White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) in the United states, are an ethnic group known for forming the dominant social class of powerful white Americans of British Protestant ancestry. Some WASPs trace their ancestry to the American colonial period.
Until at least the 1940s, WASPs dominated American society and culture. They did not control politics, although WASPs had a strong influence, and were dominant in the leadership of the Whig Party, Republican party and Democratic Party. They usually were very well placed in major financial, business, legal institutions and had close to a monopoly over high society due in some cases to nepotism. The postwar era saw a steady movement of new groups into high positions. WASPs developed a style of understated leadership.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, WASP dominance weakened, with Americans increasingly criticizing the WASP hegemony and disparaging WASPs as the epitome of "the Establishment". Since the 1960s, the power of WASPs has sharply declined as the growing influence of ethnic groups, including non-whites, forced the WASP power structure to recognize the rights of all Americans.
The term WASP is often used as a pejorative to classify their historical dominance over the financial, cultural, academic, and legal institutions of the United States. The term is usually used to distinguish upscale WASPs from ordinary folks of various White ethnic origins by elitists. 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.
Originally, the W in the acronym probably meant "wealthy" rather than "white," as the term WASP has historically referred only to an elite group, not to all people of English descent, though today it is used more broadly.
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 it has been in common use in the English-speaking world, but not in Britain itself (in this context), to refer to Protestants of principally English descent. The "W" and "P" were added in the 1950s to form a witty epithet with an undertone of "waspishness" (which means a person who is easily irritated and quick to take offense).
The first published mention of the term WASP was provided by political scientist Andrew Hacker in 1957, indicating WASP was already used as common terminology among American sociologists, though the "W" stands for "wealthy" rather than "white":
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). To their Waspishness should be added the tendency to be located on the eastern seaboard or around San Francisco, to be prep school and Ivy League educated, and to be possessed of inherited wealth.
The use of W to signify wealthy rather than white is probably the correct original etymology, as the term originally referred only to elite individuals, not to everyone of English descent.
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 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" filled some of the same purposes. "Anglo-Saxons" by 1900 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 claims for the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, 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?
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 use 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 has had more nuanced uses 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 other 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."
WASPs vary in exact Protestant denomination; they traditionally have been associated with Episcopal, Presbyterian, and other mainline Protestant denominations, but the term has expanded to include various Protestant denominations.  The popular usage of the term has sometimes expanded to include not just Anglo-Saxon or English-American elites but also people of other Protestant Northwestern European origin, including Protestant Dutch Americans, German Americans, and Scandinavian Americans. Charles H. Anderson, said "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 the expansion of the term's coverage beyond the academic community:
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, Ulster Scots or Scotch-Irish Americans, Scottish Americans, Americans of general Germanic Northwestern European descent, and established Protestant American families of "vague" or "mixed" Northwestern European heritage.
The WASP elite dominated much of politics and the economy, as well as the 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. WASPs are still prominent at prep schools (expensive private high schools, primarily in the Northeast), Ivy League universities, and prestigious liberal arts colleges, such as the Little Ivies or Seven Sisters.
In the Midwest, WASPs favored the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, and University of Chicago. In the Detroit area, WASPs dominated the wealth that came from the huge 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.
Some of the WASPs Protestant denominations have the highest proportion of graduate and post-graduate degrees of any other denomination in the United States, such as the Episcopal Church (76%), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (64%), and the United Church of Christ (46%), as well as the most of the American upper class. Episcopalians and Presbyterians also tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups, and they are disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business and law. From 1854 until at least 1964 they were heavily Republican. In recent decades, Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats.
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 identified from Protestant background, compared to about 67% of the general population during that time period. Overall, 84.2% of all the Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in Chemistry, 60% in Medicine, and 58.6% in Physics between 1901 and 1972 were won by Protestants.
David Brooks, a commentator on class 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."
Episcopalian and Presbyterian WASPs tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups in America, and are disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business, law and politics, and for many years were especially dominant in the Republican Party. A number of the wealthiest and most affluent American families ("Old Money"), such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Rockefellers, Du Pont, Roosevelts, Forbes, Whitneys, the Morgans and Harrimans are all Mainline Protestant families in Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist or other traditions.
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.
The Ivy League universities and Seven Sisters colleges have strong WASP historical ties, and their influence continues 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 university of choice for WASP families today. The Big Three (Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities) have traditionally been the top three universities of choice for WASP families.
Admission to these colleges and universities is based on academic merit, but there is nonetheless a certain preference for "legacy" alumni. Students can form connections which carry over to the influential spheres of finance, culture, and politics. Many alumni from these schools go on to successful careers, continuing the WASP cultural and economic influence.
The social elite was a small, closed group. The leadership was well known to the readers of society pages, but in larger cities it was impossible to remember everyone, or to keep track of marriages and the new debutantes. 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 the families who mingled in 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".
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Like other ethnic groups, WASPs live in proximity of each other in close social circles. Neighborhoods and cities with large populations of WASPs are often the most sought after neighborhoods of the city. These areas are largely exclusive and upper class with top private and public schools, high family incomes, well established Christian church communities, and with high real estate values.
Some of the most prominent (either a "majority" or sizable percentage) WASP communities are:
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."
