I’ve been thinking through what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. I won’t say I’ve been trying to “make sense” of what happened, though, because it already makes sense. It makes too much sense, unfortunately. Chris noted that it’s wrong to cast this as a class issue instead of a race issue. It’s also wrong to cast this as a gender issue instead of a race issue. Gender is involved because it’s a race issue.
It hasn’t escaped notice that almost all of the marchers were white men, which has been the basis of critiques of a culture of “toxic masculinity” and defenses of the marchers like this infamous, now-deleted tweet in response to a British WWII veteran:
As to the idea that being called a Nazi will turn you into one, others have had pithier responses to that than I could ever muster.
On the other hand, the fact that the woman murdered was white seems to have allowed some people avoid the fact that white women perpetuate and benefit from white supremacist patriarchy, even as they are stuck in its oppressive matrix.
To understand this and grapple with it honestly, we have to start with ideas of the “natural” docility, sweetness, and gentleness of white women that really took hold in the 19th century.
As Thavolia Glymph argues, this idea of white womanhood helped support a dominant vision of the kind, gentle slave mistress who brought civilization and domestic tranquility to the plantation household, essentially excusing white women from their participation in a violent slave system. These ideas, combined with a desire to see gender solidarity among female slaves and their mistresses, led generations of white female scholars to repeat this narrative. They privileged white female textual silences over copious black female testimony to the pervasiveness of white female violence, like the testimony of Lulu Wilson, who noted that her master Wash Hodges was just mean, but his wife “studied ’bout meanness.” White women not only benefited from white supremacy in the abstract, they perpetuated it through violence.
Just as women perpetuated white supremacy in the age of slavery, they continued doing it as part of of the Klan. If you want statistics, Kathleen M. Blee’s Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s is full of them. Blee also offered two arguments as to why women in the Klan had been so understudied. First, scholars assumed women who joined the Klan, or indeed any right-wing organization, were essentially nonpolitical “pawns of politically engaged men,” be they fathers, brothers, or Klan leaders. Second, she argues that scholars assumed Klanswomen were “socially marginal” which led them to join organizations to unsettle the existing order and practice, in today’s terms, the politics of resentment. The first assumption carries forward ideas of 19th century white womanhood, while the second should sound familiar – it’s the contemporary insistence on Trump supporters and white supremacists as purely marginal/poor/working-class despite evidence to the contrary.
Both Blee and Glymph demonstrate how the myth of white female goodness obscures and excuses the racism of American white women. Glymph argues that we shouldn’t ignore the home as a site of power and politics, and Blee demonstrates how even when white women join the Klan and put on robes and march through the street, their public, politically-engaged racism is excused and written off.
But white women didn’t have to join the Klan in the 1920s, nor do they have to join the Vanguard of America today, to benefit from and perpetuate white supremacy.
Nor does participating in this white supremacist system prevent white women from holding other “progressive” views that benefit them, just as Klanswomen could still argue for increased women’s property rights. White (liberal, feminist) women help perpetuate and increase de facto segregation under the cover of “good schools” all the time.
We should still acknowledge how much of white supremacist patriarchy is built around a narrative of “protecting” white women that corresponds to these older ideas of white womanhood. While black men were lynched as punishments for economic/political/social success or aspirations, the public narrative was often that they were being punished for sexual crimes against white women. This is the history and rhetoric the president was drawing on when he opened his campaign calling Mexican immigrants rapists, and when he recently deployed some red-meat erotic racism at a “campaign-style rally” by talking about immigrants as “animals” who “slice and dice” young (white) girls.
And let’s not kid ourselves that white women were throwing themselves at the feet of the lynch mob, begging them to cease; Emmett Till’s accuser admitting she lied was only surprising if you had your head in the sand. But it is worth noting the white supremacist terrorism of the years after the Civil War, while directed mostly at black men and women, also targeted white women who had transgressed racial boundaries by engaging in romantic/sexual relationships with black men.
The exclusive right to white women’s bodies is an important part of the cultural heritage white men were marching to protect in Virginia. It’s also why, when these protests led to the death of a young white woman, the very person this ideology is supposed to protect and revere, who was protesting against their march, white supremacists had an explanation close at hand, one that has clear historical roots: the murdered young woman was fat, promiscuous, childless, and socially associated with non-white men. In this framework, by choosing not conform to the white supremacist ideal of white womanhood, this woman had lost her right to protection, and deserved no more than the non-white people she had chosen to ally herself with.
The treatment of Heather Heyer is the exception that proves the rule, however. We may not have seen lots of white women marching this past weekend, but the marchers went home to the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters they were marching to “protect,” and were welcomed back with open arms. White women might not always be carrying the torches, but they know what aisle they’re in.
- The longer history of the role gender played in creating/shaping racial ideology in America is important and valuable, but the difficult thing about patriarchy is that there’s no easy place to start, so I’m starting here. Read Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, though. It’s wonderful.
- Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
- Kathleen M. Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 102. It is also important to note that since it’s on the Second Klan, Blee’s not just talking about Klanswomen in the South, but rather Indiana, Pennsylvania, Oregon…
- See Martha Hodes, “The sexualization of reconstruction politics: White women and black men in the South after the Civil War” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 3 (1993): 402-417 and Lisa Cardyn, “Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South,” in Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War, ed. Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 140-168.