White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) is an informal term, sometimes derogatory or disparaging, for a closed group of high-status Americans of English Protestant ancestry. The term applies to a group believed to control disproportionate social and financial power. The term WASP does not describe every Protestant of English background, but rather a small restricted group whose family wealth and elite connections allow them a degree of privilege held by few others.
When the term appears in writing, it usually indicates the author's disapproval of the group's perceived excessive power in society. The hostile tone can be seen in an alternative dictionary: "The WASP culture has been the most aggressive, powerful, and arrogant society in the world for the last thousand years, so it is natural that it should receive a certain amount of warranted criticism." People seldom call themselves WASPs, except humorously; the acronym is typically used by non-WASPs.
Scholars agree that the group's influence has waned since the end of World War II, with the growing influence of Jews, Catholics, African Americans and other former outsiders. The term is also used in Canada and Australia for similar elites.
Origin of term
Historically, "Anglo-Saxon" referred to the Anglo Saxon language (today called "Old English") of the inhabitants of England before about 1150. Since the 19th century has been in common use in the English-speaking world, but not in Britain itself, to refer to Protestants of 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 was provided by political scientist Andrew Hacker in 1957, indicating it was already used as common terminology among American sociologists:
|“||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 term was popularized by sociologist and University of Pennsylvania professor E. Digby Baltzell in his 1964 book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. Baltzell stressed the closed or caste-like characteristic of the group, arguing, "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."
Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey noted the expansion of the term's coverage over time:
|“||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.||”|
WASPs vary in exact Protestant denomination, from mainline Protestant to Fundamentalist Protestant. The usage of the term has expanded to include many predominately Protestant Northern European and Northwestern European groups, including Scottish Americans and Ulster Scots, Welsh Americans, Dutch Americans, French Huguenots, German Americans, (especially Palatines), and Scandinavian Americans,
Culture attributed to WASPs
The original WASP elite established the United States, its social structure and significant institutions, existing as the dominant social group beginning in the 17th century when the country's social hierarchy took shape, and lasting into the 1960s, when WASP society gradually began to relinquish national control and retreating amongst themselves, growing reminiscent of a cloistered aristocracy, in what has been termed the "leisure class". Many scholars, including researcher Anthony Smith, argue 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 still predominate at prep schools (exclusive private high schools, primarily in the Northeast), Ivy League universities, and prestigious liberal arts colleges, such as the Little Ivies or Seven Sisters. Entry to these colleges is based on merit, but there is nonetheless a certain preference for "legacy" alumni. Students learned skills, habits, and attitudes and formed connections which carried over to the influential spheres of finance, culture, and politics.
WASP families are often seen as pursuing diversions such as boating, golf, equestrianism, fencing, and yachting — pursuits that require leisure and affluence, and which sociologists such as Thorstein Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) identified as markers of social standing. Social registers and society pages listed the privileged, who mingled in the same private clubs, attended the same churches, and lived in neighborhoods—Dallas; Nashville; Philadelphia's Main Line and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods; New Jersey's Princeton; Florida's Palm Beach; Fairfield County, Connecticut; the coast of Maine, particularly Bar Harbor; Newport, Rhode Island; Manhattan's Upper East Side; Westchester County, New York; the Hamptons of Long Island; Boston's Beacon Hill; Northern Virginia and Georgetown all in the Washington metropolitan area; Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe, MI; and Chicago's Lake Forest are all examples.
A common practice of WASP families is presenting their daughters of high school and college age (traditionally at the age of 17 or 18 years old) at a debutante ball, such as The International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.
In the Midwest, WASPs were attributed to 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 very affluent northern suburbs of Detroit in Oakland County. In Chicago, they are present in neighborhoods such as the North Shore (Chicago).
David Brooks, who as a child attended an Episcopal 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."
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution 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.
