How The Fight For Women's Voting Rights Actually Benefitted White Supremacy
by JR Thorpe
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The tragedy in Charlottesville, and the new visibility of white supremacy in America's political landscape, has captured headlines across the globe. There has been much written about how women, and white women in particular, need to step up how they respond to white supremacy, and recognize how they may be complicit in perpetuating this structure. But the links between women and white supremacy may be even more insidious: The women's suffrage movement, which we commemorate Aug. 18 on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment's ratification, was historically enmeshed with white supremacist groups.

Early white supremacists across the United States in the 19th century used white women as symbols, to be "protected" from the threat of other races. Narratives about white women being taken into slavery or assaulted, usually by Black men, populated the Southern press in the late 1800s. As African-American studies professor Tiffany Willoughby-Herard puts it in her book, Waste of a White Skin, "Tropes about potential 'white slaves' undergird fears about the sexual vulnerability of white women in crisis and figure white women and white girls as the quintessential symbol of vulnerable whiteness."

Lynching, chronicled famously by Ida B. Wells, was often used as a means of execution for Black men who'd been accused of "violating" white women. Those lynchings cast a long shadow: just this year, the white woman who had accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of assaulting her in 1955, an allegation that led to his lynching (and his murderers' acquittal), confessed that she'd made it all up. White femininity has been a weapon for white supremacists for a very long time, but this only tells half the story.

The participation of women in white supremacist movements tends to be concealed or obscured, often because men have taken such leading roles in nationalist racist movements. However, we may also simply be uncomfortable with seeing women in the role of actively racist aggressors — even though, as Charlottesville proves and the history of the KKK bears out in great detail, they've been doing more than just bearing white babies for the movement for a long time. Women's fight for suffrage has a disturbing link with white supremacy's rise in the United States, and that confluence of ideas continues to impact women's involvement in white supremacy today.

Women's White Supremacy Was Born Out Of Suffrage

Female white nationalists were rare, but prominent, parts of white supremacist rhetoric in late 19th and early 20th century America. Some, like the radical racist preacher Alma Bridwell White, did garner attention. However, if you want to find the point at which women's participation in white supremacy moved from the symbolic and occasional to the political and active, experts believe you can focus it on one year: the passing of the 19th Amendment. Historian Kathleen Blee explains that while many women were empowered by the suffrage fight to push for more progressive politics once they got the vote, others took the franchise as "an opportunity to solidify the political power of whites and native-born citizens."

Blee points out that while the struggle for women's suffrage brought many disparate groups together, it only temporarily united them. "Women's political goals and ideologies had grown more diverse even before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment," she wrote in the journal Feminist Studies, and "the extent of the diversity became even more clear without the uniting cause of suffrage." The suffrage fight was the catalyst for women's political awakenings across the United States, but it also gave women with far-right leanings an explicit tool for their political agenda. North Carolina's women's suffrage movement even explicitly linked itself to white supremacy as a means to solve the "threat to white domination" with white women's votes. The racist history of the suffrage movement is well-documented, but its unambiguous links to the rise of women in white supremacy serve an additional uncomfortable truth.

It wasn't a coincidence that the biggest recruiting drive in the history of the Ku Klux Klan, at that time the most popular white supremacist organization in America, began in the 1920s after women got the vote, or that it focused almost exclusively on female recruitment. This recruiting drive was extremely successful. From 1920, when the Klan had a membership of about 100,000, it skyrocketed to between 2 and 5 million official members by 1925, in large part because of the efforts of a recruitment officer named Elizabeth Tyler. She knew to target females in particular: At least 85,000 were recruited in this period, though the numbers may be as many as half a million. (Some, like eventual leader Daisy Douglas Barr, came from odd backgrounds: Douglas Barr was a Quaker who promoted prohibition and anti-prostitution laws, but was drawn to the KKK by its conservative social agenda.) Women's recruitment became so overpowering, according to historian Jackie Hill, that two competing divisions, "Kamelia" and "Women of the Ku Klux Klan," competed for dominance before merging in the mid-1920s.

Despite the obvious progress that women's suffrage brought, it also had an enormous impact on the growth of white supremacy in America. Many women who joined white supremacist movements, like other suffragists, found the situation of women in society precious and intolerably unequal, and thought the Klan and other organizations like it were the best way to get their voices heard. Elizabeth Tyler herself said, “The women’s organization will be on par with that of the men. We plan that all women who join us shall have equal rights with that of the men." This was highly progressive stuff. Evidence suggests that their male counterparts weren't interested; they wanted women to organize charity drives, make them look like good citizens, and stay home with the kids. Suffrage brought women in, but it also brought them into conflict with patriarchal supremacist ideals.

Why Women Become White Supremacists: Racism, Camaraderie & Empowerment

Women who joined white supremacist organizations like the Klan in the early 20th century often used it as a kind female bonding space. The University of Mississippi has an archive of WKKK (the official women's arm of the Ku Klux Klan) materials revealing that they often called themselves things like the "Sunshine Club," sent elegant typewritten requests for dues, and held church suppers and tea parties. They had their own deeply ridiculous language, separate to that of the male KKK, involving "invisible empires" and "queens." White supremacy was a key part of their social fabric. Professor Joshua Rothman, who specializes in the racial history of the South, explained to The Atlantic in 2016 that the "supportive" social role of the Klan in particular was at the core of its influence:

"Klan members showed up in churches on Sunday mornings to donate money and they ran charity drives. They threw Christmas parties for orphans and raised money to build Protestant-only hospitals. They made efforts to fight supposed Catholic influence in public schools by donating American flags and Bibles. They created special Klan rites for wedding ceremonies, christenings, and funerals."

Many of these "community activities," historians believe, would have been driven and organized by women; it was part of Elizabeth Tyler's influence that the KKK became a social enterprise, and the women's corps took responsibility for making the Klan socially acceptable. It was this sphere of influence that meant that women were actually more successful at driving home white supremacist values than the men's cross-burning and overt violence, because they could use social pressure to deliver results.

The phenomenon of white supremacy as some kind of bizarre women's social club persists today. Blee conducted a series of in-depth interviews with 34 female "racist activists" in 1996, and discovered that many of them came into the movement through a sense of camaraderie or community rather than through deep-held ideological convictions (which, as Blee notes, came later). Blee found that a lot of the women interviewed were keen to register their issues with various elements of overall white supremacist policy, from disapproval of homosexuality to anti-abortion views, and weren't intent on converting their own kids. In the modern day, white women are once again the target of recruiters, according to a deep dive by Marie Claire in early 2017, partially because they're less likely to attract police attention: While their motivations for joining vary greatly, the idea of white supremacy as a "community" often features highly among reasons women join.

The legacy of women's suffrage for the women in the American white supremacist movement remains strong, too. Women within the Klan itself have complained to people like Blee about how male-run the organization is, and how little opportunity they have for advancement because of the chauvinism of its male-dominated structure. Sexism has caused conflict between white supremacist women and men as recently as 2016, when the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, attracted anger from racist women for blaming white women for sleeping with non-white men. Women may join white supremacist movements to feel more empowered in their racist creeds, but they'll find an inherent, violent sexism within — and that's a story dating all the way back to 1920.

White supremacists seem to be counting on white women to give them victory in their pursuit of a white ethnostate (white women, after all, voted for Trump in giant numbers), despite their own internal issues with female power. On Aug. 18, we mark one of the greatest anniversaries for women's empowerment in U.S. history — but the story of women's suffrage has a dark side, one that continues to shape not just American fringe politics, but sadly, a faction of the mainstream, as well.