Author Kathleen Blee Discusses the Role of Women in White Supremacist Groups

Kathleen Blee, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is probably the leading American expert on the role of women in white supremacist groups.

The author of Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, published in 1991, Blee has just completed a new book, Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement, that looks at women in the white power movement today.

The book is based on lengthy interviews with 34 unidentified women from a variety of racist and anti-Semitic groups in America. Blee's interviewees were surprising in many ways, including the fact that most turned out to be educated, did not grow up poor, had not suffered an abusive childhood and were not initially deeply racist or anti-Semitic.

With surprising and sometimes disturbing candor, they spoke to Blee despite her openness about her own opposition to the ideologies of their groups.

The Intelligence Report asked Blee about the lives of the women in these groups, including their experience of violence and their recruiting efforts.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: In your new book, you mention the apparent surge in women joining racist groups beginning in the 1980s. What do you think has been responsible for the increased numbers?

KATHLEEN BLEE: Partly, women came back into racist groups in the '80s because that was the first time they'd been recruited since the [so-called "Second Era"] Klan dissolved in the Depression.

David Duke is the most famous example of someone who tried to bring women into his [Knights of the Ku Klux] Klan.

Just like in the '20s, various leaders thought this was a way to increase their count, to beat out competing groups and win the title of "the biggest Klan," or whatever.

Other factors come in, too. A number of groups adopt what I call the "hen-pecked theory" of recruitment: If you bring the man in, he'll come to some meetings, but then his wife will nag him about being out at night until eventually he drops out.

But if you recruit the woman first, get her securely in, then the husband and her children will follow, and they will all stay in longer.

Also, some of these groups believe that women are less likely to come in with problems like criminal records that make them vulnerable to being police informants.

Women are seen as unlikely to commit non-racial crimes, like robbing a convenience store, that would attract police attention. So women are seen as safer members and a way of promoting family recruitment and long-lasting members.

IR: Does it work? Do families follow the women into groups?

BLEE: I think it's clear that women who are married or have boyfriends often bring in the men. But a lot of the women that are recruited are in fact single, and come in by themselves.

And contrary to what I expected to find, the mothers I interviewed — even though they were deep believers in the racist movement, very committed to it, giving their life to it — when it got right down to it, they were reluctant and sometimes flat-out negative about recruiting their own children into the group.

That was very interesting. These women are active recruiters of other people, but their experience in the group was often so problematic that they were hesitant about bringing in their own children, especially their daughters.

On the one hand, they would talk about how wonderful the movement was and what a great place for women. But then I would say, "Do you hope your daughter will join?" and they would mostly say no, and then a flood of information would come — it's not a safe place for women, there are no opportunities for women, the men are too violent.

It turns out that women see their time in racist groups as a burden rather than something exciting. If you read the writings of racist men, they talk about being in these groups as exhilarating.

But women talk about it as an unwanted obligation. They say things like, "I have to act on it because I have the knowledge, but I wish I didn't know what I know."

IR: So are the women less committed members than the men?

BLEE: They are committed, but they don't believe the same way the men do. They are committed because they feel more vulnerable outside the group than inside it.

In other words, they see all the terrible things that happen to them by being in these groups — they lose jobs, their families won't talk them, their kids sometimes hate them — but they're convinced that a more terrible fate awaits them and their children if they don't fight for white and Aryan rights.

They are so convinced of the bizarre ideas that circulate in the movement about what is around the corner — they're about to be engulfed in a race war, their daughters will be raped by immigrant marauders — that they feel they have to stay in the movement to fend that off.

IR: Let's return to recruitment. How are women brought in?

BLEE: Women are recruited by a contact. This is true of recruitment for almost any kind of group. People generally join bowling leagues because they know someone in the league, not because they seek it out. People don't look in the phone book for a Nazi group to join either. They typically join because they have a contact in the group.

IR: Are they even partly motivated by pre-existing racist or anti-Semitic ideas?

BLEE: I found that they are not wildly racist, not off the charts, before they join, and most of them aren't initially anti-Semitic at all.

So the racism that these groups espouse, the sense that the whole world is revolving around race, and the idea that conspiratorial Jews run the world, seem to be for these women a product of being in the group rather than something that convinced them to join.

They are reformed politically by joining the group, and that's what they talk about, learning the truth. They talk about it as a conversion experience — all of a sudden they see the world differently, like a religious conversion, or sobriety.