Birth of the Alt Right

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This article appears in the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play…They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, “Anti-Semite and Jew,” 19441

Sometime on October 10, 2014, feminist computer-game developer Brianna Wu began receiving a series of tweets on her Twitter account from someone named “DeathToBrianna”:

You just made a shitty game no one liked. That’s it. No one wil lcare when you die. [sic]

I hope you enjoy your last moments alive on this earth. You did nothing worthwhile with your life.

If you have any kids, they’re going to die too. I don’t give a fuck. They’ll grow up to be feminists anyway.

Your mutilated corpse will be on the front page of Jezebel tomorrow and there isn’t jack shit you can do about it.

I’ve got a K-Bar and I’m coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly feminist cunt.

Guess what bitch? I now know where you live. You and Frank live at [her real address].2

Wu, the development chief at gamemaker Giant Spacekat, and her husband called the police and moved out of their home that evening for several days, eventually hiring a bodyguard. Within days, she was accused by her tormentors of having “manufactured” the threats; they advised their readers in memes to “incite as much butthurt as possible, so don’t engage in civil reasoned debate. Flame anyone who disagrees …” Two years later, she continued to receive threats at such a volume that she hired a staff member to track them all.3

The threats directed at Wu arose from her involvement in the so-called “Gamergate” controversy, a bitter online dispute that revolved around the internal politics of the video-gaming community. On one side were feminists and other liberals who argued for greater inclusion of games appealing to women. On the other side were men who found such talk not merely threatening but a declaration of a “culture war,” wherein “social justice warriors” used the cudgel of political correctness to impose the values of multiculturalism.

The predominantly White men making these arguments, however, were not content merely to debate their positions online. Instead, a whole army of them swung into action on social media and Internet chat rooms, harassing and threatening feminists and liberals like Wu.

One of the feminists’ chief online assailants was Milo Yiannopoulos, a young gay man living in London who wrote a widely read column for Breitbart News. In a September 2014 piece he described the anti-Gamergate faction as “an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, [who] are terrorising the entire community—lying, bullying and manipulating their way around the internet for profit and attention.”4

Yiannopoulos, who would parlay his Gamergate activism into a job as Breitbart’s tech editor and later as a leader of the emerging “Alt Right” phenomenon, responded to the threats against Wu in a typically “not-my-fault-she-deserved-it” tweet: “Whoever sent those tweets deserves to be charged and punished,” he wrote. “It was vile. But I cannot be alone in finding the response distasteful.”

The controversy heralded the rise of the Alt Right: A world dominated by digital trolls, insanely unbridled conspiracism, angry White-male-identity victimization culture, and ultimately, open racism, antisemitism, ethnic hatred, misogyny, and sexual/gender paranoia. A place where human decency and ethics are considered antiquarian jokes, and empathy is only an invitation to assault.

Troll Logic

The most influential aspect of the rise of the Internet in the 1990s was the liberation of information from the constraints of the mainstream media—something expected to further democratize the globalized economy. After all, the more information people had at their fingertips, the thinking went, the more they could be liberated by the truth.

Within a few years, however, it became evident that there was a serious downside to all this liberation: While the constraints on information imposed by a top-down mass media had seemingly been lifted, one of the press’s important by-functions was vanishing as well: namely, the ability to filter out bad information, false or badly distorted “facts,” and outrageous claims designed not just to titillate but to smear whole groups of people and to radicalize an audience against them. The Internet, with its easy anonymity and wanton disregard of the rules of evidence and factuality, by the early 2000s had already become host to a swamp of conspiracy theories, false smears, and wild speculation. As Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have observed, the 1990s Patriot/militia movement was the first right-wing movement widely organized and promoted online.5

False or badly distorted “facts,” and outrageous claims designed not just to titillate but to smear whole groups of people and to radicalize an audience against them.

And the same “anything goes” ethos applied doubly to people’s behavior online. No entity embodied this anarchical and deliberately destructive sensibility quite like the digital troll: the usually anonymous creatures who lurk under the bridges of our discourse, lobbing insults, nonsequiturs, off-topic remarks, and racial or religious incendiary grenades. Their chief tactic is called “flaming,” in which they mercilessly abuse their target, substituting aggressive abuse for debate.

“Trolling” which takes its name from the fishing technique of dropping a lure on a long line and waiting for fish to take the bait, was initially considered a relatively benign, if juvenile, pastime. There was even a kind of “positive” trolling in which the “troll” used fact-based questions to lead a target to a logical conclusion. However, as “flaming” behaviors matured and spread, the resulting ethos created a “troll” whose deportment came closely to resemble the dreaded creatures who dwelt under bridges and snagged unwary travelers of legend. Trolls are ultimately engendered by a third kind of consequence of the rise of the Internet: Namely, the ability of people in modern society to construct their entire social lives online, with only a nominal interaction with the reality of the physical world. Increasingly, some people’s social lives began increasingly to revolve around chat rooms, email listservs, political and special-interest forums. As social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter took off, this phenomenon became not only widespread but profoundly consequential.

False or distorted “facts” create an alternative “reality” for people largely detached from the real world—profoundly toxifying people’s worldviews, their understanding of news and current events, as well as their interactions with others.

As media theorist Judith Donath explained in her groundbreaking 1999 study of trolling behavior: “In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity … The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter.”6

This helps explain why the introduction of bad information—false or distorted “facts” that creates an alternative “reality” for people largely detached from the real world—so profoundly toxifies people’s worldviews, their understanding of news and current events, as well as their interactions with others. The culture of trolling, by its very nature, quickly attracted some of society’s most toxic elements: sociopaths, psychopaths, and sadists. And that, in turn, had a profound political effect.

The Psychology of Trolling

A disturbing study released in 2014 by a team of psychologists led by Erin E. Buckels of the University of Manitoba sketched out a personality profile of trolls, focusing particularly on people attracted to “antisocial” uses of the Web. Buckels’ results found that many trolls share what psychologists call the “Dark Tetrad” of psychological traits: Machiavellianism (willing deception and manipulation), narcissism (self-obsession and egotism), psychopathy (an utter absence of empathy or remorse), and sadism (enjoyment of the suffering of others). The correlation of trolls with the last of these—sadism—was particularly powerful.7

“Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” Buckels wrote. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

And the more time a person spends exclusively online (as opposed to in the material world) the stronger the connection becomes, Buckels found.

Buckels’ study also found that even though trolls have an outsized influence on Internet discourse, they comprise only a small percentage of Web users—just 5.6 percent of the survey’s respondents said they enjoyed trolling, while some 41 percent reported they don’t engage with other people online at all. Some trolled merely for fun, while others were driven by personal motivations, including politics.

As it happens, Buckels explained by email, there is, in general, a high correlation of these “Dark Tetrad” traits with another important mass-psychological phenomenon known as “social dominance orientation,” or SDO. It’s based on the recognition that people orient themselves socially based on a kind of fundamental view: Do they believe people are inherently equal, or unequal? Psychologists have tested people accordingly, devising an “SDO scale” that measures a person’s level of preference for hierarchy based on inherent inequalities within any social system, as well as the concurring desire for domination over lower-status groups.

The original 1994 study that designed the SDO scale asked participants whether they favored ideas such as “increased social equality,” “increased economic equality,” or simply “equality” itself. Conversely, subjects were asked whether they agreed that “some people are just more deserving than others” and that “This country would be better off if we cared less about how equal all people were.”8 SDO trolls, by dint of their personalities, were often inclined not only to share but to act out right-wing political views, often of the extremist variety.

“In short,” writes Robert Altemeyer, a psychologist who’s studied authoritarianism, “in social dominators’ way of thinking, equality should not be a central value of our society or a goal toward which we should strive. To high SDOs, ‘equality’ is a sucker-word in which only fools believe.”9

In contrast to the trolls who played the trolling game for its own sake, right-wing political trollers saw their activities as direct reflections of their politics. If trolling was often rude and openly transgressive, so were their politics.

If any movement could be said to describe the manifestation of Social Dominance Orientation in the political realm, it’s White nationalism. A far-right movement that took hold among “academic racists” in the 1990s, who contended that racial genetics imparted inherent characteristics such as intelligence, White nationalists followed these arguments with a call for distinct ethnostates that could enable racial separation. Moreover, the movement’s ideologues claimed, traditional White European culture faced an onslaught from non-White immigration and liberal multiculturalists.10

White nationalism quickly devolved from its original claim—to be simply promoting the interests of ethnic Whites—to, by the late ‘90s, demonizing non-Whites and LGBTQ people, as well as embracing far-right undercurrents of antisemitism and conspiracism. And indeed, many of the movement’s leaders displayed the kind of personality characteristics—lack of empathy, manipulativeness and aggression, and hostility to femininity and equality—associated with people who score highly on the SDO scale.

During the Bush administration years, White nationalists focused less on attacking liberalism than on attacking Republicans who they believed were failing to “stand up for White interests.” The antagonism created a gulf in which the movement, rife with contentious would-be leaders, struggled to reach new followers.

A sign at the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. Photo: Mark Dixon via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The White nationalists’ predilection for conspiracism, however, soon brought them the audience they sought. The conspiracy theorists who’d first become mobilized through the 1990s antigovernment Patriot movement found new inspiration in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which they portrayed as an “inside job” perpetrated with assistance from the Bush administration and its “New World Order.” As the decade wore on, the far-right conspiracists fixated on the idea of “political correctness” as a form of what they called “Cultural Marxism.” This idea grew from a fundamentally antisemitic White nationalist theory: that a small group of Jewish philosophers at Columbia University in the 1930s had devised an unorthodox form of Marxism that aimed to destroy American culture by convincing mainstream Americans that White ethnic pride is bad, sexual liberation is good, and traditional American “family values” and Christianity are bigoted and reactionary. (Among the subscribers to this theory, circulating in far-right circles since the ‘90s, was the right-wing Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who in 2011 slaughtered 69 children at a Norway youth camp after detonating a series of bombs in Oslo that killed eight.11)

The audience for conspiracy theories, as Altemeyer observes, is often comprised of right-wing authoritarians: people who are inclined to insist on a world in which strong authorities produce order and peace, often through iron imposition of “law and order.”12 Highly ethnocentric, fearful of a dangerous world, aggressive, dogmatic, and inclined to extreme self-righteousness and poor reasoning, they are, as Altemeyer explains, “very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know, almost every news broadcast they see, almost every radio commentator they listen to, tells them they are. That is, they screen out the sources that will suggest that they are wrong.”13  

A Lethal Union

To understand the growth of the Alt Right, one must explore the relationship between social dominators and right-wing authoritarian followers. Altemeyer, who conducted groundbreaking work on the psychological makeup of right-wing authoritarian (RWA) personalities, explains that people with high SDO scores—“dominators”— correlate poorly with people who score highly on the RWA scale. The two groups are distinct. Authoritarian followers lack dominators’ lust for power and they are generally much more religious; their hostility is rooted in fear and self-righteousness in the name of authority, while dominators use hostility as a means of intimidation and control.

Though they are dissimilar in many ways, dominators and right-wing authoritarian followers share an overpowering tendency towards prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities as well as deeply conservative politics.

Altemeyer’s 2006 book warning about the rise of authoritarianism focused on the special kind of chemistry that happens when right-wing authoritarian followers and social dominators come together. He called it the “lethal union”:

When social dominators are in the driver’s seat, and right-wing authoritarians stand at their beck and call, unethical things appear much more likely to happen. True, sufficiently skilled social dominators served by dedicated followers can make the trains run on time. But you have to worry about what the trains may be hauling when dominators call the shots and high RWAs do the shooting.14

It was during the Obama administration years, following the election of the first Black president, that the gradual coalescence of the alternative-universe worldviews of conspiracists, Patriots, White supremacists, Tea Partiers and nativists occurred. Fueled in no small part by racial animus toward Obama, the Internet and social media became the ground on which this “lethal union” could finally occur, after decades of internecine bickering among and marginalization of far-right factions. Those same chat rooms and Facebook threads where trolls gathered and harassed became the places where far-right social dominators—many of them espousing openly transgressive worldviews such as neonazism and misogyny—could come together with the right-wing authoritarian followers whose ranks grew with every conspiracy-theory convert and wannabe Oath Keeper militiaman.

That “lethal union” ultimately gave birth to a new baby created for the 21st century: the Alt Right.

The Road to Gamergate

It all began with people talking online about Japanese anime—the animated cartoons featuring everything from ultra-cute kittens to horrifying monsters, and everything in between.

The website’s owner, a then-15-year-old New York City student named Christopher Poole, called it 4chan when he launched it out of his bedroom in 2003. His idea was to create an open forum where anyone could post images and chat about anime and associated manga comic-book culture. And it was an immediate success, drawing a million hits in his first six days of operation. Soon it had expanded into a massive operation, one of the Internet’s most influential referral sites.15

Much of its original success was built on memes like “LOLcats,” featuring photos of cats over-scripted with funny phrases (the most famous of which, “I Can Haz Cheezburger,” went on to spawn a million-dollar company hosted at 4chan). 4chan also became known for its trolling, with resident trolls creating, among other things, the long-lived internet prank known as “RickRolling.”

