The Secret Weapons of the Far Right
White supremacists talk a lot about differences—they draw lines not just between racial groups, but also among their own. Racist internet trolls insist they’re not the same as the Ku Klux Klan because they don’t don hoods or burn crosses; clean-cut college kids who call themselves “identitarians” point out that, unlike skinheads, they’re not inked with swastika tattoos; Southerners who defend Confederate heritage say they have nothing in common with mass murderers like Dylann Roof; anti-Semitic nationalists dismiss anti-immigration activists who are Jewish. Whatever the shallow truth of such distinctions, they serve only to obscure what unites various far-right factions: a commitment to preserving the political power of whiteness. And central to that commitment are women.
“Den mother,” League of the South
This neo-Confederate group, founded in 1994, is a strong proponent of ideas such as Southern secession and the founding of a country run by an “Anglo-Celtic” theocratic Christian elite. This portrait was made in 2017, at the group’s annual convention at its headquarters in Wetumpka, Alabama, where David Duke gave the keynote address. (Several participants in this project requested that they be identified only by their first names.)
In April 2017, photographer Glenna Gordon set out to document the women of America’s emboldened Far Right. She was dismayed by the way journalists frequently depicted white supremacy as exclusive to angry white men who share racist memes and brawl with members of antifa on the streets. Women, she understood, are also crucial to the cause—as aspirational symbols, as bridges to the mainstream, and as literal vessels (that is, wombs) for white America’s future. (Many in the far right believe a white genocide is happening, right now, in plain sight, and that having more children is necessary to halt demographic destruction.)
On her website, Stewart promotes #tradlife—traditionalist homemaking and white culture—and the “white baby challenge,” in which she encourages “white people to have children to combat demographic decline.” She poses here for a portrait at a public park in Tennessee with her six children.
Traveling across the country for more than a year, Gordon met with dozens of women aligned with the Far Right and found that, no matter their background or affiliation, they shared a similar worldview. “They’re all worried about their future white children and their integrity as a race,” Gordon tells me as we scroll through arresting images of Klanswomen, female YouTube stars, and militia leaders’ wives. “They code racism in the language of family values, and preserving culture, and serving their community.”
Women have served similar functions in racist organizing dating back more than 150 years. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), incorporated in 1919, was responsible for the installation of public monuments across the South honoring men who fought to preserve slavery; the UDC also established state textbook commissions to ensure that children in public schools learned a version of history that celebrated the Confederate “Lost Cause,” and which downplayed the role of slavery in the Civil War. One UDC-approved book from 1895 describes the KKK as necessary “for self-protection against … outrages committed by misguided negroes”—an echo of the Klan’s own founding document, which deems it “an institution of chivalry” protecting white women from black men, a mission celebrated in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation and made gruesomely evident in the lynchings of hundreds of black men accused of assaulting white women.
Far Right provocateur
A former employee of Project Veritas, a conservative organization that stages public confrontations, Loomer disrupted a 2017 production of Julius Caesar in Central Park—which had a Trump-like protagonist—by rushing the stage and shouting, “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right!” In November 2017 she was banned from Uber for posting an anti-Muslim tirade about the ride-sharing service on Twitter. Loomer is unusual on the extreme right because she is Jewish, making her the target of anti-Semitic trolls. Here, Loomer rests after receiving surgery for a nose job.
When the Klan resurged nationwide in the 1920s, its most powerful propagandist was a woman named Elizabeth “Bessie” Tyler, who was the owner of the Searchlight, a Klan newspaper, and an organizer of thousands of recruiters for the group. Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, many Southern women—and not just Klan supporters—became vital grassroots campaigners against progressive policies like school integration. As historian Elizabeth Gillespie McRrae writes in the 2018 book Mothers of Massive Resistance, a history of women and white supremacy, “Homes were early sites where racial lines were policed, and schools functioned as extensions of that domestic space. … [S]egregated schools were necessary to reinforce the lessons taught in white homes about racial distance.” More recently, in the last quarter of the 20th century, as gains from the civil rights movement and liberalizing culture advanced a halcyon vision of a post-racial America, organized hate was forced to the fringes of society and politics. Adherents formed militias, compounds, and churches, and women became the glue that held these networks together, hosting social events, educating children about the cause, and supporting men imprisoned for racist violence.
