How white women get written out of the hate movement

Seyward Darby, author of new book Sisters in Hate, writes about white women and supremacy.

Today’s issue is written by Seyward Darby. Darby is the editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine—you can (and should!) send her longform narrative non-fiction pitches: Her book Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism comes out today! For more rants about white supremacy, with a side of cute animal videos, follow her on Twitter: @seywarddarby.

by Seyward Darby

The hate movement isn’t just a bunch of angry white men. It never has been, and it never will be. Just look at one of the most brutal hate crimes in modern memory.

One night in 1988, Kenneth Mieske sat in a car in Portland, Oregon as a fight erupted in the street between two of his friends and three Ethiopian immigrants. Mieske, 23, and his friends were white nationalists, members of a skinhead gang. Soon Mieske would be a murderer: When he got out of the car, he beat one of the immigrants, Mulugeta Seraw, to death.

Mieske went to prison and died behind bars at the age of 45; his friends were convicted of manslaughter, served time, and got out. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued a neo-Nazi group called White Aryan Resistance (WAR), claiming that its propaganda promoting racist violence had influenced the Portland skinheads. The suit was successful to the tune of $12.5 million, bankrupting WAR’s leader, then one of the most powerful white nationalists in America. The suit was heralded as an example of how to combat hate by holding groups accountable for their rhetoric.   

When I read A Hundred Little Hitlers, journalist Elinor Langer’s powerful account of the Seraw murder and its aftermath, there was one scene in particular that I knew I would never forget. Mieske is still in the car, yet to join his friends in the brawl they’d started. Behind the wheel is a woman named Patty Copp: 19 years old, white, the girlfriend of one of Mieske’s friends, and a community college student working for a chiropractor.

“WELL, aren’t you going to do something about it, Ken?” Copp demands.

Mieske then grabs a Louisville Slugger that belongs to Copp’s father. He uses it to hit Seraw over and over and over. One of the Ethiopian men hears a woman yelling, “Kill him!” And Mieske does. 

The friends leave the scene and go to Copp’s house. Copp later saws the bat into pieces, which she and Mieske burn at a beach. They toss the ashes and remaining shards of wood into a firepit. The police question Copp. According to one officer, “She turned out to be the most bullheaded of the group.”

Fast forward to 2018: The Oregon media covered the thirtieth anniversary of Seraw’s murder with notable urgency—America was deep in the Trump era, and hate crimes were surging nationwide. It all felt familiar. Newspaper and TV stations ran “where are they now” segments and write-ups. But they didn’t include Patty Copp. She had all but vanished from the narrative of the crime.

How could that be?

Here’s the thing: Women are supposed to be nice. It’s a belief inscribed in our social gospel. There’s even a name for it: the women-are-wonderful effect. Psychologists coined the phrase in the 1990s based on research showing that people tend to assign more positive attributes to women than they do to men, qualities like “happy,” “good,” and “nurturing.” To meet the expectations of wonderfulness, women are conditioned to be polite and self-effacing. They are pigeonholed as pleasing, civilizing, and selfless.

An extension of the women-are-wonderful effect is the assumption that women require protection, like some rare gem. In America, this applies almost exclusively to white women. (By contrast, Black women have long been forced to bear unconscionable pain.) Safeguarding white women was a rallying cry of the Ku Klux Klan in its earliest days. Under the pretense of protecting the fairer sex from rape and murder at the hands of Black men, white men in white robes terrorized communities of color. D. W. Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation valorized Klansmen as saviors of white womanhood.

Well into the 20th century, defending white women’s purity, honor, and goodness was used to justify all manner of wrongs, most brutal among them the lynching of Black men. In some cases, these men were accused of assaulting white women. In others, their alleged offense was a look, a gesture, or a word deemed disrespectful. Often, it was white women who did the accusing.

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, shot, stripped, mutilated, and weighted down in a river by a fan blade from a cotton gin that had been lashed to his neck with barbed wire, all because a white woman named Carolyn Bryant claimed that he’d grabbed her waist and said sexually obscene things to her. The press depicted Bryant as sweet and attractive—a “crossroads Marilyn Monroe,” according to one journalist who covered the 1955 hate crime. Till’s killers were acquitted. One was later quoted in Look magazine saying, “When a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him.”

More than 50 years later, Bryant admitted that she hadn’t told the truth, helping prompt the FBI to reopen the Till case. It was a searing reminder of another way in which the women-are-wonderful effect is problematic: It risks blinding people to the ways in which women can be terrible.