While WASPs have been major players in every major American political party, an exceptionally strong association has existed between WASPs and the Republican Party, both in political activity and popular consciousness. Politicians such as Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, Prescott Bush of Connecticut and Nelson Rockefeller of New York exemplified the pro-business liberal Republicanism of their social stratum, espousing internationalist views on foreign policy, supporting social programs, and holding liberal views on issues like racial integration. A famous confrontation was the 1952 Senate election in Massachusetts where John F. Kennedy, a Catholic of Irish descent, defeated WASP Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.. However the challenge by Barry Goldwater in 1964 to the Eastern Republican establishment helped undermine the WASP dominance. Goldwater himself had solid WASP credentials through his mother, but was instead seen as part of the Jewish community (despite having little association with it). By the 1980s, the liberal Rockefeller Republican wing of the party was marginalized, overwhelmed by the dominance of the Southern and Western conservative Republicans.
Catholics in the Northeast and the Midwest, usually Irish-American, dominated Democratic Party politics in big cities through the ward boss system. Catholic (or "white ethnic") politicians were often the target of WASP political hostility.
Eric Kaufmann argues that "the 1920s marked the high tide of WASP control." In 1965 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 cheering 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.
It was not until after World War II that the general power of old Protestant establishments began to decline. 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 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. The term is also used in Australia and Canada for similar elites.
A notable event 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 and essential factor.
In the federal civil service, once dominated by those from a Protestant denomination (WASPs), especially in the Department of State, Catholics and Jews made strong inroads after 1945. 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.”
Prior to the late 20th Century, all U.S. Supreme Court justices were of WASP or Protestant Germanic heritage (with the exception of Jewish-American Louis Brandeis, appointed in 1916, and Benjamin N. Cardozo, of Iberian Jewish descent, appointed in 1932.) Since the 1960s, an increasing number of non-WASP justices have been appointed to the Court. 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. Catholic Americans, while gaining some prominence since the 1930s, remain underrepresented in all spheres, though Davidson does note that Jewish Americans have made significant inroads in all spheres at numbers disproportionate to their percentage of the U.S. population. Kaufmann mostly agrees with Davidson's conclusions, further noting that one merely has to look to the ethnic composition of the United States presidents since the 1970s for "evidence that the projected group status reversal of WASPs at the top is an illusion."
In the 21st century, "WASP" is often a derogatory criticism based on snobbishness and exclusivity associated with the privilege, such as restrictive membership in private social clubs. Occasionally a writer praises the WASP contribution, as conservative historian Richard Brookhiser did in 1991 when said the "uptight, bland, and elitist" stereotype obscures the "classic WASP ideals of industry, public service, family duty, and conscience to revitalize the nation."
In the ABC series Desperate Housewives, the character Bree Van de Kamp, played by Marcia Cross, describes herself as a WASP during therapy sessions in the first series. Bree is very much written as an exaggerated version of the characteristics often attributed to WASPs; she has been called a "hyper-uptight WASP."
The Charlotte York character in the HBO series Sex and the City is frequently described by herself and others as a WASP, and demonstrates the stereotypical characteristics of one, being rich, well-dressed, and very concerned with social status. The significance of this increases when she falls in love with a Jewish man.
In 1939, the old elite came under ridicule in the smash Broadway comedy hit, Arsenic and Old Lace. The play was later adapted as the Hollywood film, "Arsenic and Old Lace" (shot in 1941, released in 1944). The play was written by Joseph Kesselring, a former music professor at Bethel College, a school of the pacifist Mennonite church. The play appeared at a time of strong isolationist sentiment regarding European affairs. The play and film depict "old-stock British Americans," a decade before they were tagged as WASPS. The story line tells how the hero Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) makes the horrifying discovery that his two beloved maiden aunts, are serial murderers of homeless old men. The Brewsters trace the family back to the Mayflower, and the walls of their genteel Brooklyn home are hung with oil portraits of their ancestors. Religion is repeatedly alluded to (one of the murdered old men is identified as having been a Baptist and a main character is the daughter of the minister of the church next door, with some scenes taking place in its ancient graveyard). The Brewsters have delusions of grandeur. Mortimer's brother who lives with the two sisters believes that he is President Theodore Roosevelt. The sisters see themselves as philanthropists who help lonely old men. Wearing old lace, the two kill old men with wine laced with arsenic. The Brewster family is so eminently respectable that the Irish police reject the idea that there could be 13 murder victims buried in the basement. In the finale, Mortimer Brewster discovers he was adopted and is not really a Brewster. If he is not a member of the Brewster family, he realizes he will not become insane or a murderer. In the film's closing scene he exclaims "I'm not a Brewster, I'm a son of a sea cook!" as he gleefully takes his new bride on their honeymoon. Gunter argues that the deep theme of the film is the conflict in American history between the liberty to do anything (which the Brewsters demand), and America's bloody hidden past. He notes that the evil disfigured nephew was played by Raymond Massey. He was well known at the time for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln; now he is a disfigured monster, and Gunter suggests a link between Lincoln and American atrocities.
Playwright A. R. Gurney (1930-2017), himself of WASP heritage, has written a series of plays about upper-class WASP life in contemporary America that have been called "penetratingly witty studies of the WASP ascendancy in retreat." Gurney told the Washington Post in 1982:
Charlotte York ... who was quite WASP-y in the early going but ended up converting for her Jewish husband.
Charlotte York Goldenblatt, the dreamily romantic former WASP ...
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