The Women of the Insurrection

In the 90s, the question of whether or not organized hate groups should even recruit women was contested. Now, they have all bought into the notion that women racial warriors are part of the agenda.

By far, the overwhelming number of Capitol insurrectionists were men, but women, too, made threats, entered the Capitol, and even led attacks. (UN Human Rights @UNHumanRights / Twitter)

One is a florist. Another is a real estate agent. A doctor. A nurse. A school therapist. A small business owner. A mom who sells cheese at a farmers market.

These are some of the women who participated in the Capitol insurrection on January 6.

A few are involved with organized extremist movements. Many have been radicalized in front of their computers in online conspiracy theory communities and the echo chambers of social media.

By far, the overwhelming number of Capitol insurrectionists were men, but women, too, made threats, entered the Capitol, and even led attacks. Women also died during the insurrection, one shot by a Capitol police officer and another trampled in the crowd. As of February 5, more than 20 of the 160 people arrested for participating in the insurrection are women.

Women have always been part of extremist movements, but the diffusion of hate and extremist ideologies across the internet has now enlisted women who may never have seen themselves as part of organized hate, and extremist ideas have moved from the dark corners of the internet into mainstream thinking among many conservatives.

“One big change is that women used to get radicalized into hate a little bit differently than men,” said Kathleen Blee, dean of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement. “Women were more likely to get radicalized through some other cause: Women would get pulled into hate movements through work on PTAs, environmental groups—where there’s an issue women were involved in or interested in and they meet somebody who racializes that issue.”

She continued, “So environmentalism turns into purity of the environment, purity of the race. School issues turn into the problem with schools is non-whites in schools. Those kinds of groups are like a conduit to women. Some other issue that’s not a racial issue on the surface becomes racialized, and that brings them in.”

QAnon, she said, is a different kind of phenomenon. People are introduced to the conspiracy, and then the conspiracy becomes racialized. “People don’t enter with the race part,” she explained. “They enter with the puzzle part, it seems. You’re looking for these clues, and then they get hooked into this conspiracy puzzle, and more of the essence of the puzzle is revealed, and the essence of the puzzle is anti-Semitic and racist.

“White supremacy has penetrated into areas it didn’t use to have a foothold in. It used to be that your chance of being approached by white supremacist content was not very high. Most white people probably never ran into a white supremacist in their lives. Now the reach is into mainstream culture.”

The context of 2020 is an important factor in recent enticement of women into extremism. (Leslie / Flickr)

In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that while the number of organized hate groups is down, there has not been a parallel decrease in hate and extremism.

Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, said the context of 2020 is also an important factor in recent enticement of women into extremism.

In early 2020, for example, some women may have already been dabbling in conspiracy theories, consuming information from places like Infowars. Then came the pandemic and lockdown, followed by anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers and the Black Lives Matter protests. These women tried to make sense of everything, and QAnon provided a place for them to become part of a conversation. We can’t discount the significance of 2020, Darby said. People were “stuck at home, fragile, malleable and absorbing bad ideas that make sense to them.”

Jessica Watkins is a textbook example. The 38-year-old is a veteran of the Afghanistan war. She runs a bar in Ohio, and she was shown in the Capitol in full tactical gear. Her bar, like many small businesses, faced financial difficulties because of the pandemic. Over the summer, she watched the Black Lives Matter protests. She started to watch videos on Infowars and began to be drawn into the militia group, the Oath Keepers. She formed her own paramilitary group, the Ohio State Regular Militia, and the small group went to Louisville to patrol during the protests over the killing of Breonna Taylor by police.

In January she joined insurrectionists at the Capitol. She’s been indicted on charges of trespassing, obstruction of an official proceeding, and conspiracy to interfere with the certification of the Electoral College vote.

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How Hate Groups Entice Women

While organized extremism typically excludes women from leadership, the diffuse nature of online extremism has created space for women to engage deeply with like-minded people. Women are often drawn into extremism because of rhetoric that promises to protect women and prioritize the family. QAnon in particular has used the notion of child sex trafficking as a way to entice women, and both women and men extremists can see women’s leadership against child trafficking as gender appropriate.

A QAnon follower at a pro-Trump rally in D.C., November 2020. (Geoff Livingston / Flickr)

Darby pointed out that QAnon’s very particular appeal to women, especially white women, is “that you as women, as mothers, need to save these children. … We need you now. This is the do or die moment for America.”

This has been a message in organized hate for a long time, Blee explained: “This is a vehicle of (white) women’s empowerment. A place where you can get dignity and respect and be an agent, protecting our society and being a patriot.”

