White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
White Anglo Saxon Protestant
Regions with significant populations
All parts of the United States

Major: American English.



White Anglo-Saxon Protestant or WASP is an informal term, often derogatory or disparaging, for a closed group of high-status Americans mostly of British Protestant ancestry. The group supposedly wields disproportionate financial and social power.[1] When it appears in writing, it is usually used to indicate the author's disapproval of the group's perceived excessive power in society. People seldom call themselves WASPs, except humorously; the term is typically used by non-WASPs.[2] The term excludes Catholics, Jews, Slavs, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians. The term also is used in Australia and Canada for similar powerful groups.[3][4]

While WASP power in the United States was unchallenged throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century, most scholars agree that the group's influence has waned since the end of World War II, with the growing importance of Catholics, Jews, and other former outsiders.[5]


Origin of term

Historically, "Anglo-Saxon" has been used for centuries to refer to the Anglo Saxon language of the inhabitants of England before 1066, and since the 19th century has been in common use to refer to people 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 use of the term was by political scientist Andrew Hacker, who defined it in 1957 and noted that it was already common terminology among 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."[6]

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."[7]


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.[8]

WASPs vary in exact Protestant denomination, from secular to mainline Protestant to Fundamentalist Protestant. Though Anglo-Saxons and Scots-Irish are still the groups most commonly ascribed the term, other well-established American Protestants with Northwestern and Northern European heritage are also associated with the term, such as those of Dutch and German descent.

In general, Roman Catholics[9], Eastern Catholics, Orthodox, and Jews are not considered WASPs, nor are African Americans or people of Hispanic, Mediterranean and Southern European, Middle Eastern, Slavic, Native American, or Asian descent. In recent years, another minor usage has appeared in northeastern states to refer to a fashion style or a preppy lifestyle.[10]`

Nevertheless, as social, political, and economic elites are no longer fully dominated by WASPs, the term itself is gradually heard less and less.

Culture attributed to WASPs

The original WASP establishment created and dominated the social structure of the United States and its significant institutions when the country's social structure took shape in the 17th century until the 20th century.[citation needed] 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.[11] WASPs are still considered 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.[12] Those colleges are overwhelmingly meritocratic, but still favor "legacy" alumni. Students learned skills, habits, and attitudes and formed connections which carried over to the influential spheres of finance, culture, and politics.[13]

WASP families, particularly the affluent upper-class, are sometimes stereotyped as pursuing traditional British diversions such as squash, golf, tennis, equestrianism, croquet, polo, and yachting — expensive pursuits that need both leisure time and affluence to pursue, and which sociologists such as Thorstein Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) have pointed to as a marker of social standing.[14] Social registers and society pages listed the privileged, who mingled in the same private clubs, attended the same churches, and lived in neighborhoods—Philadelphia's Main Line and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods, New Jersey's Princeton, Florida's Palm Beach, New York City's Upper East Side and Central Park West; Boston's Beacon Hill and Georgetown, Washington D.C. are fine examples.[15] Also they may live or vacation in smaller wealthy communities like Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Martha's Vineyard; Nantucket. In Connecticut: Greenwich has often been attributed as a WASP culture.[16] In the Detroit area WASPs dominated the wealth that came from the huge industrial capacity of the automotive industry. In Chicago, neighborhoods such as the North Shore (Chicago). In The Midwest, WASPs were attributed to Northwestern University, University of Chicago and Lake Forest College.[17] WASPs of the West were commonly educated at Stanford University and University of Southern California. A common winter getaway for WASPs is Palm Beach, Florida, which to this day is one of the most affluent communities in the United States.[18]

Fading dominance

It was not until after World War II that the doors of privilege and power in the old Protestant establishment were flung open from the inside, embracing the nation's growing diversity. Many reasons have been attributed to the WASP abdication of power, and books have been written detailing it.[19] Self-imposed diversity incentives opened the country's most elite schools.[20] The GI Bill brought higher education to new ethnic arrivals, who found middle class jobs in the postwar economic expansion. Nevertheless, white Protestants remain dominant in the country's cultural, political, and economic élite.[21]

In the federal civil service, once dominated by WASPs—especially in the Department of State—Catholics and Jews as well as others of non-English ancestry 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.[22] 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.”[23]

With the 2010 retirement of John Paul Stevens (born 1920), the U.S. Supreme Court has no White Protestant members.[24] 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.[25]

The shifting of a significant portion of American economic activity and wealth to the Sun Belt during the latter part of the 20th century, and an increasingly globalized economy, also contributed to a decline in the power of the Northeastern WASPS. While WASPS are no longer the sole elite in American society, they retain major positions throughout the nation.[26]

Related political culture

WASPs are 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 liberal Republicanism of their social stratum, espousing internationalist views on foreign policy, supporting social programs, and holding liberal views on issues like racial integration. 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.[27]

A famous confrontation was the 1952 Senate election in Massachusetts where Irish Catholic John F. Kennedy defeated WASP Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. By the 1980s, the liberal Rockefeller Republican wing of the party was marginalized, with the ascent of the conservative Republicans led by Ronald Reagan. Today, there are two Republican members of the six New England states' delegations to the U.S. House of Representatives, and only four Republican senators out of twelve. No Republican presidential candidate has carried more than one New England state since George H. W. Bush won four of six in the 1988 election.

