It is tempting to think of the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as venomous masculinity running amok: a bunch of predominantly white men carrying guns and skins trying to overthrow democracy on behalf of a president who once bragged about it that he can grab women "by the pussy."
This narrative is even more tempting to embrace when the President's press secretary describes him in a bizarre statement as "the manliest person the White House has ever held".
But focusing too much on masculinity obscures a crucial truth: many women were either present at the riot or cheered the insurgents from home. There was Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran and an obvious believer in the QAnon ideology, who was killed during the uprising. There was the woman photographed with Eric Munchel, who is now believed to be his mother. There was Martha Chansley, the mother of the widely photographed "QAnon Shaman," who wore a horned hat and carried a spear to Congress. She was not present at the uprising, but later defended her son in an interview, calling him "a great patriot, a veteran, a person who loves this country".
And of course there were lawmakers who brought conspiracy theories and false claims about the theft of the elections to the fore, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter, speaking on the floor of the house against Democratic and American protesters Black Lives Matter railed this week with a mask that said "censored". Colorado MP Lauren Boebert described January 6 as "1776" before the riot began and tweeted live from the house during the attack (including mentioning that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been removed from the Chambers ). refused to allow police to search her bag after setting off metal detectors outside of Congress. During her election campaign, Boebert promised to take her gun into the house.
Many women either attended the riot or cheered the insurgents from home. Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images
If we ignore the role of women in the Capitol riot, we cannot understand the supremacy of whites in America. Alex Edelman / AFP via Getty Images
White women were part of white supremacy in America from the start, experts point out, referring to their role in slavery. “You were at the table when the system was designed,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a history professor at UC Berkeley and author of “They Were Owned: White Women Slaveholders in the American South,” told Vox. "You were co-architects of the system."
This remained true after the Civil War, through the birth and development of the Ku Klux Klan, and during the civil rights movement, when white women were some of the vocal opponents of school integration. And it remains true to this day when women play a key role in spreading the QAnon ideology and sustaining white nationalist groups and movements. "Like other parts of our economy and society, these movements would collapse without their work," Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Frontline of White Nationalism, told Vox.
And if we ignore the importance of women in the Capitol uprising and the groups that supported and made it possible, we cannot understand – let alone dismantle – white supremacy in America. Trying to fight racism in America without looking at white women is like Jones-Rogers like "only addressing the right side of the body when the left side is still sick".
White women were part of white supremacy from the start
White women's investment in white supremacy predates the United States itself and stems from its role in the economy of slavery. Although white women have been viewed by some historians as passive spectators of the brutality of slavery, they were actually active participants, as Jones-Rogers explains in They Were Her Property. Before the civil war, white women had little economic or political power, with one major exception: they could buy and sell enslaved people. And they used enslaved people to build wealth that would not simply be transferred to a husband in marriage.
Slavery gave white women "freedom, autonomy, and agency that they could not exercise in their lives without them, and they invested deeply in them," said Jones-Rogers.
And after the civil war, white women didn't just give up white supremacy. Instead, as Jones-Rogers puts it, they have doubled.
For many, this meant becoming active participants in the KKK, which at one point had 1.5 million female members. Some women took on leadership roles, such as Elizabeth Tyler, who helped revitalize the clan in the late 1910s and became its "chief propagandist," according to Darby.
Women became particularly important in the clan when they were given the right to vote. After that, white men began to see their wives, daughters, sisters and other women in their lives "as potential allies in efforts to politicize white supremacy," Jones-Rogers said. "They started to see it as an election bloc."
Female members of the Ku Klux Klan from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania arrive in Washington, DC for a KKK parade circa 1920. Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
A group of Ku Klux Klan women float alongside a parade in Miami circa 1940. Frederick Lewis / Archive Photos / Getty Images
And it's not just because of organizations like the Klan that white women have invested in institutional racism. They also played a central role in lynching, making false accusations of sexual harassment or assault used as an excuse to murder black men. And they have been major players in the fight against school integration, with white women using their roles as mothers to legitimize their victimization of black children, Jones-Rogers said.