Also in 1939, the old elite came under ridicule in the smash Broadway comedy hit, Arsenic and Old Lace". The play waslater adapted as the Hollywood film, "Arsenic and Old Lace" (shot in 1941, released in 1944). The play was written by Joseph Kesselring, the son of German immigrants and 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 film tells how the hero Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) makes the horrifying discovery that his two beloved maiden aunts, are serial murders 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.
It was not until after World War II that the privilege and power in the old Protestant establishment began to decline. Many reasons have been attributed to 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.
In the federal civil service, once dominated by those from a Protestant denomination (WASPs), especially in the Department of State, Catholics and especially Jews made strong inroads after 1945. Georgetown University, a Catholic school, made a systematic effort to place graduates in diplomatic career tracks, while Princeton University (a WASP bastion), at one point lost favor with donors because too few of its graduates were entering careers in the federal government. By the 1990s there were “roughly the same proportion of WASPs and Jews at the elite levels of the federal civil service, and a greater proportion of Jewish elites among corporate lawyers.”
With the 2010 retirement of John Paul Stevens (born 1920), the U.S. Supreme Court has no White Protestant members. 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.
Related political culture
WASPs were major players in the Republican Party. Politicians such as Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts, Prescott Bush of Connecticut and Nelson Rockefeller of New York exemplified the pro-business classical liberal Republicanism of their social stratum, espousing internationalist views on foreign policy, supporting social programs, and holding classical liberal views on issues like racial integration. A famous confrontation was the 1952 Senate election in Massachusetts where Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy 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 mistakenly seen as part of the Jewish community (which he had never associated with). 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.
Anglo-Saxon as a modern term
"Anglo-Saxons" before 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 as such. For example, American missionary Josiah Strong said 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 predicted, "This race is destined to dispossess many weaker ones, assimilate others, and mould the remainder until... it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind."
Before WASP came into use in the 1960s the term "Anglo Saxon" filled some of the same purposes, especially when used by writers somewhat hostile to an informal alliance between Britain and the U.S. It 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, a more market-oriented economic approach, and discussion of 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. American humorist Finley Peter Dunne popularized the ridicule of "Anglo Saxon" circa 1890-1910, even calling President Theodore Roosevelt one. Roosevelt insisted he was Dutch and invited Dunne to the White House for conversation. "To be genuinely Irish is to challenge WASP dominance," argues 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" firstly refers to England, and by extension to all English-speaking countries. It has a neutral meaning, and can be used both in a positive sense or pejoratively. In a negative use, it can refer to "immoral capitalism", where money is more valuable than human life. It also 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 Anglophone countries, both in Europe and in the rest of the world, the term "Anglo-Saxon" and its direct 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 – areas which are sometimes referred to as the Anglosphere. The term "Anglo-Saxon" can be used in a variety of contexts, often to identify the English-speaking world's distinctive language, culture, technology, wealth, markets, economy, and legal systems. Variations include the German "Angelsachsen", French "Anglo-Saxon", Spanish "anglosajón", Dutch "anglosaksisch", Italian "anglosassone", Portuguese "anglo-saxão", Polish "anglosaski", Catalan "anglosaxó", Japanese "Angurosakuson" and Ukrainian "aнглосакси" (anhlosaksy).
- Albion's Seed
- Boston Brahmin
- Ethnic elite
- International Debutante Ball
- Ivy League
- Metropolitan (film)
- Old money
- Philadelphia Main Line
- Piper Kerman
- Power Elite
- Social Register
- The Four Hundred
- Upper class
- The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (1998) says the term is "Sometimes Disparaging and Offensive"
- Irving Lewis Allen, "WASP—From Sociological Concept to Epithet," Ethnicity, 1975 154+
- The dictionaries define WASP as "an upper- or middle-class American white Protestant, considered to be a member of the most powerful group in society." (Oxford Dictionaries); or "an American of Northern European and especially British ancestry and of Protestant background; especially a member of the dominant and the most privileged class of people in the United States." (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The term is occasionally used by sociologists to include all Americans of North European ancestry. Ronald M. Glassman, William H. Swatos, Jr., Barbara J. Denison (2004). Social Problems In Global Perspective. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America. p. 258.
