One Question Quiz
Design: Archi Banal
Design: Archi Banal

BooksFebruary 20, 2023

Women and the alt-right in New Zealand

Design: Archi Banal
Design: Archi Banal

An abridged excerpt from Byron C Clark’s new book Fear: New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists.

Much of the alternative right in New Zealand is led by men. Action Zealandia (and, while they existed, Wargus Christi) even went so far as to restrict their membership to males. This hasn’t made women absent from the movement, of course. Globally, women such as Lauren Southern have been significant figures in the alt-right. Closer to home, Carol Sakey, with her petition and associated videos, played a big part in the campaign against the UN Global Migration Compact, even if her influence waned afterwards. It is Hannah Tamaki, rather than Brian, who leads the Vision NZ Party, Helen Houghton co-leads the New Conservatives, and Hannah Spierer is the co-host of Counterspin Media. Voices for Freedom, while having membership open to all, have specifically oriented themselves towards women, and mothers especially. Yet the role of women on the far-right is often overlooked. 

I spoke with Massey University researcher Donna Carson, whose Master’s thesis, in 2021, was titled: Breaking the masculine looking glass: women as co-founders, nurturers, and executors of extremism in New Zealand, and I asked her why they are overlooked. She mentioned the research done by Seyward Darby, the author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the front lines of white nationalism. Carson also discussed the influence of Kathleen Belew, an American historian who has documented the history of the white power movement, with titles such as A Field Guide to White Supremacy (2021), co-authored with Ramon A. Gutierrez.

As Carson told me, “I looked around the world and I was like, the women are part of the movement everywhere else, but where are ours? We can’t be that isolated. So that’s when I started unpacking it, and as I did so, I became really on board with what Seyward Darby and others were finding, that women are so integral to these movements, and yet we don’t talk about them.”

For believers in the great replacement conspiracy theory, the way to counter the replacement of the white race with people of colour is to increase the size of the next generation. To have more white babies, to put it bluntly. This couldn’t be achieved without women. Yet women in New Zealand have avoided referencing the conspiracy theory explicitly. “I haven’t heard anything that’s really blatantly come out and said we’re being replaced, we need to do something about this. But they flirt around the edges of it,” Carson tells me. 

While on a roadshow with Counterspin Media, dubbed the “Let’s not forget” tour, Hannah Spierer told an audience in Bluff, “The conditioning that I experienced growing up is that I felt bad for being white, and that I needed to take on Māori culture to make up for the sins of the colonialists. How twisted is that? I grew up with white guilt … it’s the inbuilt systemic racism that the Marxists want to tell you exists, but they’re actually now creating it, so I sided with victims [due to] the conditioning of the universities; I thought my culture – I couldn’t be proud of it. One of the most politically incorrect things you can say now as a European is that you’re proud of your heritage. I can’t even say the words in front of you right now because of the way it gets taken.” 

However, far more often than she talks about race or culture, Spierer voices her opinion about feminism. “We have to lead the charge in that conversation because if men do it, they’ll just be called chauvinist or they’ll just be called sexist,” she told Caro McKee, a Counterspin correspondent, on a livestream during the occupation of Parliament grounds. The two women had been discussing the subservient role women should be playing in the alt-right movement, and Spierer was responding to McKee who had said that women should let the men lead them. “We have to sometimes back off and be that little submissive person and let our boys stand up,” said McKee. 

During the same Counterspin roadshow, Spierer told an audience in Wānaka: “If you are a working mother, and you’ve got children in a school, and you feel that there are some things you don’t like about schools, just consider that maybe quitting your job now is a sacrifice worth making.” She went on to describe feminism as a mind-control programme that teaches women they only have value when working outside the home. “That’s not true,” she says. “We can save our kids.” 

Renewed interest in ideas around traditional gender roles for women emerged online in a space known as the “manosphere” – a loose collection of websites and forums that are best described as anti-feminist or even male supremacist. Men in this space promote a nostalgic view of a mythologised past, when men could be “real men” and women could be, as McKee phrased it, “that little submissive person”. These ideas appealed to the same demographic who had gravitated towards #Gamergate, thinking feminism was out to destroy the last bastion of masculinity on the internet, or to Jordan Peterson and his promises of sexual success if you follow his 12 rules for life.

Most notoriously, this view of women has been adopted by men who self-identify as “incels” or involuntary celibates, and blame their romantic misfortune on the rising cultural and economic power of women, in particular the power to choose sexual partners. Incels, and others in the manosphere, long for a world where they have access to and control over women. But the ideal of an obedient mid-twentieth-century (or earlier) housewife appeals not just to men but also to a number of women who openly embrace the idea of being a “#tradwife”. This is where the “traditional” lifestyle of a home and family is seen as being denied to a certain demographic – a situation they blame on feminism; their anti-feminism becoming an entry point into the alternative right. 

