White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) are a social group of white Protestants in the United States, often of British descent, and typically wealthy and well-connected. The group has long dominated American society, culture, and the leadership of major political parties, and had a monopoly on elite society due to intermarriage and nepotism. Although the WASP hegemony on the American establishment has sharply declined since the 1940s, WASPs continue to be well placed in some financial and philanthropic roles.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, outsider ethnic and racial groups grew in influence and WASP dominance gave way. Americans increasingly criticized the WASP hegemony and disparaged WASPs as the epitome of "the Establishment". The 1998 Random House Unabridged Dictionary says the term is "Sometimes Disparaging and Offensive".
Sociologists sometimes use the term very broadly to include all Protestant Americans of Northern European or Northwestern European ancestry regardless of their class or power. The term is also used in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada for similar elites.
Historically, "Anglo-Saxon" referred to the language of indigenous inhabitants of England before 1066, especially in contrast to Norman-French influence after that. Since the 19th century, Anglo-Saxon has been in common use in the English-speaking world, but not in Britain itself, to refer to Protestants of principally English descent. The "W" and "P" were added in the 1950s to form a humorous epithet to imply "waspishness" or someone likely to make sharp, slightly cruel remarks.
The first published mention of the term "WASP" was provided by political scientist Andrew Hacker in 1957, referring to the class of Americans that held "national power in its economic, political, and social aspects"; here the "W" stands for "wealthy" rather than "white":
These 'old' Americans possess, for the most part, some common characteristics. First of all, they are 'WASPs'—in the cocktail party jargon of the sociologists. That is, they are wealthy, they are Anglo-Saxon in origin, and they are Protestants (and disproportionately Episcopalian).
The term was popularized by sociologist and University of Pennsylvania professor E. Digby Baltzell, himself a WASP, in his 1964 book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. Baltzell stressed the closed or caste-like characteristic of the group by arguing that "There is a crisis in American leadership in the middle of the twentieth century that is partly due, I think, to the declining authority of an establishment which is now based on an increasingly castelike White-Anglo Saxon-Protestant (WASP) upper class." The term is also used in Australia and Canada for similar elites.
The concept of "Anglo Saxon" and especially "Anglo Saxon Protestantism" evolved in the late 19th century, especially among American Protestant missionaries eager to transform the world. Historian Richard Kyle says:
Protestantism had not yet split into two mutually hostile camps – the liberals and fundamentalists. Of great importance, evangelical Protestantism still dominated the cultural scene. American values bore the stamp of this Anglo-Saxon Protestant ascendancy. The political, cultural, religious, and intellectual leaders of the nation were largely of a Northern European Protestant stock, and they propagated public morals compatible with their background.
Before WASP came into use in the 1960s the term "Anglo Saxon" served some of the same purposes. Like the newer term "WASP", the old term "Anglo-Saxon" was used derisively by writers hostile to an informal alliance between Britain and the U.S. The negative connotation was especially common among Irish Americans and writers in France. "Anglo-Saxon", meaning in effect the whole Anglosphere, remains a term favored by the French, used disapprovingly in contexts such as criticism of the Special Relationship of close diplomatic relations between the US and Britain and complaints about perceived "Anglo-Saxon" cultural or political dominance. It also remains in use in Ireland as a term for the British or English, and sometimes in Scottish Nationalist discourse. Irish-American humorist Finley Peter Dunne popularized the ridicule of "Anglo Saxon", even calling President Theodore Roosevelt one. Roosevelt insisted he was Dutch. "To be genuinely Irish is to challenge WASP dominance", argues California politician Tom Hayden. The depiction of the Irish in the films of John Ford was a counterpoint to WASP standards of rectitude. "The procession of rambunctious and feckless Celts through Ford's films, Irish and otherwise, was meant to cock a snoot at WASP or 'lace-curtain Irish' ideas of respectability."
In France, "Anglo-Saxon" refers to the combined impact of Britain and the United States on European affairs. Charles de Gaulle repeatedly sought to "rid France of Anglo-Saxon influence". The term is used with more nuance in discussions by French writers on French decline, especially as an alternative model to which France should aspire, how France should adjust to its two most prominent global competitors, and how it should deal with social and economic modernization.
Outside of Anglophone countries, the term "Anglo-Saxon" and its translations are used to refer to the Anglophone peoples and societies of Britain, the United States, and countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Variations include the German Angelsachsen, French le modèle anglo-saxon, Spanish anglosajón, Dutch Angelsaksisch model, and Italian Paesi anglosassoni.
