2. Main Part
2.1. The Rise of the “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan”
2.2. The role of women in the nineteen-twenties
2.3. The Ku Klux Klan and the image of women
2.4. The “Women of the Ku Klux Klan – Main Principles and Ideas
2.5. The “Women of the Ku Klux Klan” and the image of women
2.6. The Legacy of the “Women of the Ku Klux Klan”
After the Civil War, many Southerners were dissatisfied with their situation. The lost war and the fact that many existences were destroyed due to the collapse of the Southern economy, stirred the anger among many of them. The abolition of slavery that was forced upon them and which until then was the basis of their economic prosperity, was the more serious. This discontent then changed to hate towards the former slaves. Many former slave holders came together and formed what became known as the first Ku Klux Klan, an organization that tried to overthrow the system and to return to the old one by lynching and intimidating black citizens. This dark chapter of American history should not remain the only one. After the disappearance of the first Ku Klux Klan, partly because of the passing of the “Ku Klux Klan Acts” of 18701, racial frictions played a minor role, although they never completely disappeared. In the following decades the American people were especially at the end of the century concerned with the ongoing industrialization and development of the country. World War I even saw the involvement of African Americans in the service. It was not until the end of the war and the end of all war enthusiasm that Americans were confronted
with the legacy of the Civil War outcomes. The racial turmoil of the post-war era led to the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, generally referred to as the second Klan. Although similar in its basic principles, the two organizations had different ideas altogether. One major difference was the foundation of a female branch of the Ku Klux Klan – the “Women of the Ku Klux Klan” (WKKK).
This paper takes a closer look at the policies of this female organization, with special emphasis on the issue of gender and the role it played in Klan politics. I will start out with a general examination of the reasons that led to the repeated rise of the Ku Klux Klan in general. This will serve as the informational basis for any further explanations. Secondly, there will be a closer analysis of the general image of women in the nineteen-twenties. This will provide the necessary information to be fully able to understand the explanations in the next section, which takes a closer look at the Ku Klux Klan and the way it viewed women and how it included this imagery into their Klan doctrine. Then follow, again as a kind of ground work, some important information on the “Women of the Ku Klux Klan”, that is to say, a closer analysis of their principles and motives, and of their cooperation with the Ku Klux Klan. This will lead directly to the main interest of the paper, namely the image of women as viewed by the WKKK. This section will try to tackle the question whether or not the WKKK was mainly interested in promoting the Women’s Rights Movement of that time. The final section of this paper, which concerned with the legacy of the WKKK, especially in the radical feminists’ movement of the 1970s might help to answer this question. To provide sufficient evidence for the arguments presented, primary documents will be taken into consideration.
2. Main Part
2.1. The Rise of the “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan”
After World War I, America was subject to many drastic changes in its political, social, and cultural life. Peace and prosperity had a major impact on the way Americans led their life. The trauma and the disillusionment after the war were fought by turning towards entertainment and distraction. Upcoming innovations and inventions, such as the radio, the movies, and the availability of the automobile gave young Americans the possibility to forget about the sobbing reality of life. The emergence of the “flapper” produced a whole new generation of young girls who were willing to throw off the old Victorian traditions of female conduct.
The unpleasant reality mentioned above mainly concerned major political changes and events. Especially the huge immigration waves, for the most part from Eastern and Southern Europe, filled many native-born Americans with fear and suspicion. Because of the feeling, that the new immigrants did not adapt completely to the “American way of life”, as old stock Americans had done, but rather remained dedicated to their home countries, the American people felt threatened.2 The Bolshevik revolution in Russia stirred up the fear towards Communism and resulted in the so-called “Palmer Raids”. This phenomenon became known as the “Red Scare”. Furthermore, ongoing race riots, especially in the city of Chicago, worsened racial frictions among Americans. Despite the prosperous development of the economy and therefore of the country itself, internal (political) problems were already working on the American public, and the discontent among the American people grew. In addition, many Americans, even after the war, still inclined towards the feeling of
“Nativism”3, which due to the non-existence of visible enemies outside the United States was transferred to minorities inside the country itself.
The “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” made use of this growing discontent and accused foreign-born Americans or immigrants of corrupting and exploiting the American nation. Founded in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons4, the Klan opened its doors to white, native-born, male Americans who were Protestant in religion. Its politics was based on the displeasure of native-born Protestant Americans and their anxiety about the Catholic wave that, due to massive immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, supposedly would sweep down on the American society and therefore drive out the old-established Protestantism. The organization presented itself as an association ruled by patriotism which was striving for the preservation of and return to old values and ideals. The “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” rejected evolutionary teaching at schools and demanded a return to the teaching of the Bible and Christian faith.5 It rejected bootlegging and any sort of criminal action, phenomena they generally blamed on foreign-born immigrants, and condemned the decline in morals, which the Klan associated with the ongoing process of modernization. Catholics, Jews, immigrants and blacks, but also criminals and immoral people were seen as a danger to the nation’s ideals.6 As Goldberg points out, the success and appreciation of the Klan among middle-class and blue-collar citizens was mainly linked to the upcoming depression of the 1920s, in
which a decline of the American economy was noticeable - a decline that was imputed to the new immigrants. The Klan offered everyone (that is to say, everyone that fitted the properties of a “real” American, or rather white, male, Protestant, native-born Americans), even socially deprived Americans, the opportunity to voice their discontent and to fight for their opinion. The fact that this possibility was based on manipulating the fears of many members goes without saying. Denouncing “crime waves, Catholic organizing, Jewish distinctiveness, immigrant criminality, and black violation of inferior status”7 was an effective means to appeal to citizens of all levels of society. Klan activities were notorious for their sometimes violent proportions, including terror and intimidation against their enemies8. Contrary to their trailblazers after the Civil War, they also tried to gain power by entering the political stage of the country. The appointment of politicians and high authorities sympathizing with the Klan, or sometimes the bribing of non-supporters of the Klan, was supposed to strengthen the Klan all over the country and to make it an all-American phenomenon. Nevertheless, Klan activity declined by the end of the nineteen-twenties, when the corruption and hypocrisy of high Klan members became more and more evident. In addition, the Klan proved its inability to realize its promises and demands because, as Goldberg rightly makes clear, it was “goal-directed” without any precise idea of how to solve the problems. Apart from the inner turmoil, society itself had changed by the end of the decade, and the Klan turned out to be no more necessary.9
1 Boorstin, Daniel J. and Brooks M. Kelley. A History of the United States. Lexington: Ginn and Company, 1981. p. 312.
2 Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper. American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New
York: Hill and Wang, 1995. p. 202f.
3 Dinnerstein, Leonard et al. Natives and Strangers. Blacks, Indians, and Immigrants in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. p.245.
4 Leuchtenburg, William E. The Perils of Prosperity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. p.207.
5 Goldberg, Robert A. Hooded Empire. The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981. p.7.
6 Goldberg, Robert A. Hooded Empire. The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981. p.8.
7 Goldberg, Robert A. Hooded Empire. The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981. p.166
8 Leuchtenburg, William E. The Perils of Prosperity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. p.209.
9 Goldberg, Robert A. Hooded Empire. The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981. p.179.