- John Bassett McCleary, The hippie dictionary: a cultural encyclopedia (and phraseicon) of the 1960s and 1970s (2004) p. 555:
- Allen, "WASP—From Sociological Concept to Epithet," (1975)
- Eric P. Kaufmann, "The decline of the WASP in the United States and Canada", pp 54-73, in Eric P. Kaufmann, editor, Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities (Routledge, 2004), summarizes the scholarship.
- Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage (2008) pp. 517-8
- "WASP" in Frederick Ludowyk and Bruce Moore, eds, Australian modern Oxford dictionary (2007)
- Hacker, Andrew (1957). "Liberal Democracy and Social Control". American Political Science Review 51 (4): 1009–1026 [p. 1011]. JSTOR 1952449.
- Baltzell (1964). The Protestant Establishment. p. 9.
- William Thompson & Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus 2005
- Davidson, James D.; Pyle, Ralph E.; Reyes, David V. (1995). "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930-1992". Social Forces 74 (1): 157–175 [p. 164]. JSTOR 2580627.
- Abraham D. Lavender, French Huguenots: From Mediterranean Catholics to White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (P. Lang, 1990)
- In the opinion of Charles H. Anderson, "Scandinavians are second-class WASPs" but know it is "better to be a second-class WASP than a non-WASP", quoted in Martin E. Marty, “Peoples: The Thickness of American Pluralism”, Church History 41: 1 (1972): 5-21.
- For example, see A Privileged Life by Susanna Salk and True Prep: It's A Whole New Old World by Lisa Birnbach, author of The Preppy Handbook.
- The Decline of the WASP?: Anglo-Protestant Ethnicity and the American Nation-State
- Useem (1984)
- "The Social Register: Just a Circle of Friends". The New York Times. 21 December 1997.
- Borrelli, Christopher (2010-10-04). "The modern, evolving preppy". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
- David Brooks (2011). The Paradise Suite: Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive. Simon and Schuster. p. 22.
- Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, (2009). Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography. Oxford University Press. p. 12.
- See Keith L. Sprunger, "Another Look Another Look: Joseph Kesselring, Bethel College, and the Origins of Arsenic and Old Lace, Menonnite Life (May, 2013).
- Matthew C. Gunter (2012). The Capra Touch: A Study of the Director's Hollywood Classics and War Documentaries, 1934-1945. McFarland. pp. 49–51.
- See Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (January 17, 1991). "The Decline of a Class and a Country's Fortunes". New York Times.
- Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, Diversity in the power elite: how it happened, why it matters (2006) pp. 242-3
- The Princeton debate was not about ethnicity per se. See the attack at [dead link] and Princeton's defense at 
- Kaufman (2004) p 220 citing Lerner et al. American Elites, 1996）
- Charles J. Scalise, "Retrieving the 'WIPS' Exploring the Assimilation of White Italian Protestants in America," Italian Americana (2006) 24#2 pp 133-46 in JSTOR
- Frank, Robert. "That Bright, Dying Star, the American WASP." Wall Street Journal 15 May 2010.
- John Aubrey Douglass, Heinke Roebken, and Gregg Thomson. "The Immigrant University: Assessing the Dynamics of Race, Major and Socioeconomic Characteristics at the University of California." (November 2007) online edition
- Davidson, James D.; Pyle, Ralph E.; Reyes, David V. (1995). "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930-1992". Social Forces 74 (1): 157–175 [p. 164]. JSTOR 2580627.
- Gregory L. Schneider, ed. (2003). Conservatism in America Since 1930: A Reader. NYU Press. pp. 289–.
- Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present (1989)
- See "Are The Wasps Coming Back? Have They Ever Been Away?" Time Jan. 17. 1969
- see "René Lévesque decries 'WASP arrogance!' CBC Digital Archives"
- Josiah Strong (1885). Our country: its possible future and its present crisis. American Home Missionary Society. p. 161.
