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Our Activist Roots: Conservatism in the 1950s-1960s

April 27, 2010 | NeW Staff


In an article titled, “Moral Mothers and Goldwater Girls,” author Michelle Nickerson explains the conservative women’s movement in the 1960s.  Conservative women placed an emphasis on traditional family values while embracing conventional roles of women in the private sphere and expanding on them in the public sphere. Rather than focusing on gender roles and anti-male sentiment, conservatives turned their attention to the protecting the future of the nation, the education of their children.  Throughout this time period there is not much mention in literature of the efforts of these traditional and less extreme women. But through Nickerson’s evaluation of Parent Teacher Association (PTA) records, school board records, activities of powerful conservative groups in California, popular conservative books of the time, and the success of the elections of Max Rafferty and Ronald Reagan, she shows the broad and diverse efforts of these women during this time period.

Fear of communism, socialism, and progressivism forced many mothers to educate themselves on popular topics and spurred them to become involved in Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) and political organizations to protect their children’s vulnerable minds from radical ideas. Through an account of Gledhill Elementary School in San Fernando Valley, California, Nickerson provides an anecdote of what women were up to at this time.

The school system was an easy way for women to transition from the private sphere to the public sphere because it was an expansion of their maternal role.  Mothers were seen as protectors of their children, fostering growth and development; they carried on the continued sense of Republican motherhood, from the time of the founding of our nation by trying to make making upstanding, patriotic citizens out of their children.

During this time period, Betty Friedan painted a picture of a depressed and unfulfilled housebound homemaker in Feminine Mystique.  Conservative mothers were quite the contrary. Women had many varying responsibilities at home but often maintained a flexible schedule which allowed them to participate in grassroots movements. They were able take time to educate voters about pertinent issues, such as who to vote for in the next election. Women such as Patricia Gilbert, a wife of a traveling salesperson from Newport Beach, used ‘homespun efforts’ such as letter writing to everyone on their Christmas lists in order to urge them to vote for the superintendent. The election of Max Rafferty as superintendent in 1962 is a prime example of the power of these conservative women which established Parent’s for Rafferty, built an 8,000 person mailing list, and opened 260 chapters around the state. 

Conservative women also took additional paths to educate themselves and others as well as influence policy, including: patriotic bookstores, newsletters, and study groups.  Organizations such as the Republican Women’s Club, the California Republican Party, and Network of Patriotic Letter-Writers (NPLW) as well as famous books of the time such as Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative (1960) provided a foundation upon which conservative women could stand.  Even though the picture above is from 1939, it provides a good image of what these women’s organizations looked like. More than just political ideologies threatened children and the traditional way of life.  Premarital sex and experimentation with drugs threatened revolution and disruption of the traditional family structure.  This inspired conservative women to act further. 

Conservative women proved to be powerful figures in the world of politics and education. They were a group of women who embraced their femininity, and though they were once seen as subservient and weak, they began to show men and women that conservative women could pass an agenda and elect politicians to office who would protect traditional values, the family, and the future generation of America.  The goal of this women’s movement focused on bettering the status of the nation while bettering the status of women.

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