Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992
Women of the Klan:
Racism and Gender in the 1920s
by Kathleen M. Blee
University of California Press, 1991, 248 pages, $24.95.
IT’S EASY TO imagine our enemies as alien, demonic Others. When historian Kathleen Blee set out to interview women who had been active in the Indiana Klan during its heyday in the 1920s, she was startled to find that she shared a disturbing degree of rapport with her informants, who were in many cases just like her–intelligent, aware, and in many cases vaguely feminist.
Yet these elderly women–however genial–still unapologetically held the same set of prejudices that had led them to the Klan in the first place. They regarded their Klan activism fondly as a “good fight” against the immoral forces of Catholics, Blacks and Jews. Few expressed any regrets over the lives they had helped to ruin, and the terror their activism had helped to legitimize.
“[T]he good people all belonged to the Klan,” one woman told her. “They were right, always doing good,” said another. Still others reflected on the unexceptional nature of their membership, telling her that, in Indiana in the 1920s, joining the Klan was simply “considered the thing to do.”
The book that grew from these interviews represents an attempt to understand just why the Klan was, to these women, such an easily accepted part of the community and of their lives.
Women of the Klan is a sobering book, unsettling easy assumptions about politics, gender and bigotry. Blee uses her research on the Women’s Klan in Indiana during the twenties to illuminate the confusing mixture of ideology and activism that characterized the Women’s Klan in general. The basic story she tells is remarkable, and frightening.
After many years of quiet, the Klan rose again in the teens and twenties, its membership growing to four million by the middle of the latter decade. The Klan of the twenties was not the marginal entity it is today; Blee estimates that in Indiana alone a quarter of a million women joined the Klan, a startling 32% of the state’s white, native-born women.
Many recruits were faced with economic difficulties and looking for scapegoats. Surprisingly–or unsurprisingly, depending on your point of view–the Klan also appealed to comfortable middle-class whites: “For some,” Blee observes, “Klan membership celebrated and affirmed long-held privileges.”
But if the brute fact of organizational potency is striking enough, the most profound message of Blee’s book comes in the details. The growth of the Klan depended in part on the clever and manipulative marketing strategies of its leaders; but in a more general sense the Klan was able to grow by insinuating itself into community after community, becoming a “normal” part of life.
The Klan, quite precisely, made evil banal. “Far from the popular media image of people with weaknesses of character or temperament or intellect as the Klan’s only adherents, the Klanswomen and Klansmen of the 1920s were more often–and perhaps more frighteningly–normal,” Blee writes. “They were women and men that loved their families, acted kindly and sympathetically to many other people, and even held progressive views on many issues.”
This “normality” coexisted with a vicious bigotry, with vigilante violence and calls for the extermination of Catholics, Blacks and Jews.
The Poison Squad
In the Klan of Reconstruction years (immediately following the Civil War) women had served mainly as a symbol, but in the 1920s the Women’s Klan was an integral part of Klan culture and politics. While the men’s Klan specialized in the more obviously vicious kinds of harassment and violence<197>from vigilante terror to meddling in electoral campaigns–the Women of the Ku Klux Klan engaged in a more subtle, and personal, kind of politics.
They formed what one Klanswoman called a “poison squad of whispering women,” spreading news about the powerful Klan boycotts that destroyed the lives and businesses of the Klan’s racial, religious or political enemies. Leading Klanswomen, posing as “escaped Nuns,” went on speaking tours to relate lurid tales of alleged Catholic sexual perversity, helping to fan anti- Catholic bigotry and to prepare the way for Klan organizers.
Others engaged in much-publicized (but usually quite meager) acts of “charity,” designed primarily to improve the public image of the Klan.
In a broader sense the WKKK served to legitimize the actions and belief of Klansmen and women by helping to make the Klan an acceptable part of community life. Women helped to organize and to structure the “Klannish culture” that took deep root in many cities and towns. The many public activities of the Klan in these years–from cross burnings to parades and picnics<197>presented an image of the Klan as an exciting and active organization, a place to which native-born whites could turn for entertainment and fellowship.
The Klan in these years, Blee notes, mixed pomp and politics with tremendous skill. “[T]here was a good deal of talent in the Klan,” one woman recalls. “Their parades were a kind of spectacular thing. They just had a lot of punch to them. A lot of theatrical stuff.” One sing-along featured the song “Yes, we have no Catholics,” sung to the tune of the popular “Yes, we have no bananas.”