But 4chan was also the ultimate open forum. People could register without entering an email address, so most commenters posted anonymously. 4chan’s boards became host not just to gamers and hobbyists but also neonazis, White supremacists, gay-bashers, and a flood of pornographic material. Trolling—of the nasty kind—soon became not just the ruling ethos but a competition among peers at 4Chan.

The “manosphere,” too, was a major presence at 4chan. An online community comprised of blogs, chat forums, and Reddit sub-communities, the manosphere was generally dedicated to the “men’s rights” movement, ostensibly to defend men against feminism. In reality, the movement had quickly become an open sewer of rampant misogyny and rape culture, particularly at the “Men’s Rights Activists” (or MRA) discussion boards at 4chan. Within this world, MRAs called feminism “a social cancer,” and asserted that, “Feminism is a hate movement designed to disenfranchise and dehumanize men.” They complained that women “cry rape” too easily, and, using Holocaust denialism as a metaphor, claimed that feminists had “created” the concept of patriarchy to justify abortion and “the destruction of men and masculinity.”16

Given the various communities gathering at 4chan, it was unsurprising when, in early 2013, all these forces converged to create the “Gamergate” controversy—an initially online phenomenon that crept over into the real world.

“Gamergate” began when a feminist game designer named Zoe Quinn was lauded for her woman-friendly online game “Depression Quest,” which guided users through the trials and tribulations of a person suffering from clinical depression.17 Quinn’s creation, reviewer Adam Smith wrote at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, transformed computer gaming from a mere exercise in conflict to “‘game’ as communication, comfort and tool of understanding.”18

The positive coverage of Quinn’s creation, however, attracted the ire of anti-feminist gamers, livid at the success of a feminized game that was a stark departure from “male” battle games. She soon found herself inundated with hate mail and threatening social-media messages. Someone mailed a detailed rape threat to her home address. Then, in August 2014, a year after “Depression Quest” was released to the general public, a former boyfriend of Quinn’s published a nasty tell-all post about their relationship, complaining that her new boyfriend was video game journalist Nathan Grayson. At 4chan’s boards, this story quickly took on a life of its own, as Quinn’s critics began claiming that Grayson had written a positive review of “Depression Quest” as a result of their relationship, even though, in reality, no such review existed.19

In a glimpse of trends to come, though, that fact did not matter.  The 4chan trolls were off and running, claiming they had uncovered an ethical scandal within the world of gaming journalism. Grayson’s supposed breach of standards reflected what they claimed was a pro-feminist, pro-liberal, anti-White-male bias growing within the computer-game industry. Soon anyone who questioned their interpretation of events was part of the conspiracy. Actor Adam Baldwin, highly active in right-wing circles, dubbed the controversy “Gamergate” in a Twitter hashtag, and it spread like wildfire.

Quinn’s previous flood of hate mail was dwarfed by the incoming tide of vitriol that now descended upon her. She was “doxxed”—her home address and personal contact information published online—and forced to flee her home.20

Nor did the harassment end with Quinn. Anita Sarkeesian, a well-regarded feminist cultural critic, endured death and rape threats, as well as a phoned-in bomb threat that canceled a speaking appearance, after she became a public critic of the Gamergaters. That was followed shortly by the online threats against Brianna Wu.21

Appalled by the wave of harassment emanating from their boards, the owners of 4chan announced in September 2014 that they would ban any further Gamergate discussions. However, a longtime 4chan user named Fredrick Brennan had, that previous October, already created a similar, competing website called 8chan, because he believed 4Chan had become too censorious.

The Gamergaters at 8chan, on Twitter and Reddit and other forums created a lingo of their own: mainly a range of pernicious rhetorical devices designed to create a buffer between themselves and the threats that were flooding out to women, LGBTQ folk, and people of color in the industry. It was a language of dismissal and belittlement. They called their targets “special snowflakes” and “cry bullies,” derided their websites as “safe spaces” and their hope for civil discourse as “unicorns.” The targets of the abuse, they claimed, were lying or exaggerating; and even when the abuse was factually substantiated, Gamergaters’ usual response was that people on their side were being abused too.22

The Gamergaters shared a predilection for conspiracism as well. Feminists , for example, were portrayed as a subset within the larger “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy to destroy Western civilization. But what was once an idea with limited popular appeal was gaining widespread circulation through popular conspiracists like Alex Jones, creator of the massively popular conspiracy mill InfoWars. At 4chan and 8chan, the threat of “Cultural Marxism” became the focal point of many discussions, first about Gamergate, then, increasingly, politics. A common theme began to emerge: that White men were being systematically oppressed by dangerous left-wing forces, and that mainstream conservatives, through their “weak” response to multiculturalism, had “sold them out.”

Eventually Gamergate passed out of the news cycle, and the controversy subsided, to no one’s real satisfaction. What had transpired in the process, though, was far more important. Aggrieved MRAs from the “manosphere,” White nationalists who shared their virulent hatred of feminists and adoration for “traditional values,” as well as gamers and online trolls, had coalesced as a movement. And they continued on as a community, talking now more about politics and conspiracies than gaming, and how much they hated “sellout” mainstream conservatives. They reserved their most bilious outbursts for liberals, multiculturalism, gays and lesbians, Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews—especially Jews.

Their growing community of likeminded defenders of the White race and “traditional values” had to have a name, and so they gave it one: the “Alt Right.”

The Mob Is the Movement

White nationalist Richard Spencer is credited with coining the term “Alternative Right” in 2009. Photo: V@s via Flickr (CC BY2.0)

In 2009, a young White nationalist named Richard Spencer coined the term “Alternative Right” while writing a headline for the paleoconservative Taki’s Magazine, where he was an editor at the time.23 The headline was for an article by White nationalist Kevin DeAnna, describing the rise of a new kind of conservatism— one hostile to neoconservatism and open to “racialist” politics. Less than a year later, in early 2010, Spencer founded his own webzine and named it The Alternative Right. In short order, the name of the movement it promoted was shortened to “Alt Right,” and it stuck.

The name was developed with public relations well in mind; after all, it permitted White nationalists to soften their image while drawing in recruits from mainstream conservatism. When the movement rose to national prominence in 2016 in conjunction with the Trump campaign, a controversy erupted over whether to use the movement’s preferred name or simply call its members what many took them to be: “neonazis” or “White supremacists.” (This mirrored a similar discussion in the 1990s over whether to call the Patriot movement by its chosen name or other descriptors such as “antigovernment” and “antidemocratic.”)

However, as researcher Matthew Lyons explains, the movement is much more complex than any of those simple terms.24 It incorporates elements not only from White nationalists and supremacists of various stripes, but also misogynist anti-feminists, certain “neoreactionary” activists who regard democratic rule as a threat to civilization, as well as some right-wing anarchist elements. Identifying it as only one of those elements is not only inaccurate, but obscures the Alt Right’s peculiarly culture-savvy orientation and the strength of its appeal.

Take Pepe the Frog, for example. Pepe did not begin life, as it were, as the mascot of the Alt Right. His cartoonist creator, Matt Furie, a liberal Democrat, drew the smiling character in 2005 as part of an absurdist comic book; Pepe’s panel featured the frog peeing with his pants down around his ankles, saying, “Feels good man.”

Pepe the Frog was one of the most popular memes on social media before getting hijacked by the Alt Right. Image via

Pepe’s catchphrase and image—big-eyed, large-lipped, cheerful—proliferated and became a common part of memes. By 2014, he had become one of the most popular memes on social media.

And then he was hijacked by the Alt Right. Already wildly popular among the far-right trolls at 4chan, Pepe’s image came increasingly to be featured in Alt Right memes as the trolls spread to other forums. Andrew Anglin, a former skinhead who was one of the leading trolls at 4chan, featured Pepe’s visage prominently at his neonazi blog The Daily Stormer; other Alt Right activists followed. Soon regular users stopped using Pepe in memes out of fear that they would be presumed to be racist White nationalists.25

It was only a dumb cartoon, but what Pepe really represented to the Alt Right was something much more powerful: irony. Unlike their historical forebears in the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations, the leaders and followers of the Alt Right see themselves as smarter and more sophisticated, their rhetoric of racism, violence, and open eliminationism wrapped in more wit and humor, at least of a sort.

As Anglin explained, “A movement which meets all of the [Southern Poverty Law Center’s] definitions of Neo-Nazi White Supremacism using a cartoon frog to represent itself takes on a subversive power to bypass historical stereotypes of such movements, and thus present the ideas themselves in a fun way without the baggage of Schindler’s List and American History X.”26

Pepe is hardly the only cartoon figure deployed by the Alt Right. The movement’s roots in 4chan are evident in its many anime-fueled memes, most of them showing cute cartoon girls wearing various kinds of Nazi regalia, or sporting openly misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic texts. Comic characters of various kinds are deployed to ironically promote White nationalist ideas.

The Alt Right established itself primarily through its cultural agility—its ability to stay at the forefront of current events, themes, and ideas by adapting them to its own uses and then running wild with them. Spencer explains that these memes have “power” and are “a way of communicating immediately.” The movement takes pride in the inscrutability of its memes and other cultural markers—from the “echo” of placing parenthesis around the names of Jews (a tactic since reclaimed by some Jews), to the use of “Shitlord” as an honorific to describe Alt Right true believers—and revel in using them as a kind of secret handshake. The most pernicious of these is the #WhiteGenocide hashtag that handily reduces the White nationalist “mantra” that “Diversity is a Code Word for White Genocide.”

Many Alt Right memes tap into popular culture: Taylor Swift’s image pops up to promote “Aryan” beauty standards; the new Star Wars films are mocked for including central Black and female characters. Masculinity is a fixation for Alt Rightists, reflected in lingo such as “cuck” or “cuckservative,” which characterize mainstream conservatives as spineless cuckolds. They revel in naked racism for its transgressive value, reflected in their term “dindu nuffin” (caricatured dialect for “I didn’t do nothing,” used to describe African Americans, especially Black Lives Matters protesters). The terms spawned social-media hashtags (#Cuckservative, #Dindu) that spread the ideas behind them to a mostly young and impressionable audience.

Frequently, Alt Right activists describe the conversion to their point of view as getting “red pilled,” after the red pill in the 1999 science-fiction film The Matrix that enables Keanu Reeves to see reality. Alt Righters see it as a metaphor for what they consider to be the revelatory power of their ideology, which cuts through the lies of “social justice warriors,” “Cultural Marxists,” and the mainstream media they insist is actively suppressing their views.

“The Alt-Right is a ‘mass movement’ in the truest possible sense of the term, a type of mass-movement that could only exist on the Internet, where everyone’s voice is as loud as they are able to make it,” explained Anglin. “In the world of the internet, top-down hierarchy can only be based on the value, or perceived value, of someone’s ideas. The Alt-Right is an online mob of disenfranchised and mostly anonymous, mostly young White men. … The mob is the movement.27

And yet, by virtue of its spreading online presence, and the genuinely extremist nature of the ideology it promoted, the Alt Right was much more. It had become a massive mechanism for the online radicalization of mostly young White Americans.

Internet Radicals

In the wake of domestic terrorism attacks in the fall of 2015 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and San Bernardino, California, committed by non-Whites ostensibly motivated by Muslim extremism, various media pundits, experts on terrorism, and government officials began raising concerns about the role of “online radicalization” in fueling such violence. The massacre of 49 people at an Orlando gay nightclub in June 2016 by a Muslim man who espoused beliefs from radical Islam, seemingly picked up online, only intensified the conversation.

The massive media attention paid to these incidents, however, underscored how acts of terrorist violence related to the influence of White supremacism or other far-right ideologies rarely received the same treatment.28 When 20-year-old Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a Charleston church in a June 2015, both media accounts and law-enforcement officials were reluctant to identify the act as domestic terrorism, despite the fact that it more than adequately fit the FBI definition of such crimes.29 Similarly, when an anti-abortion extremist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November 2015, killing three people, the crime was again not identified as terrorism.30 And when a (White) militia gang was arrested for plotting to bomb a Kansas Muslim community in October 2016, even though the plotters were ultimately charged with domestic terrorism, there was relatively little media coverage of the case.31

Dylann Roof, for example, spent most of his days reading Alt Right websites. It was clear, but little noted, that the same phenomenon believed to be fueling terrorist acts by Muslim “radicals” was occurring simultaneously in a completely separate dimension of the Internet: among the gathering White male nationalists of the Alt Right.

But all of these incidents had one thing in common: their perpetrators were all motivated in large part by Internet communities. Roof, for example, spent most of his days reading Alt Right websites. It was clear, but little noted, that the same phenomenon believed to be fueling terrorist acts by Muslim “radicals” was occurring simultaneously in a completely separate dimension of the Internet: among the gathering White male nationalists of the Alt Right.

How does online radicalization happen? A number of different models have been developed for understanding the phenomenon. Most of them, unsurprisingly, have been geared toward examining Islamist radicals, but their findings fit remarkably well in explaining how the same process works with White nationalism.

