Author Angie Maxwell is the true ideal Southern woman, albeit the modern version: brilliant and accomplished, but not at all fragile. A mix of buttoned-up academic and in-the-moment political decoder, you might find her crunching polling data on campus in Fayetteville, or you can find her blowing everyone’s minds in the pages of The Washington Post, where earlier this month her explanation of “Why Southern white women vote against feminism” riled up more than 1,000 commenters.
A political scientist and director of the Diane D. Blair Center for Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas, Maxwell commands a unique brain that can braid together historical context and hard data to discover what issues and attitudes are really driving politics, both in the South and in the nation as a whole. Anyone can hypothesize about whether sexism skewed the 2016 presidential election or how the South’s collective inferiority complex shows itself in the voting booth. Maxwell answers these questions unequivocally using original polling data, much of it from rural Southern voters who had never been asked these questions before.
In her new book, “The Long Southern Strategy,” Maxwell and co-author and fellow UA academic Todd Shields mine opinion polls and decades of political and social history to reveal that exploiting racial anxiety was only one of the ways the GOP wooed Southern white voters. Republicans also rode a wave of anti-feminism and a strengthening alliance with the Christian Right to gain a solid grip on former Confederate states.
Maxwell and Shields will speak at the Clinton Center 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19. Reserve your seats by emailing email@example.com or by calling 501-683-5239.
Much of what you study and write about surely infuses your own life as a woman living in the South, and raising a daughter here, to boot. Does that make it difficult to maintain academic perspective?
Yeah, I think it is hard when it affects you personally. I also think that’s when you get the best work. For so long we missed the role anti-feminism played in flipping the South from blue to red. There’s lots of research on race and religion, but we saw them as separate pieces. We didn’t see the giant bridge in the middle about anti-feminism. The only way I saw that was by living it, by seeing how well-intentioned, good-hearted, wonderful people began to believe that feminism would destroy their lives. How does that happen, right? When you start digging into the numbers you see Southern white women supported the Equal Rights Amendment in the beginning. Wait a second, how does that change? They feel so threatened by it — the anti-ERA forces who are pitching feminism as, they’re going to make you put your kids in government daycare, they’re going to make you work. There was no institutional support for that then, no village. So it felt impossible. Even for women who wanted to pursue a career, they thought, “There’s no way I could do that. Who would help me?” So a lot of those women pushed back really hard.
Now that’s not what feminism is, it’s not what the ERA was saying. But it tapped into a real fear and an anxiety that I completely understand. It isn’t easy. We have not made it easy enough for women to work and be engaged, active moms. We hadn’t created that support system for women to do that and it terrified them.
Not only can you see it when you live in it, when you care about people in that position you can empathize with it too. That’s the part of the book I want people to understand. Whether it was to play to racial anxiety or anti-feminism or the war on Christianity, at every one of those turns there were a huge number of Republicans saying, “Don‘t do that. We don’t want you to do that.” They just lost out. At all those forks in the road, a lot of moderate Republicans really got overrun.
What particular experiences in your life led you to study anti-feminism in the South?
There were a couple of things. One, I remember I was doing an interview on my first book, which was about the Southern white inferiority complex, how Southerners respond to criticism and how it creates a defensive culture. Marjorie Spruill, who wrote “Divided We Stand,” had me Skype into her class, and she asked me, “Where are the women in your book?” I had used archival material and there just weren’t any women in there. So I started thinking, did I drown out women’s voices? Did I look hard enough for them? Do the records just not reflect them?
I looked for Southern white women’s political attitudes, their political roles, and I found nothing. It’s a huge hole.
A group of Southern historians gather at the Citadel every two years and there will be 80 people, and there will be two women. There just haven’t been women bringing that research to the table.
When we make our statistical models we bring what’s significant, and we tend to ignore variables that aren’t significant. Gender was never significant. I was watching a presentation saying this, and it was the fact that gender was not significant that is the story. Southern white women are as conservative as Southern white men. That is not true outside the region. I thought surely something has been written about this. But no, there was nothing. And there’s still nothing on what role women played in the South turning from blue to red.
I grew up in an environment where I was always told I was too political. I didn’t see women having those conversations about public policy. The message was that you keep it to yourself because you don’t want to offend anybody. I was always very interested in politics and felt very alone in that. There’s an institutional force at work here. We have been conditioned to see politics and policy as not a polite concern. That really struck me.
When my daughter was 5 she was in kindergarten and it was in the middle of the lead-up to the 2016 campaign. She came home and asked me, “Mom, how many girl presidents have there been?” And I said, well, there haven’t been any. She looked at me shocked, like why? Before I could answer her she said, “Mom, girls run kindergarten.” I was laughing because they really do. The girls get the boys in line, tell them they need to get their backpacks together because the bell is about to ring.
