Women for Constitutional Government (WCG)
Women for Constitutional Government (WCG) was a conservative group that built upon the developing opposition to racial integration, especially in the schools, across the South in the early 1960s. It was active until the mid-1980s.
The organization traced its beginnings to an effort in response to James Meredith integrating the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962. Florence Sillers Ogden, Margaret Preaster, and Edna Whitfield organized the Women for Constitutional Government in an effort to present the growing opposition to the federal government’s support of the civil rights movement in a context broader than just racial segregation. Targeting white women, they sought to make people view the arrival of federal troops in Mississippi as a liberal federal government’s determination to further a social agenda in direct conflict with individual and states’ rights.
The organization began with a meeting of between 1,500 and 1,800 white women who were determined to push back against the actions of the administration of John F. Kennedy. Gathering in Jackson, Mississippi, on October 30, 1962, the women—who had come from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Texas—listened to Ogden, who was a columnist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and was also the daughter of Mississippi House Speaker Walter Sillers Sr., charge that the president sought to assert federal control over the nation’s families, its schools, and people’s religious beliefs. Issuing a veritable call to arms, she added that it was the responsibility of every white woman to “preserve the good life for her children—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Building upon the Jackson effort in January 1963, the WCG held its first national meeting in Montgomery, Alabama. While the organization claimed that it already had a million members, the Montgomery event drew barely 1,000; most attendees were from Alabama, but they did have representatives from fourteen states, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York. Of the former states of the Confederacy, only Virginia and Arkansas were not represented, although they both had similar organizations. Indeed, the events surrounding the controversial efforts to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1957 made Arkansas a state highly receptive to the arguments of the WCG and thus a surprising absence. But, in fact, the Little Rock crisis fueled the emergence of the anti-integration Mothers’ League of Central High School, a group that in its own way shined a spotlight on at least some of the WCG’s agenda, while foreshadowing many of its future efforts. Indeed, second in numbers and stature to only the men’s Capital Citizens’ Council, the Mothers’ League was a central force in the effort to resist the desegregation of Central High and to close the city’s public schools the following year. In the end, the group would prove to be at least an ideological forerunner of the Arkansas chapters of the WCG that ultimately began operation within about a year of the Montgomery meeting. Eventually, the Arkansas WCG presence in the state was manifested in multiple local active groups around the state.
While anti–civil rights activism dominated the organization’s early agenda, it was also on record as being fiercely opposed to U.S. participation in the United Nations. The early 1970s saw many state chapters, including Arkansas’s, turning their attention to the battle over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), joining with Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA in the effort to prevent the addition of the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In 1975, as the baton was passed from longtime president Mrs. H. L. Thompson to Mrs. John Newland (as the women’s names were rendered in reports at the time), the state chapter’s leadership asserted that it was a bipartisan and nonsectarian organization, while also emphasizing that it was not a states’ rights organization but was instead a group that “supported the preservation of individual freedom through the local government control of school and of city, county and state administration, particularly in the area of state law enforcement.” The Arkansas WCG also made it clear that membership was open to all women of conservative conviction who supported the group’s objective and convictions. Newland also emphasized her commitment to the ongoing campaign to prevent the ratification of the ERA, an effort in which they were successful, when Arkansas remained a holdout, leaving the ratification effort three states short.
The WCG also sought to return the nation to what it saw as its founding principles, at one point calling for the repeal of all constitutional amendments except for the Bill of Rights. At the same time, with local chapters free to engage in local politics, conservative women became a force in the resurgent Republican Party. While the group remained active only into the mid-1980s, its continuing influence was seen in the ongoing conservative movement that propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency—aided by the WCG’s efforts both nationally and in Arkansas.
For additional information:
Jacoway, Elizabeth. Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, the Crisis That Shocked the Nation. New York: Free Press, 2007.
McRae, Elizabeth Gillespie. Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
———. “Women for Constitutional Government.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/women-for-constitutional-government/ (accessed January 13, 2022).
“New State President Is Named by ACWG.” Courier News (Blytheville, Arkansas), June 19, 1975, p. 15.
“WCG Formed by Ladies Indignant over Federal Action.” Hattiesburg American (Hattiesburg, Mississippi), December 24, 1970, p. 19.
William H. Pruden
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