Darby said extremists offer an empowering message to women, saying staying home and raising kids is good for the nation. Women are invited in, she says, and told they’re necessary. “It’s now or never,” she explained. “Women are able to act on having this power in the moment. That’s seductive for some women.”

Women no longer have to be part of an organized extremist group to participate; they just have to believe extremist messages and stand up for them through posting online, going to a rally, or protesting.  In fact, as Darby noted, many of these women who have been radicalized wouldn’t even see it that way. After all, these ideas have been articulated by the president and repeated over and over on media outlets.

Often these extremist ideas get softened as they move from organized hate into the mainstream. What is overtly racist language in hate groups becomes coded language about immigration, crime and making America great again.

The fringe, Darby said, is just a manifestation of central ideas in U.S. culture. Extremist groups magnify these ideas, and then the ideas come back into the culture in softer language that allows them to become mainstreamed. So, according to Darby, once these extremist ideas begin to move back into the mainstream, they already have all of these footholds in the culture’s underlying racism.

Blee said it’s not anger but fear that hooks people in. Fear, she said, is gendered: Fear-mongering is directed at women—the need to protect children, the pervasiveness of crime, danger to families. These messages of fear are purposefully pumped out at women and then become racialized.

Blee noted the infiltration of seemingly benign online communities by extremists. She said you can go into any kind of online group—knitters, for example—and find they have been penetrated by white supremacists. “That kind of messaging is much more pervasive,” she explained. “That messaging is not random. There’s a plan. It’s not just people idly chatting.”

While neither Blee nor Darby is surprised that women participated in the insurrection, both noted the dissonance in women’s involvement in extremism. According to Blee, in the 90s when she first studied women in organized hate movements, the question of whether or not groups should even recruit women was contested. Now, she says, they have all pretty much bought into the notion that women racial warriors are part of the agenda.

Of course, she added, they’re not so all-in on actually giving women leadership roles. She also noted the new element of the super-masculinist Far Right, as in the Proud Boys, that asserts masculinity as a core value of the Far Right.

Darby articulated the dissonance this way: On the one hand, “Why would women want to be around so much misogyny?” And on the other, “If a woman is so wedded to gender roles, then why would she be on the frontlines? Why is she not at home?” Cognitive dissonance, Darby contended, is part of the point. These women become adept at doing mental gymnastics to justify their participation in extremism. “White women have long perpetuated misogyny and patriarchy because it benefits them,” she asserts.

This dissonance is clearly illustrated in Stephanie Hazelton (a.k.a. Ayla Wolf), a 49-year-old New Jersey woman who was charged for violating the governor’s shutdown orders back in May. In a video from the insurrection, Hazelton can be seen encouraging the charge. A man shouts, “We need more people!” Near the entrance to the Capitol, she responds, “Men, we need more men!” She waves the men on. “Let’s go!” “Keep going,” she shouts, “Keep pushing. Men! We need men! Not women.”

Stephanie Hazelton (a.k.a. Ayla Wolf) at the Capitol attack in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Clearly, we saw women on the frontlines of the insurrection. Ashli Babbitt, another veteran and small business owner, was the first to attempt to enter the Capitol through a smashed window. A police officer shot her, and she died on the scene. The 35-year-old Babbitt followed and repeated QAnon on her social media accounts. The day before she died, she tweeted, “Nothing will stop us … They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours … dark to light!”

Another woman, 58-year-old Cross Fit gym owner Dawn Bancroft, sent a video to her children saying, “We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin’ brain, but we didn’t find her.” Suzanne Ianni, a 59-year-old Natick Town Meeting Member and organizer of the 2019 Boston Straight Pride Parade, organized buses to take members of Super Happy Fun America, a “pro-heterosexual” group from Massachusetts to D.C. for the January 6 rally.

Women Behind the Scenes of Jan. 6 Attack

Darby also pointed to the women behind the scenes—the ones funding pro-Trump bus tours and rallies, including the rally that led to the storming of the Capitol. Women for America First is the group who obtained the permit for the rally and sponsored a 20-city “March for Trump” bus tour before January 6 to spread the lies and fan the flames that led to the insurrection. One speaker in North Carolina said, “We’d solve every problem in this country if on the 4th of July every conservative went and shot one liberal.” At every stop, speakers warned of the end of the U.S. as the crowd knew it if Biden became president.

