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Over the last two years, The Atlantic has published several articles that draw (or at least hint at) the same parallel: The language of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan sounds a lot like language we’re hearing today. The Klan’s slogan, “America for Americans,” evokes Trump’s plea to “Make America Great Again,” as well as similar messages from Woodrow Wilson, Charles Lindbergh, and Richard Nixon. Particularly after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this summer, historians have worked to bring the hate of the 1920s back into public view. In her new book on the subject, The Second Coming of the KKK, Linda Gordon explores a period—less than one hundred years ago—when approximately four million Americans openly identified with white supremacy. I asked Gordon and a few other historians why that moment resonates. Then I looked into the unique role that women have played in white supremacy movements, both in the 1920s and today.

WHY THE 1920S KKK SEEMS SO RELEVANT TODAY

“Far from appearing disreputable or extreme in its ideology, the 1920s Klan seemed ordinary and respectable to its contemporaries,” writes Gordon, who offers a scholarly account of the 1920s Klan. Gordon says upfront that, as “one of those the Klan detested,” she “is not neutral,” but considers it necessary to understand the nature and history of the organization. The Klan of the 1920s was distinct from its first and third incarnations. It was based in the north, primarily nonviolent, targeted Jews and Catholics as well as African-Americans, and far larger than either of its other iterations. How is the 1920s Klan reflected in contemporary politics? After talking to a few historians, I pulled out some of the most striking comparisons:

  1. The elites were the enemy. Though the 1920s Klan drew a substantial amount of support from cities, it identified most strongly with rural, working-class whites. When discussing the decline in American values, Klan leaders blamed “elites,” who, as Gordon writes, were “typically presented as big-city liberal professionals, secular urbanites who promoted cosmopolitanism (and were thus insufficiently patriotic) and looked down on Klanspeople as stupid and/or irrational and/or out of step with modernity.” Like Trump’s attacks on globalists, the KKK of the 1920s publicly condemned ‘elites’ for having international connections.
  2. Fake news and conspiracy theories proliferated. The 1920s Klan spun up false stories that implicated Catholics, whose “nuns served as sex slaves to priests,” and Jews, who reported to “a secular international cabal of financiers who planned to take over the American economy through its financial institutions.” These conspiracy theories also targeted recent immigrants and African-Americans. The Klan disseminated this information through multiple channels, including newspapers, pamphlets, radio, and sermons (an estimated 40,000 ministers joined the Klan at its peak). “The Klan put these outlandish stories out there to incite fear among their members,” Gordon said in an interview. Today, extremist pockets on both ends of the political spectrum are doing something similar.
  3. The far, far right had a stake in politics. Sociologist Kathleen Blee has been interviewing far right, white supremacist leaders for over three decades. “Until Trump ran for office, nobody I talked to was ever interested in electoral politics,” she said. “They saw the federal government as the enemy.” Before the alt-right, the 1920s KKK was the last white supremacist group to engage seriously in national politics, according to Blee. Sixteen Klansmen became senators, 11 became governors, and approximately 75 became congressmen. Far more were sympathetic to the Klan’s agenda. “By taking over the political parties, the Klan sought to institutionalize the organization,” said Blee. “They had a big influence on the presidential level.” Though the alt-right is far less involved in national politics than the KKK of the 1920s, many supporters feel an allegiance to the president today, particularly after he insisted there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests.

THE WOMEN OF WHITE SUPREMACY

Because of the Klan’s open bigotry, as well as its commitment to temperance and social purity,  it’s easy to view the KKK as an essentially conservative institution. But the 1920s Klan actually perpetuated its own brand of white supremacist feminism. This was partially a reaction to the newfound electoral power of African-Americans: the Klan sought to empower as many white, native-born, protestant voices as possible.

The white nationalist crowd that congregated in Charlottesville this summer was overwhelmingly male. All 10 speakers at the rally were men. I wanted to know: Where were all the women? When I asked that question over the summer, male and female members of the alt-right appealed to a very traditional, biologically determinist notion of gender roles: Women are nurturers, they said, men are risk takers. While women constitute approximately 20 percent of the alt-right’s membership, members told me they’re far less likely to attend a violent, nationally-televised protest.  

“It’s not the role of women to protect the borders, the nation, or the family,” Tara McCarthy, an alt-right blogger, wrote to me. “So we do not expect this of women, nor do we find it strange that they are less represented in something that we view as an innately male occupation: guarding territory.”

The Klan of the 1920s, however, promoted more involvement by women in the white supremacist movement, seeing suffrage as a mitigating force against the rising electoral power of African Americans. Gordon points out that women who joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s devoted most of their time to traditionally female tasks and issues. They raised money for children’s charities, wrote cooking columns for Klan publications, and planned the extravagant Klan picnics and festivals that would attract upward of 5,000 people. Over time, however, many began to seek independence from the male Klan, taking on less gendered roles. Large numbers joined the WKKK, the female arm of the Klan, formed in 1923. In her book, Gordon argues that the WKKK cultivated a new wave of feminism. Though “their combination of feminism and bigotry may be disturbing to today’s feminists,” she writes, “it is important to feminism’s history.”

Many women came to the WKKK from women’s suffrage organizations after the 19th amendment passed in 1920. “They had political skills and political capital,” Blee said. “The Klan was the obvious next step.” Once in the Klan, many of these women continued to push for white, native-born, protestant women to actively participate in politics, eager to counteract the vote that had recently been given to African-American men.

When the WKKK moved to unify the disconnected assortment of women’s chapters that had materialized across the country, they created their own unique set of rituals and traditions. They established an independent judicial system, “arguing that women could discipline and punish each other more effectively than men could,” Gordon writes. The WKKK also selected Joan of Arc as its heroine. “Their appropriation of Joan signals their desire to identify with someone powerful; her warlike militance did not seem to them unladylike.”

At a time when birth control was still illegal, one New Jersey KKK chapter extended a speaking invitation to Margaret Sanger, the mother of modern birth control. With Sanger vilified by conservatives across the United States, this move was extremely controversial within the KKK. Of course, the WKKK’s interest in birth control was probably driven by racist motives just as much as feminist ones—the topic was particularly interesting to eugenicists.

Today, most alt-right women shun the “feminist” label. In an online essay, prominent alt-right blogger Cecilia Davenport wrote, “We believe that feminism does not make women happy or fulfill them.” All of the women I interviewed agreed. But they can still have collective power as women. As the alt-right movement evolves, like the WKKK, they may come to set their own agenda.

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Caroline Kitchener

ASSOCIATE EDITOR,
MASTHEAD

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