The Waspish Hetero-Patriarchy: Locating Power in Recent American History
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The Waspish Hetero-Patriarchy:
Locating Power in Recent American History

As a term for describing the group of Americans who have historically sat atop the economic, cultural, and political hierarchy in the United States, we could do a lot worse than "Waspish hetero-patriarchy." Lengthy yes, but also surprisingly complete, historically grounded, and, if I do say so myself, it even has a nice ring to it. It serves a particularly important need in the American context, too, because textbook titles and national syntheses tell us that the United States has been in the middle of an ongoing struggle, a Story of Freedom within an Unfinished Nation. And while historians have found it relatively easy to identify the groups doing all that struggling, they rarely identify who it is these actors are fighting against. Are they "white"? Anglo-Saxon? Protestant? The answer, of course, is that for most of American history they were all of these, and more. Whiteness has been a perpetual undercurrent, but "whiteness" takes us only so far, the term demanding a more thorough definition than Whiteness Studies scholars have been willing to give it.1 Anglo-Saxon once reigned supreme, but it lost its power after Congress changed the immigration laws in the 1920s and made many national-origin distinctions moot. And Protestantism, while a perpetual undercurrent like whiteness, was not always the most overt identity of those in power. Putting all these together, we're left with the traditional moniker WASP, but this leaves out the women's movement and the gay rights movement of the previous three or four decades. A more complete term is "Waspish hetero-patriarchy"; let's see how it does historically.

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A turn-of-the-century etching of Rudyard Kipling. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term WASP was coined only in 1962, when the civil rights movement required an oppositional force against which it could protest. Rather than simply choose "white" (which would come later, and subsequently destroy much of our historical memory), the social landscape of the early 1960s demanded a more inclusive term. WASP is what social scientists came up with.

What came before WASP as a descriptive term for the dominant American social and cultural presence? During the first three decades of the 20th century, the term "Anglo-Saxon" took on importance as a national social identity. The term has deep roots; the Anglo-Saxons are famed for a 5th-century invasion of the British Isles. But at the beginning of the 20th century there was a need in America for a term that would differentiate the social elite from all others. Anglo-Saxon served that need.

Why Anglo-Saxon? For one thing, during the [End Page 8] early 20th century many Americans sought an ideological justification to annex the Philippines and begin on a course of American imperialism. As such, they found it useful to align their nation with the British Empire. Rudyard Kipling was not the only one hoping that the United States would take "the white man's burden" from England. Many elite Americans agreed with him and began to stress their Anglo-Saxon identity (likely unaware of the contested nature of Anglo-Saxon identity in England).2

More important than these imperial roots, though, was the social utility of separating oneself from the new immigrants that were then coming to the United States from southern and eastern Europe, often to work for low wages and live in tenements or slums in the rapidly growing cities. Regardless of one's opinion of American imperialism (and, as now, it was badly divided), most Americans agreed on the social importance of a label that differentiated the old stock from the newcomers, a spirit that heightened during the First World War.3

Anglo-Saxonism became a badge of social acceptance; in many ways, it was the most important social demarcation one could possess in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Beginning around 1900 history textbooks began to differentiate between "we Americans" and "the immigrants." As the writer Frances FitzGerald puts it in her...