White Anglo-Saxon Protestants
"White Anglo-Saxon Protestants" ("WASPs") is a term for white American Protestants, usually upper-class and of British descent. WASP elites dominated American society, culture, and politics for most of the history of the United States, maintaining a monopoly through intermarriage, inheritance, and nepotism. Although the social influence of wealthy WASPs has declined since the 1940s, the group continues to dominate some financial and philanthropic fields and politics.
After World War II, Americans increasingly criticized the WASP hegemony and disparaged them 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 to broadly include all Protestant Americans of Northern European or Northwestern European ancestry, regardless of whether they have British ancestry. The term is also used in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
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.
Political scientist Andrew Hacker used the term in 1957, with W standing for 'wealthy' rather than 'white'. Describing the class of Americans that held "national power in its economic, political, and social aspects", Hacker wrote:
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).
In America, we find the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) ganging up to take their frustrations out on whatever minority group happens to be handy — whether Negro, Catholic, Jewish, Japanese or whatnot.
The term was later 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.
Anglo-Saxon in modern usage
The concept of Anglo-Saxonism 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 older 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 U.S. and the UK and complaints about perceived "Anglo-Saxon" cultural or political dominance. It 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-Saxons", 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?
Other European ethnicities
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. In 1969 Time stated 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, 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 described 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 Scottish Americans, Protestant Americans of Germanic Northwestern European descent, and established Protestant American families of "vague" or "mixed" Germanic Northwestern European heritage.
Expensive, private prep schools and universities have historically been associated with WASPs. Colleges such as the Ivy League, the Little Ivies, and the Seven Sisters colleges are particularly intertwined with the culture. Until roughly World War II, Ivy League universities were composed largely of white Protestants. While admission to these universities is generally based upon merit, there is a history of "legacy" admissions for the children of alumni. These legacy admissions allowed for the continuation of WASP influence on important sectors of the US.
Members of Protestant denominations associated with WASPs have some of the highest proportions of graduate and post-graduate degrees of any religious denomination in the United States. Examples include the Episcopal Church with 76% of those polled having some college and the Presbyterian Church with 64%.
According to Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United State by Harriet Zuckerman, between 1901 and 1972, 72% of American Nobel Prize Laureates have come from a Protestant background, while Protestants made up roughly 67% of the US population during that 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 awarded to Protestants.
Episcopalians and Presbyterians are among the wealthiest religious groups and are disproportionately represented in American business, law, and politics. Some of the wealthiest and most affluent American families such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, Du Ponts, Roosevelts, Forbes, Whitneys, and Morgans are white primarily Mainline Protestant families.
Like other ethnic groups, WASPs tend to concentrate within close proximity of each other. These areas are often exclusive and associated with top schools, high incomes, well-established church communities, and high real-estate values.[failed verification]
For example, 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 Chicagoland, white Protestants primarily reside in the North Shore suburbs, the Barrington area in the northwest suburbs, and in 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 marriageable 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. According to The New York Times, its influence had faded by the late 20th century:
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.
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."
Social and political influence
The term WASP became associated with an upper class in the United States due to over-representation of WASPs in the upper echelons of society. Until the mid–20th century, industries such as banks, insurance, railroads, utilities, and manufacturing were dominated by WASPs.
The Founding Fathers of the United States 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.
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.
Post–World War II
According to Ralph E. Pyle:
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.
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.
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.
In the 1970s, a Fortune magazine study found one-in-five of the country's largest businesses and one-in-three of its largest banks was run by an Episcopalian. More recent studies indicate a still-disproportionate, though somewhat reduced, influence of WASPs among economic elites.
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."
- African-American upper class
- American gentry
- American middle class
- American upper class
- Anglo-Celtic Australians
- Boston Brahmins
- British Americans
- The Establishment
- Daughters of the American Revolution
- Dominant minority
- Donor Class
- First Families of Virginia
- High society (social class)
- International Debutante Ball
- Middle America (United States)
- Northwestern Europe
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- Old Philadelphians
- Protestantism in the United States
- Social class in the United States
- Social register
- Transatlantic accent
- Union League
- Wealth in the United States
- White-shoe firm
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- See also Tad Friend, Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, & the Last Days of Wasp Splendor (2009)(Author)
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