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The women fighting for white male supremacy

Vox.com logo Vox.com 9/23/2017 Nicole Hemmer
© Provided by Vox.com

“It was women that got Trump elected,” Lana Lokteff, one of the most prominent women in the American alt-right, told an audience earlier this year at an “ideas” conference in Stockholm. White women, she means, but when Lokteff — whose pale skin, long blonde hair, and light blue eyes help make her a living embodiment of the Aryan ideal — speaks about politics, the “white” is generally assumed. “And, I guess,” Lokteff continued, “to be really edgy, it was women that got Hitler elected.”

Hitler wasn’t really elected (he lost his race for the presidency and was appointed to the role of chancellor), but facts are fungible for Lokteff. And besides, it was the frisson of name-checking Hitler that counted for the audience.

In the corner of the world Lokteff inhabits, Hitler references are far less controversial than praise for female political power; women tend to be either overlooked or actively dismissed. But then, Lokteff is an unconventional figure: She hosts a white nationalist radio program, Radio 3Fourteen, part of the Red Ice media conglomerate that she runs with her husband Henrik Palmgren, a Swedish national. (Palmgren is media director for Richard Spencer’s fledgling AltRight Corporation, described as a “more ideological” — read: more overtly white nationalist — Breitbart.)

Despite her fervent commitment to advancing the interests of the white race, however, Lokteff faces a problem. Like many far-right movements throughout American history, the alt-right movement is as rooted as much in ideas of male superiority as it is white supremacy. The white nationalist side gets more attention, but men’s rights activism has been equally important to the movement. Women who are eager to be race warriors are seen by the white men who dominate the alt-right as, at best, subordinate partners, and, at worst, as part of the problem — yet another threat to white male power.

It is a double bind that has faced women of the far right for generations: To defend white supremacy, they must appeal to the values of tradition and hierarchy that structure racist politics. Yet gender hierarchy is also a potent part of that political tradition.

The parallels with the women who supported the Ku Klux Klan

A similar challenge confronted women white supremacists in the 1920s, a decade when feminism and white nationalism were both on the march. The popular images of the era are of women set loose from Victorian restrictions: the flapper dancing and smoking and rouging her knees, the suffragist glorying in her newfound enfranchisement, the New Woman entering government and the arts and the professions.

But women’s political ambition stirred in darker corners, too. In 1923, activists formed the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK), organizing to restrict the rights of Jews, African Americans, and Catholics.

Women were hardly new to the world of organized hate, nor to the Klan itself, although the first Klan, formed in the years after the Civil War, was a strictly male organization. The original Klan operated through intimidation and vigilante violence. White women supported such actions mainly as spectators and behind-the-scenes supporters — and also as highly symbolic supposed victims of the depravities of the lower orders.

Black men whom the Klan lynched were often falsely accused of raping white women, but such lynchings were also a way of policing white women’s behavior, reminding them of the dire consequences of crossing the color line.

In photos capturing the grotesque scenes of lynchings, where white crowds numbering in the hundreds gathered to witness the murders, white women feature prominently among the smiling faces, more often than not with children in tow. They were introducing their offspring to the rituals of violent white nationalism.

While white women couldn’t don the hood or burn the cross in the 19th-century Klan, they found other white supremacist and nativist organizations to join, groups like Ladies of the Invisible Empire, Hooded Ladies of the Mystic Den, and the Order of American Women.

It took the rise of the second Klan — the one founded by William Simmons in 1915, in response to the release of the Klan-friendly film The Birth of the Nation and a rising nativism in the United States — to create a formal space for women. The new Klan was markedly different from its predecessor. Members of the 1920s Klan joined to protect the white race (although, as historian Kathleen Blee points out, they often publicly rejected the notion that the Klan was “anti-anything or anti-anybody,” but instead simply wanted “a stronger America.”) Members of the new Klan also engaged in serious vigilante violence.

But unlike the Reconstruction-era Klan, the 1920s Klan was a civic organization that held parades and picnics. Numbering in the millions and stretching from Oregon to Indiana to New York, its members ran openly for public office, and voted as (and for) members of the Klan. Given that women had newly been enfranchised, those electoral ambitions meant the Klan had to change. And so in 1923, the women formed, and the men embraced, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK).

