APRIL 2, 2021
IN ONE OF CHINUA ACHEBE’s lesser-known short stories, “Girls at War,” an elder government official, Mr. Nwankwo, is shocked when he’s stopped at a checkpoint by Gladys, a young Nigerian woman holding an AK-47. “He simply could not sneer at the girls again, nor at the talk of revolution,” Achebe writes of the gentleman’s epiphany.
Decades later, the possibility of a woman fighting for radical political change remains largely unexpected and, when considered, deeply misunderstood. As the chasm between competing visions of the United States deepens, the specter of political violence moves away from the imagery of angry militiamen and toward a more inclusive picture of gender. How white American women have always found their way into the folds of extremist politics, particularly white nationalism, is the subject of Seyward Darby’s journalistic exposé, Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism.
At an intimate level, Darby is dedicated to revealing the everyday experiences that track alongside the evolving political identities of white nationalist women: Corinna, the unhappy child of divorce whose brother’s early death pulled her from a career as a professional embalmer closer to supremacist circles; Ayla, a New Age earth mother turned anti-feminist mouthpiece for the nationalist cause; Lana, raised in mystical Christianity, moving briefly through a teenage grunge fetish to embrace her role as an “antisemitic pundit” for the cause.
Darby also reveals a collective disconnect in the broader security-analysis-industrial complex. She documents the rigid intolerance of this subset of American women who publicly espouse beliefs considered to be extreme (evident in the author’s own discomfort) yet remain exempt from the scrutiny and surveillance that brown and black women are subject to under the United States’s draconian “countering violent extremism” policies — executed with near complete impunity toward white women.
Extremism is a designation of beliefs outside the mainstream, importantly, as determined by shared social consensus. In light of my own work over two decades with women of color who have been misunderstood, mistreated, and threatened due to the mere suspicion of extremism, I believe Darby’s engaged reporting both reinforces the uncomfortable truth that women can be extremists and raises a question we are less willing to reckon with, though it is equally anchored in structural truth: whose extremism is a threat?
As the narrative histories of her central characters unfold, Darby is careful to restrain her own condemnation, highlighting, but not disentangling, the complex and contradictory role that gender and its varied oppressions plays in their burgeoning political platforms.
The initial surprise at women’s participation in political ideologies that are coded as extremist, in the United States and abroad, speaks to a general inability to “reckon fully […] with the continuum of [women’s] consciousness, the potentialities for both creative and destructive energy,” in the words of Adrienne Rich. The gendered barrier blocking our view of women as political actors, when not explicitly organizing for women’s rights, is, in fact, cross-cultural. As Darby notes, “If a woman decides to do something, it must be feminist,” which “flattens or obscures the complex factors that curate and curtail women’s existences.”
However, the nature of the blind spot itself must be interrogated on both sides of the hemispheric divide. In her book Bombshell, behind the cover image of a blonde Barbie doll accessorized with a suicide belt, Western analyst Mia Bloom attributes the oversight to Third World patriarchy. Focusing on Dhanu — the female Tamil Tiger from the separatist movement in Sri Lanka who would eventually kill Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — Bloom offers a dismissive (and likely inaccurately translated) account of Gandhi telling her to “relax baby,” categorizing him as “like so many men” that “underestimate the lethality of a woman.”
Avoiding the trappings of the Western gaze on women in the Global South, Darby does not assign the narrow view of political actors to a cultural masculinity. Yet she does slip into a moral binary which in itself can be analytically unproductive, stating “the women-are-wonderful effect is problematic: it risks blinding people to the ways in which women can be terrible.” Where Bloom’s approach borrows from a tired trope of viewing women in non-Western communities purely through the lens of sexual liberation, Darby teeters on the edge of demarcating certain women as “bad.” In different ways, both limit the lens through which we see the complex politics of extremist women.
For those willing to pull back the curtain on the political identities of women everywhere, perspectives are almost immediately colored by entrenched racial profiles. Even the observation that extreme nationalist ideologies often act against the liberation of women is warped to fit presumed cultural conditions. Liberated white women are politicized; oppressed brown women brainwashed.
