As viral content goes, the photograph was a blockbuster, accumulating more than ten million likes and three hundred thousand comments on Instagram. First published on July 13, 2017, it showed music megastar Beyoncé cradling her one-month-old twins against her naked torso, standing beachside in front of an arch laced with lush flower blossoms. A pale teal veil was affixed to her rippling blond hair, and a sheer purple robe cascaded from her shoulders to her bare feet. Her head was tilted so that her face caught the sunlight beaming down from the clear blue sky. In the distance was a blurry horizon where ocean met air.
The image was a visual echo of Beyoncé’s famous pregnancy photos, released earlier the same year. The aesthetic was inspired by art dating back centuries: Beyoncé was Raphael’s Madonna, Botticelli’s Venus, the Virgin of Guadalupe. She was a Black woman inserting herself into a canon that so rarely depicted figures of color, much less glorified them. “She appears as not one but many women—or, instead, maybe the universal woman and mother,” an art history professor at New York University told Harper’s Bazaar.
When she saw the photo, Ayla Stewart had a different take. She wondered why people had such reverence for Beyoncé, the kind Ayla believed should be reserved for the divine. A devoutly Christian mother of six with a round, dimpled face and wide blue eyes, Ayla decided to denounce what she saw as idolatry. As Beyoncé’s image ricocheted around the internet, Ayla screen-grabbed it. She juxtaposed the photo with a painting of the Virgin Mary and an infant Jesus, encircled by gilded haloes. Ayla captioned the side-by-side comparison “Tubillardine [sic] Whiskey (1952) vs. Kool-Aid.” Mary was the vintage; Beyoncé was the fake stuff.
Ayla shared the meme on Twitter, where she kept an account under the name Wife with a Purpose. Reactions were swift, and some were furious. “Girl, fuck you,” one Twitter user wrote. “I haven’t beat anyone up all year so I’m ready to fight.” The website Bossip included Ayla in a roundup of “mediocre mayo packets who spent their whole entire payday splattering not-very-subtle racism all over Al Gore’s world wide web” because they didn’t like Beyoncé’s photo. In Ayla’s case, the racism was in the association between Kool-Aid and African Americans, a long-standing stereotype implying that Black people enjoy—or can only afford—cheap, childish, and unhealthy things.
Ayla had established herself as one of the internet’s most vocal proponents of tradlife, short for “traditional lifestyle,” a movement advocating retrograde values and hierarchies between men and women, states and citizens, God and humankind. She believed that white, Christian, heterosexual people, who represented all that was natural and good in America, were under threat from immigrants, feminists, liberals, and LGBTQ people. “Tired,” Ayla once typed in red letters over an Instagram image of two transgender women of color; “woke,” she wrote over an adjoining photograph of a large white family.
Ayla always insisted that she loved all God’s children and even prayed for the ones who didn’t agree with her worldview. It wasn’t racist, she said, to believe that people should stay in their cultural lanes and within their national borders. A few months before the Beyoncé controversy, just after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, Ayla had tweeted another photographic comparison—her favorite type of meme, it seemed—of a Black woman and a white one. The Black woman wore a turban and dress cut from a colorful wax print. The white woman’s blond hair was twisted into a long, thick braid that poured over her peasant blouse. The images were supposed to represent pan-African and pan-European aesthetics. “You preserve your culture and people and I’ll preserve mine,” Ayla wrote beneath the images. “You’re not racist and neither am I.”
Invoking ideals of femininity rooted in whiteness—Beyoncé need not apply—Ayla compared the America she yearned for to the world of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, the twin teenage protagonists created by young-adult author Francine Pascal. “If things stay on track,” Ayla warned on Instagram, “one day, Sweet Valley Twins books will be illegal for featuring two blond, straight, skinny, girls, whose parents were still married and live in a place called Sweet Valley, where there were no mall shootings, no illegals, no homosexuals*, no transgenders, no Muslims, everyone spoke English and the internet, blissfully, didn’t exist. A land where girls still baked cookies for the boys and mom’s prioritized their homes.”
Ayla didn’t hesitate to malign critics of tradlife—or, really, anyone who refused to embrace the culture. If they didn’t model their lives on the values of the past, they were lazy, or worse. “None of this degenerate behavior should we accept as normal practice,” Ayla once said. “When people speak out against it, we shouldn’t label them phobics or try to shame them for speaking out in favor of normal, healthy standards.” In her mind, the people who agreed with her were courageous.
