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The Women of the Far Right:
Social Media Influencers and Online Radicalization

by eviane leidig
columbia university, 
288 pages, $110

Within mainstream modern liberal feminism—especially as filtered through America’s bitterly polarized culture wars—to be feminist is self-evidently to be left-wing. Admittedly, one need not dig very deep among “anti-feminist” writers to find individuals who seem to dislike women. And especially on the wilder fringes of the contemporary online right, it is easy to find instances of virulent woman-hating. What, then, are we to make of conservative women? Do they merely suffer from false consciousness and internalized misogyny?

One of the many frustrating aspects of The Women of the Far Right, a new academic study of women in right-wing internet subcultures, is that this crude hypothesis is never interrogated. The book’s author, Eviane Leidig, has the progressive views you would expect of a postdoctoral fellow in culture studies, and the book itself is no very extensive survey either of the far right or of its female adherents. Rather, it surveys a handful of right-wing female online influencers, active during the period between Trump and Covid, circa 2016 to 2020. A more accurate title would have been “E-Girls of the Alt-Right.”

Within its narrow ambit, Leidig’s overall argument does not extend far beyond the observation that right-wing female social media influencers use practices typical of social media influencers—such as mixing personal disclosure with general commentary and inviting audience feedback—to build rapport with their audiences and thus propagate right-wing opinions, all of which are self-evidently false and malign. But even with this narrow range, made narrower by its author’s ideological presets, the survey lets slip enough thought-provoking details to invite closer examination of the thorny question of conservative women.

In an 1802 letter to his daughter Adèle, the Savoyard reactionary Joseph de Maistre advised her to cultivate a capacity for pliancy and submissiveness, declaring: “Happy are mild women, for they will possess men.” In Right-Wing Women (1983), the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin argued that such strategies were the opposite of wise advice: They represented a bleak adaptation to reality, in view of the danger men always pose to women. Was she right? Or—worse—are “mild women” propagating, as Leidig suggests, “female-supported misogyny”? Is the right misogynistic by definition?

Answering these questions requires a broader understanding of what is meant by “left” and “right” than is available in Leidig’s ahistorical book. The material origin story for the metaphor dates from Maistre’s era. During the French Revolution, members of the National Assembly who supported the ancien régime began clustering on the president’s right, while those who opposed it gathered on the left. Most of Maistre’s writing concerns such developments—politics writ large, in governments and constitutions, rather than writ small in relations between the sexes. But relations between the sexes also display, in microcosm, the transformations against which his arguments were framed. And a closer look at that microcosm both reveals the animating force behind the revolutionary “left” Leidig so uncritically advocates, and—to the partial frustration of Leidig and her antagonists alike—the limitations of that revolutionary principle. 

As Jon Askonas has recently argued in his essay “Why Conservatism Failed” (in Compact), the right has tended to embrace the forward march of technology, even while lamenting its solvent effects on everything one might wish to conserve. Conservatives have decried such phenomena as egalitarianism, feminism, or mass politics as though they were the wellsprings of social change, while downplaying the dependence of such ideologies on certain technological developments.

By the time Maistre wrote his polemics against science, democracy, and egalitarianism, the material transformations that enabled those moral shifts were well under way. Manufacturing was weakening feudal aristocracies in favor of a mercantile bourgeoisie with far more tenuous allegiances to land and tradition. Innovation replaced peasant workers with machines, undermining ancient powerbases in the process, and impelled millions to abandon rural life for the emerging industrial hubs. And this trajectory continued over the century that followed, notwithstanding Maistre’s tirades.

The nascent industrial economy also drove the social changes that most concern the ambivalent relation of sex and the right. The ongoing mechanization and industrialization of productive subsistence work, previously performed by hand, radically shifted relations between the sexes, precipitating what Ivan Illich in Gender (1982) called a transition from “vernacular gender” to “economic sex”: a long, slow dissolution of sex roles that had once appeared self-evident and complementary, and their replacement by a new, theoretically sexless vision of Homo economicus.

From the perspective of liberals such as Leidig, this development was beneficial, not least in tending to erode the kind of sex-specific life advice Maistre offered his daughter. Illich, though, argues that the entry into modernity left women more, not less, at the mercy of sexism. And indeed, as “sex-realist” feminists such as Erika Bachiochi, Leah Libresco Sargeant, and I have all argued, the ideal of the unencumbered liberal subject that takes center stage in the industrialized world may be theoretically sexless, but it is in practice presumed male. This subject’s lack of encumbrance can be straightforwardly actualized only by a person for whom reproduction does not imply the arduous work of pregnancy and breastfeeding and the visceral bonds of early motherhood. Thus the shift to industrial modernity, and the covert asymmetries that resulted, prompted the emergence of the women’s movement.