Far Right activist and media personality
Southern has nearly 400,000 followers on Twitter, 650,000 followers on YouTube, and 164,000 followers on Instagram. Since posting her first videos on YouTube in 2015, in which she “challenged feminists on the street about culture wars,” she has made videos about and the migrant crisis in Europe and “white genocide” in South Africa, a conspiracy theory that was picked up by Tucker Carlson on Fox News and led President Trump to tweet about the subject on August 22, 2018.
Revitalized by a US president who validates their talking points, and boosted by the distribution mechanisms of the internet, Far Right ideologies are once again ascendant. How and why women have come to participate and, in some cases, gain prominence in the movement are complex questions. Some of the subjects Gordon spoke to have been in the movement their whole lives, just like their parents before them. Others jumped on the bandwagon more recently, thanks to propaganda spread by social media and alternative outlets like Breitbart, InfoWars, and the Daily Stormer about threats posed to white well-being by immigration, multiculturalism, and feminism. Still others are drawn by the promises of a movement that imbues their femininity with enormous power: they are told that, simply by being white, female, attractive, and fertile, they will be valuable beyond measure to a renegade but righteous cause. “They want more than life is offering,” Gordon says of this cohort. “They get the opportunity to feel important, to feel like they’re on the brink of change, to feel counterculture.”
President of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA)
CERA, described as an “anti-Indian movement” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, espouses the belief that the federal government is usurping citizens’ rights through tribal treaties and land grabs. Willman, shown here second from the right, in black, insists she is not anti-Indian—her mother and grandmother were enrolled members of the Cherokee tribe—and she decorates her Ronan, Montana, home with Native American art. “My own opinion is that tribal governments have outlived their usefulness,” she told the Missoulian newspaper in 2015, and in an interview with the photographer, she complained about schools putting up pictures of native Americans rather than pioneers and pilgrims. Here, Willman gathers a group of friends, neighbors, and activists to discuss “our changing nation.”
Once in the fold, women are potent disseminators of racist ideology, palatable voices who provide the Far Right with a thin, dangerous veneer of feminine domesticity and normalcy. Gordon met women who send invites and cook meals for Klan gatherings. She met savvy pro-white pundits leveraging their intelligence and good looks—the “plastic ideal of Aryan beauty,” as she puts it—to gain massive online followings on Twitter and YouTube. She met women who are Jewish and Latina, but who promote assimilation into white, Western culture as a way, they argue, to keep America strong. She met mothers with broods of children who claim they’re just doing their part to keep their race’s birth rate up. What’s so bad about being white and a mother? they want to know. Nothing, of course, except when those signifiers conveniently cloak bigotry.
Member of the Order of the Confederate Rose
The Order describes itself as promoting the “honorable memory of the Confederate soldiers, Southern Symbols, true history, and true Southern Heritage.” Here, Bradley poses as a Confederate widow (known as a “Black Rose”) next to a wreath laid in a Confederate cemetery in Raymond, Mississippi. “It’s not that I want to forget [slavery],” Bradley says. “It’s not that I try to pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t. It happened, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The women Gordon encountered seem to know their power and their place, both in the movement and in relation to the men in their lives. In submitting to white patriarchy—whether they call it that or not—the women are doing their part to preserve the politics of whiteness and with it their own privilege, which they believe is their birthright. (“Our only tenet, and our only request is that we be left alone to pursue our right to stay white and pure as we believe God intended,” wrote Amanda Barker, Imperial Kommander of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in 2017.)
The politics of whiteness, Gordon notes, have always been and always will be politics of exclusion, no matter who dresses them up or how. “The rhetoric they invoke, whether it’s about land rights or free speech, serves to deflect from a fundamental devaluation of others vis-à-vis their own place in this world,” Gordon explains. “They insist that ‘separate’ just means ‘separate,’ but that is never, ever true.”
Imperial Kommander, Ku Klux Klan
Barker married her high school sweetheart, Chris Barker, an Imperial Wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and is an active organizer for the group based in Pelham, North Carolina, which is one of the most active chapters of the Ku Klux Klan in the country. She helps with recruitment for the chapter, put together events for women in the group, makes the ceremonial robes, and also organizes the large picnic and potluck that takes place before cross “lightings” several times a year.
This project is supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The New School Faculty Research Fund.