The Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellowship provided me with the opportunity to reconstruct the history of “the family” in American politics from the 1960s to the present, writes Howell Williams. The British Library’s collections were essential for documenting transitions in rhetoric, such as how conservative anti-gay rhetoric has shifted from a public moral crusade to a matter of individual personal conscience in recent years.
The postgraduate fellowship from the Eccles Centre has been instrumental in the development of my doctoral research on rhetoric on “the family” in American politics from the 1960s to the present. My dissertation looks at the ways that familial language has changed during this time period, and the fellowship provided me the opportunity to reconstruct the history of the late-20th century using both primary archival documents and secondary scholarly sources. Over the course of the last year I have made three separate trips to the British Library, taking advantage of both the main library in London as well as the reading room on the sprawling library campus in Boston Spa,
Yorkshire (note to future fellows: spending a day at the latter provides a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of this world-class institution).
on the sprawling library campus in Boston Spa, During my time at the library I conducted research on two projects, each comprising chapters from my doctoral thesis. The bulk of my time at the library was spent reconstructing the history of Anita Bryant’s 1977 campaign against protections for gays and lesbians in Dade County, Florida. Bryant, a spokeswoman for Florida Orange Juice, became the face of anti-gay activism in the late 70s as she successfully petitioned to have a county ordinance protecting people from homophobic discrimination overturned. Her “Save Our Children” campaign mobilized a rhetoric that portrayed gays and lesbians as inherently dangerous to children, giving rise to a major theme in conservative “family values” discourse. Using the library’s extensive collection of materials from the era, including her cookbook Bless This Food, I determined the particular mix of religious conviction and public activism that made Bryant such a transformational figure. In the decade following Bryant’s campaign, American conservatism would become synonymous with protecting families from the dangerous and immoral encroachment of an activist government.
Using this research I constructed a comparative analysis between Bryant and Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who made headlines in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, citing her religious beliefs. The British Library had a number of useful sources for considering religious freedom arguments in American history, including Thomas Jefferson’s “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” Comparing Bryant and Davis demonstrates how conservative anti-gay rhetoric has shifted from a public moral crusade to a matter of individual personal conscience.
The second project I undertook through the Eccles Centre fellowship was a history of the American welfare system. Scholars have written volumes on the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) welfare system, which Bill Clinton famously campaigned to end in 1992. For this research I treated secondary sources as primary documents, determining how scholars write about welfare and how their approach to the topic changed over the course of the 20th century. This research revealed a number of interesting findings about the role of familial discourse in changing attitudes around welfare both in the scholarly community as well as in the broader public. For example, mid-century experts argued forcefully for welfare reform from a liberal perspective. Culminating in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, the liberal case against AFDC was transmogrified by conservatives in the 1970s as a justification for gutting welfare entirely. The British Library’s collections were essential for documenting this historical transition.
Over three trips to the British Library I immersed myself in the intellectual and cultural construction of American conservatism during the 1970s. This research provides important background for understanding contemporary uses of familial language. President Barack Obama has made family a central element of his political persona, and my research provides a genealogy of these familial invocations. Using the Library’s vast collection, I charted shifts in language, emergence of new concepts, and co-optation of themes by various actors in American politics. I am very grateful to the Eccles Centre for the opportunity to conduct this research.
Howell Williams is a PhD candidate in Politics at the New School for Social Research.