The Women Behind the Masks of Hate

New York Times/January 26, 2002
By Dinitia Smith

Pittsburgh -- For a year, Kathleen Blee, a small woman with a rather tentative voice, traveled America, seeking the ugly and the dangerous. She was interviewing neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian Identity organizations for a book on women in hate groups. She sat over coffee with women who had spiked hair and swastika tattoos, and respectable-looking homemakers who smiled as they delivered racist utterances about blacks and Jews. At first, Ms. Blee, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was horrified. Then scared. And then she got bored, pretending in desperation that she was just a tape recorder taking it all in. Finally, she grew numb.

But in the end, what she found surprised her greatly. Her assumptions about hate groups were turned upside down, and this month, the University of California Press is publishing the results, "Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement."

Contrary to everything she expected, the women did not usually come from poor or racist families. They were not necessarily abused or crazy. In fact, before joining, they were not even particularly racist.

And behind the racism against blacks was a violent anti-Semitism. "They believe Jews are manipulating both blacks and whites," Ms. Blee said during an interview at her neat, modest house here.

Ms. Blee, 48, first became interested in hate groups nearly 20 years ago, when she discovered a Klan pamphlet from the 1920's advocating women's suffrage. She also found pamphlets advocating eight-hour days for mothers and the use of maiden names by married women. "I thought, This violates all my sense of historical categories," Ms. Blee said. "The role of women in the Klan has been overlooked. They were not incidental, but the glue that held it together."

So she decided to write a book focusing on Indiana, where she grew up and where nearly a quarter-million Klan women lived during the 1920's. In old age homes, she found survivors. They hadn't changed their views. Interviewing them was "hateful," she said, adding, "They assumed because I was white I would agree."

Some Klan women were suffragettes, Ms. Blee discovered, because they believed that the women's vote would counteract votes of African-American men. Some joined because of the temperance movement. "They would say: 'Drink is ruining the family. Who is to blame for that? Catholics,' " said Ms. Blee, who was raised in a Roman Catholic family in Fort Wayne. Catholics as well as blacks, she noted, were targets of the early Klan. (Ms. Blee asked that no other details of her personal life be published because of the dangers of her work.)

Although women did not participate in lynchings, they spread rumors against Jewish store owners and Catholic teachers to drive them from communities. Women also sustained the rituals necessary to cement membership, Klan weddings, christenings, cookbooks, parallel Little Leagues.

In 1991, Ms. Blee published "Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920's" (California). On her book tour, audiences asked about the modern-day Klan, and so she decided to do another study on contemporary hate groups. Once again she focused on women, she said, because "I wanted to see what it's like to be inside but not a leader."

Finding them wasn't easy. Hate groups don't keep membership lists, but she had contacts from her earlier book. She also subscribed to hate literature, which she had mailed to a post office box. "It was an unbelievable nightmare," Ms. Blee remembered. "Going to the post office was so embarrassing. I'm sure they were horrified."

Skinheads were particularly tough to reach, Ms. Blee said: "It's not like they have an office." She contacted antigang task forces in police departments, which vouched for her. "They lead marginal lives, their boyfriends beat them up," Ms. Blee explained. "The police are often the only adults they can turn to, the one stable thing in their lives."

Hate groups today are usually "tiny and extremely marginal," she said, adding, "After Oklahoma City, they became more subterranean, more dangerous, because the people who have remained are more hardcore, more interested in terrorist activities."

But "small is worse than large when you are talking about racism," Ms. Blee said. "Bigger groups are easier to monitor."

The neo-Nazi organizations tended to be stronger than Klan groups, she said: "The Klan is xenophobic. Neo-Nazis are more open to Pan-Aryanism, which wants to unite Aryans around the globe."

The groups had plenty of members who were women. Beginning in the 1980's, women have been actively recruited, because they are believed less likely to have criminal records and therefore to draw police attention.

Generally, women in hate groups were eager to be interviewed by Ms. Blee. She made it clear that while she didn't share their beliefs, she said, she wanted "to give a fair and accurate portrayal of racist groups, and they liked that." Some had read her book on the Klan: "They would say, 'I loved your book.' They felt it was fair. They are often caricatured in the media, and they liked being taken seriously." Besides, Ms. Blee said, "their family and friends had given up on them." She continued, "Being talked to by a professor was a big event."

There was also a high level of violence within groups, with members hanging cats by their paws and beating other members with baseball bats. More women than men were targets of brutality, Ms. Blee said, though she did not know whether the level of domestic violence was higher than in mainstream society. Sometimes the savagery was ritualistic. In one initiation ceremony, new members were stomped on. "The violence gave them the sense of being an 'us,' " Ms. Blee said.

She went alone to interviews because the groups were dangerous, and she was reluctant to ask anyone to accompany her. Once, she said, a man pointed a gun at her, saying, "I don't believe you are who you say you are." She left but later returned. "If I went back," she said, "it would look less like I was an informer."

Most of the women she interviewed were poor but claimed they had not been before joining. "If you're covered with Nazi swastikas, employers don't like it," Ms. Blee said.

The women were rarely motivated by racism in joining, she said. Their racism grew afterward, in what they described as a conversion experience.

"The scary thing was that there was not any particular type who were drawn to the groups," Ms. Blee said. "That would be comforting." The one common denominator was that they had known someone who was a member. Some women encountered skinheads at parties. One woman was researching a medical malpractice suit for a lawyer and met a man in a library researching Jews on the hospital staff. Another learned about a hate group from her home childbirth instructor.

Most knew some blacks before joining. They would say, "I had an African-American friend as a child who stole my marbles," Ms. Blee said. But the women, who were now also virulently anti-Semitic, often could not name any Jews. "The idea was," Ms. Blee said, "Jews were invisible, and it shows how effective they are" in disguising themselves and penetrating society.

"It's not that they just believe that Jews control the world," she said. "They believe they control daily life. For instance, if you got food poisoning, it would be an example of Jewish power."

But Ms. Blee found that women were more likely than men to deviate from the party line. "They will secretly take their children to a Jewish doctor," she said. Most hate groups are against abortion, she said, but some of the women confided that they had had abortions.

The months of interviews took a toll on Ms. Blee, especially in the constant effort to hold back her reactions as she listened to racist language, to keep from revealing anything about herself because of the danger.

For her next book, she has chosen a nice, safe topic: the effect on community groups of having a place to meet. "I'm not going to do this kind of work anymore," she said. "I'm emotionally exhausted.

"No more racists."

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