I used to have a comforting image of the Ku Klux Klan as an assemblage of social misfits and genetically inbred white trash. No more. Thanks to Kathleen M. Blee’s superb scholarship in “Women of the Klan,” I must now live with the fact that the Klan contained “all the better people": businessmen, physicians, judges, social workers--even Quakers, political reformers and (this is the truly discomforting part) feminists. In fact, during the 1920s, the period of Blee’s research, the women’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan considered itself, with some justice, to be a major advocate of women’s rights and interests--white, Protestant women’s rights, that is.
Reading of the Klan’s feminism is like discovering evidence that a beloved grandmother had a secret life as a bloodsucking ghoul. Feminism is, after all, supposed to be founded on moral principle. But so, we learn, was the Klan. In addition to its familiar ideals of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and so forth, the Ku Klux Klan of the ‘20s stood for “Americanism,” temperance, child-welfare measures, quality public education, good citizenship, morality and militant Christianity. For male Klan members, these ideals were inspiringly symbolized by chaste white womanhood, which the Klan existed to defend against the perverted lusts of blacks, Jews and Catholics. To its female members, though, the Klan was a source of “sisterhood” (their word too, alas), an avenue for upward mobility and an enticing arena for the exercise of feminine leadership.
Consider Alma White, who joined the Klan’s lecture circuit after becoming disillusioned by the sexism of the Methodist Church. White advocated the ordination of women and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and claimed women’s suffrage as a “triumph of the Cross.” Daisy Barr, a Quaker preacher and charismatic figure in the national KKK, argued forcefully for women’s rights and sought to recruit fellow feminists. Or there was Women’s KKK Commander Robbie Gill Comer, who declared to a national KKK Klonvokation that “It has never been the purpose of God that woman should be the slave of man.” All three women made careers in the Klan, and Comer’s fortune--amassed through the sale of robes, helmets and regalia--included a crown valued at $30,000.
At its peak, the Women’s KKK may have had as many as 3 million members, and as Blee takes pains to show, a healthy proportion of these joined on their own initiative and sometimes over their husbands’ objections. Within the Klan, women happily baked for picnics and rallies, graced parade floats and sewed tiny robes for the children. But the Women’s KKK also offered a parallel hierarchy, complete with its own “kleagles” (full-time organizers) “klonklaves” and opportunities for factional intrigue. Women’s Klans fought for autonomy within the traditional organization, proclaiming that male domination is “contrary to our principles of women, by women and for women.”
There is no great mystery, Blee argues, to the affinity between Klan values and early 20th-Century feminism. To paraphrase H. Rapp Brown, the KKK in the ‘20s was as American as racism itself. The Klan themes of Protestantism, Prohibition, nativism, ultranationalism and anti-Bolshevism were shared by many mainstream civic organizations and women’s groups. And, for their part, feminist organizations were not above using racist and nativist arguments on behalf of (white) women’s suffrage. In Blee’s account, the path between the local temperance or churchwomen’s club and the KKK ran down a short and slippery slope.
But it seems to me that a mystery remains. The Women’s KKK was not just a more militant version of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. To join the KKK was to enter a weird, self-enclosed world in which the word for all things non-Klan was “alien.” There were the robes and masks, the oaths of secrecy, the code in which even the days of the week were renamed “desperate,” “dreadful,” “desolate” and so on. There was, even more to the point, the violent, extralegal side to the Klan’s operation. Women’s KKK members did not only sew and sing and squabble, they also marched behind flaming crosses, boycotted Jewish and Catholic merchants and organized “poison squads” to disseminate hurtful gossip about people deemed less than “100% American.”
Unfortunately, Blee did not press her informants (all quite elderly women of course) on the dark side of the Klan’s activities. Yet not all civic-minded women of appropriate pigmentation sought sorority within the Women’s Klan. Nor did the mainstream feminist organizations, whatever their shortcomings on matters of race and ethnicity, welcome the Klan’s support. There is a little space, I like to think, between prejudice on the one hand and outright hate on the other, but “Women of the Klan” does not explore it.
Then there is the equally chilling mystery of feminism itself. How could feminism, even in the conservative Klannish version, keep company with the genocidal impulse expressed, for example, by the Indiana Klan speaker who proposed putting “all the Catholics, Jews and Negroes on a raft in the middle of the ocean and then sink(ing) the raft”?
Blee’s answer, in an epilogue that is all too brief, is that feminism is innately narrow and amoral. Skipping ahead to the feminism of our own time, she asserts that the “assumption that women’s awareness of their gender interests would lead them to progressive politics on race and social class proved empty.”
Well, I beg to differ. There is a gender gap, with women weighing in on the liberal side, that did not exist before the feminist revival of the 1970s. Our major feminist organizations do campaign against class and race oppression. And today’s right-wing women, the spiritual descendants of the Women’s KKK, are far more overtly hostile to feminists than to any racial or ethnic “others.”
Still, “Women of the Klan” stands before us as carefully garnered, irrefutable evidence that women are capable of asserting their gender rights in the most noisome settings. The only corrective, and I am sure Blee would agree, is to hew to the spirit in which feminism was reborn in the ‘60s: as a movement for all women, and especially the most despised and neglected.