Women were essential to the aura of normality these events strove to evoke. One local promoted a performance of “kute girls, katchy songs and kunning costumes,” and parades prominently featured women from the WKKK. The Klan presented itself as a family affair, sponsoring junior Klans for boys and girls alike, and set up “cradle rolls” with tea and cookies for younger “Ku Klux kiddies.”
Ritual activities, like Klan-sponsored weddings and funerals, helped to “solidif[y] a sense of the totality of the Klan world.” Women in the Klan formed personal ties with like-minded others, creating the social life that undergirded the political action of the group.
Contradictions of Identity
As Blee argues, the actions of the women of the Klan confound–as issues of gender often have–the traditional left-right categories of political analysis. In arguing for the organization of a women’s Klan in the first place, women offered a rudimentary feminist analysis, claiming in letters to the Klan newspaper The Fiery Cross that “in these new days of freedom” women could no longer serve as simple symbols for the men’s Klan. They would not, one woman wrote, be content to be “patted on the head and told not to worry.”
Activists turned easily from work in anti-vice groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to the more comprehensive crusade of the Klan. Others made the jump from suffragette to Klanswoman. Women in the Klan fought to maintain the organization’s independence from the men’s Klan and achieved considerable power and influence within Klan circles and in their communities.
In the fluid political atmosphere of the early twentieth century, “the WKKK … creat[ed] a gender ideology that was neither fundamentally reactionary nor progressive. Rather, the Women’s Klan was contradictory: a reactionary, hate-based movement with progressive moments.”
Blee shows in detail just how complex the politics of identity can be. She notes that the simple “assumption that women’s awareness of the gender interests would lead them to progressive politics on race and social class [has been] proved empty.”
Upper- and middle-class women have too often reduced feminism to the pursuit of privilege within capitalist society; the women of the Klan, while fighting for their own rights as women, were willing to deny rights and dignity to others.
Lynn Segal has argued recently in New Left Review, “[s]ocial identities are not necessarily or even desirably political identities.” There is, in other words, no transhistorical, essentialist political meaning of “womanhood” that cuts across race, class or other social divisions. Segal explains, “identities do not spring directly from gender, class, race or ethnic position, or from sexual, religious or any other particular orientation, so much as from a sense of belonging to specific social and historical milieux.”
The complex contradictions of identity, in other words, lead directly to complex and contradictory politics. In the native-born white middle class of the 1920s, a new (and limited) understanding of women’s rights coexisted with a vicious nativist backlash.
In all its contradictions, the Women’s Klan mirrored the contradictions of its milieu. The Klan, as Blee points out again and again, was successful precisely because it connected with deeply racist, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic strains in native-born white culture.
“[T]he Klan,” Blee observes, “nested within the institutions and assumptions of ordinary life of many in the majority population of Indiana.” By playing into the hackneyed, if potent, symbolism of family, home and country, the Klan was able to channel a variety of impulses into its own destructive forces.
Cultural Politics and Prejudice
Even beyond pointing out the complexities of identity politics, Blee’s book suggests a number of lessons for the left today. First and foremost, it suggests that culture, and cultural politics, have to be taken very seriously. The Klan was successful precisely because it was able to exploit and expand the petty prejudices of a great number of Americans, to make bigotry respectable.
In order to fight bigotry in all its forms today, we need to know how and why the Klan of the twenties was successful. Blee provides an insightful and provocative, if preliminary, account. She does not quite go far enough in her analysis–her failure to adequately incorporate the issue of class into the equation is rather pronounced, particularly in contrast to the issue of gender which she handles so well–but she quite rightly keeps her focus on culture.
In order to build beyond its present marginal status, the left needs to find ways to better connect with culture. The right, by playing up the American mythology of individual success and by turning a variety of discontents into hatred, has tapped into culture more effectively in recent years than the left. But if the left cannot be content to repeat the simple slogans of the old ideological battles, as it does too often now to little effect, neither should it simply play “capture the flag,” attempting to use symbolic trappings of mainstream culture for its own aims.
The left should leave behind the symbols of “patriotism”–which all too easily shade into nativism and xenophobia–and instead search out more subterranean traditions of resistance and solidarity. This is hardly a simple task; Blee’s book reminds us how deeply ingrained (and how dangerous) traditional culture can be. But the battle must take place on the ground of culture, in the intricate details of everyday life, or it will be lost before it is even begun.
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September-October 1992, ATC 40