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  • Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae
  • Lisa Lindquist Dorr
Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. By Elizabeth Gillespie McRae. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 352. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-19-027171-8.)

Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy does more than merely argue that "[w]hite women were the mass in massive resistance" (p. 4). Instead, Elizabeth Gillespie McRae demonstrates that white women's efforts to protect and promote white supremacy through segregation existed long before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and lasted long after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. This "long era" of massive resistance began with the efforts of white women to counter the seeming apathy toward racial regulations among white southerners in the interwar years, eventually providing rationales and strategies to white people across the country to promote a conservative political program that maintained a largely segregated nation well into the 1970s (p. 10). In McRae's view, white supremacists in the South participated in the creation of a conservative ideology that expressed support for segregation through color-blind arguments for small government, the sanctity of family, opposition to internationalism and human rights, and parental control over education. Documenting both ideological and personal connections among southern segregationists and conservatives across the country, she pointedly labels conservatives as segregationists at heart and links white southern efforts to limit the integration of southern schools—the usual understanding of massive resistance—to a wider effort to promote what she calls a "Jim Crow nation" (p. 5).

McRae separates white women's efforts to protect white supremacy into four broad areas that she traces through the book: work with social welfare institutions, debates about public education, participation in electoral politics, and popular culture. Before World War II, white women worked to police racial [End Page 503] identity in Virginia, to promote appropriate curricula in Georgia, to organize politically in Mississippi and South Carolina, and to publicize narratives of race in a North Carolina newspaper. After the war, segregationist white women perceived more dire threats to white supremacy from national and international sources. In response, they sought to challenge faltering institutions, including the Democratic Party, and to counter the development of new international institutions such as the United Nations, which, in their eyes, favored the "developing, left-leaning, non-white world" (p. 13). They argued more forcefully for the ability of parents to control public schools as an extension of maternal values of the home. Their arguments about the family, schools, patriotism, and the dangers of globalization were later adopted by the opponents of busing in Boston and Detroit and shaped a grassroots conservative politics developing nationwide. Mothers of Massive Resistance thus places white women at the center of a national segregationist movement that extended from the 1920s to the 1970s and provided the racist core of conservative ideology.

While McRae's overall argument is persuasive, in the early chapters she focuses on fairly limited case studies of specific white women engaged in localized efforts to maintain white supremacy. These chapters are less satisfying, raising the obvious question whether the activities McRae discusses were representative across the South and common among white women. For example, white women took an active role in using Virginia's Racial Integrity Act to police who could and could not be considered white. Virginia's law, however, was unusual. Were there similar kinds of activities occurring in other southern states? Widening her focus to show that what she documents in particular locales or with particular women was echoed elsewhere would help strengthen her argument and pull individual chapters into a more unified whole. This point, however, is an obvious and easy criticism. On the whole, 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
University of Alabama


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pp. 503-504
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