White Victims of Violence
Despite the Klan’s assertion thattheir entire purpose of being was to preserve Southern white womanhood, their actual motive appears to have had much more to do with regaining political and social power, and to regain some measure of the dominance that was lost when the South lost the Civil War. According to David Bradley Proctor, “The Klan used violence to exercise a degree of social control in regard to gender roles and norms of sexuality in its work to establish white supremacy” (38). Despite claims to the contrary, the Klan apparently did not care about white womanhood if the woman was lower class or a Republican, and often they would physically violate a white woman who was vocal about being a Republican and who consorted with Republicans or black men. The Klan also treated many lower class white females the same as they treated black females. An incident involving the Klan was reported to Congress via testimony by James M. Justice, a resident of Rutherford county. He claimed to have heard of a white woman who was living with a black man and their three children. One night the Klan came and murdered the man and the children, but failed to murder the white woman due to the bullet becoming lodged between her skin and skull. Once again, the examiners asked about the quality of this white woman’s character, and the answer was that she was of “low character” (Report 111). In an account told by witness Elias Bryant, a white woman who distilled whiskey was whipped due to her clientele being mostly black men. Once again the question of this woman’s character was brought up:
Question: What was the character of the girls she had about her?
Answer: I reckon they were about the same.
Question: Do you think it made much difference whether white or black men came
Answer: No, sir.
Question: Are not those women generally considered as strumpets?
Answer: Yes, sir, certainly. (85).
This is one of the many times the examiners ask about the behavior of the women assaulted and refer to them as “strumpets.” In Martha Hodes essay about the sexualization of Reconstruction politics, she gives another example from the Joint Select Committee. The examiner asks the witness to reiterate the low character of women who were whipped by the Klan. The witness responds that some were of low character, but not all of them. The Examiner then asks, “most of them were women of low character?” and “do you mean strumpets and unchaste women?” (69). The amount of questioning about a woman’s character and sexuality seems unnecessary and demonstrates the level of blame put upon the victims of violence instead of the perpetrators of violence.
A strikingly similar account to that of Frances Gilmore involves a white woman from an unknown county in North Carolina who was stripped naked and beaten, then forcibly had her hair burned off and then forced to cut off any remaining hair herself (Hodes 67-68). Another account from the Congressional testimony had a white North Carolina doctor named Pride Jones explaining that the KKK would sometimes forcibly shave the heads of white Republican women in order to shame them (Report 5). There was also an incident involving two white women who fraternized with Union soldiers, and were then beaten and had their pubic hair burned off by men in disguises (Report 67). This kind of sexualized violence of white women undermines the credibility ofthe Klan’s mission statement to protect Southern white womanhood. If the women were lower class and poor, then they were not upheld to the same standards as upper class white women, despite claims from the Klan about protecting all white womanhood. The questions asked by Congress about these women were often geared toward their character and reputation. When Mr. Hull answered the question, he stated that these women were of low moral character and known to distill and sell alcohol. These questions posed by Congress tend to give the contemporary reader a sense of justification toward the abuse at the hands of the Klan, just for these women seemingly having a reputation of low moral character. It often did not seem to matter that there were white women in the South being abused by bands of white men in disguises. What really seemed to be in question was the victim’s personality and quality of character, which seems an absurdity to modern readers. To modern ears, the character of a victim should not be considered. Instead, the unlawful incident perpetrated on a victim should have been the government’s only concern.