In the wake of the attack on the US Capitol, there has been a lot of discussion of the role of the 35-year-old US Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, who was one of the five people killed during the violence that day. Right-wing posters on social media platforms took little time to transform the woman from part of a group that the president-elect Joe Biden called “domestic terrorists” to a symbol of American patriotism, a woman who had spent half her life defending her country and was now standing up for her beliefs in direct action.
The rest of the world has been slower to understand her. After all, the far right is usually characterised as dominated by angry white men – a perception only bolstered by the notoriety of militia including the Proud Boys.
While this is not an unreasonable generalisation when it comes to highly visible activists – as any glance at pictures from the Capitol attack supports, women like Babbitt are not aberrations or exceptions. Even in the most violent, extreme corners of the far right, women have been on the frontline for decades, despite being a significant minority. But violent activism is not their usual role – rather they are effective organisers. One of the key groups behind the “Save America March” was the group known as Women for America First.
Far-right media is littered with female voices including Lana Lokteff and Katie Hopkins. In Europe we’ve seen women leading in far-right politics, such as Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally and Jayda Fransen of Britain First. These are relatively mainstream spaces, where these women speak as journalists and politicians, not violent actors or direct enablers and there is no suggestion that all these women are involved in illegal activity. But there has always been an important place for women, often behind the scenes, in facilitating, organising and inspiring hate movements.
What women want
At a glance, this seems baffling. The far-right world isn’t just violent and macho, it’s often outright misogynistic, calling for a return to traditional times where women stayed at home and obeyed the men in their lives. But while this can be an article of faith for many of these movements, it tends to be anti-immigration and anti-government activism that are their key recruitment messages. And it is often causes such as these that bring women into groups despite their misogyny. Women largely get involved with the far right for the same reasons men do – most commonly radicalised by a fear of losing what they have and feel entitled to keep.
As a researcher of women in the far right, I once expected to find a smattering of lone, pitiable, naive individuals. But my work now dives into their online and offline communities and finds women expressing, perpetuating and organising hate with as much agency and vitriol as men.
Women are as capable as men of experiencing white anxiety, a sense their historically superior position in society is threatened. Even if the ideology of the far right puts them second to men, that’s still a privileged position above non-white people in a white supremacist society. The enforcement of this racialised hierarchy is a role that women have played throughout history. Some will accept this as a compromise, while others rationalise this as still being in their self-interest.
More than that, some parts of far-right movements can appeal more to women than to men. Women in the far right are quick to rally against racialised threats to families and to children, such as the debunked myth of Pakistani “grooming gangs” in the UK cities of Rotherham and Oxford.
Babbitt was a supporter of QAnon, whose grab-bag of conspiracy theories includes a call to “save the children” from alleged child-trafficking rings. This conspiracy has long been at the heart of the movement and has seen particular traction with women.
Supporting and inspiring
Men in the far right also benefit from the presence of women, who play a valuable role in image rehabilitation. The involvement of women makes a group seem less threatening and more appealing to outsiders who might be otherwise wary of the far right’s reputation. Extreme views can seem more socially acceptable when they come from women. Women are able to speak more freely in direct recruitment, and sometimes men are brought into far-right groups because the women in the group first approached their wives and partners.
The white supremacist core of the far right holds women in a particularly privileged place. As wives of their warriors and mothers of future white children, they are expected to stay at home and commit to the family. Here they are idealised as the perfect image of domesticity to be cherished and protected. The best-known slogan of the white supremacist movement is David Lane’s 14 words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.”
Transformed into a symbol
As with all far-right rhetoric, the framing of women shifts depending on circumstance and convenience. Even now they depict Babbitt alternatively as a brave patriot and martyr, or a murdered innocent. There have been attempts to co-opt the #SayHerName meme, which was created to draw attention to Black female victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence.
It is essential we move beyond shocked confusion at the mere involvement of a woman. Just as those observing right-wing social media saw the attack coming, those examining women in the far right have seen the likes of Ashli Babbitt before.
These women are not aberrations but a part of the far right throughout history. They are not coerced by the men in their lives but are individuals with agency and free will. They are not misled or naive, but just as capable of intense racism and organised hate. The far right may be dominated by men, but to ignore women is to fight these movements with one arm tied behind our backs.