The Exploitation of Gender and Masculinities on the Far-Right

Security forces respond with tear gas after pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol as lawmakers were set to sign off on President-elect Joe Biden's electoral victory in what was supposed to be a routine process. (Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The United States (US), and the West more broadly, has experienced a sharp increase in far-right violent extremist and terrorist attacks in recent years, including the fatal, racially motivated shooting in Jacksonville, Florida in August. The US has been labeled “a leading exporter of white supremacist terrorism,” and far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced other kinds of terrorism in the country, including from far-left networks and individuals influenced by Islamic State and al-Qaeda propaganda. With the advent of the internet, multiple global economic disruptions, and mass displacement and migration, the recent resurgence and strengthening of far-right populist parties in the West and beyond has brought ideology and policies that were once considered relatively fringe into the political mainstream.

Far-right ideology can encompass a plethora of overlapping, sometimes inconsistent narratives and beliefs, including white supremacism, neo-Nazism, conspiracy theories, anti-immigrant sentiment, accelerationism, Christian nationalism, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment. Despite this “salad bar” of ideologies, constructions of femininity and masculinity, including roles for men and women, are an important aspect of far-right identity formation. This means understanding how gender narratives manifest and are exploited in the far-right context is essential to countering the threat.

The growing recognition by member states of the transnational far-right threat reinforces this necessity, particularly in forming preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) and counterterrorism (CT) policies that are gender-responsive. Failure to do so places states, multilateral, and civil society actors involved in these policies on the back foot, as violent extremists and terrorists, including those on the far-right, have both historically and repeatedly shown their recognition of the utility of gender and masculinities for their own purposes.

Online platforms and social media have been an important conduit in mainstreaming these gendered narratives, particularly through the use of influencers ranging from “Tradwives” to male rights activists and fitness influencers. The use of these platforms to target and recruit children and youth has proven a unique challenge for P/CVE and counterterrorism CT responses.

The Idealized Version of Femininity and the Establishment of Hierarchy

Gender on the far-right is often constructed around a-historical assumptions of “traditional,” heteronormative roles for men and women, often typified in pro-natalist narratives of women’s primary roles as procreators, housewives, and mothers and men’s roles as protectors and providers. Some far-right members are influenced by the belief that the survival of the white race is dependent on both sexes embracing their gender roles. These gender narratives can serve to recruit both men and women, maintain support, and unite members around deeply held grievances toward a modern, multicultural society where women have legal rights.

Far-right gender narratives often depict feminists, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ+ community—as well as white “in-group” individuals who are not sufficiently embodying the ideal or loyal to the race—as the “other.” They believe these groups pose a threat to their power and rightful place in both the home and society writ large. Ultimately, versions of these narratives are nothing new: fascist propaganda in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in the early twentieth century constructed hypermasculine, heteronormative versions of masculinity and promoted the role of women as mothers and child-bearers, even if in practical terms their roles far exceeded the confines of these ideals.

The exploitation of gender narratives on the far-right has proven effective in capitalizing on aggrieved male entitlement and addressing the assumption that “masculinities are in crisis.” This has served as a pivotal recruitment tactic for young men and boys, with these narratives often mainstreamed through far-right political pundits, such as former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. Although many men on the far-right stress the need to protect white women and the family from the dangers of a diversifying society, they also lament that they are victims living under a “gynocracy,” with women controlling both culture and the levers of power. Hypermasculine violence against “the other” is then justified—by both violent extremists and ideological sympathizers—as a means to protect women, the family, and the nation as a whole, and as a means to restore their manhood.

The Role of Far-Right Women in Mainstreaming and Recruitment 

The underlying misogyny of far-right narratives can sometimes obfuscate the role of women, particularly white women, in maintaining and perpetuating gender narratives in the movement. The multiplicity of roles women can play in extremist and terrorist contexts across the ideological spectrum is often portrayed as one-dimensional, typically displaying women solely as victims. Yet, white women have historically demonstrated their centrality to the far-right movement through their symbolic invocation in narratives, as well as through activism, networking, and performative symbolic and political actions, including throughout the height of the white power movement in the United States.

Far-right women today often work to mainstream narratives, recruit members, and actively reinforce and impose rigid gender narratives. Many capitalize on other women who may be disenfranchised by the feminist movement and exhausted by double standards as working moms expected to “do it all.” Beyond reinforcing women’s roles as mothers and wives, far-right women can also actively perpetuate militant notions of hypermasculinity, as well as a woman’s “natural” place in submission to men.

