When Did Cross-Ideological Coalitions Become Impossible?

In 1984, conservatives and radical feminists tried to pass an anti-pornography ordinance: that failure had consequences

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When did coalitional organizing between feminists and conservative women become impossible?

As a feminist there is a place and time that I remember the divide becoming unbridgeable: Indianapolis, in the spring of 1984. There, led by Mayor William Hudnut, III Republican politician Beulah Coughenour and local movement conservatives, that city became one of the few municipalities that passed the model anti-pornography civil rights ordinance written by radical feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. It was a bill that permitted people harmed by pornography to sue those who made and sold it—one that took the regulation of sexual materials out of the realm of the state and put it in the hands of citizens.

The ordinance never went into effect. Hudnut signed it on May 2 1984, and almost immediately found himself in court answering a lawsuit filed by the American Booksellers Association and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. As a result, the ordinance did not survive legal scrutiny. In an even more catastrophic turn for feminism, a two-year fight to sustain the ordinance in Indianapolis and pass it in other cities ensued, a campaign increasingly opposed by other feminists who understood pornography as a crucial element of sexual freedom.

Thus, MacKinnon, Dworkin, and their allies increasingly found themselves characterized by other feminists as censors, “anti-sex,” and—the worst slur of all in the age of Reagan—conservatives.

Yet, being against pornography does not necessarily a conservative make. More importantly, at a moment of increasing polarization between left and right, radical anti-pornography feminists still believed they could find common ground. They believed that left-wing women could partner successfully, with conservative religious and political stakeholders in Indianapolis to provide redress to people harmed by pornographers. They believed they could create a newly diverse women’s movement that included, not just conservatives, but the poor, people of color, Christians and men.

But what was the incentive for Indianapolis conservatives to partner with feminists, who they had successfully defeated in the fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment less than five years earlier?

That’s an interesting question. I propose that in 1984, for Mayor William Hudnut and the ambitious new city councilwoman Beulah Coughenour, the point of an anti-pornography intitiative was not primarily family values, but an economic and urban development agenda they were already embarked on. Indianapolis had been hit hard by de-industrialization in the 1970s, and its sluggish economy had not been improved by Ronald Reagan’s economic policies. Like many cities, when legitimate businesses had moved out of working class neighborhoods over the past decade, the porn industry, peep shows, and strip joints had moved in.


Coughenour, a doctor’s wife and a mother who had leveraged her leadership of Indiana STOP ERA to run for City Council, had never been an anti-porn activist. Rather, she was an urban renewal activist, spearheading major infrastructure projects to jump start the re-development of Indianapolis’s urban core and its residential neighborhoods. “Cleaning up” an expanding sex trade was part of that.

Similarly, Hudnut, who had bravely declared Indianapolis an “All-American City,” the suppression of smut was consistent with a boosterish, pro-development agenda. This included passing a broad eminent domain bill to build a large, new football stadium and lure an NFL franchise. Indeed, a month before Hudnut signed the anti-pornography ordinance, the Baltimore Colts loaded their belongings into a convoy of trucks, arranged by Hudnut, and left Baltimore for Indianapolis in the middle of the night.

Which leads me back to the question of how radical feminists thought they could work with Hudnut, Coughenour, and their conservative allies, to end porn. Hudnut was a guy who brought people together and got things done. Coughenour was a successful local organizer. And what is difficult to grasp in an era in which political polarization has become the norm is that two groups that wanted the same thing for different reasons believed they could work together. They didn’t have to accept the other’s ideology, just agree on the endgame.

It’s hard to describe how deep the differences between these three groups ran. Radical anti-pornography feminists viewed the porn industry as a matrix of violence, one that served as a barrier to women’s sexual freedom and their equality as citizens. Conservatives, however, viewed pornography as a dangerous realm of free sexual choice for both men and women, one that endangered heteronormative family formation and the safety of the private sphere. City boosters, regardless of their politics, saw porn as a form of urban blight that prevented the city from retooling as a modern metropolis.

All three groups also spoke to the persistent economic neglect of the working class urban core. Even as we can’t forget that sex workers were themselves most frequently working class, the appearance of pornography businesses signaled a neigborhood in decline. Working class people who saw grocery and hardware stores replaced by peep shows and adult bookstores were less interested in the civil liberties and intellectual freedom of porn customers than in not being a sexual playground for white suburbanites.

Working class women were also more likely to feel the negative effects of the sex trade, not just from businesses encroaching on their neighborhoods, but in “straight” jobs. MacKinnon’s Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1979) explained that displaying porn, men fondling and groping female colleagues and subordinates, jokes about sexuality, and insisting on the exchange of sex for professional advancement, were significant barriers to workplace equity. MacKinnon’s work on behalf of Linda Boreman, of Deep Throat fame, showed that porn sets were also unregulated workplaces where women were subject to coercion and criminal violence.

