Intelligence Report

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

A sociologist examines the roots of women's participation in racist groups and suggests some ways to extricate them.

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.

IR: So they have no basis in their experience for racism?

BLEE: When I talked to people about their racism, I would say, "Tell me what you have against African Americans."

And every person would come up with a story from their personal life — but often an extremely trivial story, along the lines of, "When I was in third grade, I sat on the bus next to this overweight African-American girl and she always took up more than her seat. That's how I knew that African Americans were bad."

They would build their racist beliefs on something like that, something that was only seen in retrospect as racial.

But when you ask them what they have against Jews, there's nothing.

In fact, few of them could even name a single person, including any public or historical figure, who was Jewish. Often, the closest they came was a poor approximation of the name of [Federal Reserve Board Chairman] Alan Greenspan.

There wasn't any personal reference in their lives for anti-Semitism. It's more a conspiracy theory learned in the groups. And like all conspiracy theories, it's completely circular — having no evidence only confirms the theory.

Overall, I think it's almost always a pull from the group that brings people into these racist groups, rather than a push from their own experience.

IR: Are there any issues at all that help convince women to join these groups?

BLEE: There are many different kinds of groups and the reasons people join Klan groups are different than why someone joins a white power Skinhead or a neo-Nazi group. But a number of groups do use education as a lure that many women find very attractive.

So many women in so many places find that their children's education is problematic. And so when they meet someone who starts talking to them about schools — how schools are bad because there are too many Puerto Rican kids or for some other racial reason — it can be very effective.

Younger racist groups, like white power Skinhead groups, use different kinds of lures that are attractive to women — the parties they have, the music, the alcohol, the nature of friendship they appear to offer.

Overall, recruiting women into white power Skinhead groups isn't usually issue-based. Women become associated with these groups for reasons that are cultural and social — friends, music, clothing styles — rather than because a particular racial issue is troubling them.

IR: How ideological do the women become once they have joined up?

BLEE: I would say the women that have children are different from the women who do not. The women who are young and single, in white power Skinhead groups, embrace Nazism one day and not the next.

But women who have children often feel that they are protecting them by being in a racist group, and they are more committed. But committed doesn't always mean knowledgeable.

One thing that always surprised me was that my knowledge of their groups was typically much deeper than theirs — I had a much better sense of what the groups stood for than these people did. People who had given their whole lives to these groups couldn't even tell me a paragraph about what their groups stood for.

Oftentimes, what they said didn't fit into their group's propaganda or even flatly contradicted it.

One woman who was a member of an explicitly Nazi group, for instance, said she liked the group because "it doesn't really place the blame for a lot of things, you know, squarely on one particular people — like, say, the Jews or something."

IR: How many women are in these groups?

BLEE: That depends greatly on the group you're talking about. There are groups where the new people coming in are about half women, but there are also groups that still have very few women. Overall, I think, the trend in most groups is clearly toward an increasing percentage of women.

IR: And are the women ever given comparable status to the men?

BLEE: That ranges from groups in which women really are barefoot and pregnant, often homesteading and home-schooling their children into white supremacy, all the way over to groups in which women see themselves as racial warriors almost, but not quite, equal to the men.

Many of the men in these groups joined up partly to defend the privileges of white men, and so while many leaders have wanted to recruit women, many others are very hostile to the idea.

You don't see women in official leadership positions, and very few in any kind of spokesman role. But I do think it's interesting that women in some smaller groups are functioning as leaders, if you think of leadership as keeping the group together.

Women are oftentimes the glue in racist groups, especially small Nazi-type groups, although they don't have the titles.

IR: You mentioned violence earlier. Can you elaborate on that?

BLEE: One of the things that struck me doing this book was that violence is really everywhere in these groups. Not only is it in their minds, as strategy, as part of their plans for the future, but in some groups violence just permeates the atmosphere.

People have clashes with other people, even their friends, they inflict violence on themselves, they inflict violence on their girlfriends and wives.

Women tend to be disproportionately affected by the violence. Domestic violence is quite widespread in the groups, although it's impossible to say statistically how widespread.

In any case, the consequences are more severe on women in racist groups. Unlike other women, they have almost no recourse. They can't go to the police. They fear going to other outsiders. They even fear revealing being abused to others in the group.

They're not supposed to be criticizing other, quote, racial warriors. They're supposed to take the violence without complaint.

In other words, the violence in some of these women's lives is so pervasive that it comes to feel to them inevitable.

If violence is everywhere around you, or the potential for or fear of violence, it may not seem quite as outlandish to commit yourself to a violent strategy for the future, to violence against the rest of us.

IR: You write in your new book that you chose not to interview leaders of groups. What was your thinking?

BLEE: I was interested in looking at members rather than leaders of groups or the propaganda that's put out to represent the group as a whole, because it turns out that members are relatively diverse.

If you just talk to the leaders or look at the propaganda, it appears there is a great deal of uniformity in the groups. But if you look at members, there's a wider range of ideas and actions.

The people in these groups are more complicated than they appear on the surface.

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.