Gender and Right-Wing Extremism in America: Why Understanding Women’s Roles is Key to Preventing Future Acts of Domestic Terrorism
Mounting evidence from the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol shows that women are playing a key and sometimes violent role in the right-wing extremist movement. Yet the failure of U.S. law enforcement to understand gender dynamics within these groups, and how women are radicalized in ways that might be different from men, makes the United States vulnerable to further violence. Based on our experiences in government, we are concerned about the lack of focus on women in the growing domestic right-wing extremist movement. The Biden administration has an opportunity and responsibility to ensure that, as it continues its 100-day review of the domestic violent extremism threat, the role of gender is incorporated into law enforcement’s analysis of the events of Jan. 6 and in all future efforts to prevent and respond to further incidents of domestic terrorism.
Women Play Unique and Active Roles in Extremist Groups…
The Jan. 6 insurrectionists represented a diverse array of groups and interests, including organized white supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups, anti-government militias, and thousands of unaligned individuals who had been radicalized online in loosely organized communities like Q-Anon and “Stop the Steal.” Women are actively engaged across this spectrum. Research by sociologists such as Mehr Latif and Kathleen Blee details a number of roles that are specifically designated for women in white supremacist groups, including “mothering” the group (in both the literal and figurative sense), providing sexual gratification to male members, and participating in violence themselves.
Researchers and journalists have also documented women’s outsized influence in propagating Q-Anon conspiracy theories online, as well as participating in acts of violence inspired by the group long before the attempts to overthrow the U.S. Capitol. These social media “influencers” distribute propaganda and recruit new members to extremist causes, often using their participation in other fora like “mom groups” or lifestyle blogs to reach people who might not otherwise be exposed to political or extremist rhetoric. At the same time, two of the most prominent figures normalizing right-wing extremist ideas and conspiracies in our political rhetoric are women: U.S. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.
As the intelligence and law enforcement communities continue to identify and arrest the Jan. 6 rioters, more stories are emerging of women’s direct role in the violence. Rachel Powell (aka the “Pink Hat Lady” or “Bullhorn Lady”) smashed a window of the Capitol with a pipe and yelled instructions to other insurrectionists through a bullhorn. An FBI raid of her home and car found numerous “go bags” loaded with ammunition for her registered AK-47, shooting targets with written slogans like “guns don’t kill people, I do,” throwing stars, knives, lighters, zip ties, duct tape, rope, and a tarp. Two other Pennsylvania women, Dawn Bancroft and Diana Santos-Smith, were arrested and charged after the FBI investigated a selfie video taken by Bancroft of the two inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, claiming they were there “looking” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “to shoot her in the friggin’ brain.”
…Yet are Often Dismissed by Law Enforcement
Despite all of this, law enforcement officials seem to be paying little attention to the unique role of women in advancing right-wing extremist ideas and violence. So far, just over 10 percent of federal charges related to the Capitol siege have been brought against women. These officials also seem to be showing little desire to appreciate how women’s path to domestic terrorism might be different than that of men. For example, when asked specifically about how someone like Rachel Powell ends up “on the other end of a battering ram trying to knock down a window of the U.S. Capitol?” former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said: “They end up there in the same way that an unemployed recent high school graduate Somali immigrant in Minneapolis winds up getting on a plane and flying to Africa and strapping a bomb on his chest and blowing it up outside a police station. It’s the same process of radicalization.”
While more research is needed regarding ideological and gendered differences in radicalization, there is at least preliminary evidence that the motivation and process of radicalization likely does look quite different for a 40-year-old American-born mother of eight than for a disaffected and isolated 18-year-old boy who may feel like he has nothing to live for in the United States. For example, some of the women who have committed acts of violence in the name of Q-Anon have explicitly said they were motivated by a desire to protect children from supposed pedophiles. Research on why women join international terrorist groups suggests that they perceive participating in terrorism as a way to acquire rights and status, especially in societies in which they are otherwise denied equal treatment.
While law enforcement officials have failed to recognize women’s unique experiences with and involvement in right-wing extremist groups, the criminal justice system has taken a distinctly lenient approach to women who promote and commit such violence. For example, a number of the women arrested in connection to the Jan. 6 insurrection seem to be getting a “pass” from law enforcement and judicial officials in the form of minimal charges and favorable bail and pre-trial release conditions. This is undoubtedly a reflection of intersecting white privilege and gender biases that do not take white women’s capacity for violence seriously. Again, consider the case of Rachel Powell who, despite the knives, ammunition, and kidnapping supplies the FBI recovered from her home, was released on bail by a judge who claimed she needed to care for her children. Or Jenny Cudd, the Texas woman arrested for her role in the Capitol insurrection who was subsequently allowed by a judge to travel to Mexico on a pre-planned vacation.