One of these theories is called “identity demarginalization,” articulated by psychologists Katelyn McKenna and John Bargh in a 1998 study. It attempts to explain why some social groups are more drawn to the Internet than others. People with “concealable and culturally devalued identities” were found to be more likely than people with mainstream identities to participate in and value online communities. McKenna’s and Bargh’s study found that people who posted in online forums dedicated to concealable identities, such as being LGBTQ or a neonazi, valued the feedback and opinions of other group members much more strongly than people who belonged to forums focusing on easily perceivable marginalized identities, such as obesity and stuttering.32

“For the first time,” McKenna and Bargh wrote, an individual exploring his or her marginalized identity in an online environment “can reap the benefits of joining a group of similar others: feeling less isolated and different, disclosing a long secret part of oneself, sharing one’s own experiences and learning from those of others, and gaining emotional and motivational support.”

The process of radicalization occurs in steps. Journalist Abi Wilkinson, noting that concern about Islamist radicalization had produced such government efforts to combat the problem as the U.K.’s “Prevent” program, examined the course of various Alt Right adherents as they became increasingly vitriolic and even violent in their views. “Reading through the posting history of individual aliases,” she wrote, “it’s possible to chart their progress from vague dissatisfaction, and desire for social status and sexual success, to full-blown adherence to a cohesive ideology of white supremacy and misogyny. Neofascists treat these websites as recruitment grounds. They find angry, frustrated young men and groom them in their own image. Yet there’s no Prevent equivalent to try to stamp this out.”33

Southern Poverty Law Center analyst Keegan Hankes, who devotes much of his time to monitoring the activities and growth of the Alt Right, explained that the very shape of the movement’s discourse plays an important role in its recruitment: People are first exposed to their ideas by going wildly over the top with jokes that celebrate Nazis or other kinds of ugly behavior designed to attract attention by its craziness.

“You know, people will laugh at these things, just because they’re so transgressive. And who is most susceptible to that? Young minds,” continued Hankes. “The idea is to attract young minds, and of course, they are targeting the people who spend the most time in these environments. This movement is very immersive, and people wind up building their whole lives around it.”


1 Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate, (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), pp. 13-14.

2 Andrew Hart, “Game Developer Brianna Wu Flees Home After Death Threats,” Huffington Post, Oct. 12, 2014;

3 Dean Takahashi, “Brianna Wu Speaks Up About Death Threats and Personal Cost of Opposing #GamerGate,” VentureBeat, Feb. 9, 2015;

4 Milo Yiannopoulos, “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart,” Breitbart,  Sept 1, 2014;

5 Chip Berlet, “When Hate Went Online” presented at the Northeast Sociological Association, Spring Conference, Fairfield, CT: Sacred Heart University, April 28, 2001.

6 Judith Donath, “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community,” MIT Media Lab, Nov. 12, 1996;

7 Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, Delroy L. Paulhus, “Trolls just want to have fun,” Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 67, September 2014, pp. 97–102;

8 Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, “Social Dominance Orientation: A Personality Variable Predicting Social and Political Attitudes,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994, Vol. 67, No. 4, pp. 741-763.

9 Bob Altemeyer, “Highly Dominating, Highly Authoritarian Personalities,” The Journal of Social Psychology, 2004, Vol. 144, No. 4, pp. 425.

10>/sup> Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), pp. 367-379, pp. 393-398. See also “White Nationalists,” Southern Poverty Law Center;

11 Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism Catching On,” Intelligence Report (Southern Poverty Law Center), Aug. 15, 2003;

12 Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians (University of Manitoba, 2006),, pp. 88-90.

13 Bob Altemeyer, “Donald Trump and Authoritarian Followers,” Daily Kos, March 2, 2016;

14 Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, op. cit., p. 176.

15 Aric Suber-Jenkins, “How 4chan, a small anime forum, became Donald Trump’s most rabid fanbase,”, Oct. 31, 2016;

16 “Misogyny: The Sites,” Intelligence Report (Southern Poverty Law Center), March 1, 2012;

17 Simon Parkin, “Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest,” The New Yorker, Sept. 9, 2014;

18 Adam Smith, “Mostly Indescribable: Depression Quest,” Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Feb. 14, 2013;

19 Nick Wingfield, “Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in ‘GamerGate’ Campaign,” New York Times, Oct. 15, 2014;

20 Radhika Sanghani, “Misogyny, death threats and a mob of trolls: Inside the dark world of video games with Zoe Quinn – target of #GamerGate,” Daily Telegraph, Sept. 10, 2014;

21 Nick Wingfield, ibid.

22 Matt Lees, “What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’,” The Guardian, December 1, 2016,

23 Kevin DeAnna, “The Alternative Right,” Taki’s Magazine, July 26, 2009;

24 Matthew N. Lyons, “Calling them “alt-right” helps us fight them,” ThreeWayFight, Nov. 22, 2016;

25 Olivia Nuzzi, “How Pepe the Frog Became a Nazi Trump Supporter and Alt-Right Symbol,” The Daily Beast, May 25, 2016;

26 Andrew Anglin, “A Normie’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” The Daily Stormer, Aug. 31, 2016;

27 Andrew Anglin, ibid.

28 Naomi Braine, “Terror Network or Lone Wolf? Disparate Legal Treatment of Muslims and the Radical Right,” Political Research Associates, June 19, 2015;

29 See Rick Gladstone, “Many Ask, Why Not Call Church Shooting Terrorism?,” New York Times, June 28, 2015; See also Kevin Cirilli, “FBI head won’t call Charleston shooting a terrorist act,” The Hill, June 20, 2015;

30 Eric Tucker and Sadie Gurman, “Why the Planned Parenthood shooting isn’t legally referred to as ‘domestic terrorism’,” Associated Press, Dec. 1, 2015;

31 Bryan Schatz, “Feds Charge Kansas Militia Members With Plotting to Bomb Somali Immigrants,” Mother Jones, Oct. 14, 2016;

32 Katelyn Y.A. McKenna and John A. Bargh, “Coming out in the age of the Internet: Identity “demarginalization” through virtual group participation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 3, September 1998, pp. 681-694.

33 Abi Wilkinson, “We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” The Guardian, Nov. 15, 2016;

Mobilizing Misogyny

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Unquestionably, President Donald Trump’s demonstrated enthusiasm for catering to the Christian Right on abortion—and obliterating their memory of his pro-choice past—spells trouble for reproductive rights. But that’s not the only threat to women under Trump’s new order. Trump’s campaign distinguished itself from those of other Republican candidates by its attacks on women: regularly insulting women’s appearances or behavior and defending physical and sexual harassment and violence against them. Sometimes, Trump’s threatening and offensive rhetoric directly targeted his Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman major party nominee for president, from calling her a “nasty woman” to suggesting there might be a Second Amendment “remedy” in case of her election.1

This rhetoric energized members of a secular misogynist Right—such as the men’s rights movement and, more recently, the “Alt Right”—that has flourished online since the 1990s. And it found no pushback from a brand of conservative, libertarian “feminism”—another ’90s development—that provides a dangerously legitimizing female face for misogynist ideology centered on overt hostility to women and the promulgation of rape culture.

Effectively fighting mobilizations like those emboldened by Trump’s election requires accurately understanding their composition—one in which misogyny thrives alongside, and intertwined with, racism.

Patriarchal Traditionalism from White Supremacy to the Christian Right

Male supremacism, enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, is as fundamental to U.S. history as White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) nativism.2 The same patriarchal stance—combining race, religion, and nativism—fuels conservative Christian ideology on appropriate gender roles. (Transgender women and men and genderqueer individuals also violate these designated roles.) Especially in the last 100 years, as some women have succeeded in pushing back against the sexist world they inherited, social and political movements have emerged to defend traditional gender structures.

Phyllis Schlafly speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr).

Amid Second Wave feminism, the antifeminists Phyllis Schlafly (a Roman Catholic) and Beverly LaHaye (an evangelical) followed in this tradition when they organized a “pro-family” movement to stop the ratification of the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Though themselves prominent activists, LaHaye and the late Schlafly promoted submission to husbands and attacked women seeking careers.3

Abortion, contraception, and sexuality education all threaten the enforcement of traditional gender roles. After the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in 1973, conservative evangelicals joined with the existing Catholic “prolife” movement in the creation of the Christian Right, and abortion became “a vital component of [the Right’s] fight to protect the bottom line of traditional family values—the dominance of white, male power and control,” as PRA’s Jean Hardisty and Pam Chamberlain observed. The anti-abortion movement drew together members of the Religious Right and White supremacists and neonazis, who contributed to the rising violence against clinic providers in the 1990s perpetrated primarily by White men.4 (The legacy of White supremacy, Hardisty and Chamberlain continue, can be seen in how “the Right applies race and class criteria that distinguish between the rights of white, middle-class women and low-income women of color.” This dynamic led to the 1990s stereotype of the “welfare queen,” and welfare reform under Bill Clinton designed to discourage women of color and immigrant women from having “too many” children.5)

But attacks on women’s reproductive rights have often come wrapped in the guise of chivalry, framed as “moral issues” and “family values” rather than misogyny. To gain wider acceptance, the anti-abortion movement has adopted a framework of “protecting women,” vilifying abortion providers as preying on weak women threatened by the physical and mental health consequences of abortion.6 That effort has made significant legislative progress in recent years, with a slew of state anti-abortion bills in 2011. Despite this official strategy, clinic protesters on the ground expose their misogyny in calling women “murderers” and “whores,” and sometimes resorting to physical intimidation.7

In 2012, contraception came under increased attack as immoral in the debate over healthcare reform. Anti-abortion groups have long denounced the “morning after pill” as an abortifacient, yet had otherwise tended to avoid pushing an unpopular position against contraception, largely considered a settled issue. When law student Sandra Fluke testified in favor of contraceptive coverage, Rush Limbaugh infamously ranted about her being a “slut” and a “prostitute” who should be required to post sex videos online.8

Set on proving that his “pro-choice” days were behind him, during the 2016 campaign Trump denounced Planned Parenthood as an “abortion factory” and selected hardline reproductive and LGBTQ rights opponent Indiana governor Mike Pence as his running mate. In his eagerness, Trump unknowingly violated the Christian Right’s strategic deployment of a “kinder, gentler” image9 when he announced that women who obtained an illegal abortion should face “punishment.” Although Trump backpedaled to mollify anti-abortion groups that claim to protect women, his original statement was characteristic of the anti-woman vitriol of his campaign and may have appealed to the existing hatred demonstrated by clinic protesters.10

The Christian Right’s attack on women isn’t limited to reproductive issues. Schlafly frequently argued that women make false accusations of sexual assault and domestic violence—her grounds for opposing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and suggesting that there exists a “war on men.”11 Concerned Women for America (CWA), a major Christian Right group founded by Beverly LaHaye, claims that the “wage gap” results from women’s own choices and therefore opposes equal pay legislation.12 In such respects, Christian Right ideology aligns with that of equity feminism and men’s rights.

Equity Feminism and Men’s Rights

In 1991, “Women for Judge Thomas” formed to defend conservative Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations. The following year this group institutionalized itself as the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), under the premise that, as co-founder Anita Blair declared, feminism should have “declared victory and gone home” by 1978.13 The idea that, at least in the U.S., women have achieved equality underlies the secular libertarian philosophy of “equity feminism” (also “individualist feminism”).14 In 2009, IWF’s then-president Michelle Bernard explained, “we have a philosophical belief that women are not victims… we believe that free markets are really the great equalizer, and will allow women to become truly equal with men in areas where we still may be unequal.”15 This ideology diverges from patriarchal traditionalism in applauding successful career women (and holding varied views on abortion), replacing it with a sexism that blames women’s continuing underrepresentation in positions of influence on personal choices and intrinsic differences, and to protect this worldview, frequently dismisses contradictory evidence.16

By offering a provocative dissident women’s voice, presenting “the other side,” equity feminists can forego the grassroots organizing of Schlafly and LaHaye17 while benefiting from extensive media dissemination of its ideas. As former IWF Executive Director Barbara Ledeen put it, “You can’t have white guys saying you don’t need affirmative action.”18

In 1988, Warren Farrell, who had once been involved with feminist organizing of men’s consciousness group, published the book Why Men Are the Way They Are.

Of course, plenty of White guys have spoken out against affirmative action, developing a male victimhood ideology to complement equity feminism’s rejection of female victims. In 1988, Warren Farrell, who had once been involved with feminist organizing of men’s consciousness group, published the book Why Men Are the Way They Are, “depicting a world where women—particularly female executives—wield vast influence. Even those women who are less successful have ‘enormous sexual leverage over men.’”19

When men think about women’s gains, Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett write in The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men—and Our Economy, “There’s a tendency to circle the wagons, to exaggerate how far women have come and how far men have fallen.”20 Alarm over women’s advancement emerges repeatedly in U.S. history: as Danielle Paquette points out in the Washington Post, 30 years prior to Farrell’s book, Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. worried over the trickle of wives into the 1950s workforce: “Women seem an expanding, aggressive force, seizing new domains like a conquering army, while men, more and more on the defensive, are hardly able to hold their own and gratefully accept assignments from their new rulers.”21

Farrell, dubbed the “father of the men’s rights movement,” followed up in 1993 with The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, where he suggested that American (White) men were the new “nigger,” threatened by women’s ability to cry sexual harassment and “date rape.” According to sociologist Michael Kimmel, this became the movement’s “bible,” awakening men to their status as victims of women’s ascendancy.22 Like White supremacist movements, men’s rights ideology warns White men that they are losing their place in society. Where equity feminism thrives among elite women with access to major communications platforms, the men’s rights movement is a decentralized “netroots” movement that draws men who feel less privileged, especially those with employment troubles and failures in romantic relationships.