- Josiah Strong (1893). new era or the coming kingdom. p. 80.
- Tom Hayden, Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America (2003) p. 6
- Luke Gibbons, Keith Hopper, and Gráinne Humphreys, The Quiet Man (2002) p 13
- Miriam Dixson (1999). The Imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and Identity, 1788 to the Present. UNSW Press. p. 35.
- Emile Chabal, "The Rise of the Anglo-Saxon: French Perceptions of the Anglo-American World in the Long Twentieth Century," French Politics, Culture & Society (Spring 2013) 31#1 pp. 24-46.
References and Further Reading
- Allen, Irving Lewis. "WASP—From Sociological Concept to Epithet", Ethnicity, 1975 154+
- Allen, Irving Lewis: Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to Wasp (NY: Bergin & Garvey, 1990) ISBN 9780897892209
- Baltzell. The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. Yale University Press, 1964. Sociologist Baltzell coined acronym WASP, argued for opening up of establishment to outsiders.
- Baltzell. Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership. Transaction Publishers, 1979.
- Baltzell. The Protestant Establishment Revisited. Transaction Publishers, 1991.
- Baltzell. Judgment and Sensibility: Religion and Stratification Transaction Publishers, 1994.
- Brands, H. W. Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2008). Anchor Press (paperback reprint), 2009.
- Brookhiser, Richard. The Way of the WASP How It Made America and How It Can Save It, So to Speak (1991). ISBN 9780029047217
- Chabal, Emile. "The Rise of the Anglo-Saxon: French Perceptions of the Anglo-American World in the Long Twentieth Century", French Politics, Culture & Society (2013) 31#1 pp. 24–46
- Cookson, Peter W.; Persell, Caroline Hodges: Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools (1985). ISBN 9780465062683
- Davidson, James D.; Pyle, Ralph E.; Reyes, David V.: "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930-1992", Social Forces, 74: 1 (September, 1995): 157–175.
- Friend, Tad. Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor (2009). ISBN 9780316003179
- Fussell, Paul. Class: A Guide Through the American Status System'.' (1983) ISBN 9780671792251
- Kaufmann, Eric P. "The decline of the WASP in the United States and Canada" in Eric P. Kaufmann, ed., Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities (Routledge, 2004), pp. 54–73. ISBN 9780415315425
- King, Florence. WASP, Where is Thy Sting?. Stein and Day, 1977. Humorous guide linking various Protestant denominations with social background and ethnicity.
- Mills, C. Wright The Power Elite (1956). Reprint introduction by Alan Wolfe. Oxford University Press. 1999.
- Pyle, Ralph E. Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment (1996).
- Salk, Susanna. A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style (2007).
- Schrag, Peter. The Decline of the WASP (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1970).
- Useem, Michael. The Inner Circle: Large Corporations and the Rise of Business Political Activity in the U.S. and U.K. (1984).
- Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. 1906 novel pits heroine Lily Bart against the oppressive "hot-house of traditions and conventions" that make up the claustrophobic world of New York's exclusive gilded age society.
- Langhorne Phillips, director, People Like Us, PBS documentary. Thomas Langhorne Phipps interviews members of a tightly knit group of self-identified "White Anglo Saxon Protestants" (WASPs): "We stand better, we walk better, we speak better, we dress better, we eat better, we’re smarter, we’re more cultured, and we treat people better... "
- Alan Wolfe, "The Power Elite Now", American Prospect, November 16, 2001.
- Robert DiGiacomo, "Missing mansions of the Main Line", University of Delaware Messenger 7: 4 (1998). Article about landmark mansions that provided the setting of fading world of "sprawling estates, swank parties and genteel living" depicted in the classic film, The Philadelphia Story, about wealthy Protestant Philadelphia Main Line residents.
- "America's Changing Religious Landscape: with Martin Marty. Transcript of interview by Krista Tippett with University of Chicago Professor Emeritus Martin E. Marty, on her radio show On Being, broadcast on American Public Media, November 2, 2006. Podcast available.