Anastasia Bradatan is a third-year joint JD-LLM student specializing in National Security at Georgetown Law. At Georgetown, Anastasia is a member of the Clara Barton International Humanitarian Law team, a Senior Notes Editor for the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, a National Security Law Specialization Program participant, and a member of the Guantanamo Observers Program. She is also a Student Contributor for Lawfare, where she has published several articles focused on Guantanamo Bay-related litigation. Additionally, she has interned with several U.S. Department of Justice offices. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in International Relations, Hindi, and Spanish-Portuguese. Prior to law school, she worked as an Immigration Services Officer at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
To train the next generation of lawyers in the law and practice of voting rights, ballot access, campaign finance, election administration, and democracy protection.
By Anastasia Bradatan
Apr 26, 2023, 10:30 AM
While the majority of members in far-right extremist organizations are men, the United States government must pay more attention to the role that women play in these organizations. Indeed, as threats posed by far-right and extremist organizations grow, the number of women in these groups has significantly increased. Scholars attribute a cultural and political shift towards more traditional gender roles as contributing to the normalization of previously fringe, sexist ideas. As researchers Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein note, the growth of the alt-right and other conspiracy-fueled movements has increased efforts in recruiting women—often by other women—largely through online propaganda and distinct forms of online communication.1See Jamille Bigio & Rachel Vogelstein, Women and Terrorism, Council on Foreign Rels. 14 (2019), https://cdn.cfr.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/Discussion_Paper_Bigio_Vogelstein_Terrorism_OR.pdf [https://perma.cc/SB6X-KG9X]. Today, terrorism and extremism researchers posit that women increasingly play a vital role in spreading these views online.2 See id.
Since the January 6th siege on the United States Capitol, women have undertaken some of the most active roles in organizations such as the Oath Keepers.3See Hilary Matfess & Devorah Margolin, The Women of January 6th: A Gendered Analysis of the 21st Century American Far-Right, Geo. Wash. Program on Extremism 6 (2022), https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs5746/files/Women-of-January-6th_Matfess-Margolin.pdf [https://perma.cc/7GUF-3DFR]. In fact, white nationalist leaders across the United States have stated that women are more likely to remain members and that their “participation stabilizes membership.”4Bigio & Vogelstein, supra note 1, at 5. Despite this growing trend, the Biden Administration’s 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism failed to address women’s participation in far-right extremist groups nor provide any solutions for preventing their recruitment. To effectively counter this trend, the United States government must consider the factors that draw women to join organizations that view them as inferior, as well as the coercion of women into following regressive gender roles and the exposure to threats of sexual and non-sexual violence, harassment, and possible abuse.5For example, far-right extremist organizations aim to manipulate “women’s fears” and “existing susceptibility . . . coupled with a sense of belonging that the groups can offer, [where] women may find the rhetoric and goals of far-right extremism appealing as they can bring more meaning to their lives.” In effect, “the fear of abuse and the subsequent disillusionment of feminism” can lead women to lean towards more traditional values. Additionally, this Commentary examines the unique role that women play in these far-right extremist organizations. Lastly, this Commentary proposes initiatives to prevent recruitment and promote deradicalization.6Because of the overlap in ideology between the alt-right movement, defined as “a right-wing, primarily online political movement . . . whose members reject mainstream conservative politics and espouse extremist beliefs and policies typically centered on ideas of white nationalism,” and domestic violent extremist organizations, this Commentary examines women participating in both.
Why This Issue Matters
The attitudes of far-right extremist organizations towards women have hardly changed over the past few decades: women are to bear white children for their husbands, serve as sexual partners, and support their husbands and their husbands’ white nationalist movements through passive support, rather than active, violent actions.7See Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America 156–87 (2018). As Professor Kathleen Belew explains, the white power movement hunkered down on its ideas in response to events during the 1960s and 1970s, including the feminist movement’s claims for equality in public and private spheres, privacy in reproductive rights culminating in Roe v. Wade, and the anti-miscegenation ruling in Loving v. Virginia.8Id. at 158. These events ultimately threatened the traditional gender roles and the idea of a white supremacist society, prompting a more rigid stance on women’s rights and roles.
