After Charlottesville: The Role of Gender-Based Hatred in White Nationalism

Memorial at the site of Heather Heyer’s death. Photo courtesy of Tristan Williams Photography, Charlottesville.

Like many people, I spent the weekend of August 12 and 13 glued to the news coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists had descended with torches and swastikas for a Unite the Right rally, prompted by the community’s moves to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. At home I watched photos and articles fill my Facebook feed. At the recreation center where I work out, I watched network news on the wall-mounted TV.

The synergy between race- and gender-based hatred has deep roots in the United States.

Hostility toward racial diversity was the driving force behind the rally — and it showed in the racial makeup of the crowds of people chanting Nazi slogans like “Sieg heil” and “blood and soil” — but I also noticed a serious lack of gender diversity as photos and videos circulated. Women were few and far between. However much I kept seeing it, though, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I grew up half Asian in a very white community, so seeing the dynamics of race has always come easily to me — and they were taking obvious form in Charlottesville. Having grown up cis-male, though, I don’t always catch the dynamics of gender on the first pass.

Then Monday came, and I was reminded, once again, of how gender played out at the Unite the Right rally. I read news that a white nationalist website, the Daily Stormer, was losing its domain host due to comments it published about the violence in Charlottesville.

The incidents of violence during the bloody weekend included a brawl that broke out during a Friday pre-rally march, as well as the beating on Saturday of a black 20-year-old named Deandre Harris. Just hours after Harris was attacked, the violence took a deadly turn — and one that brought gender-based hatred in its aftermath — when Nazi sympathizer James Alex Fields, Jr., who had come from Ohio to join the rally, drove his Dodge Challenger into a group of counterprotesters, injuring 19 and killing one. The one killed was a woman, a local paralegal named Heather Heyer.

In response to her death, the Daily Stormer published insulting comments about Heyer, downplaying the tragedy by painting her as unworthy of their readers’ sympathy. I expected epithets like “race traitor.” What I didn’t expect — naively, in retrospect — is that the insults would take a misogynist turn and disparage Heyer based on her appearance and parental status. She was called “fat” and “childless.” The comments prompted Scottsdale-based GoDaddy to tell the Daily Stormer they had 24 hours to move their domain to another provider.

I shared the article on social media, commenting it was a good reminder that feminists and anti-racists are often in the same battle together, and they both need to be intersectional in their approach. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my own commentary on the story, sensing there were deeper connections between misogyny and racism, that I had only scratched the surface of what was there.

Before long I was in an Internet wormhole that led me to an article on Vox, “How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy.” The article was written in the wake of last year’s election of Donald Trump, a man who personified the link between race- and gender-based bigotry. He earned the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan for his promises to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border. He had also talked of closing mosques and banning refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority nations. He had a record, too, of insulting the appearance and intelligence of some women — and boasting of his aggressive sexual advances toward others, seemingly unconcerned with their consent.

Trying to make sense of one of the most energized voting blocks behind Trump’s election victory, Vox’s article describes an underworld of disaffected men who were drawn to white pride as a way to “gain self-confidence,” “boost individual male autonomy,” and “wrest back control of the country” from those who stand in the way of their primacy and elevated status — including feminists, anti-racists, and liberals. The article quotes tweets by writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa that described men who felt emasculated and resentful, many after growing up in single-parent households headed by strong women.

After reading Mohutsiwa’s tweets, I decided to see what kind of household Fields had grown up in. That’s when I read in the New York Times that “Mr. Fields’s father died before he was born.” He was raised by his mother, Samantha Lea Bloom, and their home was where his violence had its roots. Fields did not cut his teeth in Charlottesville. His mother told reporters about incidents in which Fields beat her, threatened her with a knife, and locked her in the bathroom. Mohutsiwa’s observations felt eerily, unsettlingly perceptive.

The synergy between race- and gender-based hatred has deep roots in the U.S. Both sexual harassment and sexual violence were used by white men in the Jim Crow South to maintain the racial order. They were used to attack, both verbally and physically, the people they wanted to keep in their place. Black women were subjected to both racist and misogynist insults when they boarded segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama — and, perhaps in direct response, black women were some of the most active and instrumental in making Montgomery’s 1955 bus boycott a success. Subjugating women, like lynching, was a tactic people used to enforce segregation and an oppressive system of white supremacy. In turn, protecting women’s bodily autonomy — and restraining men’s asserted sexual dominion over women — were part and parcel to establishing the basic civil rights of people of color. That white nationalists often disparage feminism and diversity in the same breath today suggests a collective memory of the role women’s rights played in the civil rights movement.

In the South in the late 1990s, misogyny and white supremacist ideology converged in the radicalization of Eric Robert Rudolph, who had a long history of connections to racist and anti-government groups, and who eventually found his way to the Army of God. The Army of God was an anti-abortion extremist group that was responsible for sending threatening letters to abortion providers and reproductive justice groups — and claimed responsibility for several bombings. Rudolph was responsible for four bombings: the Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics; an abortion clinic in the Atlanta area in January 1997; an Atlanta LGBTQ bar in February 1997; and the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 29, 1998. After the first of those bombings, Rudolph was commonly referred to as the Olympic Park Bomber. As Carol Mason of the University of Kentucky has written, he “was assumed to be protesting abortion, homosexuality, and the multicultural, multiracial pluralism exemplified by Olympic competition.”

Among white nationalists, abortion — along with immigration, racial integration, interracial marriage between whites and people of color, and low fertility rates among whites — is believed to be a threat to the white population. Tellingly, the Daily Stormer felt Heather Heyer, who was white, “had failed to do her most basic duty — her only real duty, in fact — and reproduce.”

When a white male’s overgrown sense of entitlement could uphold feelings of racial superiority, we shouldn’t expect it to show principled restraint and shows of respect when confronted with issues of gender or the autonomy of women. Devaluing the lives of women — like Samantha Bloom or Heather Heyer — serves the same function as devaluing the lives of people of color: to inflate his worth and display his power.

Speaking in 1981 before the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, the feminist and civil rights advocate Audre Lorde invoked the shared struggles for justice of women and people of color. “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”