Throughout the 20th century, while white women could no longer benefit from slavery, they could still take real advantage of white supremacy – a sense of social and political power in a world still dominated by white men . "By lynching, your words have the power of life and death over a man of African descent," said Jones-Rogers. "Your vote can secure a place in the state, in government, for white supremacy."
In essence, with white supremacy, white women "saw themselves as individuals exercising a certain kind of power that men must respect," said Jones-Rogers.
Understanding the role of white women is key to combating racism today
And this dynamic has continued into the 21st century. The landscape of white supremacy has changed, and the clan no longer matters (although it still exists). Today, white nationalism is less about specific groups than about "an ideology that people join from the comfort of their own desks," Darby said.
Because of this, it is difficult to measure exactly how many women are involved in white nationalism. It's easier to measure attitudes. Overall, about 20 percent of white Americans of all genders feel "dissatisfied" with the status of whites in society, writes Darby in Sisters in Hate, drawing on the work of political scientist Ashley Jardina. And white women are actually more likely than white men to hold "exclusive views about what it means to be American and prefer boundaries around the identity of the nation they preserve in their image".
And although they are not always at the forefront of rallies or riots, women remain important "recruiters and propagandists" for white nationalism, Darby said. Erica Alduino, for example, was instrumental in organizing the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. She directed traffic on messaging apps and answered mundane but important questions like whether there would be shuttles to the rally. She didn't speak at the event, "but that's not the point," said Darby. "Whether women are seen or not, they are such important actors in this space."
Women have also been central to organizing pro-Trump events that spread the false claim that the election was stolen. Women for America First organized a “Stop the Steal” rally of thousands in November and obtained permission to rally at the Capitol on January 6, according to the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, women have taken on an even more visible role with the rise of QAnon. QAnon, an ideology that began with conspiracy theories about Trump's fight against a "cabal" of liberals involved in child trafficking, has grown into a wider range of theories and misinformation. Over the past year, QAnon followers began expanding the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, which became a vehicle for false claims about the proliferation of child trafficking, as well as a gateway for more extreme QAnon ideas. And many of the people who post with #SaveTheChildren – including celebrities and high profile influencers – were women.
MP Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) joins President Trump to stand up for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue on January 4th. Brynn Anderson / AP
In general, QAnon was a way to co-opt messages that have long been addressed to women – messages about the importance of natural living or even healthy eating – and turn them into indoctrination for white nationalism and xenophobia. QAnon is playing with "this idea that you can purify yourself and your life and your family's life of pollutants," Darby said. For example, messages about avoiding genetically modified foods can lead to messages about non-white children failing to leave school.
For the past several months, QAnon has played a key role in promoting conspiracy theories about Covid restrictions and masking, as well as in supporting attempts to overturn elections. And some of the most visible supporters of QAnon have been women. Greene, for example, was named the first QAnon member of Congress and has tweeted support for the idea of "deep state," a core QAnon tenet.
Meanwhile, Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was killed by police in the riot at the Capitol, had posted QAnon-related content on social media almost a year before the riot, according to the Guardian. The day before the riot, she tweeted a defiant message full of QAnon slogans: "Nothing will stop us … you can try and try and try, but the storm is here and it is descending on DC in less than 24 hours. ..dark to light! "
Trump supporters arrive on January 6th for the “Stop the Steal” rally. Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Women have been central to organizing pro-Trump events that spread the false claim that the election was stolen. Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Despite the involvement of Babbitt and others, there has been a tendency to view the insurrection as largely male-dominated – and indeed to eradicate the presence of women in white supremacy throughout history. "From colonial times to the present, there has been a tendency to view and position white women as eternal victims despite evidence to the contrary," said Jones-Rogers.
However, ignoring the fact that women have long been perpetrators of white supremacy – to the point of violence – will hamper any effort to truly combat it. "If we ignore these women and the often violent and brutal roles these women play," said Jones-Rogers, "we are neglecting and negating the impact of their activities on their victims."
In contrast, if we as a society can count on the fact that white women were not only beneficiaries but also designers of the system of white supremacy, we will be better able to “dismantle the system and tackle the future of the system has really permeated our entire lives. "
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