Several events in the United States exemplify the recent cultural and political backward shift in gender roles: the United States Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade,9410 U.S. 113 (1973), overruled by Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., 142 S. Ct. 2228 (2022). the increased pressure women faced during the COVID-19 pandemic in balancing their careers and family-life, and several Gen Z-led social media movement—such as the Traditional Wife (“Tradwife”) movement, which advocates for women to adhere to traditional, religious values, and the “Stay at Home Girlfriend” movement. In parallel, the alt-right movement has grown over the past few decades. Led by figures like Richard Spencer, who supports “the unification of a pan-European ‘white race’” and subscribes to the idea that the United States’ white population is “endangered” because of “multiculturalism and lax immigration policies,” this movement has normalized extremist ideas ranging from white supremacy to “incel” grievances against women.10An “incel” is defined as “a person (usually a man) who regards himself or herself as being involuntarily celibate and typically expresses extreme resentment and hostility toward those who are sexually active.” Donald Trump’s presidency mainstreamed these ideas, culminating in the Capitol siege on January 6th where several of these groups played leading roles. Additionally, social media platforms—such as TikTok and the alt-right-dominated social media platforms Parlor and Gab—and the legal immunity that Section 230 provides these platforms from their posted content—have furthered these previously fringe ideas.
The Factors That Draw Women to Far-Right Organizations
Women are increasingly drawn to far-right extremist organizations and the alt-right movement due to their dissatisfaction with feminism and their support for traditional gender roles.11See Chelsea Daymon & Devorah Margolin, Women in American Violent Extremism: An Examination of Far-Right and Salafi-Jihadist Movements, Geo. Wash. Program on Extremism 26–27 (2022), https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs5746/files/Women-in-American-Violent-Extremism_Daymon-and-Margolin_June-2022.pdf [https://perma.cc/QS6T-R8PV]. See also Jacob Davey et al., Perspectives on the Future of Women, Gender, & Violent Extremism, Geo. Wash. Program on Extremism 37–38 (2019), https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs5746/files/Perspectives%20on%20the%20Future%20of%20Women%2C%20Gender%20and%20Violent%20Extremism.pdf [https://perma.cc/2X2Z-NHZW] (“[A] range of factors drive female involvement in contemporary far-right movements. . . . [including] . . . a fragility of feminine identity, reaction against the abuse of women, and a backlash against contemporary progressive ideology and feminism.”). Notably, these factors echo the far-right extremist women from the 1960s and 1970s who opposed gender equality initiatives like the Equal Rights Amendment.12See Daymon & Margolin, supra note 11, at 40. Alt-right women perceive feminism as a threat to their femininity, which aligns with the views of men who find refuge in these organizations from feminism.13See id. at 39–41. As terrorism and extremism researchers point out, while simultaneously rejecting feminism, these women promote the image of themselves, like women supporting the Ku Klux Klan (“KKK”) did decades ago as “wives, daughters, and mothers in need of protection.”14See id. This projection of a traditional, vulnerable image is a critical tool in recruiting other women into these groups.
Joining the alt-right or a far-right extremist organization is not solely expressing discontent with feminism; rather, it is also becoming part of a community where one does not have to censor themselves after they have “converted.” As journalist Seyward Darby highlights, Lana Lokteff has been a driving force in uniting and encouraging women to join the alt-right through her media company, Red Ice, which she co-owns with her husband. Through Red Ice, which the Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”) describes as “a white nationalist propaganda outfit, exploring [fringe views such as] white nationalism, antisemitism and Holocaust denial,” Lokteff hosts a program for women to express their endorsement of these views while rejecting feminism. For example, one woman expressed how speaking on Lockteff’s program evoked a devotion towards the alt-right. She discussed how she viewed Loketff as a mentor who served as a vehicle to her involvement with the alt-right. As the SPLC explains, “Red Ice is often noted for its role in helping to introduce viewers to new alt-right figures and ideas.”15In addition to attracting women, the SPLC describes Lokteff as “exceptional within the overwhelmingly male alt-right” community because of her “posts about hating feminists and jokes about beating women.”
Lokteff’s program on Red Ice blatantly promotes white supremacy and arguably draws a self-selecting crowd. Just as concerning, however, is the “TradWife” semi-religious movement on TikTok that has appeared among Gen Zers advocating the traditional values of the past as related to gender norms and, among some elements, as pertaining to race. For example, reports note that within the community, a far-right group posts about and comments on race and gender, portraying “white women as the future for the survival of their in-group.” The content posted ranges from explicit, such as an image of white women and a caption reading “we have all of the diversity we need,” to more subtle, like the use of relatively unknown hashtags associated with a right-wing individual within the German and Italian Fascist movement and the Unabomber.16These hashtags, strikingly accompany an innocuous video, such as how to use a sewing machine. These extremist elements of the TradWife movement are reminiscent of the Christian Patriot Women, an organization that opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, and viewed the characteristics of a “good wife” from a religious lens.17See Belew, supra note 7, at 166–70. In its regular publication in the 1980s, the organization’s founder—alongside “feminine” images and topics, such as recipes for food and soap—included survivalist homemaking information, a column on the things her children said called “From the Mouths of Little Aryans,” and quotes from the Turner Diaries, an explicitly racist and anti-semitic book.18See id. at 167-70.
