Conservatism Questions

At the end of the lecture on Friday, January 25, and again on Monday, we briefly talked about some questions about conservatism that remain open for historians.

Open Questions about Conservatism

One question that came up on Monday, particularly after we read about the African American conservative William Brown in the Quinn article, had to do with the origins and extent of conservative opposition to affirmative action among African Americans themselves—people like Brown, Ward Connerly, and Clarence Thomas. A student in class asked the question:

  • After the events of the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, Why would African Americans like William Brown and Ward Connerly oppose affirmative action or policies supported by other African Americans? Was there a longer tradition of black conservatism that shaped and predated their arguments?

The other set of questions we considered last week had to do with the origins of the conservative movement as a whole, and this also came up in some of the Readings for January 30 on William F. Buckley, Jr.

Was Conservatism Just a Backlash?

As historian Kim Phillips-Fein noted in a recent article, historians used to explain the conservative movement that became increasingly prominent after 1970 as a backlash against the liberal movements of the Sixties.

But that explanation is not entirely satisfying mainly because of the longevity of the movement; there were conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly organizing in the 1950s and immediately after World War II. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, historians now believe, was not just a flash in the pan. It was the product of a longer grassroots conservative movement that was midstream and gaining steam even as he lost the presidency.

If Not Just a Backlash to the 1960s, Then …

Now that historians know more about the longer history of conservatism in the postwar period, at least two big questions remain:

  • If the conservative movement did not just spring out of nowhere in the 1970s, but instead had begun to organize in the 1950s and 1960s, when and why did it originate?
  • If the radicalism of 1960s did not create the conservative movement, did it at least change the kinds of arguments that conservatives made or focused on?
  • The “conservative movement” by the 1970s was a big tent encompassing both cultural conservatives like the evangelical Jerry Falwell and secular “small government” conservatives who disliked social spending and high taxes. What made this motley assortment of activists choose to stick together? Is there a fundamental conservative position that was capable of uniting disparate anti-liberal groups in the postwar period, other than simply being “against” liberalism?

I have added each of the above “bullet point” questions to our main Questions page.

Rethinking the 1950s

Thinking about the “longer” history of the grassroots conservative movement also raises questions about how we think about both the 1950s and the 1960s.

For example, in class on January 18, we watched a TV ad featuring a housewife from the 1950s, which depicted a woman glad she could have a second car so she could go shopping while her husband was at work and not be chained to the home anymore. If all we had to evaluate the 1950s was this ad, we might conclude that women were trapped in their roles as housewives and engaged in little public activity beyond their local PTA.

But as I mentioned in Friday’s lecture, other evidence tells us this picture is not totally accurate. Phyllis Schlafly ran for Congress in 1952, and wrote a campaign book for Goldwater that sold 3.5 million copies. And other conservative women were organizing groups like the Women’s Republican Study Club of Los Angeles in 1952.1

On the other end of the political spectrum, feminists and liberal women were also active in the 1950s—the decade in which women were supposedly all trapped in their homes. We’ve seen that in class by talking about the Daughters of Bilitis. But another example is the feminist Betty Friedan.

Friedan, who served as a president of NOW in the 1960s, was famous for writing the book The Feminist Mystique, published in 1963. It was a book that used Friedan’s own experience to describe the life of a middle-class suburban housewife as a stifling cage that forced women to give up political activity and their own careers. Yet as Friedan’s recent biographer Daniel Horowitz has pointed out, Friedan’s actual experience didn’t always match what she described. Like her conservative counterparts in California, Friedan was active in community and grassroots politics in the 1950s and even commuted into New York City to teach college writing classes.

In short, women like Friedan and Schlafly challenge the image of 1950s housewives locked into a private world of caring for kids while their husbands worked. Yet both of them, for very different reasons, also contributed to the popularization of the idea that women in the 1950s were housewives first and activists second; Schlafly always emphasized the positive nature of her role as a traditional housewife, while Friedan argued that the traditional housewife role was pervasive but negative. All the while, neither of them was really living what we would think of as the “traditional” housewife’s life!

All of this raises a couple more interesting questions:

  • Given that the image of the traditional, heterosexual housewife trapped in the suburbs was not universally true in the 1950s, why did activists as different as Schlafly and Friedan promote this image as typical of the period?
  • Did the suburban prosperity that grew after World War 2, making possible things like the purchase of multiple cars per family, actually make it easier for women to engage in political activism than before?

Rethinking the 1960s

The more that historians rethink the 1950s and the longevity of the grassroots conservative movement, the more they are also rethinking the 1960s. Although we typically think of this decade as one typified by the counterculture and the student-led New Left, people like Brookhiser (featured in the Readings for January 30) show that many young people were conservative in the 1960s too. Instead of seeing the 1960s as a period of radical liberalism followed by a conservative backlash in the 1970s, perhaps it is more accurate to see the 1960s as a period of continued contest and struggle between liberals and conservatives that began in the 1950s and continued throughout the decades that followed.

Of course, there were also clear changes in the 1960s (as we saw in the progression of the “gay rights” movement from homophile organizations to gay liberation). But recognizing the longevity of the conservative movement also forces historians to consider which trend in the 1960s was more powerful—the social changes launched by liberal movements, or the gradually increasing power of a grassroots conservative movement that quickly rebounded from the 1964 setback of Goldwater’s loss.

  1. See also Michelle Nickerson, “Women, Domesticity, and Postwar Conservatism,” OAH Magazine of History (January 2003): 17-20, available online.