Ayla claimed that she knew what she was talking about. She’d been one of the degenerates, one of those “losers who don’t try.” At thirty-eight, she was a white nationalist and a traditionalist. At twenty-eight, she’d been a liberal and a feminist.
Among the most basic of social equations is this: Whenever and wherever there is a push for women’s liberation, resistance follows. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman received some favorable reviews from Enlightenment thinkers when it was published in 1792, but public reactions ranged from dismissive to disdainful. Writer Horace Walpole famously called Wollstonecraft “a hyena in petticoats.” In an essay entitled “A Note on Men’s Rights,” a writer for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine argued in 1856 that public opinion continued to hold a husband responsible for his wife’s choices and actions, even as the means by which he could control her were diminishing: “The American husband has thus become a legal monster, a logical impossibility, required to fly without wings, and to run without feet.” The emergence of the suffrage movement was met with ridicule, punishment, and panic, and more than seventy years passed between the Seneca Falls Convention and the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment. Six decades later, second-wave feminists lost the protracted battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); the deadline for state ratification came and went, taking with it the dream of the Constitution stating, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
The obvious question—why do women organize against their own freedom—is thorny. In her 1983 book Right-Wing Women, radical feminist author Andrea Dworkin tried to answer it. She described three types of antifeminism. “Man dominant” was the crudest form, resting on the principle that men should subjugate women because male dominance is natural, necessary, and rooted in love. “Woman superior” held that female power resided in women’s lofty moral sensibility and sexual desirability—not to be confused with their sexual desire. Women’s authority was innate yet limited, physical yet passive. (“She’s ethereal,” Dworkin wrote, “she floats.”) The last type, “separate but equal,” emphasized that the sexes were destined for different spheres of existence, neither of which was better than the other. Women bearing and nurturing children was just as important as men providing for them financially or fighting wars to protect them.
Dworkin theorized that some women embraced antifeminism, in one form or a combination, as a means of self-preservation in the face of male oppression. “Feminists, from a base of powerlessness, want to destroy that power,” she said. “Right-wing women, from a base of powerlessness, the same base, accommodate to that power because quite simply they see no way out from under.” Dworkin also argued that any disdain antifeminist women felt toward an “other” on the basis of race or another identity marker was really displaced rage they felt toward men. “They are easily controlled and manipulated haters,” she said of these women. “Having good reason to hate, but not the courage to rebel, women require symbols of danger that justify their fear.”
Dworkin’s interpretation was compelling, but it contained two monolithic assumptions: that the patriarchy is an absolute negative for all women, and that women act largely on the basis of their womanhood. In fact, the overlapping lines of race, class, and culture complicate both ideas. What about women who benefit—or want to benefit— from existing structures of dominance? We risk stripping them of responsibility when we suggest that the harm they do is merely a way of coping with their own oppression, whether real or presumed. As Adrienne Rich wrote in Of Woman Born, “Theories of female power and female ascendancy must reckon fully with the ambiguities of our being, with the continuum of our consciousness, the potentialities for both creative and destructive energy in each of us.”
Neither side in the battle over feminism has ever held pure intentions. Many prominent early feminists wanted equal rights for disenfranchised groups, so long as white women got them first. Susan B. Anthony opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote in 1870, because it did nothing for women’s suffrage. According to Anthony’s biographer, a fellow suffragist named Ida Husted Harper, the amendment “recognized as the political superiors of all the noble women of the nation the negro men just emerged from slavery, and not only totally illiterate, but also densely ignorant of every public question.” Meanwhile, women who opposed suffrage tended to be married, wealthy, and white. In the north, these women were often located in cities and already engaged in civic or charitable activities; they viewed voting as unnecessary for their ambitions and well-being. In the south, female opponents tended to be upper-class women who, in the wake of the Civil War, were anxious about further disruption to the racial and social order that might diminish their position.
After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, some women used their votes to resist racial equality. The 1920s were the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, and women were among its most important participants. The women’s Klan, or WKKK, had up to three million members spread across the country; Indiana and Oregon were hotbeds. Imperial commander Robbie Gill Comer of Little Rock, Arkansas, was a vocal advocate of women’s rights who once declared, “It has never been the purpose of God that women should be the slave of man.” Women had duties to their families, but they also had a responsibility to their nation—their white nation. As political actors, America needed them. “We can prove a power in the preservation of America for Americans in our home life and in the development of the ballot now,” Comer declared in a pamphlet entitled The Equality of Women.
