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Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s.

In the last twenty-five years, scholars have done much to remove the mask from the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Students of the Klan have intensively explored the Invisible Empire in the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain states, the Pacific Coast region, and the Midwest. These studies have produced important insights and valuable information about Klan activities, membership, and grassroots diversity. Yet, the picture that emerges is still incomplete because hidden from view are the women of the Klan. References to Klanswomen are few and scattered. At best, women appear in supporting roles and at worst, as simple pawns in Klan power games. Klanswomen may have inhabited the Invisible Empire, but the collective judgement seems to be that their presence was hardly significant.

Kathleen Blee's Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s is the first attempt to focus directly upon Klanswomen and understand the Klan and its symbols from a gender-based perspective. Blee divides her book into two parts. In part one she employs feminist theory to analyze Klan goals, values, and organization. The second half grounds theoretical perspectives in a collective biography of Indiana Klanswomen and their political and social activities.

Women, Blee argues, were "major actors" in the Klan determined to mold their organization into a vehicle to promote an equal-rights agenda. This progressive thrust was entwined with and drew meaning and energy from a white Protestant frame of reference rooted in racism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism. In the fraternity that was the Invisible Empire, Klanswomen reinterpreted the symbols of womanhood, family, and female purity to reject vulnerability and challenge male power. Blee, more effectively than other students of the Klan, depicts the Invisible Empire as a klannish subculture that encapsuled women, men, and children in a tight network of hooded relationships.

Blee's evidence confirms the main arguments of a developing consensus in Klan historiography. Klanswomen, like their male counterparts, were not abnormal "true believers" or alienated members of fringe movements; they participated in mainstream political, social, and religious groups. In terms of class, the Klan drew from all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum. Local issues and conditions colored the Klan's issues, goals, and methods. Thus, depending on time and place, the Klan could be progressive and racist; given to night-riding or content to use the ballot box.

Blee's book is impressive in several respects. She has done a great deal of work to find and give voice to those who have been ignored or dismissed. Blee has uncovered vital information linking the KKK to temperance movements, suffrage efforts, and community organizations. Her study joins those of Aileen Kraditor, Rebecca Klatch, and Kristin Luker in exploring the role of women in right-wing movements and the creation of conservative ideologies. Blee's insights about Klan culture are fresh and exciting and suggest new areas for research.

At the same time, there are critical flaws that mar the book. Blee is given to proof by assertion. Women, she argues without evidence, constituted nearly one-half of Klan membership. She continually refers to male hostility to Klanswomen but offers little in evidence. More than the lyrics of two songs are necessary to prove Klansmen's "ambivalence" to their wives. Is one example sufficient to demonstrate that Klan nightriders were more "sadistic" to their female than male victims?

More fundamental is the lack of evidence to support the basic assumptions of the book. Blee has done a thorough reading of the writings of Klan leaders - both male and female. The idea of a Klan progressive on women's issues can be discerned in this literature. But, Blee offers no support to suggest that arguments for equal-rights or an expansion of woman's sphere were persuasive or even important to women at the grassroots. In fact, Blee's evidence from the Indiana klaverns indicates that women did not challenge their traditional roles, refused to support women running for political office, and thought and acted like their husbands, fathers, and ministers. It is thus not surprising when Blee informs us that in the children's auxiliaries, while girls were learning the virtues and tasks of motherhood and moral education of the young, boys were learning the secret agenda of the Klan itself." Later, she writes that the teen-age girls of the Tri-K Klub served "as ornaments for Klan events."

Blee's use of quantitative data is also problematic. The book is peppered with such words as "many," "some," and "at least some;" rather imprecise language for a sociologist. More questionable is her use of collective biography. Blee offers the names of eight Indiana Klan leaders and 118 of the rank and file. We do not know how representative socially or economically these leaders are of the leadership group or even what leadership ranks they held. Blee does not even indicate the percentage of the total leadership group that the eight represented. Curiously, women who "used their names publicly as leaders or spokeswomen" formed one of the sources from which Blee drew her "rank and file." Blee gleaned other names of ordinary Klanswomen from anti-Klan newspapers (a suspect source), a klavern receipt book that listed "treasurers and minor officers, together with occasional names of non-officers," and obituaries (how many? when?). Nowhere does Blee indicate the number of names taken from what source. What reasonable inferences can be made from this sample?

Women in the Klan suggests the power of gender in the Invisible Empire. A few Klanswomen at the national level did articulate an equal rights position and the hooded order's appeals and imagery do demand a gender-based analysis. Blee has pointed scholars in a new and necessary direction. It remains, however, to translate the abstract into the real or - as Klanmembers would say - make visible the invisible.
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Author:Goldberg, Robert A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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