In the years following Trump’s election, the deadly Charlottesville rally, and shooting massacres such as the those in Christchurch, New Zealand, El Paso, Texas, and Poway, California, many people have tried to address a virtually unanswerable question: What is the process by which a relatively mild-mannered, disaffected young white man becomes a violent white supremacist?
While various factors have been postulated — a racist, patriarchal culture, combined with permissive attitudes toward toxic masculinity and radicalizing platforms like 4chan (and later 8kun) certainly all play a role — the question becomes even more complicated when you talk about white women (more than half of whom famously voted for Trump in November 2016). After all, one of the primary tenets of white nationalism is the biological inferiority of women. Why would a woman embrace such a worldview, let alone one that waxes nostalgic for the days when women were little more than well-coiffed breeding machines?
Writer Seyward Darby doesn’t have a definitive answer to this question, but as she points out, white women have long served as figureheads for far-right movements, from Phyllis Schlafly to National Socialist Women’s League leader Getrud Scholz-Klink. “If you think of it as women negotiating power and seeking power wherever they can find it and harness it and augment it, anti-feminism offers some women that,” Darby says. “Whether you’re talking about leading a movement or having a platform or simply being part of the conversation, I think anti-feminism can feel empowering to some women.”
Darby is the author of Sisters in Hate, a fascinating yet highly disturbing deep dive into the toxic world of female white supremacists. Based on her 2017 piece for Harper’s, the book not only tracks the history of women in the far-right, but also follows three women who were or are currently key players in the white-nationalist movement: Corinna Olsen, a bodybuilder and former amateur porn star who became a skinhead and, later, disavowed the movement and converted to Islam; Ayla Stewart, a former vegan feminist who started a tradwife blog and became best known for her “white baby challenge” that urged white women to have as many children as possible; and Lana Lokteff, a racist Holocaust denier who hosts the alt-right channel Red Ice, which was banned from YouTube in 2019.
In the context of this cultural moment — which is calling for the uplifting of marginalized voices and the smashing of white patriarchal values — the idea of a book that profiles three neo-Nazis seems something of an ill-conceived project. But Sisters in Hate doesn’t attempt to humanize these women or grant them any reprieve; it’s an unflinching and often stomach-turning look at their radicalization, as well as the gradual process by which their horrific views became part of the mainstream.
“While at no point I felt like it was important to humanize these people,” Darby tells Rolling Stone, “I did want to see them as multidimensional to understand how they became what they became and the forces they allowed to push them in that direction — and the ways in which that’s not that dissimilar to the mainstream.”
Rolling Stone: What got you interested in writing about female white supremacists in the first place?
Seyward Darby: The origin of it all was really Trump’s election and the immediate aftermath, even before, to a certain extent, the so-called alt-right, the new name for white nationalism, was in the news. People were talking about it and were sort of bewildered by it. And I was struck by how when it was described, it was almost exclusively talked about in terms of the angry white men involved. And that’s all true. It is a bastion of toxic masculinity, and white nationalism always has been, but it struck me as probably inaccurate that women wouldn’t be a part of it. It was just a simple question of, where are the women? On top of that, the exit polls for the election showed that a lot of white women had voted for Trump, and people seemed very upset and surprised by that. I wasn’t under the illusion that every woman who voted for Trump was a white nationalist, but it seemed there was something going on with white women and white femininity that we needed to interrogate.
How did you convince your subjects to talk to you? I understood why Corinna would talk, because she was long out of the movement, but how did you convince Lana and Ayla?
I decided to approach this really forthrightly. I was very honest in my initial emails to them about who I was and what I believed — for instance, that I was not going to be convinced of their worldview. But I also tried to be frank about the fact that I genuinely wanted to understand what got them to that point. I also benefited from the fact that I started this research a month after the election, when a lot of white nationalists were buoyed by Trump taking office. Lana, for instance, told me she thought the alt-right was going to become a political party, and people were moving to D.C. People were approaching the moment in an almost celebratory way. That probably helped somewhat, because they felt they had something to be proud of. As soon as my article came out in Harper’s in 2017, right before Charlottesville, after that, Lana always continued to answer questions if I sent them, sometimes cryptically, but didn’t want to engage in any more conversation. And she criticized the piece in YouTube videos, and Ayla criticized it on her personal site. I think they, for whatever reason, thought the article would be sympathetic to them, and as soon as they realized it wasn’t, they used it as an opportunity to drag it.
How did it affect your reporting for this book that two of your main subjects backed out?