In the nineteenth century, "Anglo-Saxons" was often used as a synonym for all people of English descent and sometimes more generally, for all the English-speaking peoples of the world. It was often used in implying superiority, much to the annoyance of outsiders. For example, Josiah Strong boasted in 1890:
In 1700 this race numbered less than 6,000,000 souls. In 1800, Anglo-Saxons (I use the term somewhat broadly to include all English-speaking peoples) had increased to about 20,500,000, and now, in 1890, they number more than 120,000,000.
In 1893, Strong envisioned a future "new era" of triumphant Anglo-Saxonism:
Is it not reasonable to believe that this race is destined to dispossess many weaker ones, assimilate others, and mould the remainder until... it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind?
WASPs traditionally have been associated with Episcopal (or Anglican), Presbyterian, United Methodist, Congregationalist, and other mainline Protestant denominations; but the term has expanded to include other Protestant denominations. Already in 1969 Time noted that "purists like to confine Wasps to descendants of the British Isles; less exacting analysts are willing to throw in Scandinavians, Netherlanders and Germans." The popular usage of the term has sometimes expanded to include not just Anglo-Saxon or English-American elites but also to people of other Protestant Northwestern European origin, including Protestant Dutch Americans, Anglo-Scottish Americans, German Americans, and Scandinavian Americans. The sociologist Charles H. Anderson writes, "Scandinavians are second-class WASPs" but know it is "better to be a second-class WASP than a non-WASP".
Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey noted a further expansion of the term's meaning:
The term WASP has many meanings. In sociology it reflects that segment of the U.S. population that founded the nation and traced their heritages to...Northwestern Europe. The term...has become more inclusive. To many people, WASP now includes most 'white' people who are not ... members of any minority group.
Apart from Protestant English, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian Americans, other ethnic groups frequently included under the label of WASP include Americans of French Huguenot descent, Scotch-Irish American, or Ulster Scots Americans, Scottish Americans, Protestant Americans of Germanic Northwestern European descent, and established Protestant American families of "vague" or "mixed" Germanic Northwestern European heritage.
The WASP elite dominated much of politics and the economy, as well as high culture, well into the 20th century. Anthony Smith argues that nations tend to be formed on the basis of a pre-modern ethnic core that provides the myths, symbols, and memories for the modern nation and that WASPs were indeed that core.
Expensive, private prep schools (high schools, primarily in the Northeast), the Ivy League universities, and the Little Ivies and Seven Sisters colleges have historically had strong WASP ties, which continue today. Until about World War II, Ivy League universities were composed largely of WASP students. As some of the nation's top colleges and universities, they still continue to be the universities of choice for WASPs today, with the Big Three—Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities—traditionally being the choicest. Admission to these colleges and universities is usually based on academic merit, but there is nonetheless a certain preference for "legacy" admittance favoring the children of alumni. At these schools, students can form connections which carry over to the influential spheres of finance, culture, and politics, with many alumni going on to successful careers and continuing the WASP economic and cultural influence. In the Midwest, WASPs favored the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and University of Chicago.
Members of WASP Protestant denominations have "per capita" the highest proportions of graduate and post-graduate degrees of any religious denomination in the United States, including those in the Episcopal Church (76%), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (64%), and the United Church of Christ (46%), as well as a large proportion being part of the American upper class. However, owing to their size, more Catholics, according to the same Pew researchers, hold college degrees and earn over $100,000 than members of any other denomination in the US.
According to Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United State by Harriet Zuckerman, a review of American Nobel prizes winners awarded between 1901 and 1972, 72% of American Nobel Prize Laureates, have come from a Protestant background, compared to about 67% of the general population during that time period. Of Nobel prizes awarded to Americans between 1901 and 1972, 84.2% of those in Chemistry, 60% in Medicine, and 58.6% in Physics were won by Protestants.
As well as being better educated, Episcopalians and Presbyterians tend to be considerably wealthier than most other religious groups, and they are disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business, law, and politics. From 1854 until at least 1964 they were heavily Republican. In recent decades, WASP Republicans have slightly outnumbered those who are Democrats.
A number of the wealthiest and most affluent American families ("Old Money")—such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, Du Pont, Roosevelts, Forbes, Whitneys, Morgans, and Harrimans—are mostly Mainline Protestant families in the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or other similar traditions.
