White women and fascism: Seyward Darby on how right-wing women embrace their "symbolic power"

Author of "Sisters of Hate" on why the far right's "mama bears" are fighting for patriarchy and white supremacy

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 28, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. | Sarah Palin, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Protesters gather outside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. | Sarah Palin, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

White women have played a central role in America's neofascist movement and its assault on multiracial pluralist democracy.

Either as figureheads or actual leaders, white women have stood at the forefront of the Republican Party's attempt to use the bogeyman of "critical race theory" to launch a widespread moral panic and restrict the teaching of American history. The ultimate goal is to severely undermine or fully destroy our current system of public education, and replace it with "patriotic" indoctrination meant to reinforce and protect white privilege and other forms of inequality.

White women are also among the loudest voices in the movement to take away women's reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. The anti-choice movement has found considerable common ground with overt white nationalists and other white supremacists. In a new essay at the Guardian, Moira Donegan explores this:

Explicit white nationalism, and an emphasis on conscripting white women into reproduction, is not a fringe element of the anti-choice movement. Associations between white supremacist groups and anti-abortion forces are robust and longstanding. ... But the affinity goes both ways: just as the alt-right loves the anti-choice movement, the anti-choice movement loves the alt-right. ...

In the current anti-choice and white supremacist alliance, the language of "race suicide" has been supplanted by a similar fear: the so-called "Great Replacement", a racist conspiracy theory that posits that white Americans are being "replaced" by people of color. (Some antisemitic variations posit that this "replacement" is somehow being orchestrated by Jewish people.)

The way to combat this, the right says, is to force childbearing among white people, to severely restrict immigration, and to punish, via criminalization and enforced poverty, women of color. These anxieties ... have  only become more fervent ... as conservatives become increasingly fixated on the demographic changes that will make America a minority-white country sometime in the coming decades. The white supremacist and anti-choice movements have always been closely linked. But more and more, they are becoming difficult to tell apart.

White women played a key role in planning and organizing the Trump regime's coup attempt and the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. White women were also strikingly visible among the attackers. To wit: A white woman became the only person directly killed by police that day, and has now been elevated into a martyr for the American neofascist cause.

RELATED: Black cop shoots white woman: The saga of Michael Byrd and Ashli Babbitt

Contrary to the hopes and expectations of many on the American left, white women as a group have historically chosen to ally with white men in defense of whiteness and white male power, rather than forging alliances with other women across the color line. In broad terms, that has been true both in the United States and around the world.

Contrary to the commentariat's obsession with the "suburban women" and "soccer moms" who supposedly "turned the tide" against Donald Trump in 2020, a majority of white women actually voted for him. In fact, Trump did significantly better among white women voters in 2020 than he had in 2016. 

Seyward Darby is the author of "Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism." Her writing has also been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Harper's and the Atlantic. In our recent conversation, Darby discussed how sexist stereotypes about white women, in her view, obscure their role and power in the white right and larger neofascist cause, including their support for political violence and other terrorism. Darby also talked about the central role played by women in America's long history of white supremacy and opposition to multiracial democracy, including in the rise of Trump and the current Republican-fascist movement.

She addressed the status of prominent right-wing figures such as Sarah Palin, Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who perform a particular type of "traditional" white womanhood that is clearly anti-feminist while still leveraging the struggles and victories of the feminist movement in order to obtain and expand their political and personal power.

Toward the end of this conversation, Darby explained that the Republican attack on "critical race theory" is nothing new, but only the most recent iteration of white women's vigorous defense of Jim Crow white supremacy by opposing school integration and the civil rights movement during the 20th century.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

White vigilantism and other threats continue to escalate, as we saw with the Kyle Rittenhouse case. It has been more than a year since the Jan. 6 coup attempt, and the threat of right-wing political violence has not receded. Public opinion research shows that white Americans are increasingly supportive of violence as a legitimate political tool, if used against their perceived enemies. How are you making sense of all this?

There has been a reluctance over the last few decades, on the part of the gatekeepers of the country's public discourse, to admit that white supremacy is not a fringe problem. It is a mainstream problem, integrated into every facet of American society. It doesn't just manifest in vigilante violence. It manifests in the media and the justice system and education. What we're seeing now is the damage that reluctance has done, to the point that in some camps, reluctance has given way to outright permissiveness.   

Some observers say the changing demographics in the country are the "end" of something, that we're seeing white supremacy's last gasp. But what if it is actually the beginning of something? A backlash? There are a lot of people who benefit from white supremacy, and from how American society has been structured. Many of them don't want things to change.

