I’ve been enjoying Reductress, a satirical website and podcast that skewers women’s magazines. Its correspondents take on topics such as “How to tell men apart during flannel season,” maxing out their vocal fry and stifling laughter at their own ridiculousness.
I appreciate that the young white women who founded it are willing to skewer themselves. “Is that white woman dancing or afraid of a bee?” one quiz on the website asks.
Or, more on the newsy nose, “Brave! This white woman chose to protect her race over her own gender.”
How white women position themselves on the charged landscape of identity is on many people’s minds, including American photojournalist Glenna Gordon. She just published The Secret Weapons of the Far Right, a collection of portraits of women committed to far-right or openly white supremacist ideas.
One is shown in her Ku Klux Klan gear with her similarly costumed husband, another in an extravagant black dress meant to invoke a “Confederate widow.” But while it’s tempting to label them “extremists” and move on from the unsettling images, not all of the women are outwardly extreme.
Ayla Stewart might seem like an intense, but harmless, mom of six. Note, though, that she’s issued a “white baby challenge,” encouraging others to help her combat “demographic decline.”
Brooke Heimbach has a rather sweet face, but don’t be fooled by an old picture of her playing with her young son in The New York Times. She belongs to a family trying to reframe white nationalists as relatable, regular people.
These contemporary women are playing an old game: Maintaining racial hierarchy by weaponizing their supposed normalcy.
The 20th-century history of this role-playing is the subject of Mothers of Massive Resistance, a book by professor Elizabeth Gillespie McRae examining women’s roles in the “politics of white supremacy.”
In it, she lists the many ways women have long helped solidify racial distinctions. Midwives determined babies' futures when listing race on birth certificates. Public-school teachers were on the lookout for mixed-race students posing as white.
Prof. McRae, who teaches at Western Carolina University, writes that it was especially powerful how “the language of motherhood could paper over class differences.” One fight united mothers across the country: In the Jim Crow era of “massive resistance,” coalitions of mothers actually lobbied against mandatory public schooling rather than accept integration.
The book’s black-and-white cover image of furious white women screaming at black schoolchildren might seem dated. Or, it might seem awfully similar to the wealthy New York mothers caught on video this past spring, frothing over a proposal that spaces in their local schools be reserved for students from other, less white neighbourhoods.
Another comparison can be drawn with the female journalists Prof. McRae discusses, and their ability to spread racist messages widely, often in coded language. From independent right-wing channels through Fox News and the mainstream, there are currently too many of those to count.
Well before the blackface defence that got her fired, Megyn Kelly had a résumé full of sometimes bizarre racist statements – that black people have a “thug mentality,” that Santa Claus is absolutely white. NBC still offered her millions.
Certain white women have a peculiar permission to speak without censure, especially if they’re pretty, or mothers, or both. Take White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was defended as a “wife and mother” in April, after comedian Michelle Wolf joked that she used “burnt facts” as eye makeup.
This sort of reaction has allowed Ms. Sanders to keep her job and keep on lying. She just shared an obviously doctored video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta supposedly assaulting an intern, to defend rescinding his press pass.
It’s good Ms. Wolf didn’t back down – Ms. Sanders has since refused to say how she reconciles motherhood with separating migrant families. It’s also a relief that much of the intense focus on white women’s current choices is coming from other white women, such as Ms. Wolf, Prof. McRae and Ms. Gordon.
Self-interest is a powerful motivator, as the Reductress headline suggests: The Trump administration is as hostile to women as it is to immigrants, transgender people and those who want to address climate change. The divide might simply be between those in denial and the white women who understand that there’s no permanent protection from the cruelty currently being inflicted on others.