Blee, Kathleen M.

views updated

BLEE, Kathleen M.

PERSONAL: Female. Education: Indiana University, B.A. (with highest honors), 1974; University of Wisconsin—Madison, M.S., 1976, Ph.D., 1982.

ADDRESSES: Offıce—Department of Sociology, 2003 Forbes Quad, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: University of Kentucky, Lexington, 1981-96, began as instructor, became professor, director of women's studies program, 1987-89, associate dean of, College of Arts and Sciences, 1989-91, 1992, research professor, 1994-95; University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, professor of sociology and director of women's studies program, 1996—, affiliated appointment with department of history, 1997—.

AWARDS, HONORS: Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s selected as an outstanding book by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights.


Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1991.

(Editor) No Middle Ground: Women and Radical Protest, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(With Dwight B. Billings) The Road to Poverty: TheMaking of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 2000.

(Editor, with France Winddance Twine) Feminism andAntiracism: International Struggles for Justice, New York University Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: Sociologist Kathleen M. Blee's work often addresses the relationships of various social factors, including race, class, and gender, and frequently challenges widely held assumptions. Women of theKlan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s examines the sense of feminist empowerment felt by women who ironically were working for the oppression of blacks, Jews, and Catholics through their participation in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement, again which deal with the intersection of gender and racial politics, Blee demonstrates that stereotypes of women in racist groups are often inaccurate. The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia, written with Dwight B. Billings, explodes some of the stereotypes about that region.

Women of the Klan deals with a decade in which the Klan regained popularity. The original Klan, which operated in the South in the immediate post-Civil War period, was an all-male organization that carried out violent attacks on blacks ostensibly to protect supposedly defenseless white women. That Klan dissolved in the 1870s; in 1915 a new one was born out of resurgent racism and nativism. During the 1920s many women, newly emancipated by possession of voting rights and relaxation of social strictures, took power into their own hands by becoming active in racist groups that came together in 1923 as Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK). Blee's account includes general information on WKKK activities and a case study of Klanswomen in Indiana. "What is so chilling about Blee's story," commented Dana Frank in the Nation, "is that those women did not join just to serve as obeisant handmaidens to their male masters. . . . The 1920s or second Klan appealed to white women in the name of . . . feminism." They saw it, Frank related, as a means "to defend against erosion of their newly won power of the vote by evil, conspiring Catholics, Jews and African-Americans." Some of the women who became Klan members had been activists for suffrage and other progressive social reforms; Blee writes that they had "a facile ability to fold bitter racial and religious bigotry into progressive politics." One of the appeals of the Klan was its antivice crusades, which "shaded easily into fanatic anti-Semitism and especially anti-Catholicism," Frank observed. Barbara Ehrenreich, critiquing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, further explained, "In addition to its familiar ideals of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and so forth, the Ku Klux Klan of the 20s stood for Americanism, temperance, child-welfare measures, good citizenship, morality and militant Christianity."

Robert A. Goldberg, writing in the Journal of Social History, called Women of the Klan "impressive in several respects," saying, "Blee's insights about Klan culture are fresh and exciting and suggest new areas for research." He saw, however, a lack of data to support some of Blee's statements, such as her estimate of the number of Klanswomen and her assertion that many of them had a feminist bent. "A few Klans-women at the national level did articulate an equal-rights position," he remarked, but among the rank and file there seems to have been contentment with traditional gender roles. He did grant that "Blee has pointed scholars in a new and necessary direction." Ehrenreich, who praised the book generally, believed Blee does not draw sufficient distinction between feminist-minded Klanswomen and more typical feminist groups of the era. "Not all civic-minded women of appropriate pigmentation sought sorority within the Women's Klan," Ehrenreich wrote. "Nor did the mainstream feminist organizations, whatever their shortcomings on matters of race and ethnicity, welcome the Klan's support. There is a little space, I would like to think, between prejudice on the one hand and outright hate on the other, but Women of the Klan does not explore it." Today's feminist groups, she added, are active in the fight for racial and economic justice. Frank wished Blee had paid more attention to issues of class, but still deemed the book "superb" and its findings, which highlight the "terrifying banality" of racism, "crucial if we are to uncover, and grasp, the depth of white supremacy." A Publishers Weekly reviewer thought the book "will prove a revelation to many" and further maintained that "probably no future history of the Ku Klux Klan will be written without reference to this ground-breaking work."

