When Moms for Liberty met in Philadelphia last week, they attracted the kind of attention, and controversy, that they have become accustomed to courting. Founded two years ago in the wake of President Joe Biden’s election, the organization attracted the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. They also drew a crowd of protesters and activists who oppose the group’s reactionary political projects, such as book bans and anti-LGBTQ curricula.
While the organization is new, its politics are anything but. The mobilization of right-wing women, particularly mothers on a mission to protect children by battling educators and school boards, has been central to conservative politics in the US for much of the past century. And while schools might be the focal point of their activism, groups like Moms for Liberty aren’t composed primarily of education activists concerned with “parental rights.” They also have to be understood as a core part of a broader and longstanding reactionary movement centered on restoring traditional hierarchies of race, gender and sexuality — a movement in which conservative mothers have always played a particularly powerful role.
Consider an example that takes us back a century: the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, which had a women’s auxiliary (the WKKK) that brought the Klan’s anti-Black, antisemitic, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant politics to places like schools and churches. Women of the WKKK were not political pathbreakers; Though White women had only just secured the right to vote in the United States, women had been mobilizing politically for decades. Precisely because women had long been excluded from electoral politics, however, they had tended to be most active in institutions considered part of the “women’s sphere”: schools, churches, charities and settlement houses. [Continue reading…]