…the Daughters seem convinced that anyone who doesn’t like them just doesn’t know who they are. Current president general Jinny Widowski wrote in a January UDC magazine that the media “is certainly not respectful or fair” and is to blame for widespread misunderstanding of the organization and, by proxy, for the attack on the building. I emailed Widowski, inviting her to speak for this article. I told her I wanted to be fair. She never replied.
“Just the nicest ladies” is how the Daughters see themselves. They often used such phrases while discussing their charity projects. Divisions annually report how many hours of volunteer work they complete: in 2021, over 12,000 hours in Florida, over 180,000 in Texas. But their use of the phrase also suggests how they define “racist”: someone who feels animosity toward Black people, who wishes to see communities of color suffer. And “white supremacy” is associated with violence, not societal conditions. By holding to these definitions, the Daughters maintain confusion as to why such terms are applied to them. They don’t feel these things; they’re just nice ladies.
I spoke with a former member of the UDC’s brother group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (he requested anonymity), who cautioned me against generalizing the organization, which isn’t a monolith. He worked with Daughters in Richmond for years and said some divisions are more genteel, others more “hard-core.” Some Daughters want to save statues—especially in North Carolina—others just like to hang out with friends. And some were formerly members of the Children of the Confederacy, the auxiliary organization where youth learn “true” history. In 2021, the youngest member was added at only 45 minutes old, so I found it ironic—and disturbing—when one Daughter told me she sympathized when descendants of the enslaved are offended by Confederate statues. But she added that it’s important to make sure such people understand the true narrative: “You can tell them that they have been lied to all their life.”
One ubiquitous trait across the organization, as membership requires, is Confederate ancestry. When I chatted with women, my eyes drifted to the red ribbons fastened to their chests. They were plastered with tiny brooches, or insignia pins. Daughters collect pins to commemorate how many decades they’ve been members or to honor their heroes like Stonewall Jackson and the UDC founders. This sartorial hallmark also serves a purpose: It venerates the ancestors. Thin gold bars, like little tombstones, are engraved with the names of their forefathers. Daughters often trace their lineages to many Confederates, commemorating each with a bar, their ribbons functioning like little cemeteries.
During a formal evening when the women dressed in shimmering gowns, I was asked to stand before the convention. They wanted to applaud me for being a “prospective member.” Rising from my seat in a thrifted frock, I was struck by more than mortification: I was struck by how badly the UDC wants new members. I saw a surprising number of Gen Xers in Myrtle Beach, but the Daughters, as is widely assumed, are mostly older. The organization, which reported 564 chapters in 32 states and D.C. in the 2021 minutes book, is therefore shrinking. During one business session, the president general at the time acknowledged that many women quit “when the George Floyd happened.” Her own chapter in Alabama lost 29 members. “From what I’ve heard ever since I joined the UDC,” she said to the convention, “is that when we get under 14,000 is when we’re gonna really have a problem.” At the time, the organization reported 14,241 members. Though some chapters reported adding new Daughters, I wonder, two years later, if the organization has now crossed that defining threshold.
Do you want to digger deeper into the history of Daughters of the Confederacy? I recommend Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture by historian Karen L. Cox. You can also check out our interview with Cox in episode 85 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.