Julie Jenkins Fancelli, heir to the Publix fortune, donated most of the money used to sponsor the January 6 rally. She had previously donated almost a million dollars to Trump Victory, over half a million dollars to the RNC, and another half a million to the American First Action super PAC. The supermarket chain has tried to distance itself from Fancelli, tweeting “Mrs. Fancelli is not an employee of Publix Super Markets, and is neither involved in our business operations, nor does she represent the company in any way. We cannot comment on Mrs. Fancelli’s actions.”

Many family and friends have expressed shock and grief at their loved one’s involvement in the insurrection. Rosanne Boyland died when she was trampled to death in the crowd outside the Capitol as they pushed to get inside. Like others, she had become wrapped up in QAnon conspiracy theories. A friend commented, “We’ve all watched her decline, and go on these rabbit-trails.” “It just spiraled,” her sister, said.

Preventing Radicalization and Helping Get Loved Ones Out

Many people are also asking how to prevent radicalization and how to help people leave extremism.

Blee said people need to get themselves informed about the process. It’s not easy to be intervene, she said; challenging people can make people go deeper faster into that world. Conspiracies are based on the idea that outsiders are trying to trick you. And so challenging people actually ends up confirming the conspiracy.

Something is driving women to extremism, and Life After Hate, an organization that helps people leave extremism, suggests starting with trying to understand why people are embracing extremist ideas. They suggest, rather than debating, asking, “What is this new belief providing for you?” Extremist groups, they explain, convince people that they are unloved and unwanted outside the group, and so expressing love and support is essential. Mutual relationships, they suggest, counter the one-way, exploitative relationships of extremism.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant told Ms. research shows trying to change people’s mind typically backfire. He suggested a technique called motivational interviewing: “Instead of trying to force other people to change, you’re better off helping them find their own intrinsic motivation to change. You do that by interviewing them—asking open-ended questions and listening carefully—and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly.”

Blee said people have to want to de-radicalize. We can’t talk people out of these ideas. “De-radicalization,” she explained, “is tough and can take a long time to fully work out so somebody’s really free of those ideas and impulses and cravings.”

She said research shows that people think about leaving extremist groups in same way people think about leaving alcohol. Getting out of extremist thinking is difficult but not impossible, she added. The most effective support people are former extremists, and we need to create support structures to help people who want to leave extremism, especially now that we’re looking at millions of people who have been touched by extremist ideas.

“Women who are pulled into white supremacist networks have a different pattern than men do,” Blee said. “I’ve been studying leavers. Women and men both leave. But women are likely to stay in those groups much, much longer than men do after they’re disillusioned. When people say ‘I don’t believe this anymore,’ men are out the door, but women keep staying. So there’s a whole group of women who aren’t exactly believers but are still maintaining those groups and networks.”  

This is dangerous, she said, because women are extremism’s most effective recruiters. She warns that bringing women into extremism can have more impact than bringing in the same number of men because women are used more often to interface with public. So a small uptick in women can bring a greater uptick in men.

As many QAnon adherents become disillusioned with the failure of predictions to come true, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups are targeting these people for recruitment. Both Blee and Darby worry that women who have not previously affiliated with organized extremism may be vulnerable to recruitment into these groups. Darby is concerned that women may find their way into the echo chambers of alternative social media like Parler. Disillusionment, she noted, doesn’t snap people out of conspiracy theories. If someone is prone to believing one conspiracy theory, she said, they’re probably prone to believing another. Organized extremist groups are already in communication with followers of QAnon and can prey on disillusioned women.

Blee also warned that extremists are adept at using the internet, especially online gaming, to recruit even young children into hate. She said the most important thing is for people, especially parents, to become knowledgeable about the situation. “It’s not effective not to talk about this and assume your kids aren’t going to be reached by it,” she explained. “Kids doing ordinary kid things are going to be reached by content by white supremacists. You don’t want kids to start clicking out of curiosity and going down the rabbit hole into racism and antisemitism.”

She continued, “We want our kids not just to be not racist but to be anti-racist, informed about race and choosing to be anti-racist. That means in the situation we’re in now having some difficult conversations with kids about race.”

Blee is not without hope, however. “The problem’s quite extensive and has grown much quicker than most of us anticipated,” she explained, but “now there’s a broad understanding that this is a problem.”

“The terribly tragic events of January 6 I think made people realize this wasn’t just people talking to each other on the internet in a way that’s not going to affect anybody else. This has the possibility and, in this case the actuality, of just exploding into cataclysmic violence. And I’m hoping we’ve turned a corner on realizing the problem and have some sense of how to start correcting that.”

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.