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Strong American Women Part III - Protestant women in the KKK

The Ku Klux Klan Revival did not occur till 1915 when William Sim­m­ons created a vision of a noble, antebellum South without blacks. Just then the USA was struggling to manage huge waves of immig­rants, many Cath­olic or Jewish, and few of them native English speakers. App­ealing to the middle class and claiming to be a purely benevolent club, the Klan attracted women members immediately.

By 1921, the Klan numbered c100,000 members! At its peak in 1924, 40,000 uniformed Klansmen paraded through the streets of Wash­ing­ton DC during the Democratic National Convent­ion. The group was so in­fluential many pol­iticians felt com­pelled to publicly support it or even to join, particularly in the Mid­west­ern states.

The 1920s marked the best years of the Women of the KKK/WKKK, right at the time when wo­m­en had been enfranchised in 1920 and were op­tim­istic about participating in civic life. Important and educated women were invited to a lecture where the topics ranged from the importance of the Bible and of education, to upholding the American Way. The female lect­ur­er asked the women if they would like to join a secret society dedicated to protecting these values. The women were then given white robes and white hoods, and a huge cross engulfed in flames. 

Ku Klux Klan Ladies' Auxiliary float 
Celebrating Ohio’s Centennial, 1925 
Signs proclaim Protestantism, Womanhood and Public Schools. 
Credit: Ohio Memory Collection 

As Kathleen Blee noted in Women of the Klan, many believed that moral women (in every country) were either neutral about racism or were inspired by equality and just­ice; that women would NEVER approve of slavery or lynchings. As a result, many people greatly under­estimated wom­en’s con­tribution to KKK revival. Centred in Little Rock Arkansas and spread across the nation, half a million women joined the KKK during this era!!

WKKK members were not peripheral; they were major actors in the Klan. They were successful largely because a] the women were better at public relations than the men, and b] women were better at hiding their white supremacist mission behind a facade of Social Welfare.

Pamphlets from the WKKK asked women: “Are you interested in the Welfare of our Nat­ion? As an Enfranchised woman are you interested in better gov­er­n­ment? Should we not interest ourselves in better education for our children?” The women organised parades and food drives, with the benefits sent to Klan families or orphanages.

Clearly the WKKK normalised the extremist actions of the men’s KKK, and also advanced a version of the white Protestant agenda that was all their own. As Catholic and Jewish immigrants arrived by ship, the WKKK’s preference for American-born citizens merged with early femin­ism.

Back in the C19th, the KKK publicly stated, White Ladies had been ravished by Negro Men. And because Black Men were still a threat to pure, Protestant women in the 1920s, the KKK used the symbol of the white damsel in distress to gal­vanise racist fury. This theme was most starkly captured in DW Griffith’s 1915 pro-KKK film, Birth of a Nation, where a white woman heroically leapt off a cliff to avoid being tainted by a black man (actually a white actor in blackface).

Now the women wanted to stand alongside their men and help with pro­tecting the fair sex. The WKKK recruited female citiz­ens above 18 who were not Catholic, socialist or Jewish. The recruits needed to be a resident in a Klan jurisdiction for 6 months and endorsed by Klanswomen. Women in the WKKK were not socially marginal people who turned their misery against rac­ial or religious minorities. Rather they were from stable, middle-class communities.

WKKK members appealed to Klan values and believed could promote women’s purity. KKK women had to sal­vage the moral values that had been corrupted by modern society and by foreigners. Women lobbied for national quotas for immig­ration, racial seg­reg­at­ion and anti-miscegenation i.e inter­breeding laws. And they vigorously promoted white supremacy, and opposed to the rising tide of colour.

Pennsylvania women Ku Klux Klan members in Washington D.C. 
for a march in 1926. 
Photo credit: Timeline 

Additionally Klan women wanted to use their power to improve life at home, within the church and in society. The happiness of the home and the welfare of the state were important; the Bible was the one sure foundation of true Americanism. Progressives similarly assoc­iated motherhood with the home and expanded the image of the home to represent domestic America. The essence of motherhood that Klan­s­men had used to underscore male supremacy became, in the Prog­ress­ive era, a tool that women could employ for their own objectives.

Conflict arose regarding gender equity, because the Klan adhered to rules of moral conservatism i.e male authority should exist in politics as well as in the home. So conflict was inevitable in the 1920s. Allowing women to have a voice in politics would bring them outside the home, where the men believed women belonged.

Another WKKK goal was to educ­ate women in the science of government and American history. Some chapters wanted to assist all Protestant women in the study of practical politics i.e to impartially scrutinise the platforms of political parties and the declared principles of all civic organisations. Although the WKKK was openly racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, its goals of improving society and educating women were relatively progressive. I don’t like the KKK's values, but I do truly admire the women's guts.

Once the racism and violence of both the KKK and WKKK became harder to conceal by the end of the decade, the organisation began to dis­perse. If the women wanted to maintain their KKK ideologies, they had to move into other forms of civic bodies eg national politics.

Read Kathleen Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s 1992. And Jackie Hill,  Progressive Values in the Women's Ku Klux Klan 2008


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