I wouldn’t say they backed out exactly. They participated in the Harper’s piece, and then with the book, when I pitched it, I was pretty clear about the fact that I wasn’t sure if certain people would talk to me again or for the first time. In some ways, as a journalist, I felt I’m not getting everything I could possibly get out of this and it was sort of demoralizing to hear, “Nope, I don’t want to talk to you.” But at the same time, to me it was such a part of the story because white nationalists have always been so much about controlling their own message, controlling their own image. This was a perfect example of that, of not being interested in a narrative they couldn’t control.
On top of that, there’s been a debate in the media over how to cover this space. A lot of people think, “Don’t write about it, don’t give it oxygen, don’t give these people a platform.” I think that really misunderstands what the far right considers a platform. They have so many platforms and so many ways of reaching people on the internet, through various social networks. To not acknowledge that and not acknowledge the many ways they engage in stagecraft and propaganda is to really misunderstand how the movement functions. The other thing I will say is I got very good at digging through internet archives. Both had been digital citizens for a long time — Ayla had many blogs, Lana had various websites. I spent a lot of time combing through the internet, looking for pieces of their past lives, and I was able to speak to people who knew them in the past before they were radicalized. I felt like I was taking a lesson from historians, who dig through letters and archives to gather stories about people who are deceased. It was a similar issue of, how do I fill in the gaps?
You’re a white woman who grew up in the South. How did that play into how you approached reporting this out?
I mentioned it in my initial email to a number of these women, explaining I consider myself liberal, I consider myself a feminist, but also saying I want to understand your worldview and I feel personally connected in some ways to this because of where I come from. My family has been in the South for a long time, I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy and owned slaves. I wanted to understand the present moment in the context of the past and vice versa. I do remember Lana saying something along the lines of, “You approached me in a different way than most people do, and also you’re from the South.” She was very quick to say “it’s not because you were a woman.”
A lot of the book focuses on the misogyny of the movement and why women would join it and operate against their own interests in doing so. What’s the answer to your question, according to your reporting?
It’s such a complicated subject. I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that any woman would want to engage in anti-feminism, which is ingrained in white nationalism. That said, over time anti-feminism has often had female figureheads. Phyllis Schlafly most famously, but other people over time. I think if you think of it as women negotiating power and seeking power wherever they can find it and harness it and augment it, anti-feminism offers some women that. Whether you’re talking about leading a movement or having a platform or simply being part of the conversation, I think anti-feminism can feel empowering to some women, even though we know anti-feminism is not beneficial to women.
The other thing to think about is the ways in which anti-feminism has always been tied up with race in this country. If you look at the opposition to the ERA, a lot of white-supremacist groups were aligned with more conservative groups and religious-homemaker groups. When you think of power in the U.S., we don’t think enough in an intersectional way, but some white women saw themselves as in a hierarchy as closer to white men than anybody else. So if you think about it as negotiating power, they wanted to maintain that status, which involved almost a clarion call to white men to say, “We’re not trying to supplant you, we’re trying to keep gender relations as they are,” and that allows them to stay where they are in the power hierarchy. White nationalism as a movement, a big theme, and propaganda is about women’s intrinsic value as wives and mothers. So for women who might be seeking a sense of meaning or a degree of power they don’t have, this is a movement that says we value you in terms of how you look and who you are and what your body enables you to do, at least on its face. It’s a pro-natalist movement that encourages women to have as many babies as possible, and that can be alluring to some people.
What was the most shocking thing you witnessed in your reporting?
That is such a difficult question. Something that keeps coming up, and something that other people in reading it have remarked on, is the fact that immediately after Charlottesville and Heather Heyer’s killing, the far right started to spin conspiracy theories about her death. Some were along the lines of “James Fields is a plant planted by our enemies,” but the more horrifying one to me had to do with the idea that she had actually died because she was overweight and had a heart attack. They somehow managed to graft the conspiracy-theorizing that defines this movement with the anti-feminism, body shaming, eugenicist thread of things that runs through this movement. … To go beyond saying “the person who did this wasn’t one of our guys,” to saying “this is somehow her fault. If she were a healthier woman, or a better white woman, this wouldn’t happen to her,” I found that so deeply upsetting.
Were you able to identify any humanity in your subjects or humanize them in any way given their horrific beliefs?
A key goal of this project for me was to address the fact that when we talk about the hate movement, we’re very quick to “other” it and put this label of extremism on it, that it’s an outlier, almost. But the ideology had so clearly bled into the political conversation of 2016, and I was interested in finding points of familiarity, ways in which people who are in this movement are actually not so different than people in the mainstream, in terms of what they believe and the people they are in the world. There are lots of assumptions about people in this movement: that they’re all uneducated, or from the South, or really religious. There are so many ways we try to put them neatly in a box and push it to the side. So, while at no point I felt like it was important to humanize these people, I did want to see them as multidimensional to understand how they became what they became and the forces they allowed to push them in that direction, and the ways in which that’s not that dissimilar to the mainstream.
