The subtle sexism and cunning conservatism of the North Carolina History Project
Though many of the projects and foundations funded by Art Pope are upfront about their conservative bent, the North Carolina History Project (northcarolinahistory.org/) bills itself as "an edited, evolving, and free online encyclopedia of North Carolina that also includes commentaries, lesson plans, and a community calendar" and its website as "a special project of the John Locke Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina." However, an extensive study of their work reveals that the NCHP champions subjects that fit into a conservative, anti-feminist worldview while glossing over the bigoted legacy of conservative icons such as Jesse Helms.
The North Carolina History Project picks its subjects carefully. For the most part, the women chosen for inclusion are unmarried, have stories that fit into a conservative world-view, or both. They're also hard to find, since only four women are tagged as "women" in the NCHP database. Annie L. Alexander, the first woman licensed to practice medicine in North Carolina, is one person who can be found under the "women" tag:
Mrs. Alexander fretted over bearing the cost of medical training, only to have Annie marry and forgo a career as a physician. Dr. Alexander's response was blunt: "She must never marry. She'll serve humanity."
Charlotte Hawkins Brown, mentioned in the article on the Palmer Memorial Institute, did marry, but the marriage only lasts five years. While running the institute, Brown took the suggestion to teach "basic living skills and deemphasize academics and industrial education." Susie Sharp, the first Female Chief Justice of a State Supreme Court in America, was no fan of the working mom:
Although she held an enviable judicial position, Sharp no doubt disappointed women’s rights activists. Sharp once said: “The trouble comes when a woman tries to be too many things at one time: a wife, a mother, a career woman, a femme fatale… A woman has to draw up a blueprint. She has got to budget her life.” Judge Sharp never married.
A conservative worldview is often injected into the articles on North Carolina women. Anne Atkins doesn't seem notable, but she helped improve the lot of her family "Despite being widowed at a young age and paying increased property taxes." Married women finally appear in earnest when they lead Tea Parties in Wilmington and Edenton. While Ella Baker is certainly notable as the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the NCHP focuses on Baker as a civil rights leader who left the Southern Christian Leadership Conference due to differences with Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Countering King's philosophy, Baker argued that 'strong people don't need strong leaders." After being roundly praised by the NCHP, the aforementioned Sharp is credited in her NCHP entry as rejecting the "'Feminist' label" and opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. According to the NCHP, "Some have credited her ... for playing a big part in defeating the ERA in North Carolina."
Another anti-feminist championed by the NCHP is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who famously criticized America's "lack of manliness" in a speech at Harvard University. However, he is more notable as an example of the NCHP's sanitized reconstruction of conservative heroes. Solzhenitsyn is profiled along with Jesse Helms in an article entitled "Champions of Freedom: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jesse Helms, Heroes in the War against Communism." The article casts the two men as stalwart defenders of freedom with a great "concern for those who were oppressed," and according to the NCHP their friendship "enhanced their ability to work effectively in fostering change in US policy that helped facilitate the end of Soviet Communist rule."
The article leaves out the legacy of intolerance left by the two men. Helms, of course, was a lifelong opponent of civil rights and a unabashed unreconstructed Southerner - though this is ignored in both the Solzhenitzsyn/Helms commentary and in the NCHP's entry on Helms. Interestingly, Solzhenitsyn is described - even by some conservatives - as an anti-Semite. In 2004, the libertarian magazine Reason detailed Solzhenitzsyn's views, including his opinion that Russians and Jews shared guilt for Jewish oppression. From Reason, "To talk about mutual guilt is a bit like asking blacks to accept their share of blame for Jim Crow."
While cleaning up the legacy of conservative heroes, the NCHP leaves out many Democratic heroes. Lillian Exum Clement, the first woman elected to a state legislature in the South, seems like a logical choice for inclusion in a North Carolina Encyclopedia; and if Jesse Helms has an entry, why not Terry Sanford, Sam Ervin, or Jim Hunt? North Carolina's first African-American Sheriff (and the founder of one of Wake County's first charter schools) John Baker is included, so why not Harvey Gantt? These (and other) sins of omission could be forgiven if the NCHP was a partisan encyclopedia, but the NCHP is funded as a non-profit project and trumpets its ability to be used as a teaching resource.
North Carolina historian John Hope Franklin - another sin of omission - is probably rolling in his grave.
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