In many ways, Alya Stewart’s motherhood led her to the white-supremacy movement. When Stewart had her first child in 2003, she was a pro-gay-rights feminist in her early 20s who followed a vegan diet and studied midwifery, according to a new book called Sisters in Hate. But after getting her master’s degree in women’s spirituality, her politics began to shift. Journalist Seyward Darby writes about how Stewart converted to Mormonism, had more kids, and began posting about how men should be the dominant breadwinners and women should focus on family life. When feminists criticized her philosophy, she decided stay-at-home mothers weren’t welcome in the women’s rights movement and that it demonized white men, like her husband.
She gravitated toward the alt-right corners of the internet — places that embraced her increasingly traditional lifestyle. And by 2017, her blog and YouTube channel interspersed spelt cookie recipes and and videos of her kids in the garden with racist screeds about the refugee crisis and musings on how good mothers should dress modestly, speak softly, and avoid “urban accents.” But she didn’t want to be labeled a white supremacist, and Stewart used motherhood to obscure her racist beliefs.
“In proudly showing off her life, Ayla demanded to know one thing,” writes Darby, “if all she wanted was safety, prosperity, and health for her family and nation, how could she be considered hateful?”
Sisters in Hate tells the story of Stewart and two other women who were at some point involved in racist hate groups: Corinna Olsen, a former neo-Nazi who disavowed the movement and converted to Islam, and Lana Lokteff, a prominent white supremacist whose online TV and radio shows were banned from YouTube in 2019. Darby writes about how each character was drawn to white supremacy for different reasons — a sense of belonging (Olsen), creed (Stewart), power (Lokteff) — and she intersperses their stories with historical and psychological context to explain why women have always been a valuable part of American hate movements.
The Cut spoke with Darby, a self-described feminist from the South, about how femininity and motherhood are some of the far right’s greatest weapons.
You lay out ample evidence that white women are a key demographic in hate movements. Why is white nationalism most often associated with men?
To be fair, men are often the group leaders and certainly the people committing violence. And so I completely understand why you would want to focus on those very visible and often very harmful manifestations of hate. But while women might not be the ones leading conferences, they are helping build the infrastructure of these movements.
Women have been deeply instrumental in everything from the KKK to the Nazis to the resistance of civil rights. And yet they have been repeatedly written out of the history of bigotry. I think there’s a benevolent sexism there, where people make assumptions about women having an inherent goodness, or an inherent fragility or vulnerability, and assume they couldn’t possibly be the bad actors. There was this myth after World War II of the apolitical German woman who was trapped in the country and had to go along with the Holocaust. Women who were seen as meek and matronly and feminine quite literally got away with murder. At the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, we saw a lot of images of white men in white polo shirts, but behind the scenes, a woman was kind of the chief organizer online. You could argue that work is just as important as walking up to the front line, carrying a tiki torch.
Why are women so valuable to white nationalism? Lokteff, one of the women in your book, said “When women get involved a movement becomes a serious threat” and “A soft woman saying hard things can create repercussions throughout society.” What does she mean?
There are a couple of layers to that. The most basic biological one is that white nationalism is a deeply pro-natal movement. The whole narrative is that white America is under threat and you should have as many white children as you can. Nazis gave women medals based on how many children they had. (Stewart became notorious in mainstream media after tweeting about a “white baby challenge.”) But the much more outward facing layer is that women are seen as bridges who can communicate with the mainstream. There are some who say the vilest things imaginable. But there are a lot who say, “We just want to love our heritage. We just want to love our children. Look at me, I’m just a nice white woman trying to live her life. What could be so bad about that?”
And you describe in the book how motherhood and children are weaponized. For example, in one online post, Stewart included an image of her toddler-age daughter wearing a frog costume — an homage to Pepe the Frog, who has become an alt-right mascot. Can you say more about how this works?
Women like Ayla who really showcase their children are ready-made for the Instagram era in a way. It’s like, “Here’s what we made for dinner, here are my children raking the yard. Look at my blissful life.” I think they’re daring critics of white nationalism to say something critical so they can retort: “Are you saying that my children are dangerous little Hitlers in the making?”