Ayla and some of the more vocal white women chronicled in the text are noted as having clumsily taken “the prevailing tenets of antifeminism and roped them together with those of white nationalism.” Visible through public podcasts and rallies, these women appealed to mothers as goddess-warriors in the home, maintaining a stance of “performing whiteness as synonymous with ‘good’ womanhood.” For these white women who consciously embrace traditionalism, a return to the overtly feminine is the only path to liberating the white race. Their stated submission to patriarchy escapes the industry of analysis on foreign recruits to extremist causes, which finds it “difficult to accept women as perpetrators and supporters of violence within organizations that subordinate women.”
Bloom, carrying a white feminist framework into her probe of female extremists abroad, is dismayed by the loss of femininity in the cadres she encounters in the Sri Lankan jungles. “Life […] was difficult. They wore shapeless fatigues. They braided their hair and tucked it tightly under a military cap. Rarely were they able to wear perfume or makeup.” What Tiger women themselves saw as a political pathway to individual and national liberation, forged through the rejection of traditional feminine roles, Bloom views more judgmentally. “In a perverse way,” she says, “the women saw this is as a form of empowerment.”
In Darby’s account, individual women are offered detailed life histories, demarcated moments of trauma, political consciousness allowed to shift over time and traced as they find clarity in the cause of white nationalism. A key starting point for understanding extremist women, established here for white women but not offered to other politicized women, is that “they aren’t being duped or forced” into anything. “They have agency, they make choices, and they locate power in places other than standard political authority.”
Marginalized women who are inclined toward uncomfortable modes of political thought are immediately categorized as a threat to the liberal world. If not an immediate concern to national security, they fall into the hands of the lucrative cross-category that Palestinian scholar-activist Lila Abu-Lughod calls “securofeminism.” Here, “remnants of the story about victims needing to be saved by the West” persist in the representation of female migrants, “vulnerable individuals lured by propaganda on the internet.”
Emerging from communities under constant surveillance, political brown women will easily be captured by the wide net cast by Homeland Security for interrogation. Only very rarely will a white woman who is brazen about her extremist intent capture the investigative attention of the state — which will offer her collaboration, not criminalization. Even in the wake of a presidency marred by dark episodes of white nationalist violence, white women extremists are not considered a serious threat to a nation’s safety. Operating inside a protective state, in unsuspecting communities across the country, each woman acts as a vector, spreading her dubious truth of a white race in peril.
My own conversations with Tamil Tiger women reveal that in a context of universal exposure to movement propaganda, the curated messaging evokes a deeper commitment in women whose own life histories have been directly affected by state violence. As one fighter explained to me of her thinking after her early training, “I understood that my dad was killed because he was Tamil, that I, too, was at risk, and that to fight back was the only way to live peacefully.”
Emphasizing that labeling the choices of the Black Panther women in the United States as “extreme” poses a very real risk to the black community, scholar-activist Kimberlé Crenshaw reminds us,
[I]t’s important to contextualize their activism with reference to the violence that they were resisting. […] [T]he framework of the Panthers began with the violence of white supremacy, virulent white supremacy, all of its multiple displacements, all of its destructions, all of its authorizing of private as well as public violence.
Perception is a powerful driver of political action but must be parsed for its disparate connections to the realities of lives inside the spectrum of racial inequality. Darby notes that the white nationalist project presents a “near-apocalyptic sense of urgency” anchored in the “truth that the world had grown hostile to white people.” In the United States, growing numbers of black and brown women, including trans and queer activists, report having to “think seriously about the protection of their own lives,” drawn to gun ownership not as an affirmation of their right to bear arms, but rather their right to simply exist.
For the brown and black women I have known who were branded “extremist,” the perception of threat to their identities — their bodies — is reinforced by the very real, persistent, daily violence spanning from militarized state forces that line their streets and infiltrate their schools to targeted aerial bombings — with resisters detained, incarcerated, disappeared, or killed. As one guerilla fighter from Colombia once asked me, “If the state comes at you with a gun, women should respond with what? Kindness? A Bible?”