I'm feeling very scared about how the Rittenhouse verdict and other right-wing violence will embolden people on the far right. They may well respond to social justice protests, to efforts to change the status quo, with violence — because they feel like they can get away with it.

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I'm feeling very scared about the reaction — or, really, the non-reaction — to Jan. 6. It feels like most of the country, and the government, have moved on. Again, that's emboldening to people who saw that as a trial run for the next time an election doesn't go the way they like.

And I'm feeling very scared about the assault on women's rights, namely our reproductive rights, and most prominently at the Supreme Court. There was a celebratory air at the recent Right to Life rally in Washington, and why wouldn't there be? The opponents of women's freedom, including the women of the far right, who are zealously pro-natal, are getting exactly what they've always wanted. If the midterms and 2024 go badly for Democrats, which seems very likely, they're poised to get even more.

Sorry, don't come to me for optimism. I have very little.       

The role of white women in right-wing extremism and neofascism is hardly ever discussed by the mainstream news media.

When there is an acknowledgment that white-supremacist and other right-wing extremist violence is a problem, it is very often seen as a law enforcement problem. It is seen as something on the fringe, to be dealt with through arrests, prosecution, prison. If you start to dig deeper at who helped organize the violence, if you look at the systems that support the violence, if you look at the rhetoric and symbols that inspire the violence, that is where you often find white women. This is not to say that white women are not on the front lines of the violence sometimes. But they're more often behind the scenes, where no one is bothering to look.

In this moment of white backlash here in America, there are so many examples of how "white victimhood" is being weaponized by both white men and white women. White women have long used crying as a way of performing victimhood and inciting violence, in particular against black men who were lynched as a result of white women's tears. Now white male "conservatives" are publicly crying as a way to exercise their power and privilege, and to deflect responsibility for their harmful behavior.

There is a lot of anger and entitlement behind those white men's tears. To me, they signal just how far these men believe — or need people to believe — they have been pushed by their critics, opponents or victims. Things have gotten so bad and so unfair for them, and for men like them, that they're willing to cry about it publicly. This gets to the imaginary idea that whiteness — and particularly white masculinity — is under some kind of threat, which is a core idea of white supremacy.

How does the white right conceptualize what it means to be a white woman and a mother?

White women are seen as being fundamentally different than white men. The far right believes in very distinct genders and traditional gender roles. But they also believe that those roles are complementary and equal to each other. Separate but equal, if you will. From their point of view, men are willing to put their lives on the line. Men are the builders and protectors of civilization. Women are the protectors of the home.

But the home is fundamentally a political space for the right. The entire project of white nationalism is about ensuring that the "white race" continues to grow, and to expand and entrench its power across society into the future. Nothing could be more important to that process than making sure that you have white children, and that they've been inculcated in the ways of white supremacy.

The whole idea of traditional gender roles is misogynistic, of course, and there is a large amount of gender-based violence in the white supremacist space. But it's not true that most women are there because they don't have a choice. Such a narrow view really marginalizes the role that women play. Similarly, their support is not just, "Oh congrats, honey! Today you were a great white supremacist, I'm proud of you! Here's your dinner." It goes far beyond that. Women organize, they teach, they vote — and they embrace the symbolic power they have in a movement that puts women on a pedestal and claims to fight for their sanctity and security.

Considering current examples of prominent white women on the right, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, what vision of white womanhood are they channeling?

The people that I study are at the extreme end of the right-wing spectrum. These are the avowed white nationalists. The majority of Republicans and conservatives would not describe themselves that way — but they are only a few ticks down on the spectrum from sharing the same beliefs as white nationalists. They just use more coded language. Greene and Boebert fall in that camp, if on the very edge of it.

RELATED: White women and the racist right: Marjorie Taylor Greene is not an aberration

Greene, Boebert and other white women on the right are performing a very interesting balancing act. On one hand they are saying, "Look at me, I am a 'traditional' white woman in a lot of different ways." They're married, they have kids. They say that's what matters most, that what they'd really like to be doing is focusing on the domestic side of life.

But at the same time they're saying that the United States is at a precipice, where "traditional values" and "real America" and the "American way of life" are so at stake that they have to step up. These women are signaling that they've gotten into politics, they've taken on more traditionally masculine roles, because the country is in crisis: "It's gotten to the point where I feel like even someone like me has to take a stand. I am not a career politician, but I looked around and saw the state of the country and had to do something."  