But if technology threw sex relations out of balance, it also made possible the very postindustrial rebalancing that the women’s movement claims as feminist progress. The mechanization and consequent dematerialization of labor, for example, is a key material precondition for the decline of “sexism” in the workplace. And it was, as Phyllis Schlafly observed, as much the washing machine that liberated women from the home as any feminist movement.

Joseph de Maistre sought to preserve Christian faith and absolute monarchy. As it turned out, his was only one early instance of many such efforts: The right—by which I mean the constantly renewed rearguard action against the solvent effects of modernity—habitually defends large-scale political values whose moral force the technological revolution has already rendered insubstantial and abstract. The defense of sex as a constitutive human difference has likewise recurred within the right ever since Maistre’s day, as the intimate-scale analogue of this macro-scale stance. In the nineteenth century, for example, articles decried the blurring of sexed boundaries, depicting bloomer-wearing progressive women as ugly and masculinized. And conservative women such as the British novelist and social activist Mary Augusta Ward argued against the sexless new human in the context of women’s suffrage, on the grounds that the universal franchise presumed a material sameness between the sexes that would, as she put it, “rest on unreality.”

By the turn of the twentieth century, Maistre’s world had receded into dim memory. European monarchy was “modernized” to symbolic status at best. Christianity was, by and large, heading in the same direction. In turn, some of those reactionaries still holding out for a version of the ancien régime retreated to more esoteric ground, even as they made ambivalent concessions to modernity. This operation gave rise to an early-twentieth-century current in right-wing thought that blended a romantic defense of the natural world, shading into blood-and-soil paganism, with an embrace of industrial civilization as extending the scope for a fully realized will to power. The word “fascism” is much abused these days, but in very crude outline this was its original form: a doctrine paradoxically both reactionary and profoundly modernist.

Here, too, the defense of sex difference recurs, whether in the Nazi Party’s glorification of “Aryan motherhood” or the masculinist writings of the Italian far-right theorist Julius Evola (1898–1974). A founding thinker of the esoteric right-wing Traditionalist subculture, Evola—alongside his more occult theories—insisted upon the stubborn irreducibility of sex, and the perniciousness of efforts to subordinate that difference to the solvent force of modernity. In his most influential work, Revolt Against the Modern World (1934), Evola decried what he saw as a decline from “traditional ethics,” which had “asked men and women to be themselves to the utmost of their capabilities,” and its replacement by a “new ‘civilization’” that “aims at leveling everything.”

Even Evola did not, perhaps, anticipate the ambition of this leveling force. Since Revolt Against the Modern World was published, the homogenizing impulse has extended even into our bodies. The extension occurred initially by means of technological contraception, and subsequently through a plethora of biomedical innovations addressing aspects of the human organism that relate to our reproductive potential—such as the aiding, ending, or outsourcing of pregnancy, or the alteration of secondary sex characteristics according to individual desire. The underlying premise in each case is not the preservation of normal human health, but the treating of that norm as a baseline subject to limitless technological upgrades.

As I argued in Feminism Against Progress (2023), this transhumanist revolution has yielded mixed results for women. It delivered a dividend of liberation, extending to women male-standard reproductive freedom and greatly expanded professional and educational opportunities. The feminism of sameness imagined that one day reproduction itself might be abstracted from biological sex—a change that some, following Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970), continue to frame as the ultimate step for women’s liberation. But the transhumanist turn in feminism has also radically extended commerce into human bodies, and especially the bodies of women, by legitimizing the sale of sexual services or gametes, the renting of wombs for surrogacy, and the ever-expanding industry of transgender body modification.

The directional quality of this endless revolution explains why it is so difficult to define the “far right.” A view is denoted as “far-right” relative to a revolutionary vanguard that is in constant forward motion, meaning that what is common sense today may read as right-wing extremism tomorrow. Thus do left-leaning feminists who defend embodied sex differences now find themselves accused of being “Nazis.” From the perspective of the technological revolutionary, any defense of immutable difference may be dismissed as, in Leidig’s phrasing, a “far-right narrative regarding essentialist gender roles.”

And yet the Illichian critique of women’s structural disadvantage under “economic sex” still holds. Indeed, new technologies often perpetuate it, as illustrated in Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women (2019), which documents the countless ways in which innovations—from surgical instruments to crash test dummies—still take male physiology as the default.

