Extremist Women and How to Counter Them

US efforts to counter domestic extremism must address women’s roles.

Amid images of men clad in body armor and outrageous costumes storming the Capitol on January 6, unnerving stories emerged of seemingly ordinary women participating alongside them. Rachel Powell, a mother of eight and a regular at her local farmers’ market, broke through the Capitol’s windows and directed rioters with a bullhorn. Dawn Bancroft, a CrossFit franchise owner, sent videos to her children, bragging about her involvement and exclaiming, “We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin’ brain.”

Women have a long history of involvement in terrorism, and they make up a significant and growing portion of extremist movements, including newer ideologies, such as QAnon. Yet, both law enforcement and the public frequently underestimate the threat women pose. As the US government and partner organizations formulate a new domestic counterterrorism approach, they must directly account for the role women play in perpetuating extremism.

MODERN PERCEPTIONS OF EXTREMIST WOMEN

Many reports of the Capitol attack portrayed women as less threatening than their male counterparts, often by framing descriptions around motherhood, or characterizing the attack as an expression of masculine rage. Though it is likely that gender influenced many of the men who participated, this continues the long-standing misconception that “woman” and “terrorist” are discrete identities, exclusively tying femininity to nurture and masculinity to violence. For example, similar to Powell, fellow rioter Marsha Murphy made headlines identified only as a grandmother. For proof that motherhood makes little difference in risk, look no further than Lisa Eisenhart, the mother of Eric Munchel — “zip tie guy” — who accompanied her son on January 6. Far from a clueless tag-a-long, Eisenhart boasted of her role as a revolutionary and her willingness to die for her cause.

Similarly, women’s involvement in violent conspiracy theories like QAnon surprised the country last year after researchers documented the “Pastel QAnon” phenomenon — colorful infographics posted by social media influencers that subtly indoctrinated followers. More women flocked to QAnon as it spread within wellness communities and took over the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, drawing upon baseless fears of left-wing satanic pedophilia rings to recruit new supporters.

The women involved in the Capitol attack and other recent extremist activity have overwhelmingly been white, likely due to significant overlap with Trump supporters — the majority of white women voters supported Trump in the 2020 election, unlike every other racial or ethnic subgroup of women. The Stop the Steal movement is closely intertwined with other far-right conspiracy theories, many of which rely on provoking racially motivated fear based on white nationalist concepts like the Great Replacement. Similarly, QAnon followers are predominantly white, including many Trump supporters and white evangelical Christians. As a “big tent” conspiracy theory, it also draws some inspiration from white supremacist conspiracy theories, including the anti-Semitic influences of the New World Order.

A GENDERED HISTORY OF EXTREMISM AND CONSPIRACY

Historically, women have long played both active and supporting roles in domestic and international extremist networks, including conducting terrorist attacks. Yet despite a robust body of research on women’s participation in terrorism, this work has been poorly integrated into mainstream analyses of terrorist behavior and has not disrupted common misconceptions of the relationship between gender and extremism among the general public. Furthermore, white women have historically played an integral role in perpetuating white supremacist violence in the United States. They have played active roles as members and leaders of white supremacist groups, and their claims of victimhood (even when false) at the hands of Black men have provoked racial violence ranging from lynchings to massacres.

Despite their historical and growing involvement in terrorist networks, women are less likely than men to be arrested or convicted for terrorism-related offensives, and when they are convicted, they receive less severe sentences.

This is also not the first time that women-dominated spaces have served as platforms for disinformation and dangerous hoaxes. Historically, women have played a particularly strong role in spreading conspiracy theories related to children and families within the United States. These range from the anti-vax movement — which was largely perpetuated by dismissively-named “mommy bloggers” and social media groups and now significantly overlaps with QAnon — to the satanic panic that targeted childcare facilities in the 1980s. The latter was driven in part by a far-right reaction to the changing roles of women in families and society, and the conspiracy theorists’ fears of satanic child-abusing cults continues to echo through the claims of QAnon believers today. Yet, women-dominated platforms for disinformation retain a veneer of innocence, shrouded in traditional family values and aesthetically pleasing designs, and they are often dismissed as non-threatening or frivolous.

Despite their historical and growing involvement in terrorist networks, women are less likely than men to be arrested or convicted for terrorism-related offensives, and when they are convicted, they receive less severe sentences. Already, on February 6, 2021, a district judge granted defendant Jenny Cudd’s request for permission to vacation in Mexico, ruling that she did not pose a danger to others nor was she a flight risk. Cudd was indicted by a grand jury on five federal charges, including a felony. During a local news interview two days after the Capitol attack, Cudd proudly detailed her actions and added, “I would absolutely do it again.” It is likely that other women charged in connection with the January 6 attack — currently 13 percent of related federal cases — will receive similar leniency. It is important to note that the reason for this leniency is not clear cut. While women of color are significantly more likely to be incarcerated than white women in general, women of all races are likely to receive shorter sentences than white men.

IMPLICATIONS FOR US COUNTERTERRORISM EFFORTS

As the US government recognizes the need to redirect counterterrorism resources inward — from containing Salafi-jihadist networks abroad to quelling domestic threats — recent events make clear that law enforcement, the intelligence community, public and private sector partners, and other counterterrorism actors need to grapple with implicit biases that shape perceptions of who poses a terrorist threat.

Avoiding gender bias is one key aspect of this effort, particularly as it relates to countering extremist activity online. For example, digital platforms with a large female audience that have struggled with disinformation, such as Instagram or Pinterest, will need to actively monitor extremist language and narratives, which are likely to evolve quickly to evade deplatforming efforts or even merge with other ideologies. Though deplatforming is not a cure-all and may simply push extremists to other platforms, it reduces mainstream influence and recruitment opportunities. These platforms must also seriously examine the ways in which their algorithms have contributed to radicalization, including the nexus between movements like QAnon and communal interests like wellness and motherhood. Furthermore, as the Department of Homeland Security weighs the possibility of analyzing public social media data to disrupt violent extremist action against privacy and discrimination concerns, it will be important to consider mainstream and women-dominated platforms in the universe of online radicalization onramps.

Similarly, but just as importantly, government actors and the media must clearly convey the nature of the domestic terrorist threat to the public — including a realistic and diverse picture of who can become an extremist. Reports of extremist activity should include accurate descriptions of perpetrators — perhaps even relatable personal characteristics, as are often highlighted about women. However, rather than portraying their involvement in extremism as an aberration in an otherwise normal life, reports should clearly discuss how they radicalized and how they fit into the broader profile of extremists in the United States. While many Americans still associate “terrorist” with racist post–September 11, 2001 stereotypes, the greatest domestic terrorist threat currently comes from white supremacists and related far-right anti-government extremists. Consistent with newly announced federal efforts to promote a whole-of-society approach to countering domestic extremism, efforts to educate the public and disrupt radicalization should entail empathetic, community-based interventions based on public health best practices — including offering assistance to family members of radicalized individuals seeking aid. But the only way to generate use of these intervention programs is for individuals affected to see themselves or their loved ones in the service model.

Though women often radicalize through different pathways and less frequently than men, they are equally successful when they do conduct attacks. Growing mainstream participation in violent conspiracy movements only heightens this risk. US domestic counterterrorism strategy cannot afford to allow gender bias to distort the response to this credible and growing threat.

Catrina Doxsee is a program manager and research associate for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. She is also the 2021 counterterrorism fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.