Like other ethnic groups, WASPs tend to live in proximity to each other in close social circles. Neighborhoods and cities with large populations of WASPs are often the most sought after. These areas are largely exclusive and upper class, with top private and public schools, high family incomes, well established Christian church communities, and high real-estate values.[failed verification]
In the Detroit area, WASPs predominantly possessed the wealth that came from the industrial capacity of the automotive industry. After the 1967 Detroit riot, they tended to congregate in the Grosse Pointe suburbs. In Chicago, they are present in the North Shore suburbs, the Barrington area in the northwest suburbs, and Oak Park and DuPage County in the western suburbs.
David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times who attended an Episcopal prep school, writes that WASPs took pride in "good posture, genteel manners, personal hygiene, pointless discipline, the ability to sit still for long periods of time." According to the essayist Joseph Epstein, WASPs developed a style of understated quiet leadership.
A common practice of WASP families is presenting their daughters of marriagable age (traditionally at the age of 17 or 18 years old) at a débutante ball, such as The International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.
America's social elite was a small, closed group. The leadership was well known to the readers of newspaper society pages, but in larger cities it was hard to remember everyone, or to keep track of the new debutantes and marriages. The solution was the Social Register, which listed the names and addresses of about 1 percent of the population. Most were WASPs, and they included families who mingled at the same private clubs, attended the right teas and cotillions, worshipped together at prestige churches, funded the proper charities, lived in exclusive neighborhoods, and sent their daughters to finishing schools and their sons away to prep schools. In the heyday of WASP dominance, the Social Register delineated high society. Its day has passed. The New York Times stated in 1997:
Once, the Social Register was a juggernaut in New York social circles....Nowadays, however, with the waning of the WASP elite as a social and political force, the register's role as an arbiter of who counts and who doesn't is almost an anachronism. In Manhattan, where charity galas are at the center of the social season, the organizing committees are studded with luminaries from publishing, Hollywood and Wall Street and family lineage is almost irrelevant.
The Social Registers were designed as directories of the social elite in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon), Providence, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., as well as ones for "Southern Cities".
In 2007, the New York Times reported that there was a rising interest in the WASP culture. In their review of Susanna Salk's A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style, they stated that Salk "is serious about defending the virtues of WASP values, and their contribution to American culture."
The Founding Fathers were mostly educated, well-to-do, of British ancestry, and Protestants. According to a study of the biographies of signers of the Declaration of Independence by Caroline Robbins:
The Signers came for the most part from an educated elite, were residents of older settlements, and belonged with a few exceptions to a moderately well-to-do class representing only a fraction of the population. Native or born overseas, they were of British stock and of the Protestant faith.
Catholics in the Northeast and the Midwest—mostly immigrants and their descendants from Ireland and Germany as well as southern and eastern Europe—came to dominate Democratic Party politics in big cities through the ward boss system. Catholic politicians were often the target of WASP political hostility.
Two famous confrontations signifying a decline in WASP dominance were the 1952 Senate election in Massachusetts where John F. Kennedy, a Catholic of Irish descent, defeated WASP Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., and the 1964 challenge by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater—an Episcopalian who had solid WASP credentials through his mother but whose father was Jewish and was seen by some as part of the Jewish community—to Nelson Rockefeller and the Eastern Republican establishment, which led to the liberal Rockefeller Republican wing of the party being marginalized by the 1980s, overwhelmed by the dominance of Southern and Western conservatives. However, asking "Is the WASP leader a dying breed?", journalist Nina Strochlic in 2012 pointed to eleven WASP top politicians ending with Republicans G.H.W. Bush, elected in 1988, his son George W. Bush, elected in 2000 and 2004, and John McCain, who was nominated but defeated in 2008.
Political scientist Eric Kaufmann argues that "the 1920s marked the high tide of WASP control". In 1965 Canadian sociologist John Porter, in The Vertical Mosaic, argued that British origins were disproportionately represented in the higher echelons of Canadian class, income, political power, the clergy, the media, etc. However, more recently Canadian scholars have traced the decline of the WASP elite.
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied prominent black singer Marian Anderson permission to sing in Constitution Hall. In the ensuing furor, the president's wife Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned from the DAR and arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000.
According to Richard Schaeffer:
A number of analysts have suggested that WASP dominance of the institutional order has become a thing of the past. The accepted wisdom is that after World War II, the selection of individuals for leadership positions was increasingly based on factors such as motivation and training rather than ethnicity and social lineage.
