Following James Meredith’s arrival at the University of Mississippi in 1962, Florence Sillers Ogden, Margaret Preaster, and Edna Whitfield organized Women for Constitutional Government (WCG), which sought to place opposition to the federal government’s involvement in the civil rights movement on a platform broader than racial segregation. The organization encouraged white women to understand federal troops on Mississippi soil as one of many examples of an intrusive, left-leaning federal government that subsumed individual rights to liberal social aims.
On 30 October 1962 between fifteen hundred and eighteen hundred white women from Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania gathered in Jackson, where they heard Ogden, a Jackson Clarion-Ledger columnist and daughter of Walter Sillers Sr., the longtime Speaker of the Mississippi House, claim that federal marshals treated white children like criminals and denied their right to assemble and protest. Pres. John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, Ogden continued, promised federal control of families, schools, and religious practices. Every white woman had a responsibility to “preserve the good life for her children—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In January 1963 the WCG held its first national meeting in Montgomery, Alabama. Although the group claimed to have nearly one million members, only one thousand women showed up. Delegates from fourteen states were in attendance, including women from Chicago and Peoria, Illinois, though most came from Alabama. Alabama First Lady Lurleen Wallace welcomed the women. Ogden and Mary Cain, a longtime conservative newspaper editor and owner of the Summit Sun, provided keynote addresses. The following year, the Mississippi organization urged Gov. Paul Johnson not to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the group hesitated to support Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy, fearing that he would cave into to more moderate demands of the Republican Party.
The organization tried to paint itself as a large conservative umbrella organization but could never really cast aside its racial politics. In addition to support for segregation and states’ rights and opposition to federal involvement in civil rights matters, the WCG’s platform included opposition to communism, the United Nations, and water fluoridation. In its quest to “preserve the US Constitution,” it also called for a repeal of all the constitutional amendments beyond the Bill of Rights. Members worked to elect politicians true to “conservative principles” rather than party politics, to register white voters, and in later years to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Local chapters were allowed to develop and pursue their own political strategies.
The WCG urged its members to ignore mainstream media, which had supposedly been infiltrated by liberals, and instead to look to such publications as the Smoot Report, the National Defense Bulletin (published by the Daughters of the American Revolution), and the Wall Street Journal. For twenty years Cain published the WCG’s organ, the Woman Constitutionalist, which spoke out in support of Phyllis Schlafly, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, and featured a column Cain wrote as well as excerpts from other conservative periodicals.
Though the WCG eventually spread to forty states and remained active until the mid-1980s, it never achieved the kind of influence for which its founders had hoped. Nevertheless, its actions reveal the importance of women in the rise of the Right in the 1970s and 1980s and demonstrate that movement’s links to the politics of white supremacy.
- Mary Dawson Cain Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- Lisa Speer, “Contrary Mary: The Life of Mary Dawson Cain” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 1998)
- Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy (2018)
- Florence Sillers Ogden Papers, Charles W. Capps Jr. Archives and Museum, Delta State University