“There are a lot of white women who buy into this movement, they’re just doing it in private,” said Kelly Baker, an author who specializes in gender and white extremist groups. “They’re not vocal, but they are supporters of the men in their lives who are.”
I talked to a few alt-right supporters after the Charlottesville rally. All of them gave the same explanation for the protest’s missing women: biology. There is no official alt-right platform—members are generally anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and see themselves as defenders of the white race. Most also maintain that there are certain characteristics inherent to each gender. Men are risk-takers, multiple alt-right supporters told me. Women are nurturers. Risk-takers belong at nationally televised protests. Nurturers don’t.
By and large, alt-right men don’t seem to be forcing these traditional gender roles on the women of their movement—the alt-right women are doing it themselves. The women share a profound disdain for the feminist movement, and are eager to claim the supportive, behind-the-scenes roles.
“As for female empowerment, there’s nothing that has made me feel more empowered in my life than supporting and being supported by a strong man,” Claudia Davenport, an alt-right activist, said in an interview with The Economist. “I think that men and women are better off when we stop fighting nature and allow our distinct identities to shine through.”
In our conversations, multiple alt-right supporters referred to the movement’s men as “protectors.”
“It’s not the role of women to protect the borders, the nation, or the family. So we do not expect this of women, nor do we find it strange that they are less represented in something that we view as an innately male occupation: guarding territory,” said Tara McCarthy, a female alt-right blogger.
White supremacy movements have used the language of protection since the height of the KKK in the 1920s. The KKK rallied to defend white supremacy from the forces it perceived as threatening—namely immigrants and recently enfranchised African Americans.
“The KKK made it its mission to defend the spaces it saw as its own: white women, the home, the schools, the nation. They thought, ‘This is our job as knights, protection is what we do,’” said Baker.
Unlike the alt-right, however, Klanswomen were on the front lines of the movement. There were fewer of them—at the Klan’s peak, half a million, compared to four million men—but they didn’t confine themselves to supporting roles. The vast majority wore robes, marched in parades, and participated in highly visible picnics. They were involved in the fight for female suffrage, arguing that only white women should get the vote.
So why are today’s white nationalist women less visible than the 1920s Klanswomen? Today, visibility entails significantly more risk. When the KKK marched in the early 20th century, it was powerful and influential in the South. When the white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, they knew they would face social media backlash and counter-protests across the country.