I’d not really considered the possibility of anti-feminist women before this trend. We’ve all met women who reject feminism, but I thought of them as an anomaly. However, Western feminism hasn’t been a good fit for every woman.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a traditional wife at all, right?” Carson asks. “It’s when you add in the real stringent racism that’s at the core of the far right, that’s when it becomes dangerous.” Young would-be tradwives encounter the same economic realities as men, making their preferred lifestyle impossible for many. “In very few countries would a family survive on one income,” says Carson, “so it gives them another victim narrative. My wife would be at home with the children if society were set up better, if we were following traditional values, if feminism hadn’t told her she could do everything, and that’s where feminism falls over.” 

This then becomes a means for anti-feminist sentiments to draw women into the alt-right. A community of women embracing traditional femininity has grown online via tradwife blogs and communities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It has also found adherents among evangelical Christian and traditionalist Catholic communities. It was in part this overlap that prompted Hannah Blake to start her activism. “Hearing the same viewpoint about women belonging at home, about feminism being dangerous, about women needing to have children young, about women needing to shut up and let men talk, the concept that suddenly we are over toxic masculinity, all these talking points I had heard from all my religious instruction growing up were suddenly being parroted, and I was like ‘Oh no, oh no’,” she told Michelle Duff, a journalist who wrote an article in July 2022 titled How women are being weaponised by the “freedom movement”

While one doesn’t have to be white to adopt the tradwife lifestyle, it’s an ideology based heavily in white, Western cultural constructions of gender. Gender is seen as biological, binary, heterosexual and universal – something all people share regardless of history or culture. This is what gives rise to homophobia and transphobia among these communities. “A lot of people seem to think that for the Christians who are anti-queer, that it’s just they don’t understand. I don’t believe that’s the case,” Blake tells me. “They see any kind of sexuality … any queer identity to be a direct attack on the reason God created people.” Even without the oft-quoted Bible passages about homosexuality, Blake says this attitude would still exist. “They saw feminism as like, one of the ultimate enemies of the Church, because it was women stepping out of their place, stepping out of their God-ordained place and it was ruining everything in society; our birth rates are dropping because of all these feminists having abortions all the time, or they’re being lesbians, or anything like that … basically, we’re scared because we’re not having as many babies as we want.” 

According to Dr Ashley Mattheis, in a chapter titled #TradCulture: Reproducing whiteness and neo-fascism through gendered discourse online, which she contributed to the Routledge Handbook of Critical Studies in Whiteness, the nostalgic romanticism of the tradwife movement “obscures a long historical relationship between white mothers, the maintenance of white supremacy, and fascist nation-building”. While not everyone participating in the tradwife subculture is a white supremacist or a fascist, the far-right have made incursions into this space specifically because it’s not explicitly fascist, meaning extreme ideologies can be laundered via more socially acceptable misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic ideas of “natural” gender and sexuality, a reactionary response to what Mattheis describes as “feminist and queer notions of gender”. 

Carson argues that a “masculine lens” pervades the field of counter-terrorism, leading to women in extremist movements being rendered invisible. She cites New York Times journalist Annie Kelly, who found multiple social-media accounts she described as being designed with purposeful “hyper-feminine aesthetics” to mask the ideological authoritarianism within the tradwife subculture.

It’s likely that at least some of the opposition to children receiving Covid-19 vaccinations is driven by a fear of it being the government rather than parents making decisions about child health. This has brought women into the fold of the antivaccine conspiracy movement, not just the predominantly white mothers of Voices for Freedom, but Māori and Pasifika women as well. These women are then used to deflect accusations that the wider anti-government movement which has coalesced around the Covid public health response contains a sizable white supremacist element. 

Concurrently, though, it is white femininity that has given the far-right and conspiracy-theory movements an acceptable presentation. During the protests at Parliament, Chantelle Baker, once a reality TV participant and the daughter of former New Conservative Party leader Leighton Baker, grew her Facebook audience to over 96,000 followers. Described as the “Instagram-ready face of the protest” she brought disinformation to a much wider audience than the likes of Kelvyn Alp, whose violent rhetoric would have been off-putting to those not already radicalised. Appearing like a respectable, conservative “news personality” (how her since-deleted Facebook page was categorised), Baker gives an easy entry point into the world of anti-government conspiracy theory. Women may be relegated to particular roles within the alternative right, but it’s clear that the movement wouldn’t be where it is without them.

Fear: New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists by Byron C Clark (HarperCollins NZ, $39.99) can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

Keep going!