story, the rise of postwar conservatism looks very different than the male-dominated narratives of the resistance to Civil Rights. Women like Nell Battle Lewis, Florence Sillers Ogden, Mary Dawson Cain, and Cornelia Dabney Tucker publicized threats to their Jim Crow world through political organizing, private correspondence, and journalism. Their efforts began before World War II and the Brown decision and persisted past the 1964 Civil Rights Act and anti-busing protests. White women's segregationist politics stretched across the nation, overlapping with and shaping the rise of the New Right. Mothers of Massive Resistance reveals the diverse ways white women sustained white supremacist politics and thought well beyond the federal legislation that overturned legal segregation.


  • Addresses the central role white women played in the crafting of white supremacist politics
  • Argues for the feminine roots of modern conservatism, a political movement so often talked about in masculinist terms
  • Looks at the work of maintaining segregration across five decades, not just after Brown v. Board of Education

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Gillespie McRae is an associate professor of history and director of graduate social science education programs at Western Carolina University.


"Readers will find this to be a deeply researched and chronologically impressive account of white conservative women in the twentieth century. While McRae claims a specific focus on four white southern women who were activists in conservative organising, the chapters often extend into broader sketches of rapidly shifting global and national landscapes. The New Deal, world war, the threat of communism, decolonisation, and the civil rights movement provided these women with new approaches to championing the cause of white supremacy. McRae's work highlights the resilience of that position." -- Stephanie R. Rolph, English Historical Review

"Mothers of Massive Resistance effectively ties segregationists to the development of conservatism nationally and shows that massive resistance was not a sudden and short-lived response to the Brown decision." -- Lisa Lindquist Dorr , Journal of Southern History

"Brilliantly argued...Rather than hewing to southern exceptionalism, McRae explains how segregationist activists connected themselves to national debates...Mothers of Massive Resistance, like other recent books on right-wing women, is part of an important feminist historical project that goes beyond celebrating foremothers to understanding how and why women have helped build oppressive institutions." -- Rebecca Hill, Journal of American History

"Though this is a thoroughly-researched historical study, McRae does not present strictly chronological order, but lets the lives of the women shine forth and parallel the historical events -- local and national, domestic and private -- that they shaped ... McRae is unafraid to plainly state where segregationist and conservative interests and rhetoric overlap and to pinpoint where even academics fail to showcase them." -- LaToya Jefferson-James, Arkansas Review

"This is an ambitious and well-written book, and McRae makes compelling case that white southern segregationists had more power to fortify and shape white supremacy and the rise of massive resistance than historians to date have recognized. Readers will find that one of the most striking features of this book is the haunting familiarity of these white supremacist tropes in our current political discourse, evidence that this history is vitally important to the ongoing struggle for racial justice." -- Zoë Burkholder, History of Education Quarterly

"A valuable addition to the politically urgent study of whiteness in American History."--Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, Library Journal, starred review

"The crystal-clear message of this thoroughly researched and impressively documented book is that white supremacy remains a powerful force in the United States."--Kirkus Reviews

"A strikingly original and unsettling analysis of the 'long segregation movement.' Tracking this struggle to maintain racial difference and distance from the eugenics mania of the 1920s through the watershed of the 1940s to the Boston busing crisis and the rise of the New Right, Elizabeth McRae paints a vivid portrait of hard-working white women in local communities across the country who, drawing on their moral authority as mothers, fought to protect white privilege, sometimes explicitly, through the tactics of massive resistance, sometimes covertly, under the guise of school choice and limited government. A must read for understanding the politics of white supremacy over the past half century and in our own time."--Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Women have long been marginalized in studies of segregation, but Mothers of Massive Resistance makes a powerful case for placing them at the center of our attention. In this smartly argued book, Elizabeth McRae shows that southern white women not only brought massive resistance into being, but then sustained its growth at the grassroots in vitally important ways."--Kevin Kruse, Princeton University