In fact, protecting the integrity of working class neighborhoods was part of the model ordinance’s origin story in Minneapolis. An interracial progressive community group, Neighborhood Pornography Task Force, opposed a re-zoning that would shift the city’s sexual commerce out of a neighborhood being gentrified by whites and into nearby poor, working-class, and black neighborhoods. As Dworkin and MacKinnon explained to the Minneapolis City Council, zoning inevitably just pushed porn around until it settled among the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

In Minneapolis, where the ordinance was passed by the city council but vetoed by the mayor, MacKinnon and Dworkin learned that community activism was not enough to defeat a well-financed pornography industry. Mayor Hudnut’s reassurance that he would sign the bill if it was passed—not Indianapolis’s broad conservative base—was why that city became the next stop for their campaign.

Because the ordinance was overturned in Indianapolis as well, and never enforced prior to Supreme Court review, we will never really know how that story would have turned out. Would it have fueled a return to conservative anti-smut campaigns, as civil liberties opponents charged, causing bookstores to purge themselves of any sexual materials that might have made them vulnerable to a civil suit? Or would it have given women who were forced into pornography, and neighborhoods forced to host sexual commerce, a legitimate tool to fight their exploitation?


This struggle tells us more about a decade in which cross-ideological coalitions became increasingly difficult to conceive of. MacKinnon and Dworkin were personally smeared. Major news outlets promoted criticisms of them, some emanating from the pornography industry and some from feminist opponents. The attacks on the ordinance, its feminist authors, and its supporters were an object lesson for anyone else on the left who might have imagined partnering with conservatives in the future.

Many people, including journalists, didn’t even seem to understand the ordinance. For example, in May, 1984, an Associated Press story explained that the ordinance “authorizes women offended by violent pornography to file complaints with the city's Equal Opportunity Office.” In fact, the law had nothing to do with being offended: it permitted civil litigation against pornographers by people of all genders and sexualities who could prove that their human rights had been violated in the making or forced exposure to pornography.

Similarly, The New York Times proposed that feminists had “joined with conservatives and others in seeking to pass similar laws elsewhere, including Minneapolis, Cambridge, Mass., and Suffolk County, L.I.” Wrong again. In every city where the ordinance was introduced, Republicans and Democrats supported the bill. But only in Indianapolis and Suffolk County, Long Island were movement conservatives crucial to the ordinance campaign. The version that was proposed in Suffolk County was so different from the model ordinance written by MacKinnon and Dworkin that neither supported it.

This made it impossible for feminists to work in ideologically diverse communities of women without risking the hostility and derision aimed at Dworkin and MacKinnon. Yet MacKinnon, at least, had originally imagined the opposite possibility. Interviewed by University of Minnesota women’s studies colleague Susan Geiger just prior to the Indianapolis campaign, MacKinnon speculated that anti-pornography politics had the potential to produce the diverse coalitions of which feminists had dreamed in the 1960s. Such a colation, she speculated, might build that might bring conservative women back to feminism and reverse polarization.

But MacKinnon also understood that conservative women had their reservations about anything labeled feminist. The multi-racial, left-liberal, gay-straight coalition that had formed in Minneapolis had neither persuaded ordinance critics; nor had it drawn conservatives as allies. Yet, she believed in that possibility. “If pornography affects all women the way our analysis says it does,” she argued, “women regardless of political tendencies may see that, which would then include women of the right. This hasn’t happened here, but it may happen yet. This may represent the beginnings of a real change in the way women see themselves and organize as women.”

MacKinnon imagined an issue-based politics that was not predetermined by the forms of national polarization that defined both Reaganism and an embattled liberal Democratic party. She declared herself “willing to work with anyone who sees the issue this way. Anyone who wants to occupy the ground that has been staked out is welcome to do so. I say that knowing that this has a real potential for backfiring politically.”

MacKinnon also thought that coalitional politics might have the power to transform values traditionally held by the right. “I don’t think someone can agree with the fundamental analysis of pornography we have here,” she said, “and still hold to fundamentally anti-women views in other areas. So, I think it has the potential for basic change.”*

That never happened: instead, there was stalemate. Almost 35 years later, it is almost inconceivable to many activists, progressive or conservative, that they could have anything in common with each other.

When did coalitional organizing with conservatives become impossible? Perhaps it isn’t. But since it’s far too dangerous to discuss, it might as well be.

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Short takes:

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