The real danger, therefore, is that these extremists can attract unsuspecting users who are already within the TradWife community or are wanting to join. As one extremism researcher points out, the movement uses “a soft face for saying quite extreme things, quite dangerous things; things that are quite divisive and that demonize parts of our own society.” For example, the far-right TradWives use “aesthetically pleasing imagery as “propaganda . . . designed to be compelling, evocative, and gripping,” ultimately “to convince people of a certain point of view.” In short, these posts aim to appeal to women who feel deeply unhappy with their present circumstances and find solace in the promise of a different way of living accompanied by a sense of community.
The Unique Role That Women Play in Far-Right Organizations
Women can leverage recent cultural and political shifts in gender roles to mitigate far-right extremist views on both gender and race through active and passive participation. While recruiting, for example, women can appease men who oppose their active participation by downplaying their perceived assertiveness by hosting their own channels on YouTube and TikTok, and in attending conferences where they compare their ambition and intellect to men, thereby resorting back to alt-right gender stereotypes. Women can also leverage their unique position to recruit other women, often by invoking fear.
Active Versus Passive Participation
The involvement of women in these organizations, of course, take various forms. Some women seek to be active members, which may include perpetrating violence to further an organization’s cause. Notably, there is a difference in the degree of inclusion of women in these organizations. For example, while the Proud Boys are actively against women becoming members, the Oath Keepers operate with a “relatively gender-neutral policy.”19Daymon & Margolin, supra note 11, at 41–44. Though some women are associated with the Proud Boys, the organization systematically excludes women from leadership positions.20See id. at 41–43. In effect, female support has taken a passive role, such as hosting family gatherings for members and their families.21See id. at 56. This “misogynistic ideology” is exemplified in the case of Tara LaRosa, a former mixed martial arts fighter associated with the Proud Boys.22Id. at 41. LaRosa, a self-described “regular participant” of far-right and Proud Boys protests, came under attack for being a woman after she created a Telegram channel named Proud Girls USA.23See id. at 56. In response, the ProudBoysUSA Telegram channel posted that, if women really wanted to support the organization, they should instead “[g]et married, have babies, and take care of [their] family.”24Id.
On the other hand, the Oath Keepers have permitted women to take on leadership positions, including their general counsel—who even served as acting president while president Stewart Rhodes was on trial for his January 6th involvement.25See id. at 47. Oath Keeper women were involved in planning January 6th too, including Jessica Watkins, an alleged recruiter and ringleader, who attempted to run militia training camps in Ohio. In her trial, the federal district court judge described Watkins as a “danger” to society, who “eagerly participated in ‘a historic event that was a real threat to the fabric of our democracy.’” It is unclear, however, the extent to which having women in public-facing positions is solely based on strategic reasons, particularly for publicity, rather than genuinely valuing gender inclusivity.26See id. at 30 (“Thus, women in the Oath Keepers are viewed to varying degrees both as active members and, one could argue, as pawns used to further the group’s cause”).
Alt-right women, such as Lokteff and Lauren Southern, have also played active roles by attending alt-right conferences on separate occasions. Notably, however, they were the only female speakers at many of these conferences. For Southern, after playing an active, public-facing role, she experienced in-person and online sexual harassment and threats. If her experience is an indication of how other alt-right female members may be treated after actively participating in such public forums, this type of active support is unlikely to grow given the fear of sexual and non-sexual violence that women would likely face.
Use of Social Media
The unique role women play in normalizing the white supremacist ideology is not new. In the 1960s, for example, women played an essential part in spreading KKK dogma.27See id. at 40. Presently, through vlogging on social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, and other platforms primarily dedicated to providing a platform for alt-right women, like Discord, women in the far-right have been able to broadcast far-right ideology to larger audiences.
