Last Friday night, the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park all looked strikingly similar. They were almost exclusively white, of course. But they were also relatively young. And with a handful of exceptions, they were men.
The “Unite the Right” rally brought together white nationalists of all stripes, including traditional white supremacists like Neo-Nazis and the KKK, and other racist groups that have united under the banner of the new, internet-oriented “alt-right.” The rally was violent and bloody—one of the white supremacist attendees is being charged with deliberately ramming his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring more than a dozen others.
It’s hard to determine just how many women identify with the alt-right, because many of the movement’s members keep a low profile. George Hawley, author of Making Sense of the Alt-Right, estimates that 20 percent of alt-right supporters are women. But in Charlottesville, a far smaller portion of the crowd was female. All 10 speakers at the rally were men.
There has been a lot of theorizing on why the white nationalism of the alt-right is more popular among men than women. The prevailing theory is that women are turned off by its stark anti-women rhetoric. But their lack of presence at the rally shouldn’t be read as an absence of women in the white nationalist movement overall.
“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.
In this way, white-nationalist protest—and protection—has become a more traditionally masculine act in the view of its proponents. It’s more dangerous, and requires more risk, than it did 100 years ago.
The alt-right is divided on how visible—and vocal—they want women to be. On one hand, there are organizations like Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), a gender separatist group that cautions men against relationships with women, that bar women from membership. On the other, there is a growing contingent of alt-right men who encourage the women in their community to speak out and become leaders themselves.
“Many alt-right men like it when they have women who are contributing content, recording podcasts, making YouTube channels. That’s because women in this movement have an easier time amassing followers,” said Hawley.
According to Hawley, outspoken women on the alt-right are particularly effective mechanisms for recruitment. Because there aren’t many of them, a female alt-right blogger, YouTube star, or Twitter enthusiast attracts more attention than a young white man who fits the alt-right stereotype. “Women make the movement seem more normal,” Hawley said.
There are only a few alt-right women interested in claiming leadership roles within the movement. A recent Harper’s article on alt-right women described a live-streamed video chat in which Colin Robertson, a popular Scottish alt-right blogger, discussed U.S. politics, among other things, with two of the most prominent female personalities on the alt-right, Lana Lokteff and Ayla Stewart. As soon as Robertson opened the conversation up to the audience , misogynistic comments started rolling in. One viewer wrote, “These women are the same old tainted, fucked-up strong womyn,” using a spelling of “women” some feminists use to mock Lokteff and Stewart as feminists in disguise.
To fit into the movement, alt-right women must be visible in the right way. They have to prove they aren’t threatening traditional gender roles: both through what they say, and how they look. The majority of well-known, female alt-right personalities are young, attractive women.
“When women do appear in alt-right journals or online discussions, it’s as objects of attraction,” said Baker. “They need to appear as victims or passive objects of male desire.”
Above all, women on the alt-right must accept the movement’s dogma on biology: the idea that men are meant for certain roles, and women are meant for others.