Letters Archive
Spring 2003, Vol. 11, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Gender, Sexuality, and the Public Interest:
From State Policy to Academic Pedagogy
By Lisa Duggan

During 2002/2003, the Fellows Program at the Warren Center is taking on a double-edged challenge: to create an interdisciplinary conversation among scholars working in the field of gender and sexuality studies, and to forge links from this scholarship to the range of arenas in which issues of gender and sexuality engage the public interest. Toward these ends, I join Vanderbilt faculty from the fields of literature, communications, political theory, philosophy, and history to map the overlapping territories of our common research and teaching interests and to explore the political and cultural debates that surround them. Our discussions during the fall 2002 semester have therefore included the planning of a new graduate Gender Studies certificate program at Vanderbilt, consideration of the organization and content for a new textbook in the history of sexuality, and dissection of the controversies framing the emergence of contemporary transgender identities and politics.

I feel especially lucky to join the Warren Center Fellows Program this year, as my own research, teaching, writing, and activism intersect with this year’s theme (“Gender, Sexuality, and Cultural Politics”) and Fellows’ interests at multiple points. My first book, Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, (Routledge, 1995) co-authored with Nan Hunter, examines a range of debates in contemporary sexual politics. Drawing on insights from feminist political and social theory and women’s history, and addressing multiple audiences, we argue for the importance of historical context in understanding controversies over pornography, prostitution, public funding for homoerotic art, and the culture wars in higher education. Our primary goal was to create a set of productive links among various academic fields focusing on gender and sexuality and between this scholarship and diverse locations of public debate and policy formation. My second book, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence and American Modernity, (Duke University Press, 2000) focuses on a similar goal from a different angle of vision. This book traces the emergence of new sexual identities, specifically “lesbian” identity, in the period from 1880 to 1920. At that time, wide public exposure to new ideas about sexuality and identity occurred through the workings of a range of self-consciously modern national institutions—the courts, the mass circulation press, and new scientific publications and organizations, as well as through literary and popular cultural forms. Controversies over sexual identities and their meanings were centered in the state, implicated in the workings of the economy, and influenced by hierarchies of race, gender, and class. This web of related issues was not confined to some marginal zone of “merely cultural” concern, but affected the core concepts of equality, freedom, democracy, and citizenship during the first half of the twentieth century.

As I continued to reflect on this set of issues, the notorious Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal gripped center stage in U.S. national politics, raising the question of the relationship of gender and sexuality to state politics in both a highlighted and a distressingly fuzzy and distorting way. In response, I co-edited a volume of essays with literary scholar Lauren Berlant, Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the Public Interest (New York University Press, 2001). This collection of articles addressed the broad political and cultural impact of the Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal and the related effort to impeach President Clinton, from perspectives not included in the mountain of commentary by pundits and politicos that saturated the corporate media as the scandal dragged on. Contributors included historians, social scientists, literary and cultural critics, journalists, and activists. This project, like Sex Wars, was designed to cross the disciplinary boundaries of scholarly investigation and to address broad public debates, timely issues, and multiple audiences.

The interests and engagements reflected in all of these projects—an emphasis on interdisciplinary exchange, and on academic/activist cross-fertilizations on issues of gender, sexuality, and politics—brought me to the Warren Center Fellows Program this year, where my next two projects are now in progress. During the fall, I am finishing a short book to be published by Beacon Press, The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Decline of Democracy. This book outlines and analyzes the hidden and internally conflicted cultural and sexual agendas of “neoliberalism”—the brand name for the form of pro-corporate, “free market, anti-big government” rhetoric shaping U.S. policy and dominating international financial institutions since the early 1980s. Neoliberalism, associated primarily with economic and trade policy, is often presented not so much as a particular set of interests and political interventions, but as a kind of non-politics. Neoliberalism appears as a way of being reasonable and of promoting universally desirable forms of economic expansion and democratic government globally. Who could be against greater wealth and more democracy? Since the fall of the Soviet empire at the end of the 1980s, neoliberals (who range from conservative Republicans like George W. Bush to centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton) have argued that all alternatives to the U.S. model have failed—fascism, communism, socialism, and even the relatively mild forms of the welfare state advocated by social democrats, labor movements, and neo-Keynesians. Not trumpeted are the sharply declining participation rates in the Western “democracies,” and the rapidly expanding, vast economic inequalities that neoliberal policies have generated in the U.S. and Great Britain, especially.

