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Gendered Politics in the Modern South

The Susan Smith Case and the Rise of a New Sexism

Keira V. Williams

Publication Year: 2012

In the fall of 1994 Susan Smith, a young mother from Union, South Carolina, reported that an African American male carjacker had kidnapped her two children. The news sparked a multi-state investigation and evoked nationwide sympathy. Nine days later, she confessed to drowning the boys in a nearby lake, and that sympathy quickly turned to outrage. Smith became the topic of thousands of articles, news segments, and media broadcasts—overshadowing the coverage of midterm elections and the O. J. Simpson trial. The notoriety of her case was more than tabloid fare, however; her story tapped into a cultural debate about gender and politics at a crucial moment in American history. In Gendered Politics in the Modern South Keira V. Williams uses the Susan Smith case to analyze the “new sexism” found in the agenda of the budding neoconservatism movement of the 1990s. She notes that in the weeks after Smith’s confession, soon-to-be Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made statements linking Smith’s behavior to the 1960s counterculture movement and to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” social welfare programs. At the same time, various magazines declared the “death of feminism” and a “crisis in masculinity” as the assault on liberal social causes gained momentum. In response to this perceived crisis, Williams argues, a distinct code of gender discrimination developed that sought to reassert a traditional form of white male power. In addition to consulting a wide variety of sources, including letters from Smith written since her incarceration, Williams contextualizes the infamous case within the history of gender politics over the last quarter of the twentieth century. She reveals how the rhetoric, imagery, and legal treatment of infanticidal mothers changed and asserts that the latest shift reflects the evolution of a neoconservative politics.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Making the Modern South


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ii-iv


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pp. v-v

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pp. vii-viii

To quote Hillary Clinton, this one definitely took a village. First of all, thank you to Bryant Simon, my graduate advisor, for fielding countless dumb questions, giving sage advice, reading a million drafts, writing many tedious letters, and being a Tar Heel. Thanks as well to the other members of my dissertation ...

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pp. 1-13

Just after eight o’clock on the night of October 25, 1994, the McCloud family of Union County, South Carolina, heard a loud noise outside their lakeside home. Startled, Shirley McCloud opened the door to discover a white woman in her early twenties sobbing on the front porch. The young woman, Susan ...

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1. Susan Smith and the “Mommy Myth”

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pp. 14-41

On Tuesday, October 25, 1994, twenty-three-year- old Susan Vaughan Smith awakened early to get ready for her job at a local mill. Although she formerly worked as a weaver at Executive Knits, a textile mill, Susan Smith had made the rare move from mill floor to office: in the fall of 1994, she was the administrative ...

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2. “A Hard Week to Be Black in Union”

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pp. 42-68

When Susan Smith confessed to the murder of her young sons after a nine-day, nationwide kidnapping investigation, the public was outraged. NBC’s Bob Dotson, who was stationed in Union during the manhunt, the confession, and the ...

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3. The “Modern-Day Medea”

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pp. 69-91

Maternal infanticide, or more specifically “filicide” (the murder of one’s own children), so thoroughly violates our cultural common sense about motherhood that it is one of the most confounding crimes in American culture. The words ...

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4. Personal Responsibility

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pp. 92-109

The titillating angle of the “boyfriend motive” helped Americans make sense of Susan Smith as the kind of mother who could commit a heinous crime. This plot twist kept her in the headlines, but as more details leaked to the press during the ...

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5. Union’s Family Values

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pp. 110-138

As Susan Smith’s image transformed rapidly in the media, the one trait that loosely tied each new “Susan” together was dishonesty: she lied about the carjacking, her maternal instincts, her marriage, her affairs, her ...

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6. “In a Lake of Fire”

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pp. 139-161

The night before jury selection was set to begin in the Susan Smith trial, reporter Bob Dotson for NBC’s Evening News asked, in a voiceover backed by church bells: “In a town with 130 churches, people tend to be forgiving—but who can forget?” The video ...

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7. From “Monster” to “Mentally Ill”

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pp. 162-185

For two and a half hours, the jury of nine men and three women argued over how to properly punish Susan Smith. The facts of the crime were undisputed; instead, they went over the haunting traumas ...

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EPILOGUE: The New “New Momism”

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pp. 186-191

Because this is a book about representations of women, rather than women themselves, I have found myself in the ironic position of feeling like a part of the system that actually silences these marginal figures. Susan Smith never gave an interview after ...


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pp. 193-234


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pp. 235-250


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pp. 251-255

E-ISBN-13: 9780807147696
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807147689

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Making the Modern South
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OCLC Number: 813286345
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Gendered Politics in the Modern South

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Smith, Susan (Susan Vaughan).
  • Infanticide -- South Carolina -- Union -- Case studies.
  • Motherhood -- Southern States.
  • Sex role -- Southern States.
  • Sexism -- Southern States.
  • Stereotypes (Social psychology) -- Southern States.
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