Many reasons have been given for the decline of WASP power, and books have been written detailing it. Self-imposed diversity incentives opened the country's most elite schools. The GI Bill brought higher education to new ethnic arrivals, who found middle class jobs in the postwar economic expansion. Nevertheless, white Protestants remain influential in the country's cultural, political, and economic elite. Scholars supporting this idea[who?] agree that the group's influence has waned since the end of World War II in 1945, with the growing influence of other ethnic groups.
A notable event[according to whom?] within this decline was the election of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States in 1960, the only Catholic President of the United States. John F. Kennedy's election was the result of his father Joseph P. Kennedy Sr's tireless lifelong campaign to break the WASP hold on American society, due in particular to their non-acceptance of Irish Catholic Americans. John F. Kennedy's election was one of the closest presidential elections in US history, and it is likely that Joseph P. Kennedy's great wealth, which was funding the campaign, was a decisive factor.
After 1945, Catholics and Jews made strong inroads in getting jobs in the federal civil service, which was once dominated by those from Protestant backgrounds, especially the Department of State. Georgetown University, a Catholic school, made a systematic effort to place graduates in diplomatic career tracks. By the 1990s there were "roughly the same proportion of WASPs, Catholics, and Jews at the elite levels of the federal civil service, and a greater proportion of Jewish and Catholic elites among corporate lawyers." The political scientist Theodore P. Wright, Jr., argues that while the Anglo ethnicity of the U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush is evidence for the continued cultural dominance of WASPs, assimilation and social mobility, along with the ambiguity of the term, has led the WASP class to survive only by "incorporating other groups [so] that it is no longer the same group" that existed in the mid-20th century.
Prior to the late 20th century, all U.S. Supreme Court justices were of WASP or Protestant Germanic heritage (with the exceptions of Jewish-American Louis Brandeis, appointed in 1916, Benjamin N. Cardozo, of Iberian Jewish descent, appointed in 1932, and Catholic justices Roger B. Taney, Edward Douglass White, Pierce Butler, Joseph McKenna, Frank Murphy, Sherman Minton, and William J. Brennan). Since the 1960s, an increasing number of non-WASP justices have been appointed to the Court (notably Jewish and Catholic). For the first time in U.S. history, after the 2010 retirement of John Paul Stevens (appointed 1975), the U.S. Supreme Court had no Protestant members, until the appointment of Neil Gorsuch in 2017.
The University of California, Berkeley, once a WASP stronghold, has changed radically: only 30% of its undergraduates in 2007 were of European origin (including WASPs and all other Europeans), and 63% of undergraduates at the University were from immigrant families (where at least one parent was an immigrant), especially Asian.
A significant shift of American economic activity toward the Sun Belt during the latter part of the 20th century and an increasingly globalized economy have also contributed to the decline in power held by Northeastern WASPs. While WASPs are no longer solitary among the American elite, members of the Patrician class remain markedly prevalent within the current power structure.
Other analysts have argued that the extent of the decrease in WASP dominance has been overstated. In response to increasing claims of fading WASP dominance, James D. Davidson, using data on American elites in political and economic spheres, concludes that, while the WASP and Protestant establishment has lost some of its earlier prominence, WASPs and Protestants are still vastly overrepresented among America's elite.
In the 21st century, "WASP" is often applied as a derogatory label to those with social privilege who are perceived to be snobbish and exclusive, such as being members of restrictive private social clubs. A number of popular jokes ridicule those thought to fit the stereotype. Occasionally, a writer praises the WASP contribution, as conservative historian Richard Brookhiser did in 1991 when he said the "uptight, bland, and elitist" stereotype obscures the "classic WASP ideals of industry, public service, family duty, and conscience to revitalize the nation."
The 1939 Broadway play Arsenic and Old Lace, later adapted into a Hollywood film released in 1944, ridiculed the old American elite. The play and film depict "old-stock British Americans" a decade before they were tagged as WASPS.[improper synthesis?]
The playwright A. R. Gurney (1930-2017), himself of WASP heritage, has written a series of plays that have been called "penetratingly witty studies of the WASP ascendancy in retreat". Gurney told the Washington Post in 1982:
WASPs do have a culture – traditions, idiosyncrasies, quirks, particular signals and totems we pass on to one another. But the WASP culture, or at least that aspect of the culture I talk about, is enough in the past so that we can now look at it with some objectivity, smile at it, and even appreciate some of its values. There was a closeness of family, a commitment to duty, to stoic responsibility, which I think we have to say weren't entirely bad.
In Gurney's play The Cocktail Hour (1988), a lead character tells her playwright son that theater critics "don't like us.... They resent us. They think we're all Republicans, all superficial and all alcoholics. Only the latter is true."
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