However, as previously exemplified with the Proud Girls channel on Telegram, far-right women who establish channels and post on social media tend to face sexist, threatening criticism and sexual harassment. These active roles conflict with the movement’s ideology of women’s primary role being to perpetuate the Aryan race.28See id. at 27 (“[F]rom a social perspective within the movement, women’s roles are to assist and engage in communal activities, while from a familial [perspective], they are seen as wives and mothers of the next Aryan generation.”). Indeed, this is not a hyperbolic assertion, researchers contend that “far-right rhetoric depicts women in three ways: as mothers, as sex symbols available to men in the movement, and, less commonly, as fighters for the cause.”29Similarly, women involved in hate movements such as the KKK and the Aryan Nation observe women in four ways: “as [the] ‘ethereal Nordic goddesses’ or victims, as possible race traitors, as supportive wives and mothers, and as racial activists.” Id. In overcoming these issues, alt-right women have tailored their messages based on gender, also applying the same techniques of provoking fear while also playing on gender stereotypes.
For example, when Seyward Darby asked Lokteff how the alt-right can go about influencing nonwhite Trump female supporters to join, the underlying message of her response was to “inspire fear.” Evoking fear is also what alt-right followers Cecilia Davenport and Wolfie James advocate when they give advice to men who have partners who are resistant to the movement. Specifically, Davenport and James tell men that they should “trigger the fear of assault by immigrants because ‘women are more emotional than rational.’”
Playing into the same gender tropes, Lokteff has reconciled the clash between ideology and her actions by associating the ambitious side of herself with men while, at the same time, undermining other women. For example, she stated that the assertive and argumentative part of her stems from her “guy brain.” Ayla Stewart, a Utah woman who also claims to have undergone a transformation from being a feminist and supporter of gay rights to an alt-right supporter, stated that “intellectually,” she tends “to hang out with the boys.” Stewart went even further by insulting her “former” feminist self as “racist” and “sexist,” and blamed feminism for the 2015 European refugee crises—claiming the crises was a result of women voting for liberal politicians because their motherly nature causes them to see “downtrodden people as their children.”
Although women are primarily passive supporters of far-right extremist organizations, active support resulting in crimes needs to be addressed. The failure of law enforcement to appreciate gender dynamics within these groups—especially how women are radicalized—makes the Nation vulnerable to more violence. The first step is ensuring that our judicial system and law enforcement implement the same charges, convictions, sentencing, and bail as male members upon female members of extremist organizations who commit terrorist acts. Yet this has not been the case. The Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, for example, finds discrepancies in arrests, convictions, and sentencing for terrorism-related women offenders. In other words, women are less likely to be arrested and convicted, and ultimately “receive more lenient sentences compared to men.” In the January 6th Capitol insurrection cases, for example, two female members were released on bail, in one case to take care of her child, and in the other, to travel to Mexico for vacation.
Second, in addressing social media recruitment, the U.S. government should work closely with anti-radicalization non-profits, including but not limited to Beyond Borders and Parents for Peace. Separately, the government should set up an anti-radicalization program similar to the program created by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and others in response to ISIS propaganda in 2011. Through this program and in consultation with non-profits, the government should launch a social media campaign with messages targeted to a female supporter’s stage in the radicalization process and the domestic violent extremist organization they support. These publications should also provide domestic violence-related information for women coerced into supporting the movement by an abusive husband. Additionally, the publications should also mention common ways in which domestic extremist organizations use sexual violence and the subjugation of women as a method of recruitment and as a method to coerce them into staying. The publications should, of course, provide the contact and location information of the non-profits. Finally, this initiative should be led by women in national security and law enforcement.
The government should also forge partnerships with online platforms. This is vital, as the technology sector has played a significant role in countering terrorist propaganda. The sector’s success depends, in part, on Google’s Redirect Method, which “uses targeted advertising and preexisting YouTube content to divert people looking for extremist content.”30Bigio & Volgelstein, supra note 1, at 22. Google should finesse this technology to account for movements such as TradWife, where racist, extremist content is embedded in hashtags or in the middle of a video, often about something as innocuous as a skin-care routine.
By ignoring women’s role in expanding the far-right movement, the government is risking the ongoing mainstreaming of dangerous ideas that contribute to the radicalization of influenceable women and younger generations. Although various researchers and scholarly experts have sounded the alarm about the increased role of women in domestic extremist groups, the government must forge partnerships with anti-radicalization groups and online platforms, and treat female terrorists with the same concern as their male counterparts.