We need to talk about the role of white women in the insurrection on January 6th. The mainstream media and our society in general do not recognize white women as the faces of white nationalist extremism even when they are caught in the act on national television. In fact, many still think of protesters in pink “pussy hats” as the icons of the resistance to Trumpism. But the truth has been staring us in the face for a long time: “far from being incidental to white nationalism [white women] are a sustaining feature.”[i] And before we dismiss these women as aberrant members of a lunatic fringe, it is critical that we understand the forces that motivate them, because those same forces act to varying degrees upon all white women.[ii] Understanding those forces and for those of us who are white, learning to recognize how they influence us is critical to dismantling both racial and gender oppression. Beyond being the right thing to do, that is why Legal Voice is committed to centering race equity in our work.
The first person to die during the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6th was a white woman who was shot by a police officer when she, adorned with a Trump flag, tried to break into the Capitol building through a shattered window. Still, the mainstream media (and many feminist organizations) have devoted little attention to the role of white women in the insurrection and the broader movement behind it.
On the surface, the involvement of these women does seem at odds with the mission of the movement behind the attack, which at its core, is to restore the white heteronormative patriarchy to its colonial era glory. As Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse wrote in 2019,
“It's hard to imagine a woman volunteering . . . for a group that believes women's liberation contributes to the deterioration of civilization.”[iii]
How and why racial and gender oppression have throughout our history operated together to maintain this white heteronormative patriarchal power structure is an important conversation that we need to be having.[iv] But suffice it to say that the misogyny inherent in white nationalism was on full display during the attack on the Capitol. Among the militia groups that led the insurrection was the “Proud Boys,” which admits only “biological men” and requires a loyalty oath that includes the affirmation “I’m a proud Western chauvinist” (hence the name “Proud Boys”). The Proud Boys also figure prominently in the anti-abortion group calling itself “The Church at Planned Parenthood,” which is the target of a lawsuit that Legal Voice has brought on behalf of Planned Parenthood in Spokane.
Then there was the man who took a selfie with his feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk, who bragged that he left a note to let the “bitch” know that he had been there. Of course, there are many other examples, but this comment by Ken Peters, founder of “The Church at Planned Parenthood,” who also spoke at the event in D.C., sums it up well: “[y]ou can feel the patriotism. It’s like testosterone flowing through the veins of an American red-blooded male.”[v]
Sadly, it is basic human instinct that drives this behavior. Hate is not just animus toward another person or group. It is a social bond that fulfills the egoic need to matter and belong, even while inflicting harm or even terror on others. Those who participate in these groups also receive confirmation of their bias toward believing that it is those who are “other” who are the cause of their problems. Still, how could any of this be enough for white women to embrace, let alone die for a movement and an agenda that is so terrible for their own equality?
Some white women’s racist beliefs are just so strong that they outweigh everything else. But for others, the reasons are more complex. While the white nationalist movement subordinates all women relative to their male counterparts, it values white women at least nominally for the reproductive capabilities and for their role as mothers (while devaluing the motherhood status of others).[vi] White nationalism casts white women as weak and vulnerable, but that also entitles them to protection.[vii] The more white women view their fortune as dependent on this power structure, the more inclined they may be to embrace these benefits.[viii]
That said, there is no excusing the harm that supporting this social order does to those who are excluded by it. That this may be a way of satisfying the basic human need to belong or even mitigating one’s own sense of oppression is no justification for racism. But it is important especially for white women, myself included, to understand the forces at play so that we can identify them in ourselves. When we overlook and dismiss the phenomenon of women in white nationalism and the instincts that drive their choices, we do so at our peril because those instincts are not unique to them, or even to the majority of white women who voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
The image of a woman leading the charge of white nationalists into the United States Capitol should be a wake-up call to consider the ways in which we benefit from the existing social order (which also harms us) and may be reluctant, if only subconsciously, to see it change.
For example, we are outraged (or we certainly should be) by the idea of stripping kids away from their mothers at the border, but do we support those same families when we fear that there might be a cost to us? Or do we object to the use of “our” tax dollars to provide healthcare and other basic services to them? Similarly, most of us fervently condemn the over-policing of black and brown bodies. Yet many dismiss rather than take the time to research what it means to “defund the police” out of fear for the safety of their neighborhoods, even when communities of color are telling us that this is what they need for the safety of theirs. The point is, we may think our decisions are rational, but the truth is that we are all driven by emotion, especially when we feel threatened. The only way to resist this tendency is to understand what truly motivates our choices.