Anglo-Saxon variant

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" was a term favored by the French (to criticize close diplomatic relations between the US and Britain), and by the Irish Catholics, who resisted British rule in Ireland. 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.[28] 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."[29]

"Anglo-Saxons" before 1900 was often used as a synonym for all people of English descent and sometimes more loosely, for 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."[30] In 1893 Strong suggested, "This race is destined to dispossess many weaker ones, assimilate others, and mould the remainder until... it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind."[31]

In Australia, "Anglo", "Anglo-Saxon" or "Anglo-Celtic" remains in popular use to refer to Australia's majority English-speaking white population with no inherent pejorative connotations.

See also


  1. ^ Irving Lewis Allen, "WASP—From Sociological Concept to Epithet," Ethnicity, 1975 154+
  2. ^ The hostile tone can be seen in John Bassett McCleary, The hippie dictionary: a cultural encyclopedia (and phraseicon) of the 1960s and 1970s (2004) p. 555: "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."
  3. ^ Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage (2008) pp. 517-8
  4. ^ "WASP" in Frederick Ludowyk and Bruce Moore, eds, Australian modern Oxford dictionary (2007)
  5. ^ Eric P.Kaufmann, "The decline of the WASP in the United States and Canada" in Kaufmann, ed., Rethinking ethnicity (2004) pp 54-73 summarizes the scholarship.
  6. ^ Hacker, Andrew (1957). "Liberal Democracy and Social Control". American Political Science Review 51 (4): 1009–1026 [p. 1011]. JSTOR 1952449. 
  7. ^ Baltzell (1964). The Protestant Establishment. p. 9. 
  8. ^ William Thompson & Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus 2005
  9. ^ Feldman, Noah (2010-06-28). "The Triumphant Decline of the WASP". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/28/opinion/28feldman.html. Retrieved 2011-09-30. 
  10. ^ See A Privileged Life by Susanna Salk and True Prep by Lisa Birnbach
  11. ^ The Decline of the WASP?: Anglo-Protestant Ethnicity and the American Nation-State
  12. ^ http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1993/2/26/the-new-boy-network-pbpbrep-schools-suck/
  13. ^ Useem (1984)
  14. ^ http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/VEBLEN/chap01.html
  15. ^ "The Social Register: Just a Circle of Friends". The New York Times. 21 December 1997. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/21/style/the-social-register-just-a-circle-of-friends.html. 
  16. ^ http://anderson-real-estate.com/PDFs/ArticlesonGreenwich/OldGreenwich-Riverside.pdf
  17. ^ Borrelli, Christopher (2010-10-04=5). "The modern, evolving preppy". New York Times. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-12-05/features/ct-sun-1205-preppy-20101205_1_lisa-birnbach-prep-lives-lillie-alexander. Retrieved 2011-09-17. 
  18. ^ Friend (2009)
  19. ^ See Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (January 17, 1991). "The Decline of a Class and a Country's Fortunes". New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE7DB153EF934A25752C0A967958260. 
  20. ^ Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, Diversity in the power elite: how it happened, why it matters (2006) pp. 242-3
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ The Princeton debate was not about ethnicity per se. see the attack at [1][dead link] and Princeton's defense at [2]
  23. ^ Kaufman (2004) p 220 citing Lerner et al. American Elites, 1996)
  24. ^ Frank, Robert. "That Bright, Dying Star, the American WASP." Wall Street Journal 15 May 2010.
  25. ^ 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
  26. ^ 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. 
  27. ^ See "Are The Wasps Coming Back? Have They Ever Been Away?" Time Jan. 17. 1969
  28. ^ Tom Hayden, Irish on the Inside: In Search of the Soul of Irish America (2003) p. 6
  29. ^ Luke Gibbons, Keith Hopper, and Gráinne Humphreys, The Quiet Man (2002) p 13
  30. ^ Josiah Strong, Our Country (1890)
  31. ^ Strong, New Era (1893) page 80


  • 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) online edition
  • Brookhiser, Richard. The Way of the WASP How It Made America and How It Can Save It, So to Speak, (1991) 171 pages.
  • Cookson, Peter W.; Persell, Caroline Hodges: Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools (1985) online edition
  • Davidson, James D.; Pyle, Ralph E.; Reyes, David V.: "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment, 1930-1992", Social Forces, Vol. 74, No. 1. (September., 1995), pp. 157–175. Online edition
  • Friend, Tad. Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor (2009).
  • Fussell, Paul. Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983) excerpt and text search
  • King, Florence: WASP, Where is Thy Sting? (1977)
  • 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)

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