When James Alex Fields Jr.’s mug shot was released after he drove his Dodge Challenger through a counterprotest in Charlottesville on Saturday, no one was surprised by what the image revealed: a young, white man with a neo-fascist undercut. “Alt-right” figures like Richard Spencer absorb nearly all the media glare on white nationalism, creating the impression that this is a single-sex movement, and as many have pointed out, the white supremacists who rallied on Saturday were mostly men. Indeed, when it comes to identifying the perpetrators of racial hatred in this country, it is tempting to comfort ourselves with gender tropes. But women have always played a determining role in white-supremacist movements.
While the march in Charlottesville occurred in reaction to the proposed removal of a statue of a Confederate general, women were responsible for the erection of many of these Confederate statues across the country at the turn of the 20th century. In the 1920s, women composed the most influential arm of the KKK. And lest we forget the election that emboldened these modern white supremacists: More than half of white women voted for Trump. To overlook the comprehensive picture of who makes up the extreme right is to seriously underestimate its reach.
When we think of the Klan — one of this country’s most notorious and instantly recognizable hate groups — we imagine male faces under the pointed white hoods. But a historical examination of that organization’s most effective period tells a different story. The 1920s were a boom time for the Klan. Membership was roughly 4 million — a number that dwarfs the fringe organization that it is today — and carried no stigma.
While William Joseph Simmons was the founder of that era’s Klan, a woman was the mouthpiece and arguably its most influential member. According to historian Kathleen Blee’s book Women of the Klan, Elizabeth Tyler was “the first major female leader” of the 1920s Klan. In the midst of financial turmoil, the Klan hired Tyler to publicize and recruit new members. One of her most important contributions was galvanizing the KKK’s base by expanding the list of targeted Klan enemies beyond Black people: Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and communists. Under her leadership, the Klan underwent “a dramatic reversal of fortune.” An estimated 85,000 new members joined. At one point, insurgent Klansmen argued that she was the actual head of the Klan and that Simmons was just a figurehead. A congressional investigation agreed.
Tyler’s role could have been chalked up to an anomaly were it not for what happened next. Tyler spearheaded the Women of the Klu Klux Klan, the all-women, autonomous arm of the KKK that had roughly half-a-million members during the 1920s. As I wrote in a Timeline piece on the WKKK, the organization was savvier than its male counterpart because “they were better than the men’s group at hiding their white supremacist mission behind a facade of social welfare.” The group helped to normalize the terrorism of the men’s KKK. Pamphlets from the time read, “Are you interested in the Welfare of our Nation? As an Enfranchised woman are you interested in better government?” Through picnics, lunches, and cross burnings, these white women rallied around racist immigration laws, anti-miscegenation, and segregation.
Due to infighting scandal and the Klan’s general loss of momentum, the WKKK died out by the end of the decade. But there’s no doubt that the Klanswomen channeled their xenophobia into other spheres — the classroom, the school board, local and national politics.
Undergirding this troubling belief that women aren’t central to racist movements is another: That racism occurs in a vacuum. Those who think white supremacy is a “white guys’ thing” must ask themselves about the nature of the fantasy they have constructed. Do we really believe the men holding torches in these photographs live in some sort of single-gendered society, or that the women they interact with hold no sway in their communities? There may be fewer of them marching with lit torches, but rest assured women are playing a powerful role wherever they can enact their agendas. If the 1920s Klan showed us anything, it’s that racist ideologies are nurtured in communities — not in isolation — and woven into a society’s very fabric. We will never understand the mechanisms that enact racism until we understand the whole societies from which they spring.
Take the “alt-right,” for example. Figures like Anne Coulter have been touting Trumpian ideas long before Trump made any moves toward the White House. Lauren Southern has become, according to Vice, the alt-right’s “not-so-secret weapon.” As a Harper’s feature recently highlighted, a group of “self-made female pundits” with a white-nationalist agenda are seeking to amplify their voices. Across Europe, a wave of women leaders promoting an anti-immigrant, white-populist hard-line are trying to galvanize women voters.
The women within these movements have warned of the foolishness of ignoring them. Not long after Donald Trump was elected, Lana Lokteff, a woman member of the “alt-right” gave a speech intended to galvanize other women. She told the crowd, “Our enemies have become so arrogant that they count on our silence.” After all, as Lokteff said, “When women get involved, a movement becomes a serious threat.”