Claiming rampant false accusations of rape and violence is one of the most prevalent men’s rights and equity feminist talking points.23 Who Stole Feminism?, a classic among conservative “feminists” published the following year by Christina Hoff Sommers, similarly argues that “gender” or “radical” feminists lie about rates of rape and domestic violence. Speaking on campus sexual assault in 2014, Sommers, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, repeated the same themes of “false accusations” and “[i]nflated statistics,” declaring, “I believe that the rape culture movement is fueled by exaggerated claims of intimacy and a lot of paranoia about men.”24 A spokesperson for A Voice for Men (AVFM), one of the most prominent men’s rights organizations, rejected rape “hysteria…as a scam” and baselessly claimed that sexual assault affects only about two percent of women—far from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s one-in-five statistic.25

Although equity feminists reject the existence of structural constraints on women, like Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) they suggest that American boys and men suffer at the hands of gender feminists. In 2000, Sommers wrote The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, and a flurry of concern over boys’ educational achievements in 2013 landed her in major outlets including The New York Times, TIME Magazine, and The Atlantic. Psychologist Helen Smith, one of IWF’s “Modern Feminists,” suggested in 2012 that “the deck is so stacked against men that they are ‘going Galt,’” a reference to Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, an MRA favorite.26

Equity feminism’s depiction of women as liars with “victim mentalities” dovetails alarmingly with (and legitimizes) the online manifestation of the men’s rights movement, which uses more virulent and hateful rhetoric to convey the same argument.

Male Supremacist Harassment and Violence

Paul Elam has made attempts at a respectable mainstream image, organizing the movement’s first in-person conference. But he also has a history of advocating violence, writing that women who go clubbing are “begging” to be raped, and that “there are a lot of women who get pummeled and pumped because they are stupid (and often arrogant) enough to walk [through] life with the equivalent of a I’M A STUPID, CONNIVING BITCH—PLEASE RAPE ME neon sign glowing above their empty little narcissistic heads.”27

Another site Elam launched,, allowed men to post personal information for women they claim made false accusations (or otherwise outraged the movement) in order to target them for harassment. In 2011, feminist writer Jessica Valenti fled her house under a barrage of threats after her information appeared on this site.

Jack Donovan (photo: Zachary O. Ray via Wiki Commons).

Other strains of online male supremacism include pick-up artists (PUAs), who advocate male sexual entitlement and give sexist advice on seducing women; the Red Pill, a community named for a Matrix reference that seeks to awaken men to the “reality” of dominant “feminist culture”;28 Men Going Their Own Way, which advocates cutting ties with women; and Jack Donovan’s “gang masculinity,” which calls on men to form warrior gangs to escape domestication by women.29 Deviating from the online movement’s predominantly secular nature are Christian masculinists, who, as Dianna Anderson writes at Rewire, “have fused manosphere rhetoric with what they see as ‘biblical’ gender roles to envision a hierarchical, patriarchal ideal world.”30 These varied communities share adherents, though there is also conflict among their competing perspectives.

The virulent misogyny promoted by male supremacists, often couched as anti-feminism and accompanied by racism and nativism, has serious repercussions that play out on a global stage. In 1989, Marc Lépine killed 14 women at an engineering school in Montreal under the guise of “fighting feminism.”31 In 2009, George Sodini killed three women and then himself at a fitness class in Pennsylvania, leaving behind a website that complained about being rejected by women (and leading PUAs to coin the term “going Sodini”).32 Anders Breivik murdered 77 adults and children in Norway in 2011, leaving behind a manifesto attacking “the radical feminist agenda,” Islam, political correctness, and “Cultural Marxism” (see David Neiwart’s article in this issue).33 And in May 2014, Elliot Rodger set out to “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blonde slut” at the “hottest” sorority at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writing, “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you for it.”34 He ultimately killed six people and himself, though he failed to make it inside the sorority.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report editor-in-chief, Mark Potok, wrote, “Men’s rights activists did not tell Rodger to kill—but in their writings, it seems like many of them wouldn’t mind doing some killing of their own. Rodger said as much in his manifesto, writing that PUAHate ‘confirmed many of the theories I had about how wicked and degenerate women really are’ and showed him ‘how bleak and cruel the world is due to the evilness of women.’”35

Elliot Rodger’s story has parallels with that of White supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, convicted in 2016 of murdering nine Black congregants at a Charleston church.36 Though the media typically portrays such acts of right-wing violence as perpetrated by mentally disturbed individuals37—so-called “Lone Wolves”—as PRA contributor Naomi Braine writes, “a decision to act alone does not mean acting outside of social movement frameworks, philosophies, and networks.”38 Both young men encountered inaccurate and hateful rhetoric online that inflamed existing dissatisfactions by depicting them as victims.39 Thus, Lone Wolf violence emerges from a right-wing context “systematically erased” by media misrepresentation of these as isolated and irrational actors.

Some members of the male supremacist online movement hailed Rodger as a hero on messaging boards or Facebook fan pages.40 Others distanced themselves while defending their own misogynist content, much as the Council of Conservative Citizens, the White nationalist group Roof cited in his manifesto, claimed to condemn Roof’s violence while blaming society for ignoring White people’s “legitimate grievances.”41 Daryush Valizadeh (“Roosh V”), a professional PUA and founder of the site Return of Kings, argued, “Until you give men like Rodger a way to have sex, either by encouraging them to learn game, seek out a Thai wife, or engage in legalized prostitution…it’s inevitable for another massacre to occur.”42

Meanwhile, equity feminists stepped up to whitewash a clearly misogynist attack. IWF senior editor Charlotte Hays wrote that calling Rodger’s violence a “product of sexism” was a “bizarre response” by feminists.43

Video Games, Misogyny, and the Alt Right

Video games might not seem like a vital social justice battleground. However, as sociologist and gaming critic Katherine Cross has pointed out, the virulence of online White male reactions to increasing gender and racial diversity in game players and creators, and to critiques of the industry’s sexism, indicates a problem with dismissing this as a trivial issue.44 Only a few months after Rodger’s fatal 2014 attack, an incident dubbed “Gamergate,” ostensibly about gaming industry ethics and media corruption, resulted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) looking into the barrage of violent rape and death threats against women who criticized video games’ sexist portrayals of women and lack of diversity.45 Anita Sarkeesian, one of the primary targets, canceled a talk at Utah State University after the school received a threat to repeat Marc Lépine’s massacre and demonstrate “what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.”46 While circles of progressive female journalists took the movement behind Gamergate seriously, their voices were largely ignored by the mainstream media.47

Milo Yiannopoulos. Photo by Kmeron for LeWeb13 Conference via Flickr.

Through Gamergate, vocal misogynist personalities such as Mike Cernovich, associated with the pick-up artist community, and Milo Yiannopoulos, a Brietbart writer, expanded their online following, to be leveraged in future attacks on feminism and women. Yiannopoulos had over 300,000 Twitter followers at the time the social media platform finally banned him for offensive content in 2016; at the time of this writing he has more than 1.9 million Facebook likes and 568,000 subscribers on YouTube, in addition to his platform at Brietbart, where he has bragged about writing headlines such as “Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?”48 In “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” Yiannopoulos and co-author Allum Bokhari write, “The so-called online ‘manosphere,’ the nemeses of left-wing feminism, quickly became one of the alt-right’s most distinctive constituencies.”

The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz writes that Cernovich “developed a theory of white-male identity politics: men were oppressed by feminism, and political correctness prevented the discussion of obvious truths, such as the criminal proclivities of certain ethnic groups.”49 In 2016, in tweets that received more than 100 million views, Cernovich focused on supporting “unapologetically masculine” Trump and attacking Hillary Clinton with conspiracy theories regarding her failing health and emails.

Following Trump’s election, mainstream and progressive media outlets worried that using the movement’s chosen name, the Alt Right, helped euphemize and normalize old-fashioned bigotry. As Think Progress’ editors wrote, “[Alt Right Leader Richard] Spencer and his ilk are essentially standard-issue white supremacists who discovered a clever way to make themselves appear more innocuous—even a little hip”; their publication, they declared, wouldn’t do “racists’ public relations work for them.”50

But nowhere in this statement from a major progressive news outlet exists a single reference to sexism or misogyny—a glaring omission given its significance to the Alt Right’s mobilization to defeat the first woman to receive a major party nomination for president.51 Some respected outlets and organizations, including the Associated Press and SPLC, described the movement’s misogyny, but their recommended definitions referenced White nationalism, neglecting to acknowledge male supremacy as a core component.52,53 While some Alt Right leaders, such as former Breitbart executive (now Trump administration chief strategist) Stephen Bannon, hail from more racist corners of the umbrella movement, others, like Yiannopoulos and Cernovich, rose to prominence primarily on their misogynist rhetoric.

These omissions aren’t surprising. In a 2008 study, “The Absence of a Gender Justice Framework in Social Justice Organizing,” activist and consultant Linda Burnham wrote, “All too many organizers and activists affirm a commitment to women’s human rights or gender justice while having no clear idea of sexism as a systemic phenomenon with tangled historical, social, economic and cultural roots and multiple manifestations.” In her interviews of activists, Burnham found “the subordination of sexism as a legitimate concern among ‘competing isms’”; antipathy to the feminist movement (which is perceived as White); a feeling that “there’s already a level of equity and there’s no need to struggle over it anymore”; and a lack of tools for structural analysis.54 (Groups with a better intersectional approach, Burnham footnoted, included reproductive justice organizations like SisterSong.55)

Matthew N. Lyons, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, further argues that this heightened misogyny distinguishes the Alt Right from other White supremacist and neonazi mobilizations, which have practiced a “quasi-feminism” that viewed women as holding distinct but complementary gender roles important to the movement. Especially since the 1980s, Lyons writes, neonazi groups have increasingly lauded White women as “race warriors.”56

Some early Alt Right writers did encourage their compatriots to do more to attract women and root out sexual harassment.57 Now even that has disappeared. Today the movement is better characterized by dismissive ideology like that of White male supremacist Matt Forney, who asserts in a 2012 “anti-feminist classic” post on Alternative Right that women are “herd creatures” who are “unimportant” to the men who will make history. “Attempting to convince such flighty creatures to join the alt-right with logical arguments is like begging escaped inmates to please pretty please come back to the insane asylum.”58 Forney also argues that, “Every feminist, deep down, wants nothing more than a rapist’s baby in her belly.”59 Lyons writes:

Alt-rightists tell us that it’s natural for men to rule over women and that women want and need this, that “giving women freedom [was] one of mankind’s greatest mistakes,” that women should “never be allowed to make foreign policy [because] their vindictiveness knows no bounds,” that feminism is defined by mental illness and has turned women into “caricatures of irrationality and hysteria.”60

Richard Spencer, the now-infamous White nationalist leader credited with coining the term “Alt Right,” promotes male supremacist rhetoric that includes yet goes beyond traditional arguments for women belonging in the home. Along with his position on women’s “vindictiveness” (quoted by Lyons above), Spencer defended Trump against sexual assault accusations with the argument, “At some part of every woman’s soul, they want to be taken by a strong man.”61

Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who studies right-wing movements, describes the Alt Right’s assertion of women’s inferiority as “a sexist interpretation of xenophobia. It’s the same view they have of immigrants and minorities, that they’re threatening their way of life. A life where men are dominant. A life where they have privilege in virtually every domain.”62

Vox writer Aja Romano argues that misogyny is not only a significant part of the Alt Right, it’s the “gateway drug” for the recruitment of disaffected White men into racist communities.

Vox writer Aja Romano argues that misogyny is not only a significant part of the Alt Right, it’s the “gateway drug” for the recruitment of disaffected White men into racist communities. David Futrelle, a journalist who watches the men’s rights and other online misogynist movements, told Vox that it’s “close to impossible to overstate the role of Gamergate in the process of [alt-right] radicalization. … Gamergate was based on the same sense of aggrieved entitlement that drives the alt-right—and many Trump voters.” Within this narrative, Futrelle said, they saw their harassment of women as defending “an imperiled culture,” moving into other online enclaves populated by neonazis and White supremacists that recruited them for “fighting against ‘white genocide.’”63

2016 Election: Where Has This Misogyny Led Us?

In 2006, IWF Managing Director Carrie L. Lukas wrote, “In the past, victims of rape were made to feel that the crime was their fault. Many women around the world still suffer this bias. Today in the United States, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. A man accused of rape often is convicted in the court of public opinion without evidence.”64 Yet in Trump’s campaign, that was far from the case. Multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment against the Republican candidate were ignored throughout the campaign; when audio recordings exposing him admitting to sexual assault finally brought widespread attention to his treatment of women, he defended his comments as “locker-room talk.” And those comments did not ultimately cost him the election.

