White moms have always co-parented with the government
On Twitter, days after the Republican party boasted electoral gains in Virginia, Jim Jordan announced his takeaway: “The Republican party is the party of parents.” Jordan’s tweet reflects the battle lines drawn across the country in school board after school board as parents, but predominately white mothers, demand their children be relieved from learning about race and racism, sexual identity, and gender.
Viral videos attest to the outsized role that white women and mothers play in the movement to control what is taught in U.S. public schools. Despite the recent surge of Moms for Liberty T-shirts proclaiming, “I don’t co-parent with the government,” white mothers have always depended upon the government to co-conspire in the transmission of their children’s white racial identity.
The most glaring example of this racist “co-parenting with the government” were education-oriented “Jim Crow” laws. After white parents successfully passed local ordinances in Greensboro and Durham, NC to shift the property taxes of white people to white-only schools, the North Carolina legislature officially recognized this racial division of tax funds for schools in 1883. All it took to initiate this change was a petition from ten citizens to order a vote of the county commissioners. Stripping Black children’s schools of tax funding led to chronic, multi-generational underfunding of Black education in the state, ripples that we still feel today.
History is repeating itself as we watch white moms once again take a proactive role in shaping the curriculum of public schools. One of the most passionate curriculum reform movements occurred in 1919 when Mildred Lewis Rutherford, a staunch defender of the pro-Confederacy Lost Cause, published a pamphlet entitled "A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges and Libraries." She then established the Rutherford Committee to enforce the pamphlet’s codes.
Rutherford knew that the future of white identity in the South required more than lore passed along to white Southern children by their white mothers. Public schools would also need to nourish white identity. Rutherford’s pamphlet encouraged “all authorities charged with the selection of text-books” to label books that did not affirm the Civil War was fought honorably over state’s rights to be marked “Unjust to the South.” (Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?) Rutherford included specific criteria:
Reject a book that calls the Confederate soldier a traitor or rebel, and the war a rebellion.
Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves.
Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholder of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) adopted the pamphlet and began a campaign across the South to ban from public schools any books that taught the horror of slavery. Superintendents and school boards were more than happy to collaborate as members of UDC were appointed to textbook selection committees.
White women’s politic activism is rooted in the 19th century Maternalist movement when white mothers capitalized on their home management skills to broaden their political relevance. The early white feminist movement gained traction by selling white motherhood as a social good that could transform society. If white mothers could cultivate strong, brave white sons while leading their families towards the middle class, all the while protecting them from questionable racial outsiders, think of what good white mothers could do for society at large.
Black women were unsuccessful, despite bold attempts, to utilize their maternalism in the same way towards the public good of Black families. Instead, the kindergarten movement, the welfare system, and early child protection policies were entrenched in white, middle-class respectability that left out the concerns of Black women and excluded Black children and mothers. While Black mothers advocated for healthy babies and education systems, the white feminist movement shifted its politics towards abortion.
White women built upon their political force throughout the Progressive Era as they were introduced in the public sphere as “municipal mothers.” Among them were Lola Greene Baldwin who became the first woman police officer in Portland, OR in 1908. Baldwin led a new form of policing that replicated the white woman’s home, what she described as “social hygiene”-- a war on urban vice, particularly in separating white women and girls from the deviance of rag time music and jazz played in clubs by Black musicians. White motherhood protected a racialized class of women from corruption through social segregation.
Along with such overt racist “co-parenting with the government,” public campaigns also helped transmit racist ideas about whiteness. During the “Jim Crow” era, with school segregation firmly in place, white mothers turned their attention to the importance of shaping racial identity in the home.
In 1912, 65 years after the end of the war, the United Daughters of Confederacy raised $10,000 to erect the first monument to women of the Confederacy in the state of North Carolina. Though created in part with private funds, the monument was displayed on North Carolina State Capitol property, giving the statue and its sentiments government sanction, and government funds and resources for upkeep and display.
The monument publicly announced the role of white mothers after the Civil War. The News and Observer provided a description, borrowed from The New York Herald:
A grandmother garbed in the flowing dress of the epoch of the war is seated on a chair, and at her knee is her grandson, a lad of six or seven years, holding the sabre of his father. His grandmother is telling to him the deeds of the Southern soldiers in the civil war (sic). Her face bears the nobility of suffering and sorrow and she is telling the story of the lost cause without a sign of bitterness or malice.
The grandmother fixed in the monument reflected back to white mothers what was expected of them in the creation of children who would learn from their mothers how to be white.
White mothers were expected to pass along the Lost Cause, the narrative that the Civil War was not fought for slavery but for state’s rights. The fathers who died did not die to rape, murder, and enslave Black men, women, and children, but to preserve a culture -- a culture which the young boy in the monument is actively inheriting from his grandmother. The original concept of the Raleigh UDC monument included a girl and not a boy at her grandmother’s knee, but the effect of mothers passing along the Lost Cause to boys, those who would act on behalf of white supremacy in the public sphere, relayed the seriousness of white motherhood’s task.
Today, white mothers who homeschool their children or send them to private schools inundate public school board meetings with their ire over teaching about racism. This also has historic precident. “Municipal motherhood” was an ideology that spread the responsibility for parenting whiteness beyond white women with white biological children to all white women. It became the corporate responsibility of all white women to protect the future of white identity.
A new period of “municipal motherhood” erupted with the desegregation of public schools during Reconstruction. In May of 1868, a year after Louisiana adopted a new state constitution that proclaimed segregation was no longer permissible in public facilities, the Superintendent of the New Orleans public schools informed Ms. Stephanie Bigot that she had admitted non-white children to her public school. Bigot confessed that she was aware of the controversy but the accusations were hear-say among students.
Bigot was fired for her inattention to what the school board deemed as attempts at racial passing. The principal was accused of “betraying the trust” of the Board of Directors, trust that she would maintain the racial separation of Black and white children. The children in question were instructed to bring a parent to vouch for their whiteness and to provide documentation. Five children were dismissed.
At risk in New Orleans was the socialization of white children with children whose identity was ambiguous, who exposed the construction of race. Schooling of this kind made white children vulnerable to destabilized racial and class identities. Stephanie Bigot abandoned her role as a social mother, of her responsibility to protect the formation of white identities by keeping racial others away from the white children in her care.
Even after the passage of Brown vs the Board of Education ended the legal separation of Black and white children in public education, white mothers kept segregation in place. In many places, white mothers continue to be at forefront of affective segregation of their public schools. White mothers lead the movements for school choice and open enrollment, programs that have allowed white-flight school districts to form, subverting attempts at reform.
White supremacist movements recognize that white motherhood is essential to institutionalize white identity. After Heather Heyer was murdered in 2017 by a white supremacist during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, founder of The Daily Stormer, Andrew Algin, dismissed the white woman’s death in a blog post. "Despite feigned outrage by the media, most people are glad she is dead, as she is the definition of uselessness,” Algin wrote. “A 32-year-old woman without children is a burden on society and has no value."
Algin said aloud what is often kept silent – white womanhood is useful only in so far as it assists in the production of white identity or protection of its institutions. Heyer was guilty of refusing to offer her biological motherhood or her social mothering. She actively thwarted whiteness as a natural ally of white women.
I often think of Heyer in the intentional work of racial formation in white children. Despite my small efforts, the new white mothers’ movement among the GOP continues the work of white identity formation. For white mothers, the public shift towards transparent racial education is a betrayal of the quiet code made between government institutions and white parents. White mothers will leverage their power, as they have for centuries, to assure that alliance remains secure. For white mothers like me who refuse to join ourselves to this history, our place is with Heather Heyer, among the traitors to our race.