"A product of extraordinary research, McRae's gracefully written account captures the critical role white women of the South played in defending segregation even as it exposes the deep-seated cultural assumptions that led them to battle."--Dan Carter, University of South Carolina

"Brilliantly demonstrates how white women were both the everyday architects of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South and fully connected to national movements to enforce racial segregation and promote political conservatism. It excavates the grassroots activism of female segregationists in their roles as suffragists, social workers, eugenicists, school teachers, textbook censors, journalists, storytellers, garden clubbers, party activists, anticommunists, and most of all as wives and mothers."--Matthew Lassiter, author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South

"This deeply researched history of women and the work of segregation represents a major revision of Jim Crow and gender history. We see just how widespread and unrelenting, coordinated and feminine anti-integration efforts became over the early and mid-twentieth century--within and beyond the south. Indeed, women were the 'mass in massive resistance.'"--Michelle Nickerson, author of Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right

"A fascinating, meticulously researched, and damning look into the myriad ways white women have consciously worked to aid racial segregation in the Jim Crow South and sanctify their racially pure vision of white motherhood...McRae's book shines a harsh light on our status as collaborators and progenitors in the mainstream white-supremacist movement, and is essential reading for any white woman who seeks to understand our history-and our responsibility to those we've failed."--Kim Kelly, Bitch Magazine

"A sharp look at mainstream, everyday segregationism: the segregationism of respectable white women...McRae's book is an excellent history of white women's politics generally, but it's especially strong as a history of white women acting to protect 'their' public schools...McRae's project fulfills nearly all the requirements for a feminist history. She uncovers the role women played in a well-known historical movement, in which powerful or violent men-Klan members or George Wallace-are usually assigned the lead. She shines a light on their under-recognized, feminized work to shape and support that movement. She even demonstrates how women responded to gendered and class-based limitations on their power to perpetuate segregation in the public sphere with creativity and resilience."--Rebecca Stoner, Pacific Standard

"An essential addition...McRae's book is likely to endure as a work that helps to permanently transform our understanding of the relationship between the Jim Crow South and what she calls Jim Crow Nation, and the emergence of the New Right. McRae rightly calls the political mobilization of segregationist women in the South and elsewhere a women's movement. These conservative women, previously unheralded in the historical literature, staked their claim as political actors, calling on their traditional-and powerful-role as mothers to express their views and exert influence on a host of political and cultural issues, while never completely disguising the fidelity to white supremacy that animated and joined together their various causes."--Zachary J. Lechner, H-South, H-Net Reviews

"McRae...makes the compelling case that reducing massive resistance to a decade from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s obscures its political evolution and renders its activists reactionaries...Examining this resistance through the eyes of four southern white segregationists...McRae reveals that these women and their southern sisters were...part of a widespread political mobilization. Though initially these women publicly promoted the importance of maintaining de jure segregation and 'white over black,' over time they came to emphasize other fears...but ideas of white supremacy always remained under the surface. For McRae, the forced busing controversies of the 1970s...brings home the idea of an expanded notion of massive resistance and the idea that racism in the US has been persistent and pervasive, occurring across vast periods of time and crossing regional boundaries. McRae deserves kudos for her extensive research."--Choice

Table of Contents

    Introduction: Segregation's Constant Gardeners
    Part I: Massive Support for Segregation, 1920-1942
    Ch. 1 The Color Line in Virginia: The Home Grown Production of White Supremacy
    Ch. 2 Citizenship Education for a Segregated Nation
    Ch. 3 Campaigning for a Jim Crow South
    Ch. 4 Jim Crow Storytelling
    Part II: Massive Resistance to the Black Freedom Struggle
    Ch. 5 Partisan Betrayals: A Bad Woman, Weak White Men, and the End of a Party
    Ch. 6 Jim Crow's International Enemies and Nationwide Allies
    Ch. 7 Threats Within: Black Southerners, 1954-1956
    Ch. 8 White Women, White Youth, and the Hope of the Nation
    Conclusion: The New National Face of Segregation: Boston Women Against Busing

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