Women's participation in racist groups of the late twentieth century is the topic of Inside Organized Racism. For this book, Blee interviewed thirty-four women who are involved in the modern-day KKK, neo-Nazi organizations, the Christian Identity movement, and other white supremacist groups. As in Women of the Klan, she contradicts stereotypes of these women, demonstrating that they are better educated and more affluent than generally assumed, that many of them joined racist groups on their own rather than not at the behest of a male partner, and that a substantial proportion of them—more than onethird—come from families with liberal views. They "joined the racist movement casually, socially, without strong racist beliefs and learned racist extremism inside the movement," reported Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz in Women's Review of Books. A PublishersWeekly critic also took note of these findings and commented, "Blee's disquieting account of how everyday racism morphs into extraordinary racism is full of surprises." The critic added that Blee shows uncommon empathy for her subjects, whom she portrays as monstrous, but not monsters. Indeed, Kaye/Kantrowitz wrote, Blee may overstate the "ordinariness of these women, but she also offers 'a message of hope' by asserting that racist groups change people and people can be changed back." The Publishers Weekly reviewer summed up the book as "a must-read for its fresh, pertinent scholarship and its riveting prose."

The Road to Poverty is a work of path-breaking scholarship as well, in the opinion of some critics. With a detailed case study of Clay County, Kentucky, Blee and Billings analyze the causes of poverty in Appalachia. They challenge the idea that this poverty resulted from the inherent "backwardness" of Appalachian people, and they argue that local government policies—including governmental relationships with business interests—helped keep people of this region poor. Nineteenth-century Clay County was home to many small farms, but population growth meant that by the end of the U.S. Civil War there were too many farmers for the land to support. "A large population had to out migrate or become wage laborers," related Altina Waller in the Journal of Social History. "This economic crisis produced a small group of local elites who allied with outside corporations in a local political system that was coercive, tending to prevent the rise of a middle class while impoverishing most of the population." In the authors' account, according to American Journal of Sociology contributor Kathleen Stewart, "the famous Appalachian feuds are shown to be an effect not of an ingrained and timeless sensibility, but of factionalism and schisms among the elites; elite conflicts intruded into public life, paralyzed local political institutions, and eventually erupted into intense violence at the turn of the century, which forced nonelites as well to decide which side they were on."

"One of the strongest features" of the Road to Poverty, commented Melissa Latimer in Social Forces,. . . "is the emphasis on the role of local state and political development on Appalachian economic development and poverty. . . . The history of capitalist markets, state coercion, and cultural strategies all interacted to shape the road to poverty taken in Clay County, Kentucky. This information should allow us to design more effective antipoverty programs." Several other reviewers noted the broad lessons to be drawn from Clay County. "Billings and Blee have provided a description of the 'road to poverty' that is local in its wealth of detail, yet global in its significance and theoretical sophistication," remarked Allen W. Batteau in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In a similar vein, Walter observed, "The book is breathtaking in its scope and sophistication of historical and sociological analysis. The authors have probed minute details of one small county and managed to relate that evidence to the most significant theories circulating today regarding the origins and persistence of poverty, wherever it occurs. It should be read and pondered by policy makers everywhere."



American Journal of Sociology, January, 2001, Kathleen Stewart, review of The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia, p. 1185.

Booklist, September 1, 1999, David Rouse, review of The Road to Poverty, p. 38.

Journal of Social History, fall, 1993, Robert A. Goldberg, review of Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, p. 196; winter, 2001, Altina Walter, review of The Road to Poverty, p. 468.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September, 2001, Allen W. Batteau, review of The Road to Poverty, p. 608.

Library Journal, January, 2002, Patricia A. Beaber, review of Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 1, 1991, Barbara Ehrenreich, "Another Sisterhood," pp. 1, 5.

Nation, February 17, 1992, Dana Frank, review of Women of the Klan, p. 209.

Publishers Weekly, June 7, 1991, review of Women of the Klan, p. 49; January 7, 2002, review of Inside Organized Racism, p. 59.

Social Forces, September, 2001, Melissa Latimer, review of The Road to Poverty, p. 364.

Women's Review of Books, December, 1998, Lois Rita Helmbold, "Action Stations," p. 17; March, 2002, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, "The Banality of Evil," pp. 4-5.


Kathleen Blee Home Page, (May 8, 2003).*