The insidious role of female white nationalists
Two years ago when a group of tiki torch-wielding racists held their deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, they shared some common traits. They were white, yes, and they were also overwhelmingly male. The most visible white nationalists are generally men: not only do they view European heritage as superior, they see women’s roles as domestic and reproductive in nature.
Last week, a State Department official named Matthew Gebert was suspended from his job after the Southern Poverty Law Centre accused him of covertly running a Washington-area chapter of a white nationalist organisation. The SPLC released an alleged photograph of Gebert taken at the Unite the Right rally and, in a detailed report, alleged that he had participated in white nationalist podcasts, dined with a prominent Holocaust denier, and spread his beliefs online under the pseudonym “Coach Finstock”.
I was intrigued to learn that Gebert had a wife.
I’m always baffled when they turn out to have wives. Not because of any illusions that women are less racist than men — of course, they’re not — but because it’s hard to imagine a woman volunteering to be the backroom support staff for a group that believes women’s liberation contributes to the deterioration of civilisation.
In a way, I found the idea of the wives even more terrifying than the husbands, for reasons it was initially hard to put my finger on. So, I spent the past few days falling down a rabbit hole looking for “Wolfie James”.
Under this pseudonym, the SPLC claimed, Gebert’s wife also promoted the white nationalist cause — an allegation she denied when contacted by the advocacy group. On social media, Wolfie James lamented her “cesspool” neighbourhood near Washington, expressing envy of online friends who lived in less diverse places. One pal claimed her locale was almost entirely white; “Poland?” Wolfie wistfully guessed. (She did not respond to e-mails or texts sent to accounts associated with her real name.)
Much of Wolfie James has been scrubbed from the internet; her Twitter account is deactivated. But there are still remnants: screengrabs of old message chains, bylines on old articles.
Here she is, tagged in a meme for “Fashy Femmes”, a photo of a saxophone surrounded by hot pink font: “We’re just in it for the sax,” reads the pun.
Here she is, composing “7 Reasons Why Alt-Right Men Are the Hottest”, an essay that takes the quippy writing lessons of any Cosmopolitan listicle and filters them through a racist world view.
“The masculinity they exude is positively intoxicating,” she offers. “Sure, he may spend inordinate time s***posting til the wee hours of the night, but it’s all for a good cause ... and that’s both undeniably white, and irrefutably alpha.”
The content is ... well, not only is it undeniably vile, it’s irrefutably absurd. Staying up all night posting racist memes is not “alpha”. It does not “exude masculinity”. It exudes a sad stench of Fritos and Mountain Dew.
Here is Wolfie James, writing A Guide to your Kids’ PBS shows — which turns out to be a rundown of which programmes, from Caillou to Curious George, she finds acceptably white enough, and least likely to teach children about tolerance and diversity.
Here she is with an essay called How to Red Pill Your Woman. In misogynistic and alt-right circles, “red pilling” is the art of luring recruits by convincing them of the superiority of white men in the face of an evil, cultural conspiracy against them.
I’m not quoting more from these essays because they’re awful and because the sentiments shouldn’t be quoted.
But I’m noticing them. I’m noticing how they insidiously claim to bring a “softer” side to white nationalism. How they include step-by-step instructions on what arguments Wolfie thinks will more likely appeal to wives or mothers. How she works to “steadily fan the flames” of white nationalism, by steering it from behind, from the confines of her living room.
Ashley Mattheis, a doctoral fellow with the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, introduced me to the phrase “shield maiden”, which explained everything I had been noticing. It’s not uncommon for alt-right women to position themselves as mythical Scandinavian woman-warriors, Mattheis said. They believe a woman’s place is in the home, but that sometimes women must head into battle to defend the specific white supremacist vision of what that home should be.
In one essay titled A Place for Women in the Alt-right, Wolfie James took on this concept directly. “The truth is that men are better-suited to the cause,” she wrote. Women, she explained, can be “crazy” and “irrational”. Still, she wrote, “the movement can consider, with some reservation, incorporating women without being feminised or co-opted”.
Commenters chimed in. “Good points on how to guide your wife and the mother of your kids along so she can perform her role even better,” one reads. And another: “They’ll have to be demure around the men; it is the only way.”
There was a surrealness to the whole spectacle: a woman meekly begging for a voice in a movement that no one should want to join, and commenters using her own words as evidence that women should be kept in a submissive role.
But the exchange, written eight months before a crowd of chanting men congregated in Charlottesville, was ultimately horrifying. Because Wolfie James was offering guidance on how to expand and normalise the movement, it is easy to imagine how her tactics could succeed.
“It’s only reasonable to assume that a movement has to expand and evolve in order to gain greater influence,” she wrote, arguing that women can “boost it to the next level”.
Boost it to the next level. It’s chilling. Wrapped in hot-pink font, and Cosmo-ish headlines, and soft little jokes about how women are crazy — it’s all chilling.
I read Wolfie James, and I have never wished harder for a woman to fail.
• Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of American Fire