Ultimately, the asymmetry is inextricable from motherhood. Much of the so-called gender pay gap, for example, is more accurately a motherhood pay gap, reflecting the fact that even high-achieving working mothers of young children often, and not unreasonably, at least somewhat deprioritize professional life in their children’s favor. How are progressive women to square this circle, short of somehow curing women of the desire to have children? Leidig seems sufficiently aware of this dilemma to frame her “far-right” subjects’ celebration of childbearing as subversive: a project to “weaponize motherhood for the movement” by posting content that makes having kids look appealing. Imagine. This is all in service to “the far-right view that motherhood is a woman’s fundamental duty,” which entails “reconstruction of the image of female empowerment not as a successful career but as the embrace of domestic duties.”

And indeed, if the revolutionary aim is the advent of radically equal, homogenized “humans,” maternity is by definition counterrevolutionary. But to this we might retort: What exactly is the alternative? Firestone’s artificial wombs are still not a realistic prospect, thank goodness. Absent these, a civilization that views absolute human parity as the desideratum, and gestation as implicitly reactionary, is at war with its own future.

But if advocates of tech-enabled sameness find their dream runs aground on the embodied core of sex dimorphism, the right-wing defense of that difference suffers from a mirroring difficulty: defining that core. The female alt-right influencers in Leidig’s study seek to retrieve and valorize sex difference. Leidig quotes influencer Rebecca Hargraves, who claims that “women are unhappy because they are rejecting their instincts and are misfit for a masculine lifestyle, and they grin and bear it because they have a tendency to believe that everything is OK.” The sentiment might have been lifted directly from Revolt Against the Modern World. Here, Evola grumbles that “so-called feminism has not been able to devise a personality for women other than by imitating the male personality,” a failure that—as he sees it—reveals woman’s “fundamental lack of trust in herself as well as her inability to be and to function as a real woman and not as a man.”

Evola was perhaps more perceptive than either Hargraves or Leidig in acknowledging the mind-altering contribution of modernity itself to this dynamic. The first error of feminism, Evola argues, is to view the stereotypical modern male role as “real”—as aspirational and attainable for women. This male standard is, he suggests, itself a mirage: a shrunken, etiolated masculinity radically crippled by technological modernity. In contrast to the full-blooded masculinity Evola ascribes to “traditional societies,” modern manhood is merely “the puppet of a standardized, rationalized society that no longer knows anything that is truly differentiated and qualitative.”

If Evola is right, then the right, whether of the regular or the reactionary variety, faces a dilemma. We may intuit that sex is still irreducible. But filtered as everything now is through the mind-altering effects of technological civilization, where—if anywhere—do we remain men and women? What aspect of our difference is merely an effect of behavioral and social norms or of material conditions? How much of it is embodied? Conversely, what can be gained by efforts to retain aspects of sexed difference, for which the material and technological substrate has been innovated away? This question has grown urgent for those on the modern right who intuit that the prospect of radical sameness remains illusory—and yet, at least in the West, often inhabit a high-tech postmodern culture in which much of social interaction now occurs in the radically disembodied context of the internet.

In any case, in practice, the reality of sexed life tends to be messier than either revolutionary or reactionary ideals would prefer. Leidig recounts several alt-right influencers who withdrew from public life to embrace 1950s-style motherhood—only to reappear online after a break, often having moderated their previously hard-line objection to mothers’ working. And she relates how the well-known firebrand Lauren Southern returned to social media after marriage and motherhood with a critique of her erstwhile alt-right circle as unhealthy—less a meaningful political movement, she concluded, than a culture of “entertainment and hot-take politics.”

Meanwhile, even right-wing ideologues who promote the “traditional family” may find the vision more challenging in practice than in theory. After Leidig’s book was written, Southern’s marriage collapsed, leaving her a penniless and disillusioned single mother. In the wake of these events, her recent output mixes recognizably alt-right material with videos challenging the utopian end of right-wing gender politics, such as “based and redpilled” calls to repeal women’s right to vote. For Southern, such demands bespeak a “delusion,” politics as “playing with dollies.”

Perhaps, then, the ambivalent relation between sex politics and right-wing politics reflects the fact that revolution and reaction are inextricable from one another, whereas sex dimorphism really is irreducible. Our existence as men and women remains fundamental to our continuation as a species, even as it refuses either to submit to politicized definition or to be entirely abolished. Meanwhile, the demands of love will always be more grounded than any political theory. Pursuing the best interests of young children requires a pragmatism that is not easily compatible with firebrand political absolutism, whether revolutionary or reactionary. In the end, it is this messiness of everyday reality that imposes the most pitiless limits on technological utopianism, and on its reactionary mirror image.

Our nature may be mercurial, but there is no technologizing it away. Nor is there any putting the toothpaste of revolution back in its tube. Our best hope of moderation, then, lies in the most reactionary, and most subversive, of all forces: the messy business of trying to love one another, as embodied men, women, and children, in the world as it is.

Mary Harrington is a columnist at UnHerd.

Image by George Milton, public domain. Image cropped. 

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