Power  /  Retrieval

No, Talking About Women's Role in White Supremacy is NOT Blaming Women

Women’s role in the 1920s KKK can teach us about racism today.

espite the pervasiveness of sexism a century ago and the outsize role of men in the KKK, women in the 1920s Klan had power. This wasn’t “soft” power. Women didn’t merely sew Klan robes or bake casseroles for Klan picnics; they wielded actual power that shaped the societies in which they lived.

Though they were staunch defenders of traditional domesticity, they were also active in social welfare movements and local and state politics. Under the leadership of Daisy Douglas Barr and several other women, they formed their own autonomous arm of the KKK, the half-million-strong WKKK, which lobbied for the creation of racist immigration quotas, segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws. But as the sociologist Blee explains, the WKKK also attracted members by billing itself as a social group. Drawing from the church-supper tradition, they held picnics, fundraisers, and cross burnings where they spread the gospel of the “eternal supremacy” of the white race. Though the men’s Klan was larger, the women’s KKK was better at public relations, and left an indelible mark on the organization by cloaking their white supremacist mission behind a facade of social welfare?—?a move that would become a hallmark of the modern-day right.

Women weren’t relegated to the ladies’ team. Arguably the most powerful person in the 1920s KKK?—?that is, the one comprised of white men?—?was a woman. Elizabeth Tyler headed up the Klan’s publicity team, though many, including participants in a congressional investigation in 1920, suspected that she was the true leader of the Klan. The authors of a report on the matter simply stated, “In this woman beats the real heart of the Ku Klux Klan today.”
In an effort to increase membership, Tyler expanded the Klan’s repertoire of hate. Sure, hating African Americans worked in the South, but how to attract members in the North, East, and West? Her dark genius was realizing that every community has its own brand of xenophobia. Tyler added communists, Jews, immigrants, and Catholics to the Klan’s list of enemies, making her organization a perfect destination for virtually any man or woman who identified as “white.”