Women Have Broken the Glass Ceiling of Violent Radicalism
Too many narratives strip women of agency and accountability, and shield them from wartime guilt. The U.S. can’t afford to make that mistake after Jan. 6.
“No one suspects women,” a former radical once told me, describing how she once stashed explosives in a baby carriage that she intended to set off outside the home of a target. As it turned out, her would-be victim fled before she could carry out her mission, but she wanted me to understand something Capitol security officials may have failed to grasp ahead of Jan. 6: The hand that rocks the cradle can also detonate a bomb.
With talk of another far-right plot to attack the Capitol in the works, intelligence experts can no longer underestimate the deadly power of women. A study by the Council on Foreign Relations found that radicalized American women have the same success rates as men, though they’re arrested and convicted far less.
Take Riley Williams, the 22-year-old who boasted of stealing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s laptop but was released shortly after her arrest. A newly released video, uncovered by Bellingcat, debunks her mother’s allegation that Williams was just caught up in the chaos of the day and didn’t intend any harm. In the clip, the self-proclaimed white nationalist, sporting various Nazi symbols including one worn by the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter, does a Heil Hitler salute. Bathed in a negative blue filter that makes her eyes flash white, there’s something uniquely creepy about Williams, but she’s hardly unique. Female extremism is the new normal. Now that 33 women have been arrested in connection with the Capitol insurrection—more than in any other domestic terrorist attack—it’s time to reckon with an untold history of radical female violence.
From the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, who reinvigorated white supremacy in the 1920s under the guise of Protestant purity and female empowerment, to the Aryan mothers of the Third Reich who elevated the racist doctrines of Nazi ideology to gospel, women have helped push hate from the fringes to the mainstream, “preserving an illusion of love in an environment of hatred,” as Claudia Koontz wrote in Mothers in the Fatherland, one of the first books to challenge the notion that everyday German women had no role in the Holocaust.
“Genocide is women’s business,” says Wendy Lower, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College and author of Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. “When women are there, it becomes a social movement. It’s not just men in militia garb. It’s society making a claim. Women normalize this behavior. They provide a certain legitimacy.”
Lower says the presence of so many women at the Capitol may have confused security officials into thinking it was a legitimate protest rather than an attempted violent overthrow of the government. But they didn’t fool her and a growing number of historians who are questioning long-held assumptions about women and genocide, and uncovering lost narratives of female perpetrators to help us understand why women hate and what turns mothers into murderers—a key question at a time of escalating far-right extremism, much of it propelled by women.
Though they’re often dismissed as unwitting enablers, women were involved in all levels of the Jan. 6 siege. The Women for America First group organized the “Stop the Steal” campaign in November, booked and funded hotels for rally goers and chartered buses to the Capitol on Jan. 6, says Mia Bloom, author of Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon Women. “If you scratch beneath the male surface, you’ll find a female fingerprint.”
Over the past few days, investigators have honed in on that female fingerprint—namely six women who have emerged as its key conspirators. With her graying bob and horn-rim glasses, Lisa-Marie Eisenhart is the last person you’d expect to see on an FBI most wanted list. She’s been a nurse for 30 years and has no history of prior arrests. But on Jan. 6, she had one goal in mind, and it wasn’t saving lives. She strapped on a bulletproof vest, had her son stash a cache of weapons in a backpack left on the Capitol premises and stormed her way into the building. “I’d rather die as a 57-year-old woman than live under oppression… I’d rather fight and die,” she told a reporter outside the Capitol. Chilled by her words, a federal judge in D.C. denied her bail and deemed her and her son’s conduct “threatening to the republic.”
She’s charged with conspiracy along with three newly arrested female members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government militia group: Connie Meggs, 52, a dog breeder from Florida, Laura Steele, also 52 and a former police officer from North Carolina, and Sandra Parker, 60, a former University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College employee. Previously, federal authorities charged 38-year-old militia organizer Jessica Watkins, an Ohio bar-owner and Afghanistan war veteran, and Felicia Konold, a 26-year-old who boasted of being the only female member of the Kansas City Proud Boys, with seditious conspiracy, the most serious charge, carrying a potential prison sentence of 20 years. They were all caught on video in tactical gear, ascending the Capitol steps in a “military stack.”
Though some of the female insurrectionists come from a military background—notably Watkins and Ashli Babbitt, who was gunned down as she tried to smash through a door—most don’t. One is a salon owner, another a florist, another a realtor, a few others health-care workers and those wives, mothers and girls next door, resembling the “masses of ordinary women” who became Hutu genocidaires during the Rwanda genocide and SS camp guards during the Third Reich but slipped through history’s cracks, becoming “ invisible perpetrators,” as historian Andrea Peto calls them in her book Women of the Arrow Cross, about the female members of Hungary’s fascist ruling party.
Like their male peers, these Hungarian militants were ambitious and found anti-Semitism personally profitable. As Jews were stripped of businesses on false charges of sexual harassment and corruption, female Arrow Cross members actively participated in interrogations and killings, and reported Jews in hiding to gain access to their property, says Peto. They were hardly blameless bystanders.
