Last weekend, when white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to protest, it was clear that almost exclusively white, young males comprised the so-called alt-right movement — there were women, but very few.
So where were the white women who weren’t out protesting in the streets?
For the most part, journalist Seyward Darby discovered, they’re online.
“It wasn’t easy” seeking out the women of the alt-right, Darby tells NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro. “I spent a lot of time in the underbelly of the Internet — Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, 4chan, places like that — digging up contact information.”
Darby dives into the motivations behind the alt-right female alliance in her cover story for the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Rise of the Valkyries.” She began her reporting around the time anti-Trump activists were organizing January’s Women’s March, when she wondered: What do the women who aren’t in the resistance think about what’s happening?
Many of these women came into the alt-right initially as anti-feminists.
“They were people who felt that the feminist progressive agenda was not serving them — in some cases they felt like it was actively disregarding them because they wanted more traditional things: home, family, etc.,” she says. “And they came into the movement through that channel and then ultimately adopted more pro-white and white nationalist views.”
One of those women was Lana Lokteff, a Russian-American from Oregon who co-runs Red Ice, an alt-right media company, with her Swedish husband, Henrik Palmgren.
The couple decided to make this their cause around 2012, Darby says, when they say they saw a lot of “anti-white sentiment.” Around the time of several high-profile police shootings of young, black men, Lokteff “felt that Black Lives Matter and these other reactive forces were being unfair to white people and that then sort of spun into a conspiracy about how the establishment, so to speak, is out to oppress, minimize and silence white people.”
Lokteff, who promotes alt-right ideologies on the couple’s YouTube channel, has been persistently trolled by the men of the movement. Darby wanted to understand what attracts women to a movement that is often hostile to them.
In her piece, she quotes Andrew Anglin, who runs the (now blacklisted) neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer as saying the white woman’s womb “belongs to the males of society.” And alt-right pioneer Richard Spencer, who acknowledges that women make up a small percentage of the movement, believes women are not suited for some roles in government, reports Mother Jones: “Women should never be allowed to make foreign policy,” he tweeted during the first presidential debate. “It’s not that they’re ‘weak.’ To the contrary, their vindictiveness knows no bounds.”
According to Lokteff and other alt-right women allies she spoke to, Darby says, “It’s not that men who support the alt-right don’t like women, it’s that they see women as fundamentally different than men,” with equally important roles, which are “to perpetuate white bloodlines, to nurture family units, to inculcate those families with pro-white beliefs.”
But the growing contradiction, as Darby points out, “is that people like Lana Lockteff and other women that I spoke to are outspoken.”
She adds, “They sort of see themselves as straddling a line between the male and female norms, because they think that at this point in their movement, the more people they can bring in, the more people they can convince that they are on the right side of history, the better, and that includes appealing to more women.”
To recruit women to the movement, Darby says, the key is to stoke fear.
Asked how she would pitch the alt-right to conservative white women who voted for Trump, but are also wary of being labeled a white supremacist, Lokteff told her, “we have a joke in the alt-right: How do you red-pill someone? (“Red-pill” is their word for converting someone to the cause.) And the punch line was: Have them live in a diverse neighborhood for a while,” Darby says. “She also said that when she is talking to women she reminds them that white women are under threat from black men, brown men, emigrants, and really uses this concept of a rape scourge to bring them in.”
And while there are schisms in the aims of alt-right activists, and how best to get there, she adds, “There are some people — Lana Lokteff being one of them, Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute — who are really trying to find some semblance of civic legitimacy.”
On how she understands the term “alt-right”
The answer seems to be different depending on who you ask. … It’s not a formal, structured group. It is more a new term for people who believe in white nationalism, who do not like political correctness, who do not like feminists, who do not like Jewish people, and who generally think that liberalism and diversity have led to the decline of Western civilization. So, I would hesitate to call the alt-right a hate group for instance, but the alt-right does include hate groups.
On being struck by parallels she saw, between the 1920s KKK and Nazi Germany versus today, in how white supremacists saw the role of women
In the 1920s, which is one of the heydays of the KKK, a woman named Elizabeth Tyler became the head of the group’s national propagation department, which is essentially sending people out to recruit more members. And she managed to boost the membership by something like 85,000 people. She also founded the first women’s wing of the movement. She was considered a seminal figure in the KKK. She was ultimately pushed out, in part, because the men in the movement were threatened by her strength and her power.
On what women bring to these movements
On a very basic level — numbers. I think that the people who run these extremist groups, however loose or organized they are, recognized that there is strength in numbers. And to be a truly robust movement — women are a large portion of the population. …
Whether we’re talking about white nationalism in the 20s, in Nazi Germany, today — so much of the ideology is about the importance of family, the importance of protecting the white race, which involves making sure women are there to have children.
On how the language of feminism is being used to appeal to women and bring them into this group.
They do sort of occupy an almost feminist-seeming space in the movement — or some of them do, I should say. The ones who are more outspoken, the ones who are trying to bring more people into the movement. But of course, they would never say that. They would never want to be compared to feminists. … They think that feminists have corrupted what women see as their core desires.
You posit that women act as a camouflage that they are able to appeal on a more personal level to others they might want to recruit
There’s a wonderful scholar named Kathleen Blee at the University of Pittsburgh and she has written a few books about women in right-wing extremism. One of the things she talks about is the role that women play in projecting this image of happy families, communities that are proud of their heritage — that it’s not so different from your community. And it’s a particularly insidious aspect of the propaganda. It’s certainly something I encountered and was told repeatedly in my interviews.
What do they want? What is the aim?
[Lokteff] mentioned to me, people moving to Washington, D.C., getting involved in government. And, speaking to scholars of right-wing extremism, they said to me this is very unusual, usually these groups … they’re very anti-government. And so I think there is definitely a cohort that sees this moment, thanks to Trump’s election, as an opportunity to assert themselves on that level.
And I think there are others who want to fight a race war in a much more, I guess, literal way. This is one of the things that’s going to be interesting moving forward with the alt-right, is seeing it’s a motley crew of people who found each other on the internet and are really starting to, as we saw in Charlottesville, get out into the world and take action. … And I think that we’ll be seeing those fractures widen over the next couple of months and years.
On how these women view the protest in Charlottesville and President Trump’s reaction
On the whole I think that they are pleased that they got this attention — that they are stoking peoples’ frustrations, that they are showing themselves to be a force.
The president’s reaction, they’re happy with I think. I asked [Lokteff] specifically, I said what do you think about Donald Trump? And she said, “Let’s be honest, he’s not one of our guys. We’ve never thought that he’s one of our guys.” The thing they are most interested in is promoting the white race and they see him as an opportunity — someone whose coattails they can ride. The more that he does not disavow the things that they believe in, and either tacitly or directly supports them, the better.