Researchers who track how the far right in the US mobilizes, self-promotes and recruits are reporting that women are playing a growing role in the movement.
They often work behind the scenes to advance conspiracy theories through social media and softly attract new women into the fold. But at the same time, in recent years “alt-right” women have also shifted to influential public-facing roles in rightwing media production and far-right national politics.
They have taken prominent roles in events like the January 6 attack on the Capitol, count US congresswomen in their number and have seen the emergence of powerful new groups like Moms for Liberty.
“[Far-right women] have a lot more power than you think,” said Dr Sandra Jeppesen, a professor of media and communications at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada.
Despite their seemingly understated presence in extremist groups and far-right politics, they can be effective organizers, responsible for bringing thousands of people to the Capitol for the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally and now mobilizing against inclusive education.
Some women figures on the far-right scene have a lot of money, especially the most prominent ones, said Tracy Llanera, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. The most high-profile far-right conservative women are involved in social media production because they fit the mold of what Llanera calls “the acceptable faces of conservative propaganda”.
They include Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren and Canadian far-right YouTuber Lauren Southern, who produce conservative media and rightwing propaganda, amassing a huge following and millions of dollars.
Even so-called “Tradwives” – such as the TikToker Estee Williams, who promotes strict adherence to traditional gender roles – generate income from their social media content. The Global Network on Extremism & Technology recently linked Tradwives to “alt-lite” and “alt-right” ideologies.
“I think women definitely want power,” Jeppesen argued. “I don’t think ‘alt-right’ women go into politics for altruistic reasons.”
Like men in the movement, women commit to far-right politics believing there is a crisis and they have to commit to extraordinary action, she stated. In the days leading up to 6 January 2021, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the extremist congresswoman from Georgia, paid tens of thousands of dollars for a promoted Parlor post stating the need for a grassroots army and created a Photoshopped image of her and Donald Trump.
The post, used as an election fundraiser for Greene’s campaign, garnered millions of views and played a strong role in mobilizing people to the Capitol, Jeppesen explained.
While Greene’s social media presence attracted insurrectionists to Washington DC, the far-right election-denial group Women for America First ultimately held the permit for the rally outside the White House, helped to coordinate the march that became the January 6 riot, and eventually organized fundraisers for election audits in Georgia and Arizona in 2021, Vice News reported.
Other female insurrectionists played a pivotal role in the riots and spreading election denial conspiracies during and after.
Jessica Watkins, an Oath Keepers member and founder of the Ohio State Regular Militia, arranged for both militias to travel to the Capitol, organizing and communicating on site with the encrypted walkie-talkie-style app Zello. She was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison; people such as Watkins are considered political prisoners to members of the far-right movement.
When Ashli Babbit was killed by Capitol Hill police during the January 6 attack, she was promoted as a martyr, with even the former US president Donald Trump calling her parents. “Women make better martyrs in the ‘alt-right’,” Jeppesen said about Babbit’s lingering effect.
Another growing power on the far right is Moms for Liberty, a group that began as a small parents’ rights group but which has spread across the US and is a leading force in promoting book bans.
The group – with a fervent membership of conservative mothers – aims to affect US education, attacking anything that meddles with the far-right view of what is suitable for bringing up children, said Llanera of the University of Connecticut. “Mothers protect their offspring, out of the private sphere where they are most relevant,” she added.
Iowyth Ulthiin, a PhD student at Toronto Metropolitan University and researcher at Lakehead University, explained that rightwing sects will use a broad appeal to a general issue like children’s safety in order to spread far-right ideas.
“Who doesn’t love children and want them to be safe?” Ulthiin said.
Far-right mothers start building rapport with other parents, using the vulnerability of their children to open the door to QAnon conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment.
The far right can take the same recruitment posture online. Ulthiin’s research has seen women in the “mommy blogger aesthetic” on Instagram, known for sharing photos of “lovely, enviable lives”, become subtly political and then escalate rapidly into conspiracy theories.
Most notably, film-maker Sean Donnelly produced an eight-minute documentary, QAmom: Confronting My Mom’s Conspiracy Theories, about his mother’s transformation from a new age Californian to an outright conspiracy theorist who believed well-known celebrities would be arrested for pedophilia.
Ulthiin said that women who fall into the far-right trap often have similar psychological profiles. “It would be a similar crowd to those who are in danger of joining a cult,” they said.