White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) is an informal, sometimes disparaging and offensive term for a group of high-status and influential White Americans of English Protestant ancestry. The term applies to a group believed to control disproportionate social, political, and financial power in the United States. It describes a group whose family wealth, education, status, and elite connections allow them a degree of privilege held by few others.

Scholars agree that the group's influence has waned since the end of World War II, with the growing influence of other American ethnic groups. The term is also used in Canada and Australia for similar elites.

When the term appears in writing, it usually indicates the author's disapproval of the group's 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.


White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

Historically, "Anglo-Saxon" referred to the Anglo Saxon language (today called "Old English") of the inhabitants of England and the Scottish lowlands before about 1150. Since the 19th century it has been in common use in the English-speaking world, but not in Britain itself, to refer to Protestants of British 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":

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, 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."

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 Australia, "Anglo" or "Anglo-Saxon" refers to people of English descent, while "Anglo-Celtic" expands to include people of Irish and Scottish descent.

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 â€" 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).

Expansion of term for other groups

Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey noted the expansion of the term's coverage over time:

WASPs vary in exact Protestant denomination, however the great majority have traditionally been associated with Episcopal, Presbyterian, and other mainline Protestant denominations. Today, the usage of the term has expanded to include not just English American elites but also families of non-English Protestant Northern European and Northwestern European origin, including Scottish Americans and Ulster Scots, Dutch Americans, French Huguenots, German Americans, and Scandinavian Americans.

Historian Charles J. Scalise, coined the term "WIP" (White Italian Protestant) for Italian Americans who convert to Protestantism.

In recent years, another minor usage has appeared in northeastern states to refer to a fashion style or a preppy lifestyle.

Culture attributed to WASPs

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.

WASP leisure included upscale activities such as foreign travel, equestrianism, and yachting â€" 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.

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.

Protestantism and social values

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."

Episcopalians and Presbyterian WASPs tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups in Americans, and are disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business, law and politics, especially the Republican Party. Numbers of the wealthiest and most affluent American families ("Old Money"), such as the Vanderbilts and Astors, Rockefeller, Du Pont, Roosevelt, Forbes, Whitneys, the Morgans and Harrimans are Episcopalian and Presbyterian families.

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.

Ivy League

The Ivy League universities 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 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 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 universities go on to successful careers, continuing the WASP cultural and economic influence.

Social Register

Social registers and society pages list the privileged, who mingle in the same private clubs, attend the same churches, graduated from the same private schools and universities, and live in exclusive, upper-class neighborhoods.

The Social Register is a directory of names and addresses of prominent American families who form the social elite. Inclusion in the Social Register has historically been limited to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant members of polite society, and/or those with "old money", within the Social Register cities of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon), Providence, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., as well as ones for "Southern Cities".

WASP neighborhoods and cities

Like other ethnic groups, WASPs live in proximity of each other in close social circles. Neighborhoods and cities with large populations of WASPs are oftentimes 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 WASP communities are:

  • Boston- Beacon Hill, Brookline, Newton, and the Back Bay
  • Chicago- North Shore, Lake Forest, Kenilworth, and Glencoe
  • Cincinnati- Indian Hill and Springboro
  • Cleveland- Shaker Heights, Bratenahl, Hunting Valley, Kirtland Hills, and Gates Mills
  • Detroit- Grosse Pointe
  • Maine- Coastal towns, particularly Bar Harbor
  • Miami- Coral Gables and Palm Beach
  • New Jersey- Princeton, Lawrenceville, as well as other communities in central and northern New Jersey.
  • New York City- Manhattan's Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, Park Slope, Westchester County, Fairfield County, Long Island's North Shore and The Hamptons
  • Philadelphia- Society Hill, Main Line, and Chestnut Hill
  • Rhode Island- Newport and College Hill, Providence
  • Washington, D.C.- McLean, Alexandria, and Georgetown


As members of the cultural elite, many fashion trends have emerged from WASP society throughout history. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Preppy fashion emerged as a style of dress popular amongst many upper and upper middle class WASPs in the Northeast.

Preppy fashion has its roots in the Ivy League style of dress, which started around 1912 and became more established in the late 1950s. J. Press represented the quintessential Ivy League style, stemming from the collegiate traditions of Ivy League schools. In the mid-twentieth century J. Press and Brooks Brothers both had stores on Ivy League school campuses, including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Preppy fashion emerged in the 1970s with cues from the original Ivy League style, along with influences from traditional Northeastern culture.

Some typical preppy styles also reflect traditional upper class New England WASP leisure activities, such as polo, sailing, hunting, fencing, crew rowing, lacrosse, tennis, golf, rugby, and swimming. This association with New England outdoor activities can be seen in preppy fashion, through stripes and colors, equestrian clothing, plaid shirts, field jackets, and nautical-themed accessories. By the 1980s, a slew of brands such as Lacoste, Izod, and Dooney & Bourke became associated with preppy style. Other popular brands today also include Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Vineyard Vines, Carolina Herrera, and Daniel Cremieux.

Political influence

White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

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 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 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.

In Québec politics, René Lévesque attracted controversy in 1970 by attacking what he called "WASP arrogance."

Fading dominance

Public disparagement

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 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 tell 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.

Post-World War II

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 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.

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, 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, Catholics, and Jews at the elite levels of the federal civil service, and a greater proportion of Jewish and Catholic elites among corporate lawyers.” In 2014, the Supreme Court, for instance, is entirely composed of Catholics (6) and Jews (3).

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.

In popular culture

A common theme in cinema is the relationship between a WASPy person and a non-WASP. The difference in their characteristics and lifestyles creates a contrast that tells part of the story. Movies with this theme include The Godfather, The Birdcage, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Wolf of Wall Street and Meet the Fockers. The American television drama, Orange Is the New Black follows the life of a female WASP in the American penal system

See also

  • Boston Brahmin
  • Corporatism
  • Elitism
  • Ethnic elite
  • Irish Catholic
  • Ivy League
  • Old money
  • Socialite
  • Upper class
  • Yankee



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  • 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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