In April 2022, I was delighted to receive a BAAS Postgraduate Research Assistance Award to aid my archival research in the United States. The Association’s support for my research has been vital to the progress of my thesis, as both the financial assistance and the tangible support from BAAS made the process of conducting fieldwork less stressful and more enjoyable.
My project considers the intersection of white supremacy, anti-communism, and womanhood during the Cold War by focusing on the ideology and activities of two all-female right wing organisations, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan and the Minute Women of the United States of America. The idea for this project was formed while I was writing my dissertation for my Master’s Degree, which focused on Joseph McCarthy, the former Republican Senator from Wisconsin, and his exploitation of public fear during the second Red Scare. During the writing process for this dissertation I utilized Don Carleton’s Red Scare: Right-Wing Hysteria, Fifties Fanaticism, and Their Legacy in Texas. Carleton has written extensively on Texas history, and this book focuses on Houston in the McCarthy era and how communities in the city responded to growing fears of communism in the 1950s. While reading this book, I was intrigued by Carleton’s numerous references to the Minute Women, a zealous group of women who had a sprawling influence on politics in Houston. After this initial introduction to the group, my curiosity about the Minute Women, and other women’s groups like them, grew. My decision to make these groups the topic of my doctoral research was solidified when I watched Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, and witnessed the (dramatised) participation of white women in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Despite presenting themselves as distinctly white supremacist and anti-communist organisations respectively, my research contends that the Women of the Ku Klux Klan and the Minute Women experienced considerable ideological overlap and championed the same causes, mainly in their attempts to prevent racial integration in American schools.
There is little online material relating to either of these groups, so a visit to the archives was vital to understanding the motivations of the women in these organisations. By the time BAAS had notified me of their decision, I was already two weeks into my research trip and had travelled from my home in Northern Ireland to Houston, and then onto Athens, Georgia. I spent two weeks conducting research at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC), where I was able to access a number of collections which held a wealth of material relating to the Minute Women. The Ralph S. O’Leary collection was particularly vital to my thesis, as O’Leary was an investigative journalist for the Houston Post and had written a widely-circulated exposé on the Houston chapter of the Minute Women in 1953.
This voluminous collection held newspaper clippings, newsletters from the Minute Women, photographs of members, and correspondence relating to, and written by, members of the group. The material held in this collection was pivotal to my understanding of the inner workings of the organisation, and I really enjoyed finding photographs of the Minute Women so I could finally put some faces to the names. In addition to the O’Leary collection, the HMRC was home to the Dr George Ebey collection, the Dr Kate Bell collection, and a number of smaller collections relevant to racism, conservatism, and events in Houston more generally.
Upon arriving in Athens, I dove into the collections held in the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia. The time I spent at UGA was focused on retrieving material related to the activities of Klanswomen in Georgia, and to Klan-related activities more broadly. The Hargrett Library held a wealth of material relating to right-wing groups, with collections on the Klan specifically as well as on anti-communism and resistance to desegregation at UGA in the 1960s. While on campus I was able to discuss my project with other researchers, and received some stellar recommendations from archival staff and university students on places to go and things to do during the ten days I spent there (honourable mention to the Last Resort Grill, whose white chocolate cheesecake was worth the hype).
My research trip concluded in North Carolina, with the ten days I spent there being split between the archives at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Duke University. The libraries at UNC and Duke held numerous collections relating to the activities of various Klan groups, memorabilia from the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, materials relating to desegregation, states’ rights, race relations, and anti-communism. A particular highlight of my time at UNC was locating pictures of Klanswomen at rallies in the state, as their participation is largely downplayed in the historiography and photographic evidence of this is particularly difficult to locate.
The collections I accessed during my research trip have significantly aided my understanding of white supremacist and anti-communist women’s activism during the Cold War, with the materials I consulted offering interesting insights into the inner workings and membership demographics of these groups. I would like to thank BAAS for their support of my project, and I look forward to deepening my awareness of right-wing activism during a time when right-wing extremism is once again on the rise in the United States and beyond.
Sarah Curry is a third-year PhD candidate at Queens University Belfast. Her research focuses on American History, specifically gender, racism, and anti-communism in the 1950s and 1960s. Her research interests include American history, Cold War history, US politics, gender, racism, anti-communism, and the history of social movements on the Right. Find her on Twitter @SarahCurry25.