How White Nationalists Weaponize Motherhood

There’s some people that are going to be kind of seduced by that idea and think, “You haven’t said any racial slurs, you haven’t promoted violence. There was this myth after World War II of the apolitical German woman who was trapped in the country and had to go along with the Holocaust. But the difference is they don’t want to be seen as the stodgy Phyllis Schlafly’s restoring the world to this Rockwellian idea of America. That is of course a natural impulse and good parenting. The Cut spoke with Darby, a self-described feminist from the South, about how femininity and motherhood are some of the far right’s greatest weapons. Can you talk about the relationship between “tradlife” — short for the traditional lifestyle of wifely submissiveness — and the white-supremacist movement? “In proudly showing off her life, Ayla demanded to know one thing,” writes Darby, “if all she wanted was safety, prosperity, and health for her family and nation, how could she be considered hateful?”

Sisters in Hate tells the story of Stewart and two other women who were at some point involved in racist hate groups: Corinna Olsen, a former neo-Nazi who disavowed the movement and converted to Islam, and Lana Lokteff, a prominent white supremacist whose online TV and radio shows were banned from YouTube in 2019. When Stewart had her first child in 2003, she was a pro-gay-rights feminist in her early 20s who followed a vegan diet and studied midwifery, according to a new book called Sisters in Hate. And yet they have been repeatedly written out of the history of bigotry. History shows that moments of upheaval and change inspire hope but can also inspire some people to feel hate. By Angelina Chapin

Photo: Getty Images/fStop

In many ways, Alya Stewart’s motherhood led her to the white-supremacy movement. The whole narrative is that white America is under threat and you should have as many white children as you can. Lokteff, one of the women in your book, said “When women get involved a movement becomes a serious threat” and “A soft woman saying hard things can create repercussions throughout society.” What does she mean? They consider themselves rebels and countercultural because they define the mainstream as feminist and multicultural. There’s a lot of similarity. And so I completely understand why you would want to focus on those very visible and often very harmful manifestations of hate. So I want to live in an all-white community or homeschool my kids.” It’s manipulative. Can we see who’s vulnerable to it? This can’t possibly be bad!” When it’s convenient to them, these women wear their motherhood status as a shield. I’m also a pretty pessimistic person, so while people are talking about race in a constructive way and there’s the potential for profound change, I also think there will be a backlash. She felt threatened by people with less privilege gaining power, and wanted to fend off forces like feminism, which was deeply tied up in the civil-rights movement. Nazis gave women medals based on how many children they had. As a parent, there are a number of spaces where you’re going to be talking about the well-being of your children. At the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, we saw a lot of images of white men in white polo shirts, but behind the scenes, a woman was kind of the chief organizer online. But there are a lot who say, “We just want to love our heritage. I think white nationalists definitely see an opening to recruit white women who feel like “I was told ‘You’re the oppressor’ and I couldn’t handle that.”

We should be attentive to the ways in which people on the alt-right see potential for their tentacles to touch somebody. There are a couple of layers to that. Darby writes about how each character was drawn to white supremacy for different reasons — a sense of belonging (Olsen), creed (Stewart), power (Lokteff) — and she intersperses their stories with historical and psychological context to explain why women have always been a valuable part of American hate movements. Why are women so valuable to white nationalism? What value is there to learning about white women’s roles in a hateful movement? She gravitated toward the alt-right corners of the internet — places that embraced her increasingly traditional lifestyle. (Stewart became notorious in mainstream media after tweeting about a “white baby challenge.”) But the much more outward facing layer is that women are seen as bridges who can communicate with the mainstream. There’s a tendency to think of white nationalists as crazy or to other them. Look at my blissful life.” I think they’re daring critics of white nationalism to say something critical so they can retort: “Are you saying that my children are dangerous little Hitlers in the making?”

