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Female Veterans and Right-Wing Extremism: Becoming ‘One of the Boys’

28 Jan 2022

As we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the 06 January riots at the US Capitol, it is important to acknowledge who participated in the event, including members of the US Armed Forces, to gain understanding that can help us better prevent its repetition. Out of those, at least two female veterans were identified as participants: Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by the police on Capitol grounds, and Yvonne St Cyr, who has been charged for disruptive and disorderly conduct on restricted grounds. The involvement of some veterans with right-wing extremist (RWE) movements has been of great interest for researchers, although this has predominately been a focus on the roles of male veterans. There is extremely limited literature on, and understanding of the push and pull factors for female veterans to get involved with RWE, as well as of the roles that female veterans might take up within these groups. This is especially true as compared to the expected roles of women within the narratives of the various types of groups and movements that fall under different RWE ideologies. More research is needed to bridge the existing knowledge gap and provide a more precise understanding of the gender role dynamics specific to female veterans, why they join and how they participate in RWE milieus. This in turn would be beneficial for policymakers in tailoring preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) measures to be effective and meaningful for all active and former service members.

In this Perspective, we argue that the process of integrating into a hypermasculine military environment can create pathways of cultural and organisational familiarity for female veterans, especially those with combatant experience, to RWE environments – which can encourage them to join in the first place. We also show how more research is needed to better understand the roles that female veterans can play in RWE movements, and the impact of their military training and skills on this role definition. This Perspective focuses mostly on examples of the US armed forces, in light of the Capitol insurrection; however, it is probable that many of these same dynamics are prevalent in other similar military environments. In the first section, we establish how the military can foster a hypermasculine culture, which focuses on a masculine interpretation of the ideal ‘hero,’ and can reinforce competitive and aggressive behaviours. We highlight the attraction of RWE movements for some veterans, resulting from hypermasculine cultural and organisational familiarity. In the second section, we turn to the issue of female veterans more specifically, and how integration into the hypermasculine military environment can create pathways to RWE. We identify the various roles women have in RWE movements and how the military background of female veterans can challenge and shape conceptions of women and their contributions within these movements. Overall, the journey of some female veterans towards RWE indicates the need for not only increased research on this topic, but also provides some recommendations for P/CVE measures aimed at current and former service members.

Hypermasculinity and the military

The military is known for being a typical example of a hypermasculine environment where certain traits need to be acquired in order to become part of the group or unit. These traits are encouraged by promoting an understanding of masculinity constructed around the ideal man, who, according to Hinojosa, would be “more morally oriented, self-disciplined, physically able, emotionally controlled, martially skilled, or intelligent than civilians, members of other branches, different occupational specialties, and of different rank” and thus superior to other individuals. This understanding of ‘idealness’ as being associated with the man and masculinity creates a negative gender bias towards the valuation of women’s competencies and abilities to be “good” soldiers.

This hypermasculinity is enforced during the training process when civilians are shaped into soldiers, encouraging conformation to this understanding of the