The cultural politics of neoliberalism are considered and debated relatively rarely, except in discussions of the economic and political mechanisms of U.S. cultural imperialism. In the domestic arena, the “culture wars” of the past twenty years are generally discussed separately from questions of monetary and fiscal policy, trade negotiations, and economic indicators—the recognized realm of neoliberal policy. But in a wide range of cultural policy territories—from public spending for culture and education, to the “moral” foundations for welfare reform, and from affirmative action to marriage and domestic partnership debates—neoliberalism’s profoundly anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian agenda has shaped public discussion. The ostensibly “non-political” neoliberalism proves, in fact, to have a contradictory and contested sexual politics, not unlike the equally contradictory and internally contested economic and trade politics that have defined the location “neoliberal” since the Reagan/ Thatcher ’80s.

The Twilight of Equality examines the development of neoliberalism’s cultural and identity politics since the 1970s. This development has been based on a master rhetoric of “public” vs. “private” life, that follows in the wake of bitter contests over those rhetorical boundaries during the New Deal of the 1940s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. During the 1970s and ’80s, the rhetoric and strategies of “privatization” grew from such seedbeds. In this book, the political agendas of neoliberalism—hidden behind its non-political managerial/technical facade—emerge from within this historical context.

The engagement in The Twilight of Equality, with the raging cultural and political battles over the New Deal and the civil rights movement, and with the interconnecting battles over the politics of gender and sexuality from the 1940s through the 1980s, led me to my next long-term research interest—and the one to which I will be devoting most of my time at the Warren Center to developing—the political and cultural storms surrounding the career of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. This book will examine Helms's political journey, and through it the deployment of race, gender, and sexuality in the long term shift from the New Deal political cultures of the 1930s and ’40s to Republican dominance of national electoral politics in the 1980s. I hope to show the linkages of the politics of gender, sexuality, class, and race with contested economic changes and public policy debates.

At this moment, as Jesse Helms leaves the national stage following his retirement from the U.S. Senate, the meanings of American nationalism have rarely seemed more contested and globally consequential. Following the events of September 11, 2001, the legacy of Helms’s brand of U.S. unilateralism and racial nationalism lives on, though in a political context vastly changed from the Cold War, anti-New Deal, anti-civil rights movement politics that shaped his efforts during the 1950s and ’60s and the New Right Republican “family values” conservatism that brought him to national prominence in the 1970s and ’80s. “One Nation? Jesse Helms and the Politics of Americanism” will assess Helms’s legacy in a series of chronologically organized, thematically focused, and interrelated historical essays designed to connect questions of state policy, foreign relations, and economic decision-making to issues of racial conflict, gender hierarchies, and sexual politics in the United States.

Simultaneously marginal and central, ridiculed and feared, Jesse Helms has been a paradoxical figure in American politics. Seemingly occupying the far right edge of the political spectrum in national party politics since his election to the Senate in 1972, Helms has nonetheless wielded considerable power over more centrist and mainstream colleagues—most recently as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Many of the themes and projects of the present Republican party echo those of Helms’s long career in local, state, regional, national, and even international politics.

“One Nation?” will trace Helms’s political formation and impact, from his early newspaper and radio editorials of the 1950s and ’60s, through his local political activism as a member of the Democratic Party, to his 1970 conversion to the Republicans, including his high profile Senate campaigns and career. The point will be to focus on Helms, not in order to reconstruct his life story, but in order to illuminate the economic, cultural, and political forces that shaped him, and that he in turn manipulated. The overall analytic interest of the study will be in the shifts in the contested meanings of “Americanism,” from the post World War II period to this war-poised moment in U.S. political culture broadly conceived. The focus on Helms will provide a lens through which to clarify and analyze this shift, tracing mutually intertwined contests over race, morality, religion, foreign policy, and global political and economic institutions.