Seeing it through her eyes I realized how crazy it seems to her. She sees women in roles of authority through her whole childhood. At what point do we accept a shift, at what point does it become normal for men to be in charge? It took a child asking for me to think about it. I don’t know when that becomes normal.
So with all those experiences growing up, becoming a professor and then being a mom, you want to seek answers.
Who should read “The Long Southern Strategy”?
There’s a part of me that wrote it, in a sense, for myself. Growing up in a pretty conservative environment, being a female in the South, I wanted to find out how we got here. People who aren’t necessarily economically well off and are negatively affected by these policies are still voting this way. It didn’t make sense to me.
I want people to understand why people vote against their economic self-interest and not just dismiss them as stupid. I want people to see how political parties can frame the world we’re living in in a way that appeals to fear and anxiety and how that’s powerful, psychologically, to people who are not stupid. Any political party can do that. When you’re not really debating policy it becomes an issue of personality. Who is interesting and inspiring? We’re not talking about policy that will help a region that has serious problems but not really an apparatus to solve those problems. That is what government is supposed to be, an institution that addresses real problems. But you can’t do that when it becomes entertainment. I want people to see how that happened.
And I’m tired of seeing the South dismissed, written off. Most of our national polling has abysmal samples of the South, particularly the rural South, so we’ve made a lot of guesses and decisions based on bad information.
Last bit not least, the Republicans have not always nominated people who wanted to appeal to whiteness and traditional gender roles and evangelical unity. They haven’t. The problem is that the nominees who wouldn’t play hard on those issues wouldn’t win. That’s not necessarily why they lost; it could have been issues like the economy. But because of that, the voices in the Republican Party pushing to play the Long Southern Strategy get validated.
There has been a group of consultants who have said that this is the way to do it. Circumstances have made it look like they’re right. The people who really, sincerely care about the debt should be absolutely appalled right now. If they go along with the party line, the message that’s sent is that you don’t have to care about that.
We will all go through phases in our life with whatever party we care about when it will not always be doing what we want it to be doing. If Trump is re-elected because moderates in the Republican Party just vote party line it will send that message again that this is what works.
You’ve said that most Southern white women were never and still are not feminists. Why is that?
Second-wave feminism did have a lot of support at first, it was in the 90th percentile even in the South. Then Phyllis Schlafly, a Republican woman out of St. Louis, framed feminism as a mandate. Until then the feminist movement was absolutely bipartisan, the Republicans had the ERA on their platform before the Democrats did.
The message of feminism was that we just want no obstacles for women, no matter what path you’re choosing. Everyone was on board with that until Schlafly flips it into, this is going to be a mandate. Her organization is STOP, for Stop Taking Our Privileges. She really hits Southern white women with, you won’t be protected anymore, you’ll be expected to act like a man, you will be required to work. That’s the one that hits the hardest because the message was that you will have to put your children in government-run daycares.
This culture of Southern white womanhood stretches back to before the Civil War. Women were put on pedestal to be taken care of and shielded from the hard things in life, and they especially needed to be protected from threatening black men. So the white men who were pushing that, part of what they were doing was justifying racial violence. It was rationalization and justification for white supremacist control.
Is that what it still is? Maybe for some. What happens when women are put on that pedestal or when they aspire to that pedestal? We create customs and traditions that emphasize it. We do not create institutions that support women engaged in the workforce. So we spend decades and decades pushing social status and beauty pageants and beauty culture, a separate curriculum for women in higher ed that was focused on the home.
We didn’t engage women in reform efforts. Outside of the South women were active in attacking child labor issue, safety issues, even prohibition and abolitionism. There’s a culture of women doing reform work that doesn’t really get created in the South. When someone like Phyllis Schlafly shows up and says you’re going have to do all that stuff, it’s so foreign, so intimidating. It hits such a chord that they flip almost overnight. Not all Southern white women, just the majority.
In Republican Party after 1976 the story we tell is that Nixon and Goldwater played the race card. But the South goes right back to Jimmy Carter in ’76.
And then Republicans watch the anti-feminist movement when 20,000 women show up to protest under the slogan of family values. Republicans have always been ahead of the game on deep data and psychology. So they dropped the ERA from platform in 1980 and won back a whole lot of women.
Even in 2016 we see the legacy of that. All the national assessments will say that Hillary Clinton lost white women. But she didn’t lose white women outside of the South. In the South she lost them by 20 points. We never break it regionally. No one understands why we should because we don’t understand this history.
Lots of people don’t understand the roots and fruits of the Southern Strategy, and lots of people deny the Southern Strategy ever existed. Is that frustrating for you?
The denial of the Southern Strategy has surged back in the last few years. In 2005 one of the former RNC chairs, Ken Mehlman, admitted in a speech that Republicans played on this white racial angst. It’s a really powerful speech. We have enough archival stuff now to know that it was absolutely a choice that was made.