What was so disturbing to me is how you describe Ayla’s trajectory. She was a vegan and a feminist who gradually drifted into white nationalism. It reminded me of the phenomenon of cult-hopping, where some people jump from cult to cult. How common is that in white nationalism? How many of these women start out as seekers?
Anyone who joins the hate movement is a seeker to some degree, and maybe there are circumstances that make them particularly primed to be recruited. They’re seeking something in that moment — maybe it’s power, maybe it’s meaning, maybe it’s money because they see a potential profit in running a subscription-based platform. That seems like a common thread among people. What they’re seeking can be really different. Corinna was seeking a sense of belonging. Ayla was seeking a creed. She had cycled through so many different religious and political beliefs, and considered herself a feminist and was a big supporter of Dennis Kucinich and was anti-death penalty and pro-immigration. Lana was primarily interested in seeking power and influence. I think she’s a person who likes the spotlight and likes attention. So that notion of seeking is common … and I think that it’s important to recognize the familiar place from which they might start, because that’s where you also start thinking about how to combat this. If you start thinking about how to prosecute someone for a hate crime or how to shut down a bigoted platform or how to pull someone out of the movement, that’s a treatment for the problem, as opposed to preventing it. If you recognize where people are coming from and the ways in which that might be familiar to the mainstream, you can start thinking about mainstream.
We’re in a cultural moment where there’s a needed emphasis on elevating the voices of BIPOC. What is the argument, then, for writing a book focusing on three female white supremacists?
That’s certainly something I have grappled with, and a common criticism is, “Why are you writing this book at all?” I feel like as a country, we’ve had so much difficulty reckoning with the history of racism, and part of doing that is elevating the voices that have been forgotten or censored or subdued over time, but I think reckoning with racism means fully understanding the dimension it has taken in this country, and the people who have shaped that. If you think about the future only from the present — if you say, “From here on out, we’re gonna do better with X” — you’re not dealing with everything that’s come before, and the ways the past shapes the present. With the hate movement, especially in the post-9/11 era, people have been very wary to address it, to think of it as a national security threat, as something we really need to be dealing with. On top of that, women have been really written out of the history of hate … and they’ve really served as bridges to the mainstream because people see them as nice white ladies, and they’ve weaponized that. For me, this all comes back to the many ways in which the reckoning happens, and I’m so thrilled to see that happening now, but I also think we’re doing a disservice if we don’t look at the ugly side of things and try to understand what it is, as opposed to making assumptions about it that don’t go very far.
We have an election coming up. Do you have any insight in how this will play out in light of the reporting you’ve done?
I wish I had a crystal ball, but unfortunately I’m not that witchy. I think that, as opposed to trying to look at polls or guessing how swing states will go or how white women will vote this time, I’m not one of those people who spend their lives studying it. I think two things: Heading into it, we shouldn’t underestimate the ways white supremacists, nativists, and xenophobic voices can shift the ground pretty quickly. We’re in an unprecedented moment in terms of the pandemic and how badly it’s been handled by federal and state governments. We’ll see what that means going into the election, but in 2016 we saw Clinton leading up until she wasn’t, and we shouldn’t assume the negative forces in the country couldn’t find a way to assert themselves.
There’s also the notion of backlash. The 2008 election is a good model. We had our first ever black president and the streets just erupted with joy. And in the first year Obama was in office, there was a huge uptick online of white-supremacist propaganda and recruitment. I think in some ways, the moments where there are a lot of people who take hope in the future and how far they’ve come, there will always be backlash of some kinds. Backlash feeds on things like elections. … Let’s say Trump loses. We should be thrilled about that, but we shouldn’t assume there won’t be some kind of backlash in terms of some upswell of support for hate. That could still be coming. I’m definitely not fun at dinner parties, because I’m always the pessimist in the room.
That was sort of my takeaway: My husband watches a lot of MSNBC, and there’s a very victory-lap feel to the coverage. But the book makes clear that so many of these ideas have become so mainstream that it would be foolish to discount the role these women may play in keeping Trump in power.
We have these very basic assumptions about white supremacists: You use a certain type of language or believe a certain type of thing. That’s true to a point, but over time they’re canny. When they talk about how their heritage is being destroyed by tearing down Confederate statues, or any number of things that we’re seeing go mainstream in the Republican Party, they all have common roots. On the one hand, no, not everyone who is a white supremacist is necessarily using slurs, because they recognize the power they gain in seeming “normal,” and they benefit from that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.