- Challenge and Change: Right-Wing Women, Grassroots Activism & the Baby Boom Generation by June Melby Benowitz
June Melby Benowitz's new book, Challenge and Change, explores the political concerns and activism of right-wing women in the United States, with particular emphasis on the 1960s and 1970s. It adds to a growing scholarly conversation about conservative women's contributions in the second half of the twentieth century, which includes most notably Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors (2001) and Michelle Nickerson's Mothers of Conservatism (2012). Readers acquainted with those two books will find much that is familiar in Benowitz's new volume, including an exploration of women's political organizing against: communism, sexual education, federal mental health programs, school desegregation, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Benowitz's major contributions come in the form of expanding the scope of this research; she uses a national framework rather than focusing on local organizing in California, and she trains her attention on the 1960s and 1970s rather than on the decades immediately following the Second World War.
Her emphasis on these decades also allows her to explore the impact of a generational divide among right-wing women. This avenue of analysis offers a new way of thinking about the much-touted generation gap of the 1960s and 1970s, which is typically invoked to explain the development of leftist student protests and counterculture as a reaction against the cultural conservatism of the 1950s. Benowitz reminds us that even among those seeking to conserve older ideals, the rapid cultural changes of the postwar decades precipitated generational disagreements over political emphasis and strategy.
Benowitz's expertise in the politics of the Old Right (her first book, Days of Discontent, examined right-wing women's activism in the 1930s and 1940s) also makes it possible for her to draw out important connections between this earlier period and conservative movements that developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, in Challenge and Change, Benowitz seems to assume [End Page 593] what many historians of the American right have lately been striving to prove, namely that there is more continuity than discontinuity between those movements. Her attention to lingering anti-Semitism in the New Right will be of particular interest to some readers.
This volume is divided into two sections. The first, titled "Our Schools, Our Children," focuses on the mothers of baby boomers and their activism in the postwar period. The section is subdivided into three chapters, which analyze in turn conservative women's opposition to liberal influences in school curricula; to government health programs including polio vaccination, water fluoridation, and mental health initiatives; and to contemporary civil rights issues, particularly with regard to the desegregation of public schools. As in previous work on these topics, Benowitz underscores conservative women's focus on issues related to education and public health. She also asserts that these activists understood their gender as a boon to their political agendas, specifically that they thought of women as "naturally" conservative because of their concerns as mothers and that their emphasis on maternal concerns afforded them particular political authority in the postwar context.
Benowitz's argument about a generational divide within the New Right is most strongly developed in the book's second section, titled "Protesting the Protests." This section is also divided into three chapters. The first analyzes the development of the New Right's politics of morality, centering on "the issues of sex education, school prayer, and patriotic behavior" (154). The following two chapters focus, respectively, on the conflict surrounding the Vietnam War and on conservative women's opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Benowitz's analysis of generational issues emerges in the first chapter of this section, initially in a discussion of conservative women's concern that the next generation would be "lost" to them if schools abandoned moral education by introducing sexual education programs and abandoning school prayer. She then traces the emergence of a new generation of conservatives to the founding of Young Americans for...