There is also this language of "mama bears" often used by the white right and its propagandists in their battle against "critical race theory" and their efforts to make discussing America's real history of racism a kind of thought crime. The meaning and origins of that "mama bear" discourse is not being critically interrogated by the mainstream news media.

Sarah Palin was the tip of the iceberg, in terms of such language and the politics it represents. Palin was speaking to this idea of white motherhood as being powerful, white motherhood as an asset to wield politically, to defend your "traditional" way of life. It's this whole idea of, "I have been pushed to a point where — I would like to just be a mom, I would like to just raise my kids — but I have to fight because I've been pushed so far. My children's future has been put at such risk that I have no choice. I must act now because everything is in danger." Whether they actually believe that or not isn't the point. The point is that this way of presenting themselves gets traction.

These attacks on "critical race theory" are part of a long history of white supremacist organizing against Black and brown people's civil rights and freedoms. The mainstream media usually doesn't offer that important historical context. White women have played a central role there.

They are the descendants of the "committees of mothers" and other women who opposed integration in the 1950s and 1960s. They protested at schools. They shut down schools in places like Little Rock, Arkansas. I also see the United Daughters of the Confederacy working to manipulate and write textbooks in the early 20th century. These textbooks whitewashed the history of the United States, and in particular the causes and truth about the Civil War. This is all part of a long history of white women making education a political battlefield.

RELATED: "The Long Southern Strategy": How Southern white women drove the GOP to Donald Trump

Of course they don't actually understand critical race theory as an academic theory and research approach. And the language used by the right-wing groups going after CRT has been very carefully crafted. They say things such as, "We don't see color," or, "We believe in an America that is aspirational. We don't want to talk about the past and the negative things. We want to look at how far we've come." They try to make it hard to argue with them. But in fact such language is a way of evading and denying the centuries of harm caused by racism and white supremacy in American society. This idea of, "Well, I don't want my seven-year-old to learn about sad or scary things" is just a way of saying, "I don't want my child to have to deal with racist realities, because it's not their problem or my problem."  

It's worth noting that a lot of the language being used against CRT comes from the white nationalist movement. Activists in that space have been testing and experimenting with this language for some time, figuring out what's most palatable to the widest set of white people. Now that language has become mainstream among conservatives.

The anti-"critical race theory" movement is now branching out, and trying to stop the teaching of other subjects they deem to be "un-American" or "anti-family" or "divisive." How do we explain this historically?

We're foolish if we think the enemies of justice and progress won't cast their net as widely as possible, as strategically as possible, to eliminate what they don't like. Or that they won't be emboldened by one victory to enter another battle on an adjacent front. We've seen it happen so many times before. White supremacy has always been about maintaining a particular power structure, policing who can go where and cleaning house of all matter of "undesirable" ideas. 

Why do you believe that there is so much resistance, especially among many liberals and progressives, to the basic premise that white women are invested in white supremacy?

It is rooted in sexism — this idea that women are somehow the better angels of the human race and so wouldn't participate in white supremacy. It is the result of a very old unwillingness to look at women as equal, in terms of the good they do and the harm they do. America hasn't done that with white women — not really, not yet.

Among America's pundit class, there is predictable surprise and shock when white women vote for or support policies that actually hurt women, for example, on reproductive rights and freedoms. There was so much commentary among the chattering classes about how it was "unthinkable" that so many white women could support Donald Trump, given that he is a misogynist and has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault. How do you explain those reactions?

It is willful denial and self-deception. You have to look at the facts in history. A majority of white women have only voted for a Democratic presidential candidate twice in the last 50 or so years. Why are we surprised that so many white women supported Trump? The real question is, why wouldn't they? Conservative white women have time and again made decisions to support a system they benefit from.

There is also an assumption that women will vote in the best interest of fellow women, that they're going to vote for the party or the candidate that actually wants to improve the lives of women across the board. But that's a very naïve way of thinking about the world, and especially about America. There are women who don't vote because of who they are as women — they vote because of who they are as white women. They vote because of who they are as conservative white women. Whether this is in the forefront of their minds when they vote or make other political decisions — "Oh, this is going to help me as a white woman" — does not really matter. The calculus is more ineffable, but no less pernicious: "I prefer things that make me more comfortable, that are more familiar. I'm going to support what keeps those things in place." And frankly, what makes a lot of white women feel safe and comfortable is usually at odds with social justice.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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