Women would not penetrate the upper echelons of the Klan — no Grand Wizard titles for them — but they would be active members, donning the white robes and hoods and canvassing for Klan candidates. The women of the Klan even engaged in acts of violence, reveling — if rarely — in the vigilante bloodlust normally reserved for men.

In Athens, Georgia, women Klan members organized a flogging of an errant husband as part of policing their neighborhood. Mamie Bittner of Pennsylvania recalled marching in a parade of thousands of Klanswomen who carried threatening clubs. Klanswomen also called on the men of the Klan to enact violence on specific people; the Georgia Realm of the Klan, a men’s group, received upwards of 20 letters a week from women suggesting possible targets.

A woman helped run PR for the Klan in the 1920s, testing gender boundaries

Though the men of the Klan tended to view the WKKK, condescendingly, as an “auxiliary” group, like the Junior Klan groups for teenagers, many women in the Klan viewed their participation in the movement as a sort of liberation.

Consider Elizabeth Tyler, who worked closely with the men of the Klan to build it into a mass movement. Married at 14 and widowed at 15, Tyler spent her early 30s as part of the “better babies” movement, a scientific approach to parenthood that sat at the intersection of public health and eugenics. Through this movement she met Edward Clarke, a promoter who helped organize “better babies” festivals in the South.

Racists gather at Charlottesville, Virginia, in protest. © Provided by Vox.com Racists gather at Charlottesville, Virginia, in protest.

Together they founded the Southern Publicity Association, a for-profit company that created promotional campaigns for organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. In 1920 they offered their PR services to Simmons, founder of the modern Klan. Tyler and Clarke used novel advertising and organizational techniques to structure and sell the Klan: hiring professional promotors, creating a dues and leadership structure, and selling the Klan with the slogan “100% Americanism.” (They also violated the Klan’s pro-Prohibition, pro-morality stance when they were arrested together in 1919, in flagrante and under the influence.) Tyler was a full partner in the company’s work, making her the highest-placed woman within the Klan.

The WKKK sometimes even fought with the men’s Klan, with several local chapters of the WKKK seceding from their local male counterparts to protest men’s efforts to dominate the female branch. Such interference, the Little Rock chapter noted upon its defection, “is contrary to our principles of women, by women and for women.”

The women of the Klan were thus able to transgress traditional gender boundaries in service of upholding the Klan’s most important value: upholding traditional racial hierarchies. The women of the alt-right are navigating those same dynamics.

Largely invisible in media accounts, they nonetheless make up some 20 percent of those who claim the alt-right label. Though the images from the torchlight rally in Charlottesville focused on the men shouting “blood and soil,” there were also a few women in the horde.

Lokteff serves as the most visible avatar of these women, for at least two important reasons. Her marriage to a prominent white nationalist serves to soften her ambition, in the eyes of other men: She can be understood as a helpmeet rather than an independent woman, even as her speeches flirt with themes underscoring female power on the alt-right.

Her appearance matters, too. Men have power on the alt-right because male supremacy says they should, but women’s place has to be earned, not only through their work as race warriors but also through the way they reflect the movement’s ideal woman: white, attractive, feminine, anti-feminist. (For his part, her husband has carefully cultivated his appearance, too, adopting a quasi-Viking look.)

That last piece — anti-feminism — is key. Lokteff might preach about the power of women, but she is scathing about feminism, which has “done a lot to destroy our society, to tear up the family unit,” she has said. Men and women, she argues, are essentially different — feminism undermines “our biological roles where we function the best”— and while women can leverage their femininity to prosecute the coming race war, they can never truly be men’s equal

And yet Lokteff is carving out a career as a prominent political activist and media mogul. As she speaks of women’s power, and seeks it, she also advocates, or at least admits, their subservience.

It’s a tension the women of the Klan could not resolve, and the women of the alt-right can’t, either. They may claim power, but they can never claim equality.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Presentpodcast.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

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