The chapters included in the book will address a series of questions in a range of thematic areas, including Helms’s constant focus on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. For example, as early as 1950, when New Dealer and anti-segregationist Frank Porter Graham of North Carolina ran for the Senate, Willis Smith opposed him in the Democratic primary with ads that read, “WAKE UP WHITE PEOPLE. Do You Want Negroes Working Beside You, Your Wife and Daughters? Using Your Toilet Facilities? Frank Graham Favors Mingling of the Races.” The media consultant for this campaign was the young Jesse Helms. From that time to the present day, race, gender, and sexuality have been a central theme of Helms’s political strategies and goals. In this he has been both completely typical, reflecting both regional and national histories of racial inequality and race baiting, as well as pioneering in developing new approaches to the explicit and coded use of race in constructing transmuting forms of racial nationalism in the postwar period. The study will analyze the intersections of this racial nationalism with issues of gender and sexuality and with economic policies and global politics during this period.

Helms’s political rhetoric and strategies were developed at the crossroads of conservatism and populism. As a specifically Southern political figure, Helms shares much with a broad and varied range of Southern populists, including Huey P. Long, Strom Thurmond, and George Wallace. But he also shares a political tradition of right wing conservatism represented by figures from other regions, such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. “One Nation?” will examine the convergence of various streams of populism and conservatism, in the South and elsewhere, in the production of the “New Right” in the 1980s. Helms is a central figure in this convergence, with a hand in a huge range of fundraising and organizational efforts leading to national visibility in the 1980 presidential campaign.

Jesse Helms is actually one of the architects of the massively expensive, media savvy modern political campaign. His $22 million race against Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., in 1984 was, at the time, the most costly Senate campaign in American history. His campaign in 1990 against former Charlotte mayor Harvey B. Gantt raised the negative attack advertising campaign strategy to new levels (laying the groundwork particularly for George H. W. Bush’s notorious Willie Horton ad in the late 1980s). This study will examine the economic, political, and cultural underpinnings for this kind of campaign. The construction of Helms’s massive fundraising machine, his ties to particular industries (especially tobacco and banking), and his use of “hot button” cultural issues to manipulate political allegiances and alignments through television advertising will all be addressed.

And it is in the deployment of the “hot button” issue that Helms has especially excelled. More than any other single politician, Jesse Helms has been responsible for the late twentieth century “culture war.” His attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts during the 1980s helped galvanize similar attacks on the humanities and public broadcasting in the 1990s. These attacks built on anti-state and anti-tax sentiment, crystallized in voter initiatives following California’s Proposition 13, passed during the 1970s. Helms worked to link suspicion of public expenditure in general, to hostility to “elite culture,” especially feminist, gay, and left artists and arts institutions. The study will focus on the growth of these attacks and their place in larger strategies for shrinking the “public sphere” for economic redistribution as well as artistic, cultural, and political debate.

Though these attacks on “obscene” art and arts funding led to ever higher public visibility for Helms, his impact has not been solely or even primarily in the arena of art and culture. Since the 1970s, Helms has participated in building the foundations for a nationally based, neoliberal/conservative libertarian politics of the minimal state, with an emphasis on a low wage, low service economy, pro-business, anti-regulatory public policies, and isolationist international relations (always in fierce contest with global economic interests based or represented in the U.S. by conservative, as well as centrist, neoliberal institutions and politicians). These approaches to government have been precariously combined in Helms's political philosophy, with religiously based moral conservatism and state-promoted “family values” (also fiercely debated across the full spectrum of electoral politics). Such apparent contradictions have been joined in images of “the nation” in Helms’s political rhetoric, along with his construction of citizenship and the national “interest.” This study will analyze and contextualize Helms’s invocation of “family values,” “morality,” and “common sense” with particular forms of “free market” and racial nationalism, through shifting alignments of racial, sexual, and gendered figures from the 1950s through the end of the twentieth century.

The intersecting questions and issues in this project and in the earlier ones that have brought me to the Warren Center during 2002/2003 will continue to develop as I work on my own research this year. The opportunity to share these questions and explore these issues with a group of scholars from such a broad range of disciplines and with various engagements in scholarship, pedagogy, politics, and policy is especially challenging, as well as promising. By the term’s end there will be much more to report from these quarters.

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