WKKK members registered voters, transported them to the polls, and watched one another’s children so that they could all cast ballots. The Washington State chapter recruited members with a poster appealing to a sense of duty: “As an enfranchised woman are you interested in Better Government? . . . IT IS POSSIBLE FOR ORGANIZED PATRIOTIC WOMEN TO AID IN STAMPING OUT THE CRIME AND VICE THAT ARE UNDERMINING THE MORALS OF OUR YOUTH.” As the poster’s call indicated, the WKKK was closely aligned with Progressive Era activism that promoted family values, temperance, and anti-corruption measures intended to cleanse America of perceived ills—everything from violence to divorce to Marxism. Racial segregation was another important Progressive idea, premised on Social Darwinism and eugenic science and goaded by popular depictions of white superiority (most famously in The Birth of a Nation). The Klan crystallized and amplified beliefs held by many white people. Male and female members alike supported President Warren Harding’s “return to normalcy,” the loaded slogan of his front-porch campaign that, inadvertently or not, spoke to the Klan’s own promise to protect and elevate white Protestants. In the KKK’s telling, those people were “100 percent American”—no one else could make that claim.
Female pioneers in various spheres of American life linked their pro-woman agendas with bigoted ones. Among the most extreme was Alma Bridwell White, the country’s first female bishop. In addition to leading a Methodist sect—Pillar of Fire, based in New Jersey—she was a prolific writer. In Women’s Chains, a periodical that she launched in 1924, White demanded that women have better access to opportunities and representation. “We hear much of woman’s equality with man,” she once said, “but where are our women senators, where are our women judges, where are our women jurors?” White supported the ERA, first drafted in 1923, and historians believe that Pillar of Fire was the only religious denomination in the country to formally endorse the amendment. But the church also openly associated with the KKK, and White wrote several books defending the Klan. She believed that racial segregation was a matter of biblical law and that women’s suffrage was vital to sustaining white supremacy.
Much changed over the next fifty years. The Klan’s power declined, civil rights advanced, and second-wave feminism emerged. But c During the peak years of the ERA debate, surveys found that opponents of the amendment were significantly influenced by their religious and cultural networks—regular attendance at church, for instance, exposed them to “traditional images of women and the family” and also made “them especially available for mobilization.” Given the ascendance of the Christian right, this dynamic made sense: Conservative women’s activism derived from their faith, their community, and their fear that change might compromise their interests. Race was also a source of division. Research showed that Black women tended to favor the amendment, while its adversaries drew strength from the memberships of racist organizations like the Klan, the John Birch Society, and Women for Constitutional Government, which described its female-led opposition to civil rights as a matter of “racial self-respect.” This too made sense: If feminism was, in Andrea Dworkin’s words, “a revolutionary advocacy of a single standard of human freedom,” its successes could disrupt more than traditional gender roles and relations. White supremacists, including female ones, saw a complex threat that they intended to stop.
Betrayal was a sentiment that the crusade against the ERA channeled with remarkable success—along with fear, frustration, and intolerance. Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign was dubbed STOP, the acronym for Stop Taking Our Privileges. The slogan referred to the privileges of being a wife and mother, protected by men, unsullied by the unladylike muck of feminism. Schlafly argued that women benefited from “being put on a pedestal,” not from “straggly-haired women on television talk shows...yapping about how mistreated American women are, suggesting that marriage has put us in some kind of ‘slavery.’” STOP also alluded to the particular privileges of being a white woman, situated in the social hierarchy above racial minorities and within favorable distance of white men. Anti-ERA activism was an ameliorative movement, which sociologists have described as “not challeng[ing] the privileged status of males in the society” but intending “to make more effective the female’s pivotal roles as wife and mother.” STOP was both a battle cry hurled at feminists and a clarion call to white men—a bid to maintain social status by simultaneously fending off upstart forces and demonstrating solidarity with more powerful ones.
Since the demise of the ERA, white women have often challenged egalitarianism or opposed its champions. A majority of white women haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1996—and before that, the last time they had done so was 1964. The most high-profile legal cases against affirmative action have been headlined by white women, and a 2014 Harvard study found that nearly 70 percent of white female respondents somewhat or strongly opposed the policy. In the South, research shows that white women have played a critical role in moving politics to the right. They’ve been instrumental, for example, in getting states to restrict reproductive rights, which disproportionately affects poor women of color. In 2017, more than 60 percent of white women in Alabama voted for Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate, despite the Republican candidate being accused of sexual assault and misconduct with teenage girls. And that was just one year after exit polls showed that Trump won roughly 53 percent of votes cast by white women.