“Women traditionally are painted into the background of events, even though they are and have been agency-filled members of movements both for the good and detriment of society,” says Sara Brown, Executive Director of Chhange, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and author of Gender and the Genocide in Rwanda: Women as Perpetrators and Rescuers. Women have been relegated to tropes—largely the infantilized, unwitting victim and the demonic perpetrator, like SS guard Ilse Koch, “the bitch of Buchenwald.” This narrative has stripped women of agency and accountability, and shielded them from wartime guilt.
“They got away with murder,” says Lower, noting that fewer than 30 of the 500,000 German women who rallied to Hitler’s occupied east as concentration camp guards, nurses and military auxiliaries were convicted of Nazi war crimes. Those women were members of the first generation of German women to vote, and they sought to expand their power by bringing whatever skills they had to the “Wild East” where personal advancement came at the expense of killing others.
“There was an excitement, a freedom outside of the normal conventions of society, a rush to sexual adventure and violence, with the two often coalescing, though not in the way fetishized in postwar Nazi porn,” says Sarah Cushman, a history professor and director of the Holocaust Educational Foundation of Northwestern University. They held picnics on killing fields, looted ghettos and mixed murder with ardor, targeting human prey instead of deer on hunting dates.
“Some of the most violent acts women committed were not in the camp system,” says Lower. “Some took over Polish manors where they abused children and killed with their own hands.”
Nothing that horrific ended up happening on Jan. 6, a day many female insurrectionists described as the best one of their lives. But the women of the Capitol appeared in their own ways to be thirsty for blood and divorced from humanity. Take Diana Santos-Smith, who breached the Capitol with her friend Dawn Bancroft, 58, a Crossfit owner from Pennsylvania, gleefully telling her children in a video selfie: “We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin’ brain.” These women, so detached from reality and blissfully unbothered by their surrounding carnage, seem cult-like in their devotion to Trump. Though they haven’t been outed as QAnon followers, there seems to be a Crossfit to QAnon pipeline among white suburban moms, most notably Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and her sidekick, Rep. Lauren Boebert.
As outlandish and dangerous as the cult’s conspiracy theories are, they provide a narrative that helps some women, increasingly alone at home and online, make sense of their place in a world gripped with uncertainty, says Seward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism. They may enter a social media group asking about COVID-19, but they quickly get on-ramped to hardcore elements, like taking back their nation from foreigners and their liberal, Jewish, Democratic enablers who are spreading deadly infections, or as Trump said at his Jan. 6 rally, “If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."
Though women aren’t more vulnerable to radicalization, they’re prized recruits because once they’re “activated, they become superspreaders of ideology. They become fierce,” says Farah Pandith, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of How We Win. “We know the power of moms in their families and business women in their communities. They reconfigure society.”
Denied the main levers of power, women historically turned to grassroots activism to be heard. Female segregationists fought to uphold Jim Crow race lines in their communities by harassing integrationists on the streets, weaponizing their children to bully classmates and using terms like “school choice” to oppose bussing, disguising their racist goals as a mother’s imperative, writes Elizabeth Gillespie McRae in her new book, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. Today, female extremists resort to similar tactics, staging strident public displays for shock value and exploiting gender to package their bigotry under a false veneer of female empowerment. This week, Greene made the ridiculous allegation that trans-equality violates “the rights of girls” in sports. In case anyone fell for her spurious claim of being pro-women, she affixed an anti-trans sign across from the trans flag planted by Rep. Marie Newman, turning the halls of Congress into an ideological battleground with women at the front lines.
“With women, it’s not just about violence, destroying property and killing, it’s more about ripping communities apart,” says Pandith. “But there’s so much we don’t understand because researchers keep ignoring gender as a factor.”
Two weeks ago, Germany made an attempt to right that historic wrong, charging a 95-year-old woman with “aiding and abetting” mass murder at the Stutthoff concentration camp, near the Polish city of Gdansk, where she served as a secretary and where 65,000 Jews, Roma, Polish, and Russian political prisoners were murdered during the Holocaust. What makes the case of Irmgard F. (her identity is protected under German law) so significant is that it’s one of the first to shine a light on desk murderers, those female bureaucrats who used gender and their lowly status to absolve themselves of guilt. Irmgard F. may not make it to her trial date, but that’s almost beside the point. By forcing prosecutors to document how even a camp stenographer aided in mass killings, Germany will better understand just how women aid in genocide and lay to rest the myth that they were blameless during the Holocaust. It will also send a signal to its current neo-Nazis that they won’t be able to get away with murder—whether they’re male or female. A clear record will also help Germany better anticipate and prepare itself from future terrorist attacks.
We should follow their lead, with a 9/11 style commission focused on Jan. 6, and the women of Jan. 6, as a start. Only by making visible those mostly invisible perpetrators from our recent past can we begin to face the threats that lay ahead.