While IWF and equity feminism, like other libertarian ideologies, tend toward the conservative side of the political spectrum, there is more diversity there than among women in anti-feminist movements and the Christian Right. This allows the ideological tent to include Democrats like Christina Hoff Sommers, independents like former IWF president Michelle Bernard, and Republican women who might criticize aspects of their party’s gender dynamics. After applauding Sarah Palin for breaking free of sexist attempts to control her image as the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, in 2009, Bernard spoke of bright prospects ahead for Hillary Clinton: “She is incredibly smart, brilliant, an excellent campaigner, and I think her time will come.”65

However, misogynist and anti-feminist Rightist ideologies have taken a toll beyond leaders’ control. Though during the primaries IWF gave favorable attention to Carly Fiorina, the only female Republican candidate, a poll showed Trump leading the Republican pack among female voters. Historian Catherine Rymph explained that the exodus of feminism and women’s rights advocacy from the GOP means that, among those left, “voters, including women, who don’t like Democratic feminism or so-called ‘political correctness’ in general may very well find refreshing Trump’s delight in using language about women that many find offensive.”66 When then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly criticized Trump’s misogyny while moderating a 2015 primary debate, Trump responded, to audience cheers, that “the big problem this country has is being politically correct”—code for resistance to misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Trump went on to call Kelly a “bimbo” and imply she was menstruating. After Trump’s continued attacks on Twitter rallied online misogynists to further harassment, Kelly received death threats.67

For some equity feminists, it’s gone too far. IWF senior editor Charlotte Hays argues that Trump’s history of misogynist statements goes beyond “bucking political correctness.” In March 2016, Hays worried, “If Trump is the nominee, the [Leftist claims of a] ‘war on women’ will be back with a vengeance. And this time there will be a degree of fairness in the charge.”68 Sommers referred to Trump as an example of “amoral masculinity” that “preys on women.”69 She joined conservative female media pundits in calling for Trump to fire his original campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, after Brietbart News reporter Michelle Fields charged him with physically assaulting her.70 Trump denied Lewandowski’s culpability, only firing him three months later after apparently unrelated problems.71 And when former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed suit against CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment—which Kelly also reported experiencing—Trump asserted that Carlson’s accusations against his informal advisor were “Totally unfounded.”72

Fields resigned from Brietbart, which former executive and Trump senior strategist Stephen Bannon proudly called “the platform for the alt-right,”73 over the outlet’s inadequate response.74 Commenting on the successive Alt Right online harassment of Fields, Kelly said, “This woman hasn’t done anything wrong, anything, other than find herself on the wrong end of these folks, for whom she used to work.”75

Some equity feminists, like Sommers, may have expected their own elite conservative colleagues to be taken seriously, not realizing that the damage done in disparaging other women would find its way back to them. In response to Sommers’ criticism of Trump, Mike Cernovich disdainfully pointed out that she had previously “mocked women who played the damsel in distress.”76

On the other hand, the appreciation for Hillary Clinton’s political merits seems to have disappeared under IWF’s new leadership, which got on board with Trump after his nomination. Trump hired IWF board member Kellyanne Conway to replace Lewandowski as his new campaign manager, which followed the organization’s efforts to peddle palatable sexism under a female face. IWF’s campaign affiliate, Independent Women’s Voice (IWV), supported Trump’s campaign, with CEO Heather Higgins coming around to offer her full-throated support in the general election.77

The men’s rights movement lacked these internal divisions over Trump’s outright misogyny. Early in the primary season, members of online male supremacist communities touted Trump as an example of an “alpha” male given how “he insults and dominates women, preys on their insecurities and refuses to ever apologize for it.”78 And as though he was directly channeling men’s rights talking points, at a campaign rally in May 2016 Trump declared, “All of the men, we’re petrified to speak to women anymore. …You know what? The women get it better than we do, folks. They get it better than we do. If [Hillary Clinton] didn’t play [the woman] card, she has nothing.”79

While Trump’s rhetoric reflects MRA vitriol, it is the long fight against feminism by groups embraced in the mainstream, like equity feminists and Republican women, that legitimized the candidacy—and election—of an overt misogynist who has bragged about sexual assault.

While Trump’s rhetoric reflects MRA vitriol, it is the long fight against feminism by groups embraced in the mainstream, like equity feminists and Republican women, that legitimized the candidacy—and election—of an overt misogynist who has bragged about sexual assault.

Defending Gender Justice Post-Election

Trump’s rhetoric shares more in common with equity feminist and men’s rights ideologies than with “family values” framing—and with the reality of Christian Right misogyny, such as the vitriol of clinic protestors and the anti-feminism of the late Phyllis Schlafly, a staunch Trump supporter.

It will be important to track the growing connections between these secular and religious movements, bridged by an underlying misogyny, racism, and nativism, especially as individuals aligned with the Alt Right, like Bannon, and equity feminism, like Conway, gain influence. The seeds are already there. The libertarian Koch brothers, infamous major donors to libertarian and conservative causes, fund both IWF and CWA. Alt Right figures like blogger Matt Forney oppose reproductive rights, writing that pro-choice women have “evil” in their souls and that “Girls who kill their own children despise life itself and will do their best to destroy yours.”80 Pick-up artist communities advise members to seek submissive wives who can easily be controlled, and oppose abortion and contraception as a means of weighing them down with children.81 And, extending “father’s rights” arguments within the men’s rights movement, a Missouri lawmaker proposed in 2014 a bill requiring paternal consent to an abortion.82

The influence of ideology on the broader population, outside of active movement participants, bears particular importance with a president who uses his platform to broadcast virulent misogyny, racism, nativism, and Islamophobia.83 In tracking reported bias-related incidents since Election Day, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that perpetrators were most likely to explicitly reference Trump in anti-woman attacks—82 percent of the 45 reported incidents, more than double the next-highest rate.84 In multiple incidents of harassment of women, assailants from middle school boys to groups of adult men parroted Trump’s boast that he can “Grab [women] by the pussy.”85

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) originally claimed it was a “stretch” to “characterize [Trump’s comment] as sexual assault” (later backpedalling under questioning during his confirmation hearing for U.S. attorney general).86 Before Trump was even sworn in as president, his administration’s threat to reproductive rights, protections addressing violence against women and campus rape, and other women’s equality programs had already been made alarmingly clear.87 Under the Trump-Pence administration, threats will come from the Christian Right, conservative secular and libertarian groups, empowered White supremacist figures, and, of course, a President who’s shown his comfort with overt displays of racism, nativism, and misogyny. This disturbing combination may now jeopardize a wider expanse of policies reducing structural oppression that had seemed settled.

But the fact of this combined threat may also bring more dissenters into a more holistic response. Loretta Ross, a longtime reproductive justice and women’s human rights leader, is optimistic about the power vested in intersectional feminist organizing. “Now with the Women’s March on Washington using the ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights’ call for mobilizations in 616 simultaneous marches worldwide,” she wrote at Rewire, “I believe feminists in the United States have finally caught up to the rest of the global women’s movement. I feel like celebrating our inevitable progress toward victory for equality, dignity, and justice, despite the reasons we are marching in the first place: to unite to challenge the immoral and probably illegitimate presidency of Donald Trump.”88


1 David S. Cohen, “Trump’s Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think,” Rolling Stone, August 9, 2016,

2 Alex DiBranco and Chip Berlet, “The Ideological Roots of the Republican Party and its Shift to the Right in the 2016 Election,” working draft,

3 Matthew N.  Lyons, ThreeWayFight, Oct 1, 2005,

4 Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty,  “Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege,”  Political Research Associates, April 1, 2000,

5 Political Research Associates, Defending Reproductive Justice: An Activist Resource Kit. (Somerville: Political Research Associates, 2013),

6 Political Research Associates, Defending Reproductive Justice: An Activist Resource Kit. (Somerville: Political Research Associates, 2013),

7 Liz Welch, “6 Women on Their Terrifying, Infuriating Encounters With Abortion Clinic Protesters,” Feb 21, 2014,

8Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, The New Soft War on Women (New York: Tarcher, 2013), 85.

9 Alex DiBranco, “Profiles On The Right: Americans United For Life,” Political Research Associates, April 7, 2014,

10 Kevin Cirilli, “Trump Reverses on Abortion Ban, Saying Doctors, Not Women, Would Be Punished,” Bloomberg Politics, March 30, 2016,

11 Sarah Havard, “8 worst things Phyllis Schlafly ever said about women’s rights,” Identities.Mic, Sept 6, 2016,

12 Josh Israel, “Women From Koch-Funded Conservative Groups Lambaste Equal Pay Measure,” Think Progress, April 9, 2014,

13 Lisa Graves, “Confirmation: the Not-So Independent Women’s Forum Was Born in Defense of Clarence Thomas and the Far Right,” Center for Media and Democracy, April 21, 2016,

14 Alex DiBranco, Who Speaks for Conservative Women?,” Poltical Research Associates, June 9, 2015,

15 Andrew Belonsky, “Michelle Bernard: ‘The Republican Party Needs to Find Its Soul,’” Independent Women’s Forum,  April 9, 2009,‘The-Republican-Party-Needs-to-Find-Its-Soul’

16 As my 2015 article, “Who Speaks for Conservative Women?” explains, neoliberal feminism share significant ideological similarities with equity feminism in denying the impact of structural forces and arguing that women can get ahead through individual actions.

17Joan Walsh, “Meet the ‘Feminists’ Doing the Koch Brothers’ Dirty Work,” The Nation, August 18, 2016,

18 Megan Rosenfeld, “Feminist Fatales,”, The Washington Post, November 30, 1995,

19 Mariah Blake, “Mad Men: Inside the Men’s Rights Movement—and the Army of Misogynists and Trolls It Spawned,” Mother Jones, Jan/Feb 2015,

20 Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men—and Our Economy, New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2013, p 7.

21 Danielle Paquette, “The alt-right isn’t only about white supremacy. It’s about white male supremacy,” The Washington Post, Nov 25, 2016,

22Mariah Blake, ibid.

23 Tom McKay, “College President’s Horrifying Rape Comments Are Basically Conservative Dogma,” The Daily Banter, Nov 12, 2014,

24 Taylor Malmsheimer, “Conservatives Are Obsessed With Debunking the 1-in-5 Rape Statistic. They’re Wrong, Too,” New Republic, June 27, 2014,

25 Nicole Grether, “Men’s right activist: Feminists have used rape ‘as a scam,’” Aljazeera America, June 6, 2014,; Roni Caryn Rabin, “Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted,” December 14, 2011,

26 Charlotte Hays, “Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Helen Smith,” Independent Women’s Forum, Sept 19, 2012,

27 Alex DiBranco, “Men’s Rights Conference Host Says Women Who Drink & Dance Are ‘Begging’ for Rape,” July 2, 2014,; Adam Serwer and Katie J.M. Baker, “How Men’s Rights Leader Paul Elam Turned Being A Deadbeat Dad Into A Moneymaking Movement,” Buzzfeed News, Feb 6, 2015,

28 Comment on TheRedPill, an “official subreddit of TRP.RED”:

29 Matthew N. Lyons, Jack Donovan on men: a masculine tribalism for the far right,” Three Way Fight, Nov 23, 2015,

30Dianna Anderson, “ MRAs for Jesus: A Look Inside the Christian ‘Manosphere’,” Rewire, Sept 30, 2014,

31 Arthur Goldwag, Leader’s Suicide Brings Attention to the Men’s Rights Movement,”, Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, March 1, 2012,

32Nicky Woolf, “’PUAhate’ and ‘ForeverAlone’: inside Elliot Rodger’s online life,” The Guardian, May 20, 2014,

33 Mariah Blake, ibid.

34  Mark Potok, “War On Women,” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, August 20, 2014,

35 Mark Potok, ibid.

36 Rebecca Hersher, “Jury Finds Dylann Roof Guilty In S.C. Church Shooting,” NPR, December 15, 2016,

37 Mark Berman, ibid.


39 Mark Berman, “Prosecutors say Dylann Roof ‘self-radicalized’ online, wrote another manifesto in jail,” The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2016,

40Adi Kochavi, “The Sad Heroification of Elliot Rodger,” Vocative, May 25, 2014,

41 Earl Holt III, “ Media Interviews with the CofCC,” June 21, 2015,

42 Roosh Valizadeh, “No One Would Have Died If PUAHate Killer Elliot Rodger Learned Game,” Return of Kings, May 25, 2014,

43 Charlotte Hays, “”Toxic Feminism:” Cathy Young Dissects the Bizarre Response to a Mass Murder”, Independent Women’s Forum,  May 30, 2014,

44 Katherine Cross, “What ‘GamerGate’ Reveals About the Silencing of Women,” Rewire, Sept 9 2014,

45Caitlin Dewey, “The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read,” The Washington Post, Oct 14, 2014,

46Nadine Santoro, “USU Shooting Threat: This Isn’t A Game,” Disrupting Dinner Parties, Nov 10, 2014,

47  Jaclyn Friedman, “A Look Inside the ‘Men’s Rights’ Movement That Helped Fuel California Alleged Killer Elliot Rodger,” The American Prospect,  Oct 24, 2013,; Amanda Hess, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” Pacific Standard magazine,  Jan 6, 2014,

48 Abby Ohlheiser, “Just how offensive did Milo Yiannopoulos have to be to get banned from Twitter?,” The Washington Post, July 21, 2016,

49 Andrew Marantz, “Trolls for Trump,” The New Yorker Magazine, Oct 31, 2016,

50 Editorial Staff, “ThinkProgress will no longer describe racists as ‘alt-right’,” Think Progress, Nov 22, 2016,

51 Susan Faludi, “How Hillary Clinton Met Satan,” The New York Times, Oct 29, 2016,

52 John Daniszewski, “Writing about the ‘alt-right’,” Associated Press, Nov 18, 2016,

53 Josh Harkinson, “We Talked to Experts About What Terms to Use for Which Group of Racists,” Dec 8, 2016,

54 Linda Burnham, “The Absence of a Gender Justice Framework in Social Justice Organizing,” Center for the Education of Women: University of Michigan, July 2008,

55 While the women of color-led “reproductive justice” framework advocated by organizations like SisterSong provides an example for incorporating analysis of race, gender, class, and other intersectional issues, it should not be expected to substitute for a gender justice and women’s human rights frame in social justice organizing. Though intended to include economic issues and gender-based rape and violence, which leaders like Loretta Ross had backgrounds working on, the “reproductive” label maintains a particular focus. “Gender justice” (Burnham also uses the term “social justice feminism”) shifts the emphasis to meet the challenges of a broader misogynist movement—with religious and secular expressions—that poses threats in terms of reproductive control, sexual harassment and assault, violence against women, workplace sexism and wage discrimination, and other gender-based oppressions.