These numbers aren’t included here to suggest that all or most white women are part of the hate movement, the motley assortment of groups and affiliations—from the KKK to neo-Nazis to the so-called “alt-right”—whose raison d’etre is preserving white supremacy in America. Rather, the data point to motivations and consequences that muddle easy assumptions about women’s political behavior. They reveal, as political analyst Alexis Grenell wrote in a 2018 New York Times op-ed, that “the gender gap in politics is really a color line.”
Whenever she told the story of her life, Ayla described a gradual awakening—a realization that the media and America’s raging liberal culture had taught her to hate herself, her femininity, and her race. The first time I heard this story, in 2017, I was watching tradlife videos on YouTube. There was Ayla on my laptop, telling me how her journey from left to right saved her soul. She’d filmed herself at home; the footage was a little grainy. Ayla’s earnest face filled the center of the frame, making it seem as if her sole focus was the viewer. To her right was a sliding glass door leading to a yard where a yellow jogging stroller sat next to a wood fence—evidence of domestic contentment.
There was no doubt that, in some ways, Ayla had changed her mind. Whereas she’d once believed in LGBTQ rights, she now called for making same-sex relationships taboo. She’d previously listened to Amy Goodman host Democracy Now! but these days preferred reading far-right pundits with names like Vox Day and RamZPaul. Still, in the midst of so much that was different, there were familiar notes. Throughout her life, Ayla had been in zealous pursuit of meaning; tradlife was just her latest aspiration. And in the models of whiteness and Christianity that she promoted were echoes of women from the past who had weaponized normalcy to advance racist initiatives. “Dear Haters,” Ayla wrote on Instagram, next to a photo of two of her children hugging. “The normalcy will increase, until your morale improves. Love Ayla.”
In proudly showing off her life, Ayla demanded to know: If all she wanted was safety, prosperity, and health for her family and her nation, how could she be considered hateful? It was a disingenuous defensive trick, and she was far from the first woman to use it. Historian Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, whose research focuses on resistance to the civil rights movement, has described the profound impact of “politics that emphasized performing whiteness as synonymous with ‘good’ womanhood.” McRae details how “segregation’s female activists imbued women’s civic duties, womanhood, and motherhood with particular racist prescriptions. For many, being a good white mother or a good white woman meant teaching and enforcing racial distance in their homes and in the larger public sphere.” Women who policed the color line did so in the name of decency and virtue, patriotism and pride, science and God. They justified their white supremacy as maternal responsibility. White women penned letters to the editor and produced reports claiming that classroom integration was deleterious to their children’s education, and possibly to their health. They also insisted that integration violated natural law. “Next to the mother instinct, the instinct of race is the strongest in nature,” wrote Florence Sillers Ogden, a prominent Mississippi newspaper columnist and founder of the racist organization Women for Constitutional Government.
In the modern hate movement, many women have found agency and purpose by inhabiting the roles of wife and mother. They support loved ones while also serving a higher racial cause. When someone criticizes their politics, they express dismay. “I don’t cuss,” Ayla assured her online followers. “I don’t attack people. Nothing.”
Ayla was cheerful and careful when I interviewed her in 2017. She suggested that what she believed was what any reasonable person would believe: Nationalism was common sense—not to mention the worldview of the new U.S. president—and thus legitimate. She didn’t talk about immigration in apocalyptic terms or about the forces of Satan polluting America. She didn’t acknowledge that purifying America would be impossible to achieve without violence.
Instead, she boasted about young women reaching out to her and saying they were basing their lives on hers: “They’ve been raised … in this millennial generation where anything goes, and nothing is defined, and everything is kind of murky and gray, and they see definition in my life. They see that as something to aspire to.” On her blog, Ayla once posted a message that she claimed came from such a person, a woman who had watched her videos. “In the space of a few days I’ve started questioning my SJW [social justice warrior] liberal viewpoint and I’ve decided that I would like to be a trad wife,” the woman allegedly wrote. “I cannot thank you enough for being vocal about your beliefs because otherwise I never would have been exposed to them.”
Ayla had always wanted to be a role model for other women. Anti-feminism and white nationalism had made her one.
* There are gay characters in the Sweet Valley High series, including the twins’ brother, Steve, and Jake Farrell, a character in book number seventy-five.
Seyward Darby is the editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine—you can (and should!) send her longform narrative non-fiction pitches: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, from which this essay is adapted, comes out July 21. Follow her on Twitter: @seywarddarby.