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

IR: Could you give some examples of that? What did you find in your research?

BLEE: If you look at these groups, they are uniformly anti-gay. But if you talk to members, their opinions on gay and lesbian issues are more diverse.

One woman who was distributing really vicious antigay pamphlets told me, "I don't agree that gays deserve AIDS, deserve to die, but that's what [my group] says."

In the same way, if you look at the propaganda, most groups are very anti-abortion. But if you talk to women in these groups, they are not necessarily anti-abortion.

Some of them have had abortions. A Klanswoman told me, "I think it's a perfectly private thing. ... It should never be part of a political platform."

A lot of these groups put out propaganda about how women should bear lots of children to save the white race.

But many women told me that that's ridiculous, they aren't planning to do that. Most are not living in economic circumstances where they want to have eight kids. The men say this is great for the white race, but the women tell me privately, "Forget it!"

Some of the women even have friends in the, quote, enemy races. Almost a third of the women I spoke to, in fact, told me about mixed-race or homosexual family members with whom they were on friendly terms.

I think this is important not because I want to suggest that members are in any way better or more moral than the groups they're in, but because it may be valuable information for thinking about how we pull people out.

These people are often ambivalent about the beliefs they espouse in public.

IR: Please expand on the ramifications of your study for pulling women out of these groups. What do you mean specifically?

BLEE: Almost every woman that I interviewed had a significant tie to somebody on the outside, and often that was a tie that she kept secret from others in the group, even her boyfriend or husband. Typically, that tie might be to a sister or a friend, including people who found the women's racist attitudes horrible.

And if it's the case that people come into racist groups largely because of ties they have to people who are in them, then it's also the case that people come out of racist groups, or see the possibility of coming out, because of ties they have to people on the outside.

We know, for example, that women who are able to leave domestic violence situations are those who typically have ties to the outside, who are not completely isolated.

And because the racism of the women who join these groups is not well formed early on, it's easier to reach people with a counter-message early in their time in the groups. Once they develop this hard-core, conspiratorial belief system, it's much harder to break in.

White power Skinheads are the most extreme case of this. These are kids who act on extremely shallow and shallowly held ideas.

So even if they are willing to do some terrible things based on those beliefs, an alternative set of beliefs, attached to an attractive set of friends or an attractive partying situation, can be just the pull that brings people out of Skinhead groups.

IR: Do you think the same is true for men?

BLEE: Men are more insular. They have more to gain from these groups — the possibility of fame, money, bravado. There's more payoff for men who hold to the party line. I don't think they have one foot out the door the way women do.

IR: Not only are there more women in racist groups today, but many are involved in creating their own culture, home-schooling their children, exchanging information about how to raise proper Aryan children and so on. Do you see any particular danger in these ostensibly mundane activities?

BLEE: There are two dangers. For one thing, they are trying to create some kind of intergenerational racist counter culture, a self-sustaining, long-term racist world that is parallel to the mainstream world. That's a scary ambition, although I don't think it's being particularly fulfilled anywhere. They are trying to create the embryo of a racist society within the existing one.

The other scary aspect of this is that some of these activities, because they seem so normal, can provide a bridge to recruit other women who would otherwise never come into contact with racist activists.

Classes in herbal medicine, home schooling, are appealing — they present the racist movement as part of everyday life. Here are mothers and kids learning geography — that doesn't seem quite as scary to potential recruits as hearing about race war.

I interviewed a number of women who came into contact with the movement through one or another of those kinds of mechanisms.

One, for instance, went to a biblical home birthing seminar and got to know the people. Months went by with no mention of race — it seemed to be a bunch of women talking about the Bible. Gradually, they told her more, and the conversion process began.

That's a pretty effective way to recruit people, compared to standing on a street corner saying, "Join the American Nazi Party."

That's how women can be really effective, as opposed to a bunch of bedraggled Klan guys standing in a courthouse square surrounded by 10 times as many antiracist demonstrators. That's probably the worst way you can recruit. Women provide an air of normalcy.