Beyond Jan. 6: U.S. Counterterrorism Policies Must Take Women More Seriously
The United States has been countering violent extremism (CVE) for nearly two decades, though for much of that time, U.S. energies have been focused overseas on confronting jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Throughout this struggle, U.S. intelligence and policy officials too often ignored or underplayed women’s unique roles in these groups, perhaps estimating that they represented too small a portion of violent jihadists to be worthy of law enforcement attention. This is despite the work done by the international community to recognize that understanding women’s roles in terrorist groups is critical to defeating them as well as attempts by the U.S. Congress, namely the Women and Countering Violent Extremism Act of 2019, to “ensure that the United States recognizes women’s varied roles in all aspects of violent extremism and terrorism and promotes their meaningful participation as full partners in all efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism and terrorism, and for other purposes.”
In our view, this was a miscalculation that hindered U.S. CVE efforts abroad and one the U.S. seems to be on the verge of repeating at home. Indeed, less than a month before the attack on the Capitol, Farah Pandith, the Obama Administration’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and terrorism scholar Mia Bloom sounded the alarm about “the growing role of women in extremist groups,” both at home and abroad, and the fact that “we refuse to treat female terrorists with the same seriousness and concern with which we treat men.”
Today, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assess that white supremacists pose the most persistent and lethal terrorist threat in the United States. In late January, DHS warned that domestic violent extremists may be emboldened by the siege on the Capitol to carry out future attacks against government buildings or personnel. As federal, state, and local governments focus more attention and resources on confronting domestic extremism, they must consider gendered dimensions within these groups. If there are gender differences in the way women in these movements are radicalized and inspired to commit violence, or unique ways in which women are able to spread violent ideologies and inspire new members to commit violent acts, the United States will not be successful in addressing radicalization and preventing violence without understanding those differences and tailoring policy and programming interventions accordingly.
Therefore, we recommend the Biden administration take the following steps to advance inclusive policies to confront right-wing extremist violence in the United States:
- Ensure the intelligence community (IC) has adequate expertise and resources to examine gender issues within extremist groups. The IC provides critical information and support to policymakers regarding terrorism and extremism. Yet, in our experience, the IC is under resourced when it comes to gender expertise. Designating officials whose sole job is to understand women’s role in propagating right-wing extremism and perpetrating violence in its name would help ensure the IC fully appreciates gendered differences in pushing people to violence and, in turn, that policymakers take these dynamics into account when developing policies to counter violent extremism.
- Develop a channel for consultations with researchers/outside experts. While the government has downplayed or ignored gender differences in extremist groups, researchers have explored these issues for decades. The FBI and DHS should establish a working group on women and right-wing extremism, to bring together outside experts in academia and the advocacy community who can share their expertise on these issues. The S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, a network of civil society organizations with expertise on the impacts of conflict on women and their participation in peacebuilding is one possible model.
- Support initiatives specifically aimed at preventing and disengaging women involved in extremist movements. Such efforts should involve community-based organizations and create an “off ramp” by which people who have been radicalized are able to change their perspectives before committing violent acts. As with radicalization, deradicalization and disengagement will likely be different for women than men and understanding those differences will be key to addressing them. The administration should ensure that these initiatives are not “gender blind,” and it should support at least some programs that are geared specifically towards disengaging women and addressing considerations, such as gender-based violence, that may make it harder for women in particular to leave radical groups. DHS should revitalize its task force on countering violent extremism in the United States and include in that reactivation a pledge from all members to utilize and promote gendered approaches. In addition, the next round of DHS’s Targeted Violence and Terrorism Violence Grant Program could include a specific line of effort around applying a gender lens to preventing and responding to domestic terrorism.
- Invest in training for law enforcement and judicial personnel. These officials should receive training on implicit bias and the role of women in extremist movements to prevent the discounting of women’s violent actions in the course of domestic terrorism when making decisions related to investigations, arrest, charging, pre-trial detention, and sentencing. The Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point has documented that “terrorism-related offenders who are women are less likely to be arrested, less likely to be convicted, and receive more lenient sentences compared to men.” If law enforcement and judicial personnel do not take active steps to reverse this practice, they create a perverse incentive for domestic terror organizations to actively recruit and deploy women as violent actors.
Our final recommendation is that the administration should not be afraid to ask for help from international partners. The United States is not alone in confronting right-wing extremism. The U.N. Security Council’s Counterterrorism Committee noted in April 2020 that Member States had experienced a 320 percent rise in right-wing terrorism since 2015. In remarks at his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the need for the United States to show humility in its global leadership, because “we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad,” and because “not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone.” This should include learning lessons from and, more broadly, collaborating with global partners to understand and address women’s unique role in right-wing terrorism.
Domestic Terrorism, Gender, Gender and security, January 6 2021, right-wing extremism, white nationalism, white supremacist terrorism, white supremacy, Women
About the Author(s)
Julia M. Santucci is senior lecturer in intelligence studies and Director of the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership and the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). She is also an affiliate scholar of the University’s Institute of Cyber Law, Policy, and Security.
Regina Waugh is Special Projects Director at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. She served as the National Security Council Director for Human Rights and Gender and Chief of Staff in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department during the Obama Administration.
Hallie Schneir Ross is a Senior Advisor in Strategic Initiatives at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. She served as Deputy Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls during the Obama Administration.
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