'Gender essentialism': Historian explains white women's central role in white supremacy

'Gender essentialism': Historian explains white women's central role in white supremacy
Marjorie Taylor Greene

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the infamous Georgia Republican, has shown herself to be an anti-Semite and a white supremacist. She is also a bigot who last week posted a sign outside her congressional office that reads, "There are two genders: Male and Female. Trust the Science." This was a direct attack on Rep. Marie Newman, an Illinois Democrat whose office is directly across the hall, and who has a trans daughter.

Greene is also anti-science and believes in all kinds of things that most intelligent and well-informed people would reject as absurd and delusional. And like so many newly radicalized "conservatives," she proclaims her political affiliation as an identity. Several weeks ago, to protest her loss of committee assignments, Greene wrote on Twitter:

If @SpeakerPelosi was the minority leader, she would pull every identity politics trick in the book to defend her member.

White, Woman, Wife, Mother, Christian, Conservative, Business Owner
These are the reasons they don't want me on Ed & Labor.

It's my identity & my values.

It is no coincidence that Greene's white identity politics proclamation echoes the slogans used by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist terror organizations.

Greene has suggestive links to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which was an element of Donald Trump's coup attempt aiming to nullify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Greene appears to share the values and beliefs of the insurrectionists who overran the Capitol, including the "big lie" that the election was rigged against Trump and his followers.

Until recently, Greene professed a belief in the anti-Semitic QAnon conspiracy theory, which imagines a global cabal of famous liberals exploiting children and then eating them. She claims to have reconsidered, but nearly a third of Republican voters believe in all or part of the QAnon delusion, and 60 percent share her belief that there was or is a "Deep State" plot against Trump and the Republican Party.

Contrary to what the mainstream news media with its hope peddlers and stenographers of current events would like to believe, Marjorie Taylor Greene is not a fringe figure or aberration. In many respects, she is the present and future of the Republican Party.

Across the country, "traditional" Republicans are being censured and marginalized by the party and its followers because they are deemed disloyal to Donald Trump and his neofascist movement. Greene was treated as a conquering hero and role model at last week's CPAC gathering in Florida, not as someone to be marginalized, shamed or shunned. Like so many other figures on the contemporary right, Greene is as much a performer as a politician. CNN's Chris Cillizza discussed this recently in describing dueling videos released by Greene and Newman:

The back-and-forth between Newman and Greene is a reminder of an increasingly common strain in the Republican Party in the Trump age: Performative politics as an end in and of itself. … And of course, it worked. Greene's video had 4.3 million views on Twitter as of Thursday morning, double the number that Newman's video had gathered. It will further cement her status as a Trumpian cultural warrior, battling the forces of "woke" culture and standing up for traditional values. … Her sole interest is in building her Twitter followers, her small-dollar donor base and her profile on Fox News. That's success for Greene. That's how she views the job of representing the people of the 14th district of Georgia.

But to mock Greene by saying that she is an aberrant nutcase, or some other insult, is to ignore the danger that she and others like her represent to American democracy and society.

In fact, Marjorie Taylor Greene can be located within a longer history of white women's central role in right-wing politics in America. Greene and her obvious predecessor Sarah Palin have helped advance the Republican Party's decades-long turn toward right-wing extremism and other anti-democratic and anti-human values and beliefs, while feeding on deeply flawed assumptions that white women as a group are "naturally" liberal or progressive.

In an effort to address that political dynamic in the present as well as its long history, I recently spoke with Elizabeth Gillespie McRae. She is an associate professor of history at Western Carolina University and author of the recent book "Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy." This conversation has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

What are some civics lessons we can draw from from the attack on the Capitol and the aftermath of the Age of Trump more generally? As a historian, what do you see?

For me, the civics lesson is how tenuous our devotion to democracy is. We are going to have to figure out how to protect our democracy in ways that we have not done before. It is quite difficult to ignore the wide-scale attack on America's democratic institutions under Donald Trump. It is clear that there are many people who are committed to actively destroying those institutions.

Much of the writing after that attack has been framed by surprise at the fact that white women were central to that act of treason, and to the white right more generally. That reaction is willfully ahistorical, I would suggest. White women have been central to white supremacy in America. They were not co-opted or peripheral or somehow coerced. White women were and are enthusiastic participants in that political project. Why are so many white commentators surprised by this?