There’s been a resurgence of the denials. It’s pundits and it’s a Twitter fight for the most part. It’s in speeches by celebrities on the right who say, well, Democrats were the party of segregation. They absolutely were, this is 100 percent right.
The argument that therefore the Republican Party has always been the party of Lincoln, devoted to civil rights and all that, the feeling I have is that they’re protesting too much.
To really attack racial equality, women’s equality, you need to feel better about that. It’s very powerful to tell people that’s not what the party is doing, that it’s the Democrats. The people pushing this argument know it will win them an audience and more Twitter followers. It frustrates me because it’s a manipulation.
Both parties in this country have had periods where they have supported and pushed things that are horrible. The American people deserve an honest look. Blind loyalty to any one party is never good. We used to split-ticket vote all the time in this country, especially in Arkansas. The blind loyalty gets us into trouble.
Has the Southern Strategy played out any differently in Arkansas than it has in other Southern states?
Yes. When, at that first fork in the road when the Civil Rights Act is passed, there’s a lot of people who are upset. White Southerners want to know what this is going to look like and what changes it will bring.
The portion of the Republican Party adamantly saying let’s not play that game was the Rockefeller wing of the party. In ’68 when Rockefeller challenges for the nomination, he gives a pro-civil rights speech at the RNC. Half the party is cheering and half is booing. The Rockefeller connection in Arkansas is so strong that the Republican Party here, when it really starts to pick up in power in the late ’60s, is a pro-civil rights party.
If you look at both party platforms nationally, they almost match in the 1950s. Southerners who are segregationists are mad. They’re in limbo and they’re looking for a party. In Arkansas the Republican Party leadership is Winthrop Rockefeller, and the state party doesn’t make the Goldwater/Nixon choice.
Those segregationist state rights folks don’t flee to the Republican Party right off the bat. They’re kind of stuck, and Arkansas Democrats are having to constantly compromise and try to keep them inside the tent by focusing on other issues.
When the women’s righters comes forth, Dale Bumpers appoints Diane Blair to head a commission to look at women’s issues in the state. Blair debates Phyllis Schlafly on the Arkansas House floor. Arkansas kind of stays in limbo for a while on what it’s going to do and eventually does not ratify the ERA. But it’s kind of after the ERA had lost momentum. So it didn’t blow up in the state at the same level.
When Arkansas really starts to turn, and this happened gradually, is when the GOP really starts appealing to the religious right. That starts early but it really hits after Clinton, when George W. Bush is running and Karl Rove starts putting gay marriage amendments on state ballots and pulling in religious voters. When abortion restrictions get put on ballots. We think that’s always been an issue, but it really hasn’t.
It’s these issues that pull religious voters in to identify with the Republican Party, which is why the Arkansas state legislature doesn’t flip red until 2014. We’re the last Southern state to do so.
There are still a lot of people in Arkansas who are conservative Democrats, who never changed their party label, or maybe they say they’re independents. There have always been white Americans who have anxiety about racial equality, clinging to whiteness. There have always been voters wed to traditional gender roles. There has always been this religious streak. But they were equally distributed between the parties. As Republicans turned right at the forks in the road and the Democrats turned left, Americans have distributed themselves accordingly.
Most people are not all three of these things, they’re maybe only one or two of those things.
But it takes hitting on all three to sort people enough to where the folks who hold one or two of the three gain the majority in the Republican Party. So now hitting those three things hard, on the Republican side, gets you a higher portion of the electorate than not doing it.
How does the fight over gun rights fit with the Long Southern Strategy?
Right after the Civil War is when guns that can shoot multiple bullets without reloading became mass-produced for sale. That happened right at a time when Southern whites felt really threatened and defeated. You’re under military occupation by a government you just fought a war against, so people felt very threatened and guns become very popular.
So many people live in rural environments and feel like they need to protect and police that environment because they can’t closely access security forces. You have a hunting history along with a history of self-policing militias, like vigilantes. You have all of those components in the modern manifestation.
The NRA takes a very similar turn in the ’70s. It used to be focused on gun safety. Hunters were members. But the NRA takes a rightward turn and starts really pushing for no gun restrictions and sales, sales, sales, sales. This is not why a lot of people had joined originally but that’s very much where it goes. And the NRA becomes closely tied to the Republican Party.
When people feel threatened that their way of life is going to be changed, that there’s a war on them, whether they’re Christian or in men’s rights groups, or there are racial fears that whites are going to be in the minority, when all of those things are promoted rhetorically, one manifestation of that is to self-protect. So we see gun sales soar.
One of the most interesting things you absolutely see in the South, there’s the culture of ideal Southern womanhood. The complement is an equally robust rebel masculinity of a forceful man who is going to protect. This aggressiveness becomes an archetype that’s completely normalized and, in fact, promoted.
And it’s not just men who are gun owners, buyers and advocates. The number of white women who are also supportive of these issues is much higher in the South.