Review- Darby, “Sisters in Hate”

Seyward Darby, “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism” (2021) – A fair few new books on contemporary American fascism and antifascism lately, which I’d be interested in reading even if I weren’t working on my own book about it. Seyward Darby works as a journalist, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and got extensive access to three of the most prominent women on the contemporary American fascist right. There’s Corinna Olsen, a former leader in the National Socialist Movement, the American Nazis who go the most out of their way to imitate genuine German Nazis of the 1923-1945 era. There’s Ayla Stewart, a leading white nationalist “tradlife” influencer online (the “what is tradition” question among your “tradlife” folks is so muddied I’ve given up worrying about it). And lastly, we have Lana Lokteff, a sort of younger, more-openly-Nazi Ann Coulter figure and cohost of the Red Ice podcast. All three, by interesting coincidence, were born in that year of years, 1979.

What can these three tell us about white nationalism and women’s place in it? That seems to be Darby’s thesis question. Good student she presumably once was, she dutifully returns us to the thesis question at points in most (all? I didn’t keep track) chapters, and answers “yes, Virginia, white women were always important to white nationalism.” That was a rude way of putting it, stemming with frustration with how little I’ve read lately, even good books, surprise me, in form or content. Darby’s thesis is both true and more involved in that. The role white women have historically played in white nationalism is that of normalizing the ideology. From the antebellum South to the Klan revival in the nineteen-twenties to the online influencers of today, white nationalist women do their best to associate their hateful, deadly ideas with home, hearth, children, nurture, and (a carefully modulated, don’t want any loose women here! Except when nazi men actually do) sex appeal. More than marketing (though it’s definitely also marketing), these concerns of white nationalist womanhood tap into the deep concerns of racism more generally, the notion of a zero-sum world of racial total war where the “home front” is of paramount importance.

The three subjects illustrate these dynamics and how they work today in different ways. Olsen is somewhat the outlier (Darby refers to these women by their first names throughout- I’m weird about that and so will stick with surnames. They are not my friends). If she participated in efforts to normalize all-out Hitler-imitative Nazism, it was only in comparison to what the men were up to. She was a lost Gen Xer (as were all three women, to a certain extent) in the Pacific Northwest when she got swept up in Nazism, specifically, to the promise of Kalispell, a whites-only intentional community out in the mountains. She liked the idea of getting into a primal, folksy domesticity (I found myself thinking of “Midsommar”) with her two daughters (the dad was out of the picture). Olsen also tolerates bullshit a lot less than the other two, and quit (giving information to the FBI in the process) after Nazi men routinely sexualized her daughters. She converted to Islam not long before Darby contacted her.

Lokteff and especially Stewart are closer to the thesis. Stewart identified as a feminist whose big thing was natural birth. Soft-leftism and relatively defensible but kook-adjacent positions, along with a desire for more attention and a lack of real values, led her down the primrose path to what was then called the “altright.” She joined an extra-conservative Mormon sect, started cranking out kids, and brought her white nationalist message to the “mommy blog” space. She took to the tropes and the conventions of the space — pastel aesthetic, aspirational lifestyle-ism, nostalgia, passive-aggressive sniping at other mothers, and most of all, the shocked, shocked! aggrieved tearful defensiveness that anyone would object to her ideas — like a fish to water.

Lokteff, for her part, also started out vaguely left-of-center. Granddaughter of an emigre from the Russian Revolution (let’s pause and pour one out for nana’s stolen serfs) and also raised among a lot of vaguely spiritual nonsense, she got into white nationalism via the sort of aimless skepticism that characterizes… some people, we’ll leave it at that. She had a kid around the time Darby started interviewing her (commenters on her shows let her know how she was failing the race). She couldn’t do the domestic goddess thing Stewart does, but she could do the “I’m a woman who likes ‘traditional’ masculinity” thing. Interesting, given the way she has, in many ways, sidelined the Swedish Nazi she married and whose show she basically took over, but that’s how it goes. How must Phyllis Schlafly’s husband have felt? Fine, probably, the prick.

At this point, faithful readers must be as used to me bringing up the shortcomings of liberal analyses of fascism (and antifascism) as I am of the theses in these thesis-heavy books I read. Well… tough. The shortcomings in “Sisters in Hate” aren’t damning and the book is still well worth reading. They can be summed up as the effects of a liberal understanding of politics as having more to do with personal affect than it does. Such an outlook probably makes for better profile-writing than a more rigorous outlook might. I look at these three women and see marks. I want to know how they can affect a strategic situation and how best to neutralize them. But they are, indeed, humans (Nazis are human- just bad humans). Darby brings that out in discussing their assorted personalities: Olsen’s sharpness and oddness, Stewart’s desire to belong and capacity to swallow her own snake oil, Lokteff’s cynicism.

I’m not even saying Darby shouldn’t do that. I just think a more structural approach might have done more to link up these affects to the political situation, if we’re going to give them political weight- the affects and the effects, if you will. For example, it would have been cool to spool out more the historical context, given they were literally all born in the same year. This critique extends to the solutions- can’t have a liberal political book without some solutions! These mostly involve white women doing the work of challenging racism themselves, of helping women who seem to be falling off into white nationalism, donating to ex-Nazi recovery groups (Darby cites a mediocre one, not an actively hurtful one). These suggestions are varying degrees of helpful, but don’t really get to the root of the problem. Moreover, it cuts across the grain of her thesis. She uses the metaphors of “falling” into nazism and needing a “handhold.” Did they fall, or did they walk, intentionally, into what they did (and do)? Well, as always, probably a bit of both, and prevention is worthwhile, but it deserves more of a discussion. In any event, this is a pretty good book on an underexplored topic. It’s just the critiques are a little more interesting to write (and, I’d guess, read) than “good profiles!” ****

Review- Darby, “Sisters in Hate”

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