Disbelief about white women’s complicity in the worst forms of bigotry stretches across time and cultures. Feminist historians of the Holocaust have documented the postwar fable of “the apolitical woman” as a victim of the Third Reich when in reality, as proud Germans, many women participated in the Nazis’ work. “Very few women were prosecuted after the war; even fewer were judged and convicted,” writes Wendy Lower in her book Hitler’s Furies. “Many of the female defendants, especially those who appeared matronly and meek, did not seem capable of committing such atrocities.” As a result, Lower concludes, “most got away with murder.”

Similarly, historians of the antebellum South long posited that white women benefited only indirectly from slavery, that their patriarchal culture’s veneration of femininity meant that they couldn’t have participated in the worst aspects of human bondage. They were Scarlett O’Hara: cherished, cosseted, even glamorous. Recently, drawing on thousands of interviews with former slaves conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project, historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers revealed how deeply implicated white women were in the system of buying, selling, and exploiting Black bodies. “When we listen to what enslaved people had to say about white women and slave mastery, we find that they articulated quite clearly their belief that slave-owning women governed their slaves in the same ways that white men did,” Jones-Rogers writes in her 2019 book They Were Her Property. “Sometimes they were more effective at slave management or they used more brutal methods of discipline than their husbands did.”

Does faith in white women’s goodness—a form of benevolent sexism—also explain the relative erasure of female actors from the history of the hate movement? Does it explain the Portland cop’s seeming dismay at Patty Copp’s behavior after the Seraw murder? To some extent, it does. Whether we’re talking about the Klan, neo-Nazis, or the alt-right is almost irrelevant because they’re all part of the same ecosystem. The hate movement is comprised of people of various affiliations—or none at all—whose raison d’être is the preservation of white supremacy. In their chosen cause, they imagine solutions to problems both political and personal. And they all share a near-apocalyptic sense of urgency: The time is now or never for white people to protect their own kind.

For white women, that means bearing white babies, putting a smiling face on an odious ideology, promising camaraderie to those who join their crusade, and challenging white nationalism’s misogynistic reputation. The internet has been a boon for them. The SPLC noted in a 1999 report that women were “staking out their own territory” in the digital realm with websites featuring names like Women’s Frontier, Women for Aryan Unity, and White World of Skinchick. Some sites hosted “a spirited debate on the role of women in the racist movement,” while others stuck “to more traditional fare, from ‘Aryan’ recipes to parenting tips for white mothers.” By 2005, there was a digital magazine targeting female white nationalists; called Homefront, it was available to download online and featured articles about organic diets alongside anti-Semitic diatribes.

Female-focused content continued to expand, but its goal remained constant: promoting a racist worldview through the trappings of home, family, and sisterhood—wholesome spheres of female influence. The facade was, and still is, both a shield and a beacon: deflecting criticism and inviting curiosity. “Racist women understand that groups of women who seem innocuous can attract people to racist politics,” writes Kathleen Blee in her book Inside Organized Racism. (Another Blee work, Women of the Klan, is essential reading if you want to know how, in the early 20th century, white women leveraged their expanding rights and opportunities to promote a racist agenda.)

Today, the savviest white nationalists are aware of the blind spot that observers often have when it comes to women, discounting female contributions to hate because they prefer to think of them as angels. “A soft woman saying hard things can create repercussions throughout society,” racist pundit Lana Lokteff declared at a white-nationalist conference in 2017. (Lokteff is one of the main subjects of my book.) “Since we aren’t physically intimidating, we can get away with saying big things. And let me tell you, the women that I’ve met in this movement can be lionesses, and shield-maidens, and Valkyries.”

Writing women out of the narrative of the hate movement risks America’s future. So does leaning too hard into the “Karen” phenomenon, which depicts women weaponizing their whiteness and femininity as worthier of ridicule than of fear. I don’t need to remind readers of how white women voted in 2016 and where that got us. Instead, I’ll make another book recommendation: White Identity Politics. Ashley’s Jardina’s groundbreaking research shows that some 20 percent of white Americans—roughly 40 million people—now have “strong levels of group consciousness,” meaning they “feel a sense of discontent over the status of their group.” These people tend to be less educated but not financially vulnerable. “Most own houses, have average incomes similar to most whites in the United States, are employed, and identify as middle class,” Jardina writes.

And white women specifically? Turns out, they are more likely than white men to hold “exclusionary views about what it means to be American, preferring boundaries around the nation’s identity that maintain it in their image.”

As for Patty Copp, she was charged with hindering prosecution. She pleaded guilty in December 1989 and was sentenced to a year in jail, with the possibility of work release after 60 days. Today she’s married with three kids. She still lives in the Pacific Northwest. I won’t presume to know what her politics are like. Perhaps finding out will be my next project. The top of her Facebook profile reads, “love my life today…life is too short to sweat the small stuff!”

You can buy Seyward Darby’s book Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism here.