Rather than the grievance of a direct threat that touched their lives, the recruits to white nationalism whom Darby profiles are more likely experiencing anxiety, or “a sense of losing control.” Abu-Lughod points out that while brown women are theorized to be drawn to extremism due to “perceived violence” these explanations don’t account for the real “political analyses of these women about wars, injuries, and super-power interventions” ignoring the “well-documented discrimination and racism” that Muslim women in particular face in Western countries.
“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground,” goes a Cheyenne proverb.
The instinct for women and men whose lives are in immediate danger is protection. For many communities at the margins, lived and inherited experiences with a violent state deepen a desire for self-determined forms of defense.
As the various tenets of American exceptionalism are systematically dismantled, one critical contradiction remains: an intolerance for violent resistance alongside the entrenched violence of a brutal state, in both domestic and foreign policy. It is inside the nation’s stated moral commitment to nonviolence that the armed brown woman is scrutinized and behind the constitutional right to bear arms that the white woman is protected.
The racial divide in the treatment of extremist women will be re-coded by some as a delineation of method: violent versus nonviolent political action. This logic, too, disintegrates quickly under any thorough test for embedded prejudice.
Though the women whom Darby chronicles do not directly engage in violence, they also do not condemn it, nor can they be assumed to represent the entirety of white nationalist women. Corinna would eventually be implicated in hiding the smoking gun that left Portland anti-racism activist Luke Querner paralyzed. Lana vacillated between defending the actions of Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof and declaring “the alt-right has NEVER killed anyone.” In an eerie foretelling of pre-inauguration capitol events, one male leader in the white supremacist movement would tell a female recruit, “In times of war, extreme measures are sometimes necessary.” Drawing from the same ideological pool, across the nation armed minute-women form militias at the Arizona border and pull firearms from their minivans in parking lot disagreements with black folks.
In American detention centers and interrogation rooms scattered across the nation and globe, women of color are villainized for a distant, often presumed, proximity to weapons that kill — many further removed than the white nationalist women who escape suspicion and prosecution. Even among armed women, most white nationalists wield their weapons as a political point — not a desperate bid for protection. As Crenshaw would tell me, “[T]he politics of a black [woman] […] buying a gun is completely different than the politics of a white woman not feeling safe and buying a gun.”
In the aftermath of the massacre of mostly black women at Mother Emanuel church, Crenshaw watched the “premature discourse of forgiveness” discourse and wondered, “[I]s anybody going to say we are under siege, […] that we have be thinking much more strategically about how to protect our lives at this moment?”
Women in the Tigers and the Black Panthers, and the increasing number of women of color purchasing arms in this country, are navigating lives caught in a relentless cycle of violence. As Sara Ahmed notes, “A history of willfulness is a history of violence. An experience of violence might lead us to a sense of things being wrong, and when we sense things being wrong we are punished by violence.”
These are the women not offered nuance: life histories and political opinions flattened to fit into categories of threat to the West. In the appeal to mythological figures that populate the white supremacist imagination, women are positioned as protectors (“The women I’ve met in this movement can be lionesses, and shield maidens, and Valkyries”) of an identity under perceived threat, not warriors in a battle for life.
In Achebe’s fictionalized Nigeria, Mr. Nwankwo had once told Gladys to return to school, that girls were unnecessary in the resistance. Seeing her rebellion, as she stood roadside with her gun, “was the day he finally believed there may be something in this talk of revolution.”
Lana and Ayla would eventually receive a virtual slap on the wrist, banned from various social media platforms with Ayla slipping into the anonymity of “political retirement,” joining the other women who lost interest, motivation, or connection to a cause that was never validated by visceral violations. Politically active women of color in Sri Lanka, Colombia, and the United States still languish in detention centers; many have been tortured. These women are not disillusioned with a movement but crushed by the state-endorsed discrimination they fought against.
Sisters in Hate offers us a critical insight into how political identities are formed in white nationalist women. It stands as both an example of a thoughtful study inclusive of women and a reminder of the role of race in extremist excavations. For me, it reinforces a hidden truth: some women’s stories are still not safe to tell.