How Women In The KKK Were Instrumental To Its Rise

“Women were major actors in the klan, responsible for some of its most vicious, destructive results,” writes Kathleen Blee in Women of the Klan. According to Blee, the organization was chillingly effective — perhaps even more so than their male counterparts — in large part because they were better at public relations. ”  – June 28, 2017

This excerpts from award-winning historian Linda Gordon’s forthcoming book, The Second Coming of the KKK, tells the story of the more than half a million women who helped fuel the rise of white supremacy in 1920s America.

Although Klansmen outnumbered Klanswomen by 6 to 1, at least half a million women (some claimed as many as 3 million) joined the movement, and that doesn’t count the many who participated in its public events and supported its ideas.
In fact, women clamored to participate from the moment the second Klan reappeared. They contributed a new argument for the cause: that women’s emergence as active citizens would help purify the country.
Despite an ideological commitment to Victorian gender norms, including women’s domesticity, many conservative women enjoyed participating in politics. In fact, some Klanswomen interpreted political activism as a female responsibility. Then, once active, they often came to resent men’s attempts to control them and even challenged men’s power. Thus we meet a phenomenon that many progressive feminists found and still find anomalous — the existence not only of conservative feminism
“Readers who have not already done so must rid themselves of notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s.”
“Klanswomen were often wives of Klansmen, but many joined on their own, and others led their husbands into the organization.”
In fact, some husbands resented their wives’ Klan activities and absences from home, and some opponents taunted Klansmen with the charge that they were not man enough to keep their wives at home. It seems likely, though, that Klanswomen often spent more hours on Klan work than did rank-and-file Klansmen because they had more disposable time.
Women did not always wait to get Klansmen’s permission to join the movement but organized themselves independently through churches, clubs, sororities, and Klan picnics.
Male leaders, alarmed by these initiatives outside their control, formed competing women’s groups, producing a variety of organizations with names such as Kamelias, Queens of the Golden Mask, and Ladies of the Invisible Empire.
Each in her own way, Elizabeth Tyler, Daisy Barr, and Alma White rupture some commonsense expectations about the 1920s Klan and other conservative movements. Perhaps most striking was their entrepreneurship, which involved both ambition and skill, both principle and profit. (…)
Tyler was finally forced to resign by accusations, almost certainly true, of embezzling Klan money. But she had been a gift to the national Klan.
The organization might well have grown without this driven, bold, corrupt, and precociously entrepreneurial woman, but it would likely have been smaller.
In this respect, they probably differed from rank-and-file Klanswomen. Experienced at organizing large events, state-of-the-art in managing money, unafraid to attract publicity, they were thoroughly modern women.
Excerpted from The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon. Copyright © 2017 by Linda Gordon. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.


Linda Gordon, winner of two Bancroft Prizes and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, is the author of The Second Coming of the KKK, Dorothea Lange andImpounded, and the coauthor of Feminism Unfinished. She is the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University and lives in New York and Madison, Wisconsin.

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