Women and the Far-Right

Many of the infamous images of insurrection from January 6th feature men — Podium Guy Adam Johnston, Viking Guy Jake Angeli, and the man with his feet propped up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk (Richard Barnett) all come to mind as the obvious examples. Yet there were also plenty of women there that day. How should we understand them and their support?

There was Gina Bisignano, who, to quote HuffPost reporter Ryan Reilly, “stormed the Capitol in a Louis Vuitton sweater.” There was Dawn Bancroft and Diana Santos-Smith, who as NBC News reported, were arrested in connection with a video in which they claimed to have been in search of Pelosi in order “to shoot her in the friggin’ brain.” Ashli Babbitt, the first reported casualty of the day, was a virulent QAnon conspiracy theorist, the New York Times reported

Following the 2020 U.S. election, a New York Times exit poll found that 55 per cent of white women voters cast their ballots for Trump, compared to 44 per cent for Biden. While there is plenty of discourse back and forth over what exactly to make of that number, and semantic debates about its accuracy, there is a simpler truth that the number tells us: the alt-right appeals to white women, and not just a few of them. 

And this appeal is far from new — there is consistent and repeated historical precedence for the participation of women in fascist and far-right movements, despite these being causes that, some would argue, are detrimental to their interests. And yet, as we again find ourselves witnessing more and more women flock to the far-right, the thought pieces inevitably crop up. Why, we ask, why are women drawn to these movements? Surely it must be an anomaly, or the result of some perfect circumstantial storm. Yet in doing so, we undermine not only the autonomy of women, but also their culpability for these actions.

As historians Sofía Rodríguez López and Antonio Cazorla Sánchez note, in seeking to understand the motives of women, too often that understanding relegates women to “merely supportive roles,” when the reality is that women were active and enthusiastic contributors to their causes. And those causes, as López and Sánchez explain, included active and enthusiastic support of fascist regimes such as in Francoist Spain. 

And yet while there are documented instances of this participation, López and Sánchez argue that these remain understudied. This is in large part due to the fact that the study of ordinary conservative women tends to exist in opposition to the values of gender-focussed historians. While the actions of women in leadership may be reviled, they can still be understood as some form of feminism.

Analogous to today might be someone like Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. While not a fascist, Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the highest court in the U.S. sparked many discussions about the dichotomy she embodies. She is only the fifth woman to serve on the court, out of the 114 justices in U.S. history, and yet for many women, she represents a powerful threat to the rights of women, particularly around reproductive rights. But a degree of understanding is extended to her because, despite all of that, she is still a woman seizing power in a male-dominated arena; there’s an air of feminism to it.

Yet as the historian of Nazi Germany, Claudia Koonz, showed us in her book, Mothers of the Fatherland, ordinary women were both drawn to and complicit in fascism. 

Feminist scholar Catharine R. Simpson writes that although “many societies deprive women of power over themselves, women still have power to exercise. Women, though Other to men, have their Others too.” She calls to mind the ownership of Black slaves, both men and women, by white women in the U.S., as well as Koonz’ point that women in Nazi Germany did participate in genocide, both actively and passively.

Italian historian Daniella Rossini describes how, in Italy from 1911 to 1912, there was a marked shift within the Italian feminist movement to more closely align themselves with Italian nationalism, throwing their support behind the colonization of Libya. Rossini argues that the war, and the promise of a new Italy, strengthened those bonds, and soon Italian women found themselves part of a regime which in turn sought to stifle them.

Yet the stories of these women seem to continually confound us because they seem to reject every understanding within women’s and gender history. If, as they say, we have reached a point in historical scholarship where woman-centred narratives are being sought out and told, it is often under the assumption that these narratives in some way tie back to the fight for women’s liberation. But women and their history deserve more nuance, and frankly more accountability than that.

In shifting focus to the present day, many have theorized what appeal 21st century iterations of the far-right hold for women, and notably white women. Annie Kelly argued that QAnon held a natural appeal for mothers, given the rhetoric within QAnon advocating “Freedom for the Children.” In the Guardian, Angelique Chrisafis, Kate Connolly, and Angela Giuffrida found that these allegiances are attributable to financial hardship, which disproportionately affects women, and populist messaging warning feminists that immigration will result in a women’s rights backslide.

But what is certain is that it is not a new phenomenon, and when seeking to ascertain motive and understanding, we should be reminded of the wide range of experiences and circumstances which have historically brought women into the fold of the far right.