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How right-wing extremists weaponize the idea of motherhood

Women play a more significant role in far-right extremist movements than is often acknowledged.
Image: A woman shouting amidst protesters waving the American flag and a flag that reads,\" Trump 2020\".
Pro-Donald Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington, D.C., to protest Trump's election loss on Jan. 6, 2021.Michael Nigro / Getty Images file

A new report on the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack published this month by researchers at George Washington University detailed the role that women have played in American far-right extremism over the past century, including how many are leaning heavily into their identities as mothers to justify their engagement and to recruit and mobilize others.

Women play a more significant role in far-right extremist movements than is often acknowledged.

The 102 women who had been arrested in connection with the attack as of mid-March represented 13 percent of the Jan. 6 federal cases, the report found. Some faced felony charges, and others faced misdemeanors. Around 10 percent of them are accused of having either engaged in or conspired in violence. Their alleged behavior on Jan. 6 is consistent with what experts have argued for years — namely, that women play a more significant role in far-right extremist movements than is often acknowledged.

Extremist scenes and movements recruit and engage women for a variety of reasons. Women are useful as a way of “softening” or rebranding the face of violent or supremacist movements in ways that can recruit both men and other women. They have also been used strategically to try to depict government responses to actions, protests or violence as overreaching. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that during a standoff with the federal government in 2014, one anti-government group used women as “human shields,” noting that significant media attention would follow if federal agents started shooting at women.

But above all, women have historically engaged in extremist movements through their domestic roles and identities as wives, daughters and mothers. They use these roles to support “backstage” activities — like sewing KKK hoods, cooking meals for gatherings and home-schooling children — but also to mobilize men as “protectors” of their purity and vulnerability in the face of a range of purported threats.

Motherhood plays an especially key role in the kinds of rhetorical strategies far-right extremists use, including the kinds of “utopian propaganda” that calls on followers to reject modernity and embrace “traditional values” and roles. But women aren’t called upon to be entirely passive as mothers, or to be relegated completely to domestic tasks. Rather, motherhood is used to justify women’s engagement in activism and to “depoliticize” their actions by positioning them as acting on behalf of their children and families.

Themes about the need to protect children are especially powerful in drawing women into extreme and even violent action, as illustrated by the rise of conspiracy theories and propaganda that mobilize mothers around themes of child exploitation and protection. Some women have been drawn into QAnon through relatively banal entry points like wellness blogs and yoga studios, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. In these spaces, healthy skepticism of traditional medicine and a propensity for alternative models of wellness can create inadvertent gateways to entire rabbit holes of conspiracy theories and disinformation, much of which calls on women to protect children.

Some women have been drawn into QAnon through relatively banal entry points like wellness blogs and yoga studios, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mom lifestyle influencers who have embraced the QAnon conspiracy have integrated posts about child trafficking into their regular content feeds with home decorating, cooking and child rearing tips, a challenge for parenting website editors, who have reported an uptick in conspiracy theory posts.

QAnon moms,” for example, have helped fuel women’s engagement in conspiracy-fueled violence, including allegations of kidnappings or plots to kidnap children they believed they were rescuing from pedophilia rings or Satan-worshipping groups. Using the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, QAnon conspiracy theorists have mobilized parents with claims about a “global elite pedophile ring” engaged in child trafficking, torture, rape and murder.

The rise of conspiracies that manipulate mothers’ fears about their own children and mobilize them to violent action or political engagement is a troubling trend — but mobilizing motherhood is not new. After the Sept. 11 attacks, one of the “most popular pieces of amateur propaganda,” as Wired described it in 2001, depicted “Mommy Liberty,” a gun-toting Statue of Liberty holding a child swathed in an American flag. During her 2008 vice presidential run, Sarah Palin coined the term “mama grizzlies” to refer to conservative women who will protect their children from bad government policies.

On the extremist fringe, women still represent the significant minority of violent and nonviolent engagement. And to be clear, women also are often victims of tremendous misogyny, harassment or worse at the hands of men within those movements. Kathleen Blee’s research on women in white supremacist movements has described racist skinhead men who refer to women in their group as "oi toys" and who are proud to dominate their wives or girlfriends.

But it is important to recognize the ways that motherhood is used to recruit and defend women’s engagement in violent or antidemocratic movements, including to try to mitigate culpability in criminal or violent activities. The GWU report analyzed how motherhood is used in women’s Jan. 6 legal defenses to make women appear more sympathetic, by emphasizing their caretaking roles and status as “good” mothers and grandmothers who are devoted to their husbands and families. Such defense strategies paint a picture of these women as nurturers who love their families and are committed to raising productive citizens in an attempt to outweigh the serious charges they face.

It’s easy to understand why calling on women to protect their children from unimaginable harm is effective. But that’s also what makes it so dangerous. Because motherhood itself is being used to manipulate women and to recruit, mobilize and justify violent and antidemocratic actions.