Far-right social media personalities have utilized influencer branding and strategies to re-package far-right ideology with particular success, increasing palatability and relatability by employing more benign ideas of femininity and masculinity as subtle gateways to more far-right extremist ideas. For example, some far-right women have shared homemaking and baking tips on Instagram and TikTok while also framing “natural living” as a means to perpetuate the white race, as well as championing the Great Replacement conspiracy theory—which motivated the deadly terrorist attacks in Buffalo, El Paso, and Christchurch. The subtlety of some of these influencers—and their increasing popularity among young women and girls—poses a particular challenge for policy responses and content moderation, as their messaging may not always necessarily violate guidelines.

Gender Mainstreaming Efforts at the Multilateral Level

Member states have expressed concern over the growing transnational threat posed by far-right extremism (referred to in the United Nations context as “terrorism based on xenophobia, racism, and other forms of intolerance, or in the name of religion or belief,” or “XRIRB”). Understanding how gender is exploited and mainstreamed by the far-right is a pressing multilateral policy issue. There is growing recognition among the international community of the importance of understanding how gender, including the role of masculinities and its influences on male behavior, is constructed and utilized by a range of violent extremists and terrorist groups.

An Arria formula meeting held in late June 2023 recognized the importance of gender mainstreaming—the notion of incorporating gender perspectives into public policy and legislation—in P/CVE and CT responses. During the meeting, several UN member states emphasized the need to better understand how gender, and specifically masculinities, are exploited and utilized by violent extremists and terrorists for recruitment, member retention, and mainstreaming their ideologies across the extremism spectrum. New Zealand’s statement, which was also delivered on behalf of Australia and Canada, directly referenced how misogyny underpins white supremacy and “politically motivated” ideology and emphasized the importance of inclusion of women and men, girls and boys, and people with diverse gender identities to create gender-based approaches in P/CVE and CT policies to counter the exploitation of gender in these contexts.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2242 calls on member states and the UN system to integrate the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda into counterterrorism and CVE policies, and has been instrumental in spurring efforts to mainstream gender into these agendas. The resolution ensures that the UNSC Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) and its Executive Directorate (CTED) integrate gender throughout its activities, including CTED’s country assessments, which can assess shortcomings in a member state’s implementation of WPS. The seventh review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (GCTS), conducted in June 2021 and approved by the General Assembly, also incorporated new text on WPS. Yet, in the most recent GCTS review in June, despite a push by some states for the inclusion of stronger language on gender, the text ultimately did not include new gender language.

Charting a Path Forward

Despite these efforts, more work needs to be done in order to fully integrate a holistic, gender-responsive framework into multilateral and states’ P/CVE and CT efforts. This includes recognizing the multiplicity of roles women play in far-right extremism and how marginalized masculinities factor into this phenomenon. The latter could presuppose violent or misogynistic masculinities of one culture, such as Muslim men, while discounting—and inadvertently enabling—it as “benevolent” in another, such as in the Western, far-right context.

Moreover, overly securitized counterterrorism approaches or P/CVE programs can risk increasing grievances and radicalization, while potentially reinforcing the hypermasculinity often espoused by far-right violent extremists. The anti-government sentiment within some aspects of the far-right could only serve to underpin this dynamic further. The increased recruitment, involvement, and, in some cases, leadership, of children and youth in the far-right means that a securitized lens may not only be an inappropriate tool, but also may further disillusionment with the government.

Lessons learned from peacebuilding and civil society efforts can potentially help to mitigate these challenges—particularly by offering alternative versions of community, gender, and masculinities—and can potentially break the cycle of recruitment. Such efforts can also help reinforce the social cohesion necessary for combatting violent extremism more broadly but particularly far-right extremism, which often exploits societal fissures. Programs that involve and engage youth are particularly vital in prevention by ensuring children are not viewed solely as “problems” and that positive narrative alternatives are effective and resonant. Human rights must be both safeguarded and placed at the center of any policies and programming targeting the far-right, mitigating further grievances and unintentional consequences, such as in content moderation.

Violent extremists and terrorists across the ideological spectrum have time and time again utilized gender for their own purposes, and the far-right has demonstrated it is no different. Failure of state, multilateral, and civil society actors involved in P/CVE and CT to integrate holistic gender mainstreaming into policies and programming not only means that they will be potentially less effective, but also risks exacerbating the conditions that drive recruitment for violent extremism and terrorism. Ultimately, if far-right actors acknowledge the power of gender, then the international community simply must do the same.

Michaela Millender is Program Officer at The Soufan Center. 

This article is part of a series reflecting on the 23rd anniversary of the WPS agenda.