Let us not forget how many white women supported Roy Moore in Alabama, a man who publicly discusses his love of underage girls and has been caught being involved with them. The connections between white women and white right-wing extremism and racism has deep and tenacious roots in America. If one looks at images of the protests against school integration and the Brown v. Board of Education decision during Jim Crow, it is white women who are out on the streets harassing black people — including children.

One does not have to go digging in archives to find this information. It was on the front pages of national newspapers. Denying the role of white women in right-wing politics, the most ugly examples of it, promotes what I would describe as gender essentialism. It is a very anti-feminist proposition that women's political consciousness is somehow married to a biological notion of motherhood, one that is equitable and generous. As we know, the impetus to protect one's child often does not turn into a collective action. It wasn't true in 1920 and it is not true today.

What sustains this narrative about the innocence of white women and white femininity?

As a historical example, the Southern white women who actively supported school integration were a minority of white women as a group. Most Southern white women failed to support racial integration or the broader Black freedom struggle. The assumption that white women are inherently part of some type of progressive or liberal politics is fundamentally flawed. I don't know if that is because there are certain white women who perpetuate the narrative because of collective narcissism or wishful thinking. I suspect it is partially a result of the producers of white supremacist narratives (often white women) doing their job so well. Again, it represents a type of gender essentialism about white women and politics and society more broadly.

When I have given talks on my book "Mothers of Massive Resistance" to various audiences what I am sharing is just an affirmation of what most Black and brown folks already know. My history isn't new history for them. The facts and figures may be new, but the overall argument is not. Black and brown people understand white women's investment in white supremacist politics and the implications of it. By comparison, with many white audiences my discussions and my book summon up multiple manifestations of white innocence. There are so many levels of white racial innocence that are built into the American historical narrative, a narrative that has been policed, shaped and sustained by white women in particular.

The story of race in America, and especially in the post-civil rights era, is about "white spaces" being heavily policed by the white community. Not by formal law enforcement per se, but rather because the "average" white person — see the "Karen" phenomenon — feels empowered to harass and even threaten the lives of Black and brown people who are deemed not to "belong" in a given space. What do we know about white women and their role in "protecting" white spaces?

White women have created many of those "white spaces." They also police those spaces in terms of historical memory and an investment in a kind of racist etiquette. Elite white women were and are able to gain much economic and social and other benefits from being involved in that project.

Sarah Palin and the Tea Party women were a bridge to Trumpism. The mainstream news media and public more generally decided to mock and make fun of Palin because she was deemed to be unintelligent and unsophisticated, a type of country "rube." In reality, Palin was and is an important cultural and political figure. It is too easy for some to mock her instead of taking her, and the kind of right-wing populism and "producerism" she represents, seriously as a threat to American democracy.

Many of the women who have become most prominent in American national politics are white women who are part of that right-wing populist lineage, as opposed to a more progressive one. Sarah Palin was nominated for vice president in 2008 in order to bring in the same voters who would then be critical for Trump's victory in 2016, and to his movement more generally.

Palin is part of the same right-wing trajectory and world as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is also being mocked for her conspiracist beliefs, her apparent ignorance and her allegiance to white supremacy, anti-Semitism and fascism. On Twitter, Greene proclaimed that she had been victimized by Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats because she is "white, woman, wife, mother, Christian, conservative and business owner." She also referenced "identity politics." She literally summoned up white supremacist talking points that are part of the same vocabulary as the infamous neo-Nazi "14 words." This language went largely uncommented upon by the mainstream news media, which appears willfully ignorant of these white supremacist codes.

That is the actual ranking, in terms of the white right and white women's identities and value. "White" is the most important marker. Then womanhood and motherhood. Then business owner and Christian. Whiteness and racial oppression and violence are central to a conception of what it means to be a white woman of the right who holds "traditional values." Motherhood and womanhood are fused and racialized in the story that Marjorie Taylor Greene and the white right are telling.

How can we better communicate how dangerous Greene and others like her are to the United States and multiracial democracy?

Is she dangerous? Yes, because it is dangerous to talk about white women with politics such as Marjorie Taylor Greene's in ways that diminish them as political actors. To my eyes, to minimize the dangers represented by white right-wing women is a 21st-century version of the "hysterical woman." One of the ways the country reached this authoritarian right-wing populist moment, with Trump and his followers and all the dangers they embody, is that women such as Marjorie Taylor Greene have been viewed as somehow outside the American experience rather than a central part of it.

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