56 Matthew N. Lyons, “Alt-right: more misogynistic than many neonazis,” ThreeWayFight, December 3, 2016,

57Matthew N. Lyons, “ Ctrl-Alt-Delete: The origins and ideology of the Alternative Right”, Jan 20, 2017,

58Matt Forney, “Who Cares What Women Think” Alterative Right, Jan 29, 2015,

59 Matt Forney, “Why Feminists Want Men to Rape Them,” Matt, Feb 26, 2016,

60 Matthew N. Lyons, “Alt-right: more misogynistic than many neonazis,” ThreeWayFight, December 3, 2016,

61 Sarah Posner, “ Meet the Alt-Right ‘Spokesman’ Who’s Thrilled With Trump’s Rise,” Rolling Stone Magazine, October 18, 2016,

62 Danielle Paquette, “The alt-right isn’t only about white supremacy. It’s about white male supremacy,” The Washington Post, Nov 25, 2016,

63 Aja Romano, “How the Alt-Right’s Sexism Lures Men into White Supremacy,” Dec 14, 2016, m/culture/2016/12/14/13576192/alt-right-sexism-recruitment

64 Carrie L Lucas, “One in Four? Rape myths do injustice, too,” Independent Women’s Forum, April 27, 2006,

65 Andrew Belonsky, “Michelle Bernard: ‘The Republican Party Needs to Find Its Soul,’” Independent Women’s Forum,  April 9, 2009,‘The-Republican-Party-Needs-to-Find-Its-Soul’

66 Nia-Malika Henderson, “ Donald Trump’s nonexistent problem with GOP women,” CNN, Spet 11, 2015,

67 Rich Hampson, “Exclusive: Fox anchor Megyn Kelly describes scary, bullying ‘Year of Trump’,” USA Today, Nov 15, 2016,

68 Charlotte Hays, “Donald Trump Breathes New Life into Left’s War on Women,”, March 18, 2016,  Independent Women’s Forum,

69 Christina Hoff Sommers, “‘Amoral masculinity’: a theory for understanding Trump from feminist contrarian Christina Hoff Sommers,” American Enterprise Institute,  Nov 2, 2016

70 Dylan Byers, “Conservative female pundits want Donald Trump to fire his campaign manager,” CNN Money, March 30, 2016,

71 Maggie Haberman, Alexander Burns, and Ashley Parker, “Donald Trump Fires Corey Lewandowski, His Campaign Manager,” June 20, 2016,

72 Eddie Scarry, “Trump defends Roger Ailes from sexual harassment accusations,” The Washington Examiner, July 14, 2016,

73 Sarah Posner, “How Stephen Bannon Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones, Aug 2, 1016,

74 Cassandra Vinograd, “Breitbart’s Michelle Fields and Three Others Resign Over Trump Incident”, NBC News,  March 14, 2016,

75 Brendan Karet, “Right-Wing Civil War: Megyn Kelly Trades Barbs With Breitbart Editor-At-Large Over Dangers Of Empowering “Alt-Right”,” Media Matters for America, Dec 7, 2016,

76 Mike Cernovich, “16 Feminists Who Have Taken Over ‘Conservative’ Media,” Danger & Play, March 30, 2016,

77 ExposedByCMDEditors, “‘Independent’ Women’s Group Backing Trump Skirts Law to Influence Election,” Center  For Media and Democracy, Nov 1, 2016,

78 Tracy Clark-Flory and Leigh Cuen, “Donald Trump Has The Pickup Artist Vote In The Bag,” Vocative, Aug 24, 2015,

79 Tim Hains, “Trump: Men Today ‘Are Petrified To Speak To Women Anymore,’ ‘Women Get It Better Than We Do, Folks’” Real Clear Politics, May 8, 2016,

80 Matt Forney, “Why You Should Shun Girls Who Support Abortion,” Return of Kings, Aug 18, 2016

81 Hesse Kassel, “5 Lines That Potential Wives Cannot Cross,” Return of Kings, Nov 11, 2014,

82 Amanda Marcotte, “Missouri lawmaker uses ‘men’s rights’ talking points to justify abortion restriction,” Raw Story, Dec 17, 2014,

83 Melissa Jeltsen, “Trump’s Election Raises Fears Of Increased Violence Against Women,” The Huffington Post, Nov 15, 2016,

84 Hatewatch Staff, “Update: 1,094 Bias-Related Incidents in the Month Following the Election,” Southern Poverty Law Center Hatewatch, Dec 16, 2016,

85 Cassie Miller and Alexandra Werner-Winslow, “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election,” Southern Poverty Law Center, Nov 29, 2016,; Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Trump Was Recorded in 2005 Bragging About Grabbing Women ‘by the Pussy,’” Slate, October 7, 2016,

86 Ryan J. Reilly, “ Jeff Sessions Now Admits Grabbing A Woman By The Genitals Is Sexual Assault,” The Huffington Post, Jan 10, 2017,; Scott Glover, “Colleague, transcripts offer closer look at old allegations of racism against Sen. Jeff Sessions” CNN, Jan 10 2017,

87 Alex Brandon, “Trump says his Supreme Court nominees will be ready to take on abortion ruling,” The Columbus Dispatch, Nov 27, 2016,; Katie Van Syckle, “Here’s What a Trump Administration Could Mean for Campus Sexual Assault,” New York Magazine, Jan 18, 2017,; Mark Landler, “Transition Team’s Request on Gender Equality Rattles State Dept.,” The New York Times, Dec 22, 2016,; Spohia Tesfaye, “Donald Trump will adopt Heritage Foundation’s “skinny budget”: Arts, violence against women funding to be cut,” Salon, Jan 19, 2017,

88 Loretta Ross, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights and the Women’s March on Washington,” Rewire, Jan 19, 2017,

Who Speaks for Conservative Women?

“Feminisms” for Life, Liberty, and Politics

Public Eye Spring 2015 CoverThis article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

When the planned vote on a harsh new 20-week abortion ban went off the rails in January, liberal news outlets gloated while conservative commentators fumed over what they respectively called a Republican congresswomen “revolt” or “mutiny.”

At the beginning of the year, GOP leadership scheduled a high-profile vote on the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” to coincide with the 2015 March for Life, the annual protest of Roe v. Wade. They had a Congressional majority and expected smooth passage of the bill. But, to their surprise, female House representatives balked at the bill’s draconian rape and incest exemption, which would have forced survivors to file a police report before they could access an abortion. The Republican dissenters—primarily women, joined by a couple of moderate male allies—thought the provision was tone-deaf and would turn off women and millennial voters.1 The memory of Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” gaffe loomed in the background. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) chastised her party, arguing that Republicans could no longer afford to appear “harsh and judgmental” now that they control both the House and Senate.2 Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the legislation’s lead co-sponsor, passionately criticized her party for yet again letting insensitivity about rape derail Republicans’ agenda.3

Most strikingly, the female opposition was led by anti-abortion stalwarts with strong right-wing credentials, namely Ellmers and Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN). None of the dissenting congresswomen identify as pro-choice; all had received approval from the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) and Concerned Women for America (CWA)—two powerful and well-funded right-wing organizations—for their solid track records on limiting abortion rights; and Ellmers and Blackburn had received honors from the libertarian Independent Women’s Forum in 2014.

As an Indiana state legislator, Walorski killed a hate crimes bill by adding fetuses as a protected class, and called for an investigation of Planned Parenthood for allegedly covering up rape.4 Ellmers joined Congress in 2010 on a Tea Party wave, endorsed by Sarah Palin, and was an enthusiastic participant in the Koch-backed attack on healthcare reform.5 Blackburn boasts an unblemished record of over a decade of anti-abortion votes in Congress. And they all appeared untroubled by voting for the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” the bill Republicans instead passed for the Roe anniversary. In other words, these women were not the RINOs—Republicans In Name Only— whom you might expect to block an anti- abortion bill.

The controversy’s significance lies in pitting Republican congresswomen not only against the majority of their male colleagues—who, as Abby Scher writes in The Progressive, rely on them as “front- women to sell [the party’s] regressive policies”6—but also against the major conservative women’s movement organizations and female anti-abortion advocates who backed the reporting requirement. And it was not the only incident in the last year that put female politicians and advocacy leaders from organizations such as CWA and SBA at odds, as part of a legitimacy contest over who speaks for conservative women.

A young woman takes part in the 2015 March for Life in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Elvert Barnes.

A young woman takes part in the 2015 March for Life in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Elvert Barnes.


In 1979, the rise of feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment motivated conservative evangelical Beverly LaHaye to found Concerned Women for America, established as an overtly anti-feminist female voice. Yet CWA has clung to relevance over the years, better than infamous anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, by demonstrating its adaptability in toning down strident anti-feminist language and laying claim to pro-life feminist arguments when convenient, as when a CWA publication asserted in 2003, “Today’s feminists wrongly claim kinship to feminism’s founders, thereby cloaking their radicalism in the early movement’s popularity and moral authority.”7 In Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America, religious studies professor Leslie Dorrough Smith explains the shifting rhetoric was spurred by the need “to appear progressive and yet simultaneously traditional, a move perhaps motivated by its need to recruit and maintain younger members as well as to prove its political relevance” in a society which likes what feminism has accomplished even if it doesn’t always accept the movement itself.8

Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential candidacy and membership in the organization Feminists for Life brought increased attention in recent years to “conservative feminism,” a movement that says it represents the true legacy of “the original feminists,” claiming for itself the banner of the women’s suffragists—rather than that of the conservative women who fought voting rights. Importantly for Republicans, whose base trends older and male, the brand was seen as resonating with youth and women.9 The appeal of conservative feminism neither began nor ended with Palin’s failed campaign. For decades, there have been two streams of conservative movement “feminism”— one for life, and one for liberty. Feminists for Life (FFL), founded in 1972, was the original “pro-life feminist” group, touting its history of supporting women’s rights initiatives such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). FFL never achieved the prominence of better-funded Christian Right organization that took over the “protect women” frame as a convenient (albeit substance-free) marketing strategy as Schlafly’s brand of traditional anti-feminism lost appeal. The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) has pushed a brand of free market feminism, also known as equity feminism, since 1992.10 For the Right Wing to appear legitimate, women’s and women-led organizations must be at the forefront of opposition to abortion rights and other policies affecting women.11


“Since 1973, it’s been the same thing: One side of the abortion wars yells, ‘What about the woman?’ Instead of yelling back, ‘What about the baby?’ Feminists for Life answers the question,” FFL president Serrin Foster explains, insisting that their feminism is not a “strategy” or “ploy.”12 But the anti-abortion movement’s pervasive “abortion as harm to women” frame looks very much like a ploy when deployed by organizations like CWA or SBA. Political Research Associates’ Defending Reproductive Justice Activist Resource Kit describes how Christian Right organizations like CWA, the National Right to Life Committee (founded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), Family Research Council, and the extensive crisis pregnancy center network market themselves as concerned for women—not just fetuses—through extensive misrepresentations of the medical hazards of abortion and a fabricated “post-abortion syndrome.”13 (The Christian Right deployed a similar strategy in co-opting the ex-gay movement in the 1990s to put a more compassionate face on their homophobic agenda.14)

FFL’s $300,000 budget—far greater than other small feminist pro-life groups, such as the tiny coalition of secular and Democratic anti-abortion organizations that rallied at the margins of the 2015 March for Life15—is negligible compared to the five or six million dollars in the coffers of Christian Right organizations like CWA (which has millions more in its PAC), SBA, and the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and American Life League (single-issue anti-abortion organizations both led by women). Anti-abortion advocates point to their marginalized pro-life feminist groups as evidence of the movement’s pro-woman nature, while actually giving most funding to organizations where concern for women is no more than a marketing device.16 Even though Palin’s FFL membership brought attention to the phenomenon of conservative feminism, organizations like SBA and CWA swiftly coopted both the brand and the cash. (This includes donations from the Koch brothers, who fund Christian Right movement organizations with the mobilization capacity and willingness to support “free enterprise” along with their culture wars agenda.)

