The Gendered Consequences of Legislation Targeting Critical Race Theory

The Gendered Consequences of Legislation Targeting Critical Race Theory

When Professor Silber asked us to reflect on what it means to study women and gender in the Civil War era, the news in the state of Texas, but also in other states, centered on efforts in the legislature to restrict what we teach in American history and the theoretical lenses we use to do so.  So, my comments take a bit of a turn, because of where I live and our present political moment. I want to focus on the fact that thinking seriously about women and gender in Civil War history, and in history more broadly, is a political act, perhaps more explicitly now than ever.

Recently, a host of state legislatures have passed laws to ban the inclusion of critical race theory in discussions of American history. Critical race theory–the recognition that there are racial inequalities built into many of the institutions in society, that these inequalities have historical roots, and that people’s identities are intersectional–has been around for a few decades, but it is clear that the award-winning 1619 Project spearheaded by journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones has touched a particular nerve. Many politicians, it turns out, do not appreciate the 1619 Project’s goal to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

In fact, in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill, which became law on Sept. 1, 2021, creating “The 1836 Project,” which invokes the year Texas seceded from Mexico and is intended to “promote patriotic education.” This law creates a committee to disseminate educational materials centering “Texas values” at state landmarks and in schools.[1]Another new Texas law related to “civics instruction” includes curriculum standards requiring students to understand documents including the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. The law directs Texas students to learn about the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution; and the relationship between Texas and Mexico.[2] It also demands that teachers must explore current events from multiple positions without giving “deference to any one perspective.” During the legislative process, the Senate attempted to remove from the House of Representatives’ bill more than two dozen requirements to study the writings or stories of multiple women and people of color.[3]

The gendered element of these laws has attracted much less attention than the laws’ implications for teaching about race. According to Texas lawmakers, these bills were intended to prevent students from being taught that one race or gender is superior to another.[4]

I think it’s worth reading in full the exact text of one of clauses of the new law:

No teacher, administrator, or other employee in any state agency, school district, campus, open-enrollment charter school, or school administration shall require, or make part of a course the following concepts: 1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; 2) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; 3) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex; 4) members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex; 5) an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex; 6) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race or sex; 7) any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; or 8) meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.

Seven of these eight restrictions call out perspectives that consider sex as unacceptable. This language is vague, so one wonders what would happen if a teacher assigned Professor Thavolia Glymph’s new book or some of the texts I found so formative (Theda Perdue’s Cherokee Women or Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society or Tiya Miles’ Ties that Bind or The House on Diamond Hill or Martha Hodes’ work on illicit sex).[5]  Does the proposed legislation outlaw the teaching of whole sub-disciplines in history? Would this panel be permissible under this legislation?

The Texas bills link the study of gender and race in ways that were perhaps less true 50 years ago.  One critique of the study of women and gender in the past, for instance, has been that women of color have been left out. Here I am thinking of All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave or This Bridge Called My Back.[6] We (historians, academics, feminists) often talk about our work, merely by including women and more sophisticated thinking about gender, as political and subversive, as dangerous and having the ability to upend power structures.  I think the present moment tells us how true that is.

And this moment reminds us that we have a public audience: we do not and should not write only for other academics.

 

[1] The text for this bill can be found here:  https://www.billtrack50.com/BillDetail/1334141.

[2] The original Texas Senate bill excluded the Fifteenth Amendment, but the final version of the legislation does include it. See https://capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup/Text.aspx?LegSess=87R&Bill=HB3979 for the final text.

[3] The text of the Senate bill can be found here:  https://www.billtrack50.com/BillDetail/1357834. Journalist Kate McGee discusses the changes here: https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/22/texas-critical-race-theory-legislature/.

[4] The text of the law explicitly makes this claim, as do Texas politicians such as Lt. Governor Dan Patrick:  https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/05/texas-critical-race-theory-schools-legislature/.

[5] Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: the Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998) and Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540-1866 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987); Tiya Miles, Ties that Bind: the Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) and The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

[6] Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982) and Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.