Desperately trying to close the gap with Joe Biden, President Donald Trump is reaching for a segment of the population he sees as reliably Republican — suburban voters, especially white suburban mothers. During Tuesday’s first presidential debate, Biden shut down Trump’s talk of suburbia: “He wouldn’t know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn.” Biden is echoing those who’ve noted that the president’s conception of the suburbs is outdated, as they have steadily moved leftward, favoring Democrats by a seven-point margin in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump’s archaic understanding can be found not in the suburbs of 2020 but in the Republican imagination, where “suburb,” “American Dream” and “housewife” stand as symbols of white middle-class success. Biden’s barb highlighted this gap between vision and reality.
The Republican concept of the suburbs dates to the 19th century. As the United States industrialized, middle-class families took advantage of streetcar technology to flee the smoky air and crowded environs of cities for more bucolic homesteads on the outskirts. From popular magazines and national newspapers grew a shared set of ideals regarding success, virtuous living and the attributes of a happy home.
At the center stood the industrious, white, Christian housewife who applied as much ambition to the work of domestic life as her husband did to maximizing efficiency and production in the nation’s growing manufacturing sector. Two of the most widely read authorities on housewifery in their day, Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” declared in their now classic 1869 tome, “The American Woman’s Home,” “It has been shown that it is the best end for a woman to seek the training of God’s children for their eternal home by guiding them to intelligence, virtue, and true happiness.”
Yet, instead of confining women to the home, the fusion of femininity and domesticity actually animated female activity in social, community and political affairs across the ideological spectrum. The progressive spirit of the late 19th century inspired what reformers called “social housekeeping” to describe what they perceived as women’s distinct ability to clean up corrupt politics. Elevated class status and imagined female moral superiority carried a responsibility to participate in the era’s improvement projects.
Others felt a similar obligation, but for the purposes of preserving the racial status quo of the Jim Crow era. white female supremacists in Virginia, for example, used their position in the community to police the lines of segregation by going door to door as registrars, classifying the racial status of residents for enforcement of the state’s Racial Integrity Act.
After World War II, the growth of the economy and other developments led to an explosion of residential development as American postwar culture celebrated new ideals of domestic life. This vision typically featured a mother, always white, who took care of her family’s needs without a sweat thanks to a cornucopia of new consumer goods — from kitchen appliances to cake mixes to affordable cutlery — and was embodied by characters such as June Cleaver and Lucille Ball on the new television shows of the age.
Though many real-life housewives were in fact Black and Latina, the white skin of housewives in popular culture reflected real policies — such as redlining by banks, federally insured home loans being available only to white people and federal funding of new highways — that made suburbs overwhelmingly white.
But amid these changes, suburban white women still saw themselves as bearing responsibility for the political state of their communities. Animated by the Red Scare, these conservative wives of professionals and corporate managers became concerned as much by the threat of communism as by the civil disobedience of the Southern freedom movement, which most regarded as dangerous and destabilizing to social order. During the 1950s, this growing contingent of women from the upwardly mobile middle class became a recognizable grassroots force on the right, organizing in what they called “patriotic organizations.”
In their newsletters and “patriotic” bookstores, they celebrated free-market capitalism, promoted Christianity, condemned labor radicalism and circulated conspiracy theories about the United Nations. They promoted “back to basics” and patriotic school curricula that portrayed U.S. history as uniformly heroic in preference to progressive “whole child” education methods and history lessons that intentionally featured racially diverse actors. They also fought against racial integration of their children’s school districts.
These housewives had a real political impact, playing a formative role in nominating Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and starting the modern conservative movement. Their influence on the right helped forge the connection among the suburbs, housewives and the American Dream, which loomed large in the conservative imagination as bulwarks against the chaos they perceived in American cities and on college campuses during the 1960s.
The Goldwater campaign in fact tried to mobilize these activists by creating a fictitious organization called “Mothers for Moral America,” responsible for a campaign video so incendiary that it never aired. “Choice” featured extensive footage of rioting and looting, portrayed as part of a crime wave that threatened suburban families and their right to safely enjoy the American Dream.
Though the film and Goldwater campaign failed in 1964, the 1960s only accelerated the entry of women into the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Feminist demands for equity and reform made housewives on the right feel that their way of life was in danger. White Christian women drove the rise of the single issue anti-abortion movement and in the 1970s led the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment.
Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who participated in Notre Dame’s Faculty for Life organization as a law professor, represents decades of work by conservatives to cultivate women with acumen to champion their positions while actually living out the conservative family ideal of raising big, devout families. From nonprofits to news organizations to government agencies, these women leading the conservative movement tend not to call themselves “housewives” anymore, because even as they continue to extol the home, they have full-time jobs outside of it.
But while such women once embodied the suburbs, over the past three decades, Northern suburbs first, and now potentially Southern ones, have moved left as these Republican Party positions on cultural issues repel many more educated white voters — especially women. Going into the 2020 election, we see that Republican conceptions of the suburbs have remained static, while shared loathing of intellectual elites increasingly reshaped the party’s base into the home of non-college-educated white Americans. Republicans’ increasing emphasis on racial panic and anti-immigrant policies, meanwhile, has repulsed more voters from diverse suburbs that today attract professionals, business people and workers — many of them Black, Latino, Asian American and immigrant.
Yet, even the rise of conservative female professionals such as Barrett has not changed the Republican emphasis on the suburban housewife of old, mainly as a symbol of familial well-being and safety. Though polling shows suburban women increasingly worried about the risk of COVID-19, anti-vaccine campaigns and gun violence, the president tweeted on Aug. 12: The “‘suburban housewife will be voting for me.” Why? Because “they want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low-income housing would invade their neighborhood.” Just as “housewife” stands for “white middle-class women,” “low-income” stands for poor Black people who, in the Republican imagination, menace the housewife and her children; they are the so-called invaders. This explains the inclusion of St. Louis couple Mark and Patricia McCloskey at the Republican Convention, speaking from their living room, just steps away from where they had pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters a few weeks earlier. The Trump campaign hopes that the suburban housewife can symbolize white vulnerability to Black violence.
But far from securing the suburbs for Trump, this focus presents a problem for the GOP in November and beyond. Republicans hold dear to colorblind politics, as in “I don’t see color” and “All Lives Matter.” They argue that structural inequality is a leftist invention. This willful denial and their outdated sense of suburban women offers Democrats an opportunity to mobilize voters who are eager for policies aimed at effectively addressing the racial and economic disparities at the heart of the current crisis — and addressing the real concerns of the 2020 suburbanite, not a relic from the politics of old.
Michelle Nickerson is is associate professor of history at Loyola University History and author of “Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right.”