The Susan B. Anthony List—named for one of conservatives’ favorite “reclaimed” historical feminists—illustrates the financial rewards of using feminism as a brand rather than an ideology. In 1992, FFL leadership founded SBA as a bipartisan, anti-abortion counterpart to EMILY’s List, which helps elect women politicians. But after former FFL president and SBA co-founder Rachel MacNair left for graduate school in the mid-1990s, she says, “Republicans took over.”17 Co-founder Marjorie Dannenfelser, a former Heritage Foundation employee, assumed the SBA presidency and aligned the organization with a network of well-funded Christian Right organizations.18 SBA almost completely stopped backing Democrats and began diverting funds to male candidates running against pro-choice women, prioritizing a hard-right stance over the founding mission of cultivating female candidates.19

In 2013, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the American Bridge Project published a joint report on SBA, finding an extensive anti-woman track record. The organization backs candidates who oppose legal abortion even in cases of rape or incest, who support criminalizing women for obtaining abortions, and who voted against equal pay legislation and VAWA. SBA supported candidate Todd Akin after he stated that “legitimate rape” cannot lead to pregnancy, as well as Indiana Tea Party senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock when he called pregnancies that result from rape a “gift from God.” Then SBA launched a training program to prevent Republican men from continuing to make these public gaffes—a far cry from their founding goal of electing women representatives to fight for women’s interests.20 In Righting Feminism, Ronnee Schreiber suggests that one reason right-wing women’s organizations like CWA and SBA eschew “the strategy of getting more women into public office is that empirical studies suggest that women elected officials tend to be more liberal than their male counterparts within the same party.”21 In order to successfully pursue a hardline agenda against women’s bodily integrity, SBA abandoned its woman-centered founding purpose and updated its mission to include electing “pro-life men” who “oppose pro-abortion women”—a policy that would inevitably decrease the total number of women elected representatives.

U.S. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

U.S. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

FFL lost control not only over its child organization, SBA, but the entire “pro- life feminist” brand. Today, CWA and SBA have spawned a new generation of young pro-life “feminists,” beloved by the anti-abortion movement, like Lila Rose, who published an opinion piece in Politico in 2012 titled “Battle Hymn of the Anti-Abortion Feminist.”22 Her organization, Live Action, exploits concern for women and girls to promote its Planned Parenthood sting videos, accusing the clinics of enabling “gendercide,” rape, and human trafficking.23 Rose capitalized on the tragic death of a 24-year-old following an abortion procedure, calling her “the true face of the ‘War on Woman.’”24 Her hardline positions on abortion and contraception belie her claims to care about women, as she blithely opposes even life-saving abortions as “never medically necessary.”25 In its few years of existence, Live Action already has more than double the budget of FFL, with 2013 revenues of nearly a million dollars. In the world of pro-life feminism, FFL demonstrates, it doesn’t pay to live up to the label.


In her 1994 book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers applauds the achievements of women suffragists as “classically liberal” feminists, but argues that now U.S. women have achieved equality of opportunity. Equity feminists—Sommers’ term for a form of free market or libertarian feminism—support legal rights for women but deny the existence of structural forces constricting women’s advancement. They chalk present-day disparities in the U.S. up to intrinsic sex differences, condemn “war on women” rhetoric as infantilizing, and argue that valid feminism must focus on “real” oppression in less developed countries.26 Equity feminists accuse “gender feminists”—by which they mean mainstream feminists—of lying about statistics on violence against women and exaggerating rape culture as part of a victimhood narrative. They imply that female students often lie about being raped when they regret “hooking up,” attracting media attention by offering dissident women’s critiques of the rapidly growing movement against campus rape.27

On the other hand, equity feminists suggest that American boys and men suffer at the hands of gender feminists. In 2013, concern over boys’ educational achievements brought Sommers’ message to mainstream media outlets including The New York Times, TIME, and The Atlantic. Their hostility toward gender feminists and skepticism of rape survivors dovetails alarmingly with—and gives the legitimacy of women’s voices to—the misogynist ideology of the Men’s Rights Movement.28

The free market feminist belief in individual empowerment shares ideological similarities with neoliberal feminism, exemplified by works such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and some adherents (including Sommers herself) identify as Democrats,29 although the movement organizations all sit within the conservative network. An American Enterprise Institute (AEI) article, reposted by the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), argues, “Feminists hate Lean In because, as Republican Party activist Ann Stone commented from the audience, Sandberg ‘stuck a knife in the breast of [female] victimhood big-time.’” One of the largest groups in the movement, the IWF— of which Sommers is the advisory board chair—developed out of a group formed to help defend Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment.30

Today organized free market feminism is a small and closely interlinked network that, thanks to its economic conservatism, reaps support from right-wing groups like the massive AEI and substantial donations from the Koch family foundations or through Donors Trust/Donors Capital Fund, which Andy Kroll at Mother Jones calls “the dark-money ATM of the right.”31 IWF received $1.8 million from Donors Trust/Capital in 2012 and also receives funding from the well-known conservative Bradley and Scaife foundations. In March 2015, IWF demonstrated support for another infamous Koch-funded organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in honoring CEO Lisa B. Nelson in its “Modern Feminist” feature.32

Like those who claim “pro-life feminism,” free market feminist organizations recognize the value of reaching a younger generation. Sommers’ caricature of gender feminism—as exaggerating the oppression of U.S. women—continues to attract female students 20 years later, while the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute ($1.5 million budget) trains young women to “take back feminism.” The small Network of enlightened Women (NeW), whose president is an IWF fellow, also works on campuses. And in 2013, AEI refreshed the equity brand by publishing Sommers’ new book, Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today, as part of a Values & Capitalism series for Christian college students.

IWF avoids culture war issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, though it defends gun rights and opposes education on climate change, which can encourage restrictions on the free market. Though primarily affiliated with conservative organizations, equity feminists include individuals who identify as pro-choice, secular or atheist, or Democratic.33 This keeps them from playing with—and receiving funding from—the larger and more powerful Christian Right operations like CWA. But they at times follow different paths to the same position. For instance, On the Issues summarizes the vehement opposition to VAWA as falling into “two broadly ideological areas—that the law is an unnecessary overreach by the federal government [free market feminism], and that it represents a ‘feminist’ attack on family values [pro-life feminism].”34 CWA also draws on the equity feminist justification for opposing equal pay legislation—that wage disparities result from women’s “choices,” and government regulations that address the income gap would thus interfere with women’s exercise of choice—demonstrating the shared free market influence that helps Christian Right organizations win the Koch brothers’ largesse and protects equity feminism from total isolation.35


When Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) first introduced the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in 2013, he modeled the legislation after the NRLC’s proposed bill, which lacked any rape and incest exemption. Defending this, Franks asserted that “the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” triggering swift comparisons to Todd Akin’s famous faux pas in 2012. Republican House leadership went into damage control mode, putting their female colleagues in charge of the floor debate to deflect criticism, with Blackburn as lead co-sponsor.36 They also added a rape and incest exemption, modified with the police-reporting requirement to satisfy anti-abortion organizations including SBA and CWA (which, an Ellmers aide told a constituent on tape, insisted on its inclusion).37

But compromise came with a cost. Though NRLC accepted the weakening of their model bill, its Georgia chapter was outraged by the deal and broke away to form the even more hardline National Personhood Alliance.38 This loss of face likely contributed to the NRLC’s refusal to compromise further and risk denunciation from their right flank. NRLC president Carol Tobias vehemently condemned the congresswomen and men “who metaphorically stabbed a knife in the back of all the pro-lifers who voted for them.”39 Some abortion opponents advocated returning to the original bill, suggesting that the reporting requirement would not be a problem if they removed the exemption altogether.

Despite a meeting between the male Republican leadership and the group of concerned congresswomen—it’s rare for women legislators to rate so much time with the leadership—the impasse between these two influential bodies of conservative women, the elected officials, and the organizational leaders, thwarted compromise.40

The January upset came within a year of another schism that pitted Republican congresswomen against Christian Right women’s organizations. In May 2014, Blackburn, Ellmers, Walorski, and all but two of the Republican women then in Congress ended up on the opposite side of CWA and SBA over legislation for a National Women’s History Museum. (One of the museum’s two female opponents was Tea Party favorite and then representative Michele Bachmann, who herself appears in an exhibit.) Along with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, the Family Research Council, and Heritage Action, the conservative women’s organizations denounced the proposed museum as a biased “national shrine to abortion” that would “fuel the radical feminist movement for decades to come.” Blackburn, the lead Republican co-sponsor of the bi-partisan bill, offered CWA president Peggy Nance a seat on the museum’s board to attempt to win the conservative organization’s support. Nance refused unless she or another right-wing leader could serve as chair.41 IWF and its sister organizations stayed out of the fight, but a couple of connections suggested a measure of support for the museum: IWF has praised as a “modern feminist” one of the museum’s three founders, Ann Stone, who still sits on the museum’s board along with a Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute board member.42

When the museum bill passed with an overwhelming majority, Sarah Mimms at the National Journal summarized the moral: “The message from the Republican majority to the outside groups opposing the bill is clear: You’re not helping.” She warned that, given the widening gender gap between the parties, “Republican opposition to a bipartisan legislation for a museum celebrating the accomplishments of women” would backfire at the polls.43

Despite the conflict over the museum, Ellmers, Walorski, and Blackburn looked like they followed the Palin brand until this January, when the battle over Franks’ abortion bill took the underlying conflicts to a new level. While Christian Right women’s organizations reacted to the Republican congresswomen’s actions as a betrayal, and free market feminist organizations steered clear of the debate, that doesn’t mean the dissident GOP congresswomen are simply more closely aligned with free market feminism. While the less-funded free market or equity feminist network might benefit from embracing the congresswomen’s position, they were founded on and continue to promote a dismissive approach to sexual harassment, rape culture, and violence against women. Contrast that with congresswomen like Ellmers, who has gone against the conservative grain to co-sponsor proposed legislation addressing campus sexual assault. Even on VAWA, while Blackburn, Ellmers, and eight other Republican congresswomen voted no on reauthorization, Walorski and the majority of female GOP representatives (including all female senators) bucked their party and both conservative movement feminisms to vote yes.

The divide among conservative women seems to speak to a larger sense among GOP congresswomen of what their party must do to appeal to women—a serious concern given that “polls showed women tend to see Republicans as ‘intolerant, lacking in compassion and stuck in the past.’”44 In December 2014, Blackburn joined Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) and then Rep.-elect Barbara Comstock (R-VA) in a panel at Politico’s Women Rule Summit (co-sponsored by the Tory Burch Foundation and Google), titled “Conservative Feminists: Why It’s Not an Oxymoron.” During the discussion, Brooks, who hails from the same state as candidate Richard Mourdock, was asked to comment on his remarks on rape. “We took a stand as Republican women, and said, ‘This is not our party,’” Brooks said, adding that Republicans shouldn’t allow the GOP to be branded by such remarks.45 This was a marked departure from SBA’s decision to stand behind Mourdock despite his offensive comments.

A conservative women’s movement prioritizing bipartisan work to promote women’s accomplishments and taking a more positive approach to sexual violence—whether motivated by branding or substance—would significantly break with the existing right-wing base, even if it otherwise retains stringently anti-choice and free market positions.

Since Christian Right women’s organizations cater to a male-dominated movement in holding a hardline stance, their position is unlikely to soften. The Republican congresswomen testing out this third way risk incurring the wrath of influential female Christian Right leaders (and their male backers) who stand for ever more extreme right-wing policies. When the Franks bill ultimately failed, anti-abortion blogger Jill Stanek and Students for Life America president Kristan Hawkins promptly organized young women to protest at Ellmers’ office during the March for Life, countering Ellmers’ stated concerns about losing millennial votes with a “new poll,” from right-wing Catholic group Knights of Columbus, purporting to show that millennials are “a pro-life generation.”46 Asked whether Ellmers would face a primary challenge, SBA president Dannenfelser responded decisively: “That tidal wave has already begun….That’s going to happen, and she deserves it.”47

Alex DiBranco studies social movements and nonprofit organizations as a sociology Ph.D. student at Yale, analyzing the U.S. Christian Right and reproductive rights and justice movements. She is a Public Eye editorial board member and has been published in outlets including The Nation, Alternet and RH Reality Check.


1. Paige Winfield Cunningham. (2015). “Renee Ellmers explains stance against abortion bill.” Washington Examiner. Online at ellmers-explains-stance-against- abortion-bill/article/2559085.

2. Ibid.

3. Daniel Newhauser and Lauren Fox. (2015). “GOP Leaders Pull Abortion Bill After Revolt by Women, Moderates.” National Journal. Online at http://www. leaders-pull-abortion-bill-after-revolt- by-women-moderates-20150121.

4. Bill Browning. (2009). “The nexus: Abortion zealot Jackie Walorski and Indiana’s hate crimes legislation.” Huffington Post. Online at http://www. nexus-abortion-zealot_b_157628.html.

5. “The Ten Scariest Republicans Heading to Congress.” People for the American Way. Online at http:// ten-scariest-republicans-heading-to- congress#ellmers.

6. Abby Scher. (2015). “The New Face Of Republican Women in Congress.” The Progressive. Online at news/2015/03/188022/new-face- republican-women-congress.

