White Southern Women Have Always Defended an America That Doesn't Exist

White Southern Women Have Always Defended an America That Doesn't Exist
Image:Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

Gone With the Wind’s opening sequence includes an epigraph that reads, “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow… Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.” The film, based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, paints white Southern women as beautiful defenders of that downhome dream, one that carefully avoids an accurate history of the enslavement, murder, and bigotry that built and maintains much of our nation’s framework to this day. And the idea of white Southern women as pretty protectors of American goodness has remained a prevalent one in pop culture, from Gone With the Wind to The Help. So it’s no surprise that many of Donald Trump’s main defenders are white Southern women—they’ve most likely been preparing for this role their entire lives.

Growing up in the South, much of a woman’s identity is tied up in acting the part of the well-mannered belle, good-naturedly interested in God, family, and niceness above all else. At best, that performance gives us Dolly Parton; at worst, Paula Deen. The polished (and usually blonde) outward shell, coupled with the South’s evangelical-influenced paranoia that anyone diverging from the white, heteronormative family mold is attempting to dismantle it, makes Southern women like Lara Trump, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn the perfect champions of the Trump administration. Just as Mitchell’s novel worked to re-write history by centering the Civil War on pretty Southern women, Trump’s army of belles work to reframe a racist, sexist, and utterly regressive presidency as an administration dedicated to preserving a country where all women currently enjoy the pretty world Mitchell imagined.

“I wasn’t born a Trump,” Lara Trump told the audience in her RNC address. “I’m from the South. I was raised a Carolina girl.” The inclusion of those lines is obviously intended to lend credence to her assertions that the Trump family is warm and hospitable, despite reports that abound of Donald Trump as a philandering narcissist and his own family members’ reports that he is a spoiled, petty tyrant. But Lara’s perfect blonde blowout and Miss America makeup seem designed to appeal to the Trump administration’s idea of suburban, white women voters, whom they deem more afraid of their property values dropping than threats to their equality. Lara also made a point to list all the way that women have thrived within the Trump administration, giving pre-pandemic statistics for gains in women’s employment and ignoring the fact women’s unemployment is back to 2015 levels. “Vote for us, ladies, you have all the jobs you need and the Trumps are nice people. You can trust me because I’m a Southerner,” seemed to be her thesis.

One of the lowlights of the Republican National Convention’s suffrage night was an abbreviated history of women’s right to vote, with Lara beginning the montage of historic photographs by reminding viewers that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. The video stresses the anti-slavery stance of suffragettes Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton before Lara proudly announces that Susan B. Anthony was arrested, not just for voting, but voting for “every Republican on the ballot.” She concludes by revealing the true hero of this story—her father-in-law Donald Trump—by calling his recent pardon of Susan B. Anthony’s 142-year-old crime a “bold declaration of rights for women.”

Just after the video implied that modern-day Republicans and Donald Trump in particular were the real heroes of both the Civil War and the women’s rights movement, Kayleigh McEnany took the stage to introduce her self as a supporter of President Trump looking to “share… how he supported me.” She then proceeded to tell the story of her preventative bilateral mastectomy, offering Trump’s call to her in the hospital as proof that he cares about women and those with pre-existing conditions.

Both Lara and McEnany’s speeches served to rewrite history in order to humanize the Trump administration as a warm-hearted family business that elevates women and empathizes when they are hurting. Marsha Blackburn, on the other hand, went on the attack while looking like a Sunday school teacher in a soft blonde shoulder-length blowout and tasteful pearls. In her gentle, rolling accent, she painted a picture of Democrats as a party that hates families, religion, and decency, instead embracing lawlessness and chaos by shunning the police and insisting upon stay-at-home orders.

“They close our churches but keep the liquor stores and abortion clinics open,” she wailed, without giving any further specifics. And the defenders of those churches, according to Blackburn, is a police force under siege by “leftists,” looking to destroy law and order in order to keep Americans shuttered in their homes and dependant on the government. “They try to defund them,” Blackburn said, “our military, our police, even ICE to take away their tools to keep us safe… the encourage protests, riots, and looting in the street.” By contrast, Blackburn said, “President Trump has stood up for our heroes every day.”

Blackburn’s fire and brimstone portrayal of the godless lawlessness that awaits us in a Trump-free America is reminiscent of a scene in Gone With the Wind in which the men of the film attend a “political meeting” in order to clear out a shantytown that’s painted as a danger to decent, delicate Southern women. The allusion, of course, is to a Klan rally that Margaret Mitchell, populist defender of the South, repurposed as a band of heroes protecting a “dream” that never existed. Using well-groomed, soft-spoken white Southern women has long served as a sleight-of-hand to rewrite history. Sending out three blonde Southerners on suffrage night to defend “good” families from riot-thirsty leftists was a strategic move on the part of the administration to wrap ugly realities in genteel trappings.

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