How the Far Right Uses Motherhood to Manipulate and Recruit Women

A new report on the January 6 US Capitol attack released this month by researchers at George Washington University has detailed the role women have played in America’s far-right extremism over the past century. , including how many lean heavily on their identity as mothers to justify their engagement and to recruit and mobilize others.

Women play a larger role in far-right movements than is often acknowledged.

The 102 women who had been arrested in connection with the attack in mid-March accounted for 13% of the federal cases on January 6, according to the report. Some faced felony charges and others misdemeanors. About 10 percent of them are charged with committing or conspiring to commit violence. Their alleged behavior on January 6 is consistent with what experts have argued for years, that women play a bigger role in far-right movements than is often acknowledged.

Extremist scenes and movements recruit and hire women for various reasons. Women are useful in “softening” or rebranding violent or supremacist movements so as to recruit both men and other women. They have also been used strategically in an attempt to portray government responses to actions, protests or violence as overblown. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that during a confrontation with the federal government in 2014, an anti-government group used women as “human shields,” noting that significant media attention would follow if federal agents began shooting at women. women.

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

Motherhood plays a particularly important role in the kinds of rhetorical strategies used by far-right extremists, including the kinds of “utopian propaganda” that call on followers to reject modernity and embrace “traditional values ​​and roles.” But women are not called to be entirely passive as mothers, or to be completely relegated to domestic duties. 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 particularly powerful in inciting women to extreme, even violent actions, as illustrated by the rise of conspiracy theories and propaganda that mobilize mothers around themes of exploitation and of the protection of children. Some women have been drawn to QAnon through relatively mundane entry points like wellness blogs and yoga studios, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. In these spaces, a healthy skepticism of mainstream medicine and a propensity for alternative wellness models can create unintended gateways into whole rabbit holes of conspiracy theories and misinformation, much of which calls the women to protect children.

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

Mommy lifestyle influencers who have embraced the QAnon conspiracy have incorporated posts about child trafficking into their regular content feeds with decorating, cooking and parenting tips, a challenge for editors. parenting websites, which reported an increase in conspiracy theory posts.

“QAnon moms,” for example, helped fuel women’s engagement in conspiracy-fueled violence, including allegations of kidnappings or plots to abduct children they thought were saving from pedophile rings or gangs. Satan worshiping groups. Using the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, QAnon conspiracy theorists have mobilized parents with allegations of an “elite global pedophile ring” engaged in the trafficking, torture, rape and murder of children.

The rise of conspiracies that manipulate mothers’ fears about their own children and mobilize them for violent action or political engagement is a troubling trend – but the mobilization of motherhood is not new. After the 9/11 attacks, one of the “most popular pieces of amateur propaganda,” as Wired described it in 2001, depicts “Mommy Liberty,” a gun-toting Statue of Liberty holding a swaddled child in a American flag. During her 2008 run for vice president, Sarah Palin coined the term “mama grizzlies” to refer to conservative women who will protect their children from bad government policies.

At the extremist fringe, women still represent the significant minority of violent and nonviolent engagement. And to be clear, women are also often the victims of enormous misogyny, harassment or worse from men within these movements. Kathleen Blee’s research on women in white supremacist movements has described racist male skinheads who refer to the women in their group as “oi toys” and take pride in dominating their wives or girlfriends.

But it is important to recognize the ways in which motherhood is used to recruit and advocate women’s involvement in violent or anti-democratic movements, including in attempts to mitigate culpability in criminal or violent activity. The GWU report analyzed how motherhood is used in women’s legal defenses on January 6 to make women appear more sympathetic, focusing on their role as caretakers and their status as “good” mothers and grandmothers. mothers 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 effort to make up for the serious charges they face.

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