Legal Voice issued a statement after January 6th condemning the attack on the Capitol and the white supremacy that fueled it. Most of the responses we received were quite positive, but a few expressed confusion about how this was different than the looting that went on during the recent Black Lives Matter protests, as we had not issued any statement about that.
There simply is no logical or moral equivalency between these two things. At the risk of stating the obvious:
The extremist groups that organized the insurrection on January 6th planned the event in advance to be exactly what it was – a violent, lawless attack on democracy and rule of law.
Hundreds if not thousands participated in the attack. These seditious criminals were not the exception but the rule.
This was an attack on the United States Capitol building while Congress was in the building and in the process of certifying the results of a lawful presidential election.
It was the President of the United States of America who directed the attack, and other elected officials supported it.[ix]
And most importantly, while the Black Lives Matter protests were calling for an end to the pain and oppression that communities of color have experienced at the hands of our government and our society since the founding of this country, and to realize the promise of democracy, the extremists who attacked the United States Capitol were fighting for exactly the opposite. Their cause is to reclaim what little gains the various movements for civil rights have achieved and undermine our democracy.
That said, we welcome the feedback that we received. That there is any question about why a feminist legal organization would condemn the attack on January 6th while supporting Black Lives Matter really underscores that we have not made the interdependent relationship between racial and gender oppression clear enough. We must do better, which starts with introspection and honest conversation.
Along those lines, for those who would like to engage with these issues on a deeper level, Legal Voice invites you to join a discussion of Seyward Darby’s highly acclaimed book Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism. This conversation is intended for everyone, but especially for those who want to be good allies but cannot fathom how other women could embrace this extremist movement, much less see how these same forces impact us all.
To give everyone an opportunity to read the book, which is available in print and on Audible, we will be hosting this discussion in a few weeks. Questions we’ll consider include, among many others:
How are racial and gender oppression related?
Why does white nationalism seem to have greater appeal during specific social, political and historic moments? And how is social media be amplifying its appeal today?
What does this have to do with the work of Legal Voice?
And most importantly, what does this have to do with me?
We understand these are difficult times and that buying a book might not be in your budget. If you'd like to receive a book, please fill out this form. If you'd like to donate to support Legal Voice purchasing books for folks, please donate here.
We hope that you will consider joining us.
Kim Clark, J.D.
Citations [i] Darby, S., Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, p. ____, Little, Brown and Company (2020). Thanks to the award-winning work of Stephanie Jones- Rogers, we know that white women owned slaves. Jones-Rogers, S., They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Yale University Press (2019). Later, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (“UDC”) led the elevation of Confederate tradition and provided support to the Ku Klux Klan. And, as Seyward Darby documents in Sisters in Hate, white women have been on the front lines of white nationalism ever since. Darby, S., Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, Little, Brown and Company (2020). [ii] Of course, those influences weigh far more heavily for some white women than for others based on sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, socio-economic status and many other factors, but there are common benefits. [iii] Hesse, M., Wolfie James and the Insidious Role of Female White Nationalists, Washington Post, August 14, 2019. [iv] Of course, also related, and interconnected are Christian nationalism and antisemitism, among other “isms.” [v] Vestal, S., Pastor Who Helped Organize Anti-Abortion Rallies in Spokane Helped Rally Trump Supporters in D.C., Spokesman Review (Jan. 13, 2021) https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2021/jan/13/shawn-vestal-pastor-who-organized-anti-abortion-ra/ [vi] After all, the professed goal of white nationalism is to preserve the white race, which means having babies. [vii] That white women are seen as vulnerable and in need of protection also make them very effective actors within these extremist movements. Consider the woman who was shot while throwing herself through the window on January 6th. That she was a wife and mother made her an instant martyr. [viii] Women who have higher levels of education are less likely to embrace white nationalism. Of course, this reflects the values of our system of higher education, but it also may be that educated women feel less dependent upon the patriarchy for their survival, regardless of income. [ix] Here in the Pacific Northwest, former Washington Representative Matt Shea (also a Defendant in our lawsuit in Spokane) has held events in Washington and Idaho advocating for violence as a means of undermining the election, as well. See, Speech by Matt Shea at Support Trump Rally in Coeur D’alene, Idaho, January 05, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3SkqBxd4Eo&feature=youtu.be; and excerpts from Matt Shea sermon at Covenant Church, Dec. 20, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PesyTbS2FRs&feature=youtu.be.