There’s an obvious pernicious PR slant to showing off how “normal” they are. There’s some people that are going to be kind of seduced by that idea and think, “You haven’t said any racial slurs, you haven’t promoted violence. This can’t possibly be bad!” When it’s convenient to them, these women wear their motherhood status as a shield. They’re saying, “It’s not that I hate Black people, I just want the best for my own children. So I want to live in an all-white community or homeschool my kids.” It’s manipulative.
It’s also an incredibly effective recruitment tactic.
The women in these movements are appealing to other white women who might have the same kind of thoughts, impulses, and instincts. I’m sure you know women who would probably say “I would send my kids to public schools if the public schools were better.” From there, the conversation can become more racially overt, right?
I wanted to find these points of familiarity where the things that women were saying and doing on the far right actually sounded a lot like people I know. There’s a tendency to think of white nationalists as crazy or to other them. But plenty of people who are educated and financially comfortable can find a place in this space. And women are very important in drawing new believers in.
The way women draw in new members is often less aggressive than men. You write about how they might invite someone over for wine, or use community picnics and Bible studies groups as scouting grounds.
A sociologist named Kathleen Blee wrote about how when it comes to radicalization, she’s most worried about spaces that might not seem vulnerable or risky in some way. So, for example, communities around anti-vaccination or homeschooling, where people come together around some shared beliefs usually having to do with autonomy of an individual or family that, if taken to the extreme, can lead to a way of seeing the world that’s racist and exclusive.
As a parent, there are a number of spaces where you’re going to be talking about the well-being of your children. That is of course a natural impulse and good parenting. But a good parent should also be thinking about the ways in which their desire to protect their children can lead to things like opportunity hoarding, or a kind of exclusionary way of seeing people who are not like you.
Can you talk about the relationship between “tradlife” — short for the traditional lifestyle of wifely submissiveness — and the white-supremacist movement?
I think that women in this space kind of go back to the idea of motherhood as cherished and unassailable. White-nationalist women are saying motherhood doesn’t have to be sullied by the muck of feminism, the workplace, and multiculturalism. You can just focus on being a cherished, hardworking, domestic goddess. In the white-nationalist movement, children, just like women, are kind of supposed to inspire this instinct to protect by all means necessary. It’s very much playing on this idea that they are the most vulnerable to social upheaval.
This kind of thinking sounds similar to arguments Phyllis Schlafly and other conservative women used to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the ’70s.
There’s a lot of similarity. Schlafly defined privilege as being a wife and a mother. She felt threatened by people with less privilege gaining power, and wanted to fend off forces like feminism, which was deeply tied up in the civil-rights movement. The racism of her campaign was less overt but the coded language of the campaign was to say, “We don’t want to disrupt the order of things.”
Similarly, in today’s hate movements, women talk about fighting for the status quo and have this nostalgic idea of what it means to be a housewife. But the difference is they don’t want to be seen as the stodgy Phyllis Schlafly’s restoring the world to this Rockwellian idea of America. They consider themselves rebels and countercultural because they define the mainstream as feminist and multicultural. There’s definitely a cognitive dissonance there.
Your book has been published at a time when police brutality against Black people has spurred mass protests and a focus on anti-racism. What value is there to learning about white women’s roles in a hateful movement?
I hope that the book shows how there is a spectrum of bigotry that even women who are liberals and feminists fall into. I’m also a pretty pessimistic person, so while people are talking about race in a constructive way and there’s the potential for profound change, I also think there will be a backlash. The far right is already using the Black Lives Matter movement as a way to appeal to white people’s fears and grievances about a changing future. I think white nationalists definitely see an opening to recruit white women who feel like “I was told ‘You’re the oppressor’ and I couldn’t handle that.”
We should be attentive to the ways in which people on the alt-right see potential for their tentacles to touch somebody. Where is this happening? Can we see who’s vulnerable to it? History shows that moments of upheaval and change inspire hope but can also inspire some people to feel hate.