There’s an obvious pernicious PR slant to showing off how “normal” they are. There are some who say the vilest things imaginable. But while women might not be the ones leading conferences, they are helping build the infrastructure of these movements. This kind of thinking sounds similar to arguments Phyllis Schlafly and other conservative women used to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the ’70s. Look at me, I’m just a nice white woman trying to live her life. A sociologist named Kathleen Blee wrote about how when it comes to radicalization, she’s most worried about spaces that might not seem vulnerable or risky in some way. Your book has been published at a time when police brutality against Black people has spurred mass protests and a focus on anti-racism. For example, in one online post, Stewart included an image of her toddler-age daughter wearing a frog costume — an homage to Pepe the Frog, who has become an alt-right mascot. We just want to love our children. So, for example, communities around anti-vaccination or homeschooling, where people come together around some shared beliefs usually having to do with autonomy of an individual or family that, if taken to the extreme, can lead to a way of seeing the world that’s racist and exclusive. It’s also an incredibly effective recruitment tactic. I hope that the book shows how there is a spectrum of bigotry that even women who are liberals and feminists fall into. The racism of her campaign was less overt but the coded language of the campaign was to say, “We don’t want to disrupt the order of things.”

Similarly, in today’s hate movements, women talk about fighting for the status quo and have this nostalgic idea of what it means to be a housewife. I’m sure you know women who would probably say “I would send my kids to public schools if the public schools were better.” From there, the conversation can become more racially overt, right? I think there’s a benevolent sexism there, where people make assumptions about women having an inherent goodness, or an inherent fragility or vulnerability, and assume they couldn’t possibly be the bad actors. And by 2017, her blog and YouTube channel interspersed spelt cookie recipes and and videos of her kids in the garden with racist screeds about the refugee crisis and musings on how good mothers should dress modestly, speak softly, and avoid “urban accents.” But she didn’t want to be labeled a white supremacist, and Stewart used motherhood to obscure her racist beliefs. It’s like, “Here’s what we made for dinner, here are my children raking the yard. They’re saying, “It’s not that I hate Black people, I just want the best for my own children. You lay out ample evidence that white women are a key demographic in hate movements. You write about how they might invite someone over for wine, or use community picnics and Bible studies groups as scouting grounds. Journalist Seyward Darby writes about how Stewart converted to Mormonism, had more kids, and began posting about how men should be the dominant breadwinners and women should focus on family life. The most basic biological one is that white nationalism is a deeply pro-natal movement. What could be so bad about that?”

And you describe in the book how motherhood and children are weaponized. When feminists criticized her philosophy, she decided stay-at-home mothers weren’t welcome in the women’s rights movement and that it demonized white men, like her husband. To be fair, men are often the group leaders and certainly the people committing violence. I wanted to find these points of familiarity where the things that women were saying and doing on the far right actually sounded a lot like people I know. Schlafly defined privilege as being a wife and a mother. White-nationalist women are saying motherhood doesn’t have to be sullied by the muck of feminism, the workplace, and multiculturalism. But plenty of people who are educated and financially comfortable can find a place in this space. Can you say more about how this works? In the white-nationalist movement, children, just like women, are kind of supposed to inspire this instinct to protect by all means necessary. You can just focus on being a cherished, hardworking, domestic goddess. The way women draw in new members is often less aggressive than men. It’s very much playing on this idea that they are the most vulnerable to social upheaval. But a good parent should also be thinking about the ways in which their desire to protect their children can lead to things like opportunity hoarding, or a kind of exclusionary way of seeing people who are not like you. There’s definitely a cognitive dissonance there. You could argue that work is just as important as walking up to the front line, carrying a tiki torch. Women have been deeply instrumental in everything from the KKK to the Nazis to the resistance of civil rights. The far right is already using the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to appeal to white people’s fears and grievances about a changing future. I think that women in this space kind of go back to the idea of motherhood as cherished and unassailable. The women in these movements are appealing to other white women who might have the same kind of thoughts, impulses, and instincts. Where is this happening? And women are very important in drawing new believers in. But after getting her master’s degree in women’s spirituality, her politics began to shift. Why is white nationalism most often associated with men? Women who were seen as meek and matronly and feminine quite literally got away with murder. Women like Ayla who really showcase their children are ready-made for the Instagram era in a way.

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