7. Leslie Dorrough Smith. (2014).Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 121.

8. Ibid.

9. Abby Scher. (2008). “Post-Palin Feminism.” Political Research Associates. Online at http://www. post-palin-feminism/.

10. Ibid.

11. Lisa Miller. (2011). “A feminine face for the antiabortion movement.” The Washington Post. Online at http:// on-faith/a-feminine-face-for-the-anti- abortion-movement/2011/11/02/ gIQAwd7kiM_story.html.

12. Emily Bazelon. (2007). “Suffragette City.” Mother Jones. Online at politics/2007/01/suffragette-city.

13. “Defending Reproductive Justice: Activist Resource Kit.” Political Research Associates. Online at reproductive-justice-activist-resource-kit-2/.

14. (1998). “Challenging the Ex-Gay Movement: An Information Packet.” Political Research Associates. Online at content/uploads/downloads/2012/11/ ChallengingExGay.pdf.

15. Robin Marty. (2015). “Joining the other side.” Contributoria. Online at https://www. 02/5489c05855f1bf033400004b.

16. Emily Bazelon. (2007). “Suffragette City.” Mother Jones. Online at politics/2007/01/suffragette-city.

17. Kate Sheppard. (2012). “Susan B. Anthony List Founder: Republicans Hijacked My PAC!” Mother Jones. Online at politics/2012/02/susan-b-anthony-list- sharp-right-turn-rachel-macnair.

18. Monica Potts. (2012). “Susan B. Anthony’s Hit List.” The American Prospect. Online at article/susan-b-anthonys-hit-list.

19. Valerie Richardson. (1992). “Feminist launches PAC for pro-lifers.” The Washington Times. Online at https:// usenet/americast/twt/news/596.

20. “Susan B. Anthony List’s Anti- Choice Machine.” NARAL Pro-Choice America. (2014). Online at http://www. list-report/.

21. Ronnee Schreiber. (2008). Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 52.

22. Lila Rose. (2012). “Battle hymn of the anti-abortion feminist.” Politico. Online at news/stories/0412/74739.html.

23. Remington Shepard and Kevin Zieber. (2012). “Right-Wing Media Hype Discredited Activist’s Latest Bogus Planned Parenthood Attack.” Media Matters. Online at http://mediamatters. org/research/2012/05/29/right-wing- media-hype-discredited-activists- lat/185033.

24. “Defending Reproductive Justice: Activist Resource Kit.” Political Research Associates. Online at kit-2/.

25. Laura Bassett. (2013). “Lila Rose: Beatriz Doesn’t Need A Life-Saving Abortion.” Huffington Post. Online at http://www.huffingtonpost. com/2013/05/31/lila-rose-beatriz- abortion_n_3367595.html.

26. Christina Hoff Sommers. (2015). “The Buckley Program at Yale Lecture Series Jan. 22, 2015.” Online at t701RfOEM.

27. Charlotte Hays. (2015). “Caroline Kitchens.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at modern-feminist/2796105/ CAROLINE-KITCHENS.

28. Arthur Goldwag. (2012). “Leader’s Suicide Brings Attention to Men’s Rights Movement.” Southern Poverty Law Center.Online at http://www.splcenter. org/get-informed/intelligence-report/ browse-all-issues/2012/spring/a-war- on-women.

29. Alex DiBranco. (2015). “Letter to the Editor.” The Public Eye, Winter 2015. Online at resources/magazine.

30. “Independent Women’s Forum.” Online at http:// Independent_Women%27s_Forum.

31. Andy Kroll. (2013). “Exposed: The Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement.” Mother Jones. Online at politics/2013/02/donors-trust-donor- capital-fund-dark-money-koch-bradley- devos.

32. Charlotte Hays. (2015). “ALEC CEO Lisa B. Nelson.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at modern-feminist/2796644/ALEC-CEO- LISA-B.-NELSON.

33. “Independent Women’s Forum.” Online at http:// Independent_Women%27s_Forum.

34. (2010). “Renee Ellmers on Civil Rights.” On the Issues. Online at http:// Ellmers_Civil_Rights.htm.

35. Concerned Women for America staff. (2014). “Paycheck Fairness Act (S.2199) Opposition Letter.” Concerned Women for America. Online at http:// s-2199-opposition-letter/.

36. Kathryn Smith and Ginger Gibson. (2013). “Trent Franks: ‘Incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low.’” Politico. Online at http://www. franks-incidence-of-rape-resulting- in-pregnancy-are-very-low-92650. html#ixzz3QRMIwJQA.

37. Miranda Blue. (2015). “Anti-Choice Women’s Groups Reportedly Pushed For Rape Reporting Requirement In Abortion Ban.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/anti-choice-womens- groups-reportedly-pushed-rape- reporting-requirement-abortion-ban.

38. Miranda Blue. (2014). “Spurned Georgia Group Launching Even More Extreme Rival To National Right To Life Committee.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/spurned-georgia-group- launching-even-more-extreme-rival- national-right-life-committee.

39. (2015). “Elected Officials Who Betray Unborn Babies Have to Go.” National Right to Life News Today. Online at http://www.nationalrighttolifenews. org/news/2015/01/elected-officials- who-betray-unborn-babies-have-to- go/.

40. Ed O’Keefe. (2015). “Abortion bill dropped amid concerns of female GOP lawmakers.” The Washington Post. Online at http://www. politics/wp/2015/01/21/abortion-bill- in-flux-as-female-gop-lawmakers-raise- concerns/.

41. Miranda Blue. (2014). “After Complaining Women’s Museum Will ‘Indoctrinate’ Visitors Into Feminism, CWA’s Nance Demands To Chair Museum’s Board.” Right Wing Watch. Online at http://www.rightwingwatch. org/content/after-complaining- women-s-museum-will-indoctrinate- visitors-feminism-cwas-nance- demands-chai.

42. Charlotte Hays. (2013). “Portrait of a Modern Feminist: Ann Stone.” Independent Women’s Forum. Online at feminist/2791521/Portrait-of-a- Modern-Feminist:-Ann-Stone.

43. Sarah Mimms. (2014). “Conservative Groups Urge Republicans to Oppose Women’s Museum, Republicans Don’t Listen.” National Journal. Online at congress/conservative-groups-urge- republicans-to-oppose-women- s-museum-republicans-don-t- listen-20140507.

44. Abby Scher. (2015). “The New Face Of Republican Women in Congress.” The Progressive. Online at new-face-republican-women-congress.

45. “Conservative Feminism: Why it’s not an oxymoron.” Politico. (2014). Online at watch?v=p6V9GhIb0so.

46. Lauretta Brown. (2015). “Millenni- als Protest Ellmers’ Efforts to Delay and Dilute Pro-Life Bill.” Online at

47. Austin Ruse. (2015). “Exclusive: Pro-Life Leaders Call for Ellmers’ Oust- er.” Online at ment/2015/01/22/exclusive-pro-life-leaders-call-for-ellmers-ouster-from-congress/.

Neoliberal Feminists Don’t Want Women to Organize

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Lean any way you want; the view from the bottom of the economic system doesn’t change.


**This article appears in PRA’s upcoming Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

To say that Sheryl Sandberg ruined my life would be to make the same mistake that Sandberg herself makes—it would be to assume that the successes or failures of an individual woman, feminist or no, equal the successes or failures of feminism.

Nevertheless, writing about feminism and the workplace in the shadow of Lean In has been a task in itself. One must, it often seems, either define oneself as for or against Sandberg. Critique of her was critique of feminism, at least for the heady months around her book’s publication when well-known feminists felt compelled to take sides.

Sandberg is not herself the problem, but she exemplifies it in a way that has been instructive. When Jill Abramson was fired from her position as executive editor at the New York Times, reportedly after she confronted the paper’s publisher over her discovery that her pay was less than that of her (male) predecessor, among the many outraged reactions from feminists was the response that leaning in doesn’t work after all. Abramson’s experience, similar to that of so many women, seemed a rebuke to the idea, promoted in Sandberg’s book, that individual women were holding themselves back. It reminded us that no matter how hard we try, sexism—sexism in the workplace—cannot be defeated individual success story by individual success story.

One of the insidious things about neoliberalism is how it has managed to absorb our vibrant, multifaceted liberation struggles into itself and spit them back out to us as monotone (dollar-bill-green) self-actualization narratives. The way this has happened to feminism is particularly instructive. As I wrote in Dissent last winter, the so-called “second wave” of feminism fought for women to gain access to work outside of the home and outside of the “pink-collar” fields. Yet in doing so, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written, some feminists wound up abandoning the fight for better conditions in what had always been considered women’s work—whether that be as teachers and nurses, or the work done in the home for little or no pay.

National Domestic Workers Alliance members protest

National Domestic Workers Alliance members protest

In fact, the flight of middle-class women into the paid workplace left other women, namely domestic workers, cleaning up the mess left behind, and many of those middle-class women seemed unwilling to deal with the fact that they too, sometimes, could oppress. As Ehrenreich wrote in “Maid to Order,” a piece published in the anthology, Global Woman, which she co-edited with Arlie Russell Hochschild, “To make a mess that another person will have to deal with—the dropped socks, the toothpaste sprayed on the bathroom mirror, the dirty dishes left from a late-night snack—is to exert domination in one of its more silent and intimate forms.”

While some women have experienced the workplace as a site of liberation and increased power, for many others, the workplace was never a choice. Particularly for women of color, whose domestic work was excluded intentionally from New Deal-era labor laws, the workplace was and remains a site of oppression. And to this day, women remain concentrated in the economy’s lowest-paying jobs—some two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and three of the fastest-growing occupations in the country are retail sales, food service, and home health care, which are both low-wage and female-dominated jobs. Home health care workers, in many ways the face of the new service economy, were just ruled only “partial” public employees by the right-wing Roberts Supreme Court. More than 90 percent of them, according to the Economic Policy Institute, are female.

Those are jobs at which, no matter how hard one leans in, the view doesn’t change.

And these days, the conditions for more and more workers are beginning to resemble those at the bottom; fleeing the female-dominated workplace, rather than improving it, has left middle-class women more, not less, vulnerable. The devaluation of work that involves care, work for which women were assumed to be innately suited, continued apace when feminism turned its back. As other jobs have disappeared, the low wages that were acceptable when women were presumed not to need a “family wage,” because they ought to be married to a man who’d do the breadwinning, became the wages that everyone has to take or leave.

Though the movement for paid sick leave has gained some important wins in recent months and years, alongside a growing movement to raise the minimum wage, a more expansive family policy that would actually allow more than a few days’ paid leave or allow workers more control over their own schedules remains a pipe dream.

Equal pay for equal work means little when the wages for all are on the way down. You would be hard pressed to find a self-proclaimed feminist, even of the most neoliberal variety, who doesn’t argue in favor of equal pay, but this focus has often served, as I have argued, to stifle discussion of other concerns in the workplace. As Marilyn Sneiderman, lifelong labor organizer and director of the New Labor Center at Rutgers University, told me for Dissent, the fight for fair pay might seem an individual struggle for high-end workers like Abramson, but for a hotel housekeeper, a nurse, a janitor, the best way to improve your job isn’t to get promoted through the ranks, but to organize with your fellow workers.

Neoliberal feminism is a feminism that ignores class as a determining issue in women’s lives. It presumes, as Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out in an article on her personal website, that giving power to some women will automatically wind up trickling if not power, than at least some lifestyle improvements down to women with less power.

This applies internationally as well as domestically. Nancy Fraser, in her book Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, cites Hester Eisenstein’s argument that feminism has entered into a “dangerous liaison” with neoliberalism, embracing critiques of the state and men’s economic power that allowed for deregulation. Fraser sees neoliberal feminism embracing a pro-globalization mentality that regards women in the developing world as in need of “saving” by enlightened Western feminists.

Take Somaly Mam, the Cambodian NGO entrepreneur who built her career on her own fraudulent tale of being sex trafficked as a child. Westerners flocked to her story and her cause, joining her on trips to “save” women from brothels. Sheryl Sandberg was on the board of her foundation, alongside Susan Sarandon. Hillary Clinton was a fan. Mam’s rise to fame dovetailed with the rise, across the U.S., of an obsession with “saving” sex workers and increasing criminal penalties for sex trafficking.

Her fame attracted prominent feminists to a cause that continues, as Melissa Gira Grant writes in her book Playing the Whore, to be supported by the Religious Right and to criminalize women who are trying to make ends meet any way they can. Yet the solutions offered to the women saved by Mam’s organization (currently undergoing a name change after Newsweek published its expose of Mam’s fabrications) were mostly low-wage sweatshop jobs producing clothing for Western consumption. As Anne Elizabeth Moore, who has spent years working in and reporting on Cambodia, writes in Salon of Mam’s organization and others like hers, “What they do is normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment they may be. And they shame women who reject such jobs.”

This is neoliberal feminism at its finest. As Gira Grant writes, the idea that women in Cambodia—or in the United States—can organize themselves and change their working conditions is almost always absent from the conversation.

Selma James, one of the founders of the 1970s Wages for Housework movement and a leader in the Global Women’s Strike, criticized how some feminists turned grassroots organizing projects into “jobs for the girls” as a way for some women to have power by creating mechanisms to save others. In today’s political climate, we must be wary of claims that feminism is best served by increasing the power of individual (white, middle-class) women, and question over whom they exercise that power. We must understand the difference between power for a few and a real change in how power affects us all.

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