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White Women and Racism

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The racism at the core of the American project is so often reduced to being about men, at least in the public eye. It’s not women out burning crosses or lynching people. It’s not women issues Plessy v. Ferguson or standing in front of the school to prevent Black students from attending class. But in fact white women have always been at the center of American racism. And they have been at the center of right-wing radical movements as well, whether overtly racist or more passively racist. Marjorie Taylor Greene is actually part of a long tradition, as the historian of this issue Elizabeth Gillespie McRae points out.

One of Greene’s most prominent foremothers hailed from the outskirts of her 14th congressional district in Cartersville, Ga. Rebecca Latimer Felton was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, albeit only for a day. Felton was a suffragist, proponent of public education, opponent of convict leasing and advocate for working-class White women. But she was also a virulent white supremacist who used rumor and fantasy to support her racist politics.

In 1897, ignoring the structural economic issues plaguing Southern farmers, Felton told a Georgia farm convention that the most significant problem facing farm women was “Black rapists.” She faulted White men for not supporting their wives and leaving them at the mercy of Black men. Her solution: lynching Black men, “a thousand times a week.”

This rhetoric from a prominent political leader helped fuel the one coup in American history. The following year, as White North Carolina Democrats tried to defeat interracial fusionists, Felton’s speech appeared in a White Wilmington newspaper. The editor of a Black newspaper responded by suggesting that interracial relationships actually resulted from White women seeking Black men as romantic partners.

White supremacists used this claim as cause for destroying the newspaper and unleashing the terror that became the Wilmington Massacre. They threatened violence to keep Black Republicans from the polls, elected White Democrats and conducted a successful coup against the democratically elected interracial city government. Killing Black Wilmington residents and running off others, white supremacists took over the city.

The fear Felton had whipped up helped justify this sort of extreme action. And this violent overthrow received the tacit approval of the federal government. Anti-lynching legislation, introduced more than 200 times, failed to pass the Senate for the entire 20th century. The willingness of a political leader like Felton to traffic in such bigoted and false stereotypes also helped produce a culture in which false accusations of rape led to the murder or imprisonment of Black men and boys — a problem that persists to this day. She helped to pull politics in an extreme, racist direction with long-lasting impact.

Felton would not be the last prominent White woman to help inculcate radical ideas on the right. In 1943, Mississippi newspaper publisher Mary Dawson Cain blamed both the wartime resurgence of lynching and the 1943 insurrection in Detroit on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for raising expectations for social equality. Cain trafficked in other conspiracy theories and bigotry, as well, joining in anti-Semitic charges against the Anti-Defamation League, accusing the Supreme Court and Congress of being communists, the United Nations of being Godless and Americans of being duped by humanitarianism.

Some might say, “why focus on women specifically here?” And the answer is most certainly not to let men off the hook. But we do have to examine these problems from all sides and we must certainly not reduce or erase the role of women in promoting the worst of America when that’s the history.

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