The days surrounding the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol have been rife with analyses about ongoing investigations and lawsuits, strategies to combat domestic extremism in the military and signs of broader threats to democracy amid rising support for political violence. One issue that keeps getting lost in the shuffle is the unusual role that women played in the insurrection — and continue to play in the rise of extremism itself.
One issue that keeps getting lost in the shuffle is the unusual role that women played in the insurrection — and continue to play in the rise of extremism itself.
Historically, women’s roles in extremist violence have been almost exclusively backstage, with exceptions mostly limited to left-wing extremism. We saw this with the so-called ISIS brides, who were recruited to become wives to militants and mothers to future soldiers. Closer to home, in the U.S. white supremacist movement, women sewed Ku Klux Klan robes and published newsletters with homeschooling tips and recipes intended to help raise pure, white families to secure the future of white civilization.
This backstage role is changing rapidly — especially in the U.S. — in ways law enforcement and observers often overlook or dismiss. Between 1948 and 2018, just 6 percent of violent and nonviolent far-right extremists in the U.S. were women. But that percentage more than doubled on Jan. 6: To date, women reflect 13 percent of the federal arrests. At the Capitol that day, women smashed pipes through windows and posted videos from inside the building saying they were searching for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to “to shoot her in the friggin’ brain.”
Women were likely more engaged on Jan. 6 due to the highly spontaneous nature of the violence and because of the prominent effect of QAnon, which has radicalized millions of women to believe in a network of conspiracy theories. Like most of the men charged, most women who have been arrested appear to have no formal ties to extremist groups. By all accounts, these women were mobilized over a relatively short period of time through mass disinformation about the U.S. presidential election and traveled to Washington from ordinary lives, leaving jobs as health professionals, a florist, a realtor, a school therapist and an elementary school teacher.
But not all of the women arrested were spontaneously mobilized rioters. At least a handful of the women were highly skilled, tactically trained military veterans or members of more organized and militant groups that took advantage of the chaos to enact strategic attack plans. That includes Army veteran, paramilitary leader and Oath Keepers member Jessica Watkins, who was arrested on several federal charges related to the Jan. 6 attack — including conspiracy and destruction of government property. Prosecutors described Watkins as a “leader” in the Oath Keepers, while a federal judge noted she is “not just a foot soldier.”
Whether their militancy was spontaneous or planned, women’s rising engagement in hateful and antidemocratic movements is facilitated by new kinds of online interaction with extremist content. No longer relegated to domestic tasks, today women use social media channels and other online platforms as leaders in their own right, working to recruit and radicalize other women — and men — into white supremacist extremism, conspiracy beliefs and more.
These online ecosystems are filled with extremist content specifically targeting women. There are Instagram accounts with beautifully curated images — typically of a blond woman with small children, standing in a field of wheat or next to a little deer in a dappled-light wood — with labeled warnings about purity and the need to defend whiteness. Women call on other women to help counteract demographic change by reproducing white populations, such as in a recent “white baby challenge.”
They intersperse relatable content, livestreamed from their bedrooms and kitchens, with personal stories of their own “red pill” awakenings to the dangers of feminism; the appeal of a simpler, purer time; and the joys of embracing their “natural” roles as mothers and wives. The seeming contradictions in these frames — as women become “front-stage” promoters of anti-feminist content urging other women to celebrate traditional roles as behind-the-scenes homemakers — go unacknowledged.
As the extremist fringe moves more and more into the mainstream, we shouldn’t be surprised to see women stepping up and leading the charge.
As the extremist fringe moves more and more into the mainstream, we shouldn’t be surprised to see women stepping up and leading the charge. Men have always been urged to mobilize men and join white supremacist movements for the sake of women, often through language about defending and protecting women against “invaders” or “rapists.” But white women have never only been passive players in racist and extremist movements. They were at the helm of the fight against school integration in the U.S. and have long played key roles in the creation and maintenance of various forms of institutional racism.
This is true of the right-wing fringes within the Republican Party, too. Women were called on during the tea party movement to rise up as “mama grizzlies” who would protect their “cubs” against big government policies that “attack” their families. A majority of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — and the percentage increased in 2020.
We should not expect the current antidemocratic turn to be any different. The vast majority of violent participants in extremism are men. But we underestimate the power of women at our own peril. They are not merely enablers of far-right extremism but are rather core to its creation and maintenance in powerful ways.
“When women get involved, a movement becomes a serious threat,” one white supremacist online host told her viewers after Trump’s 2016 election victory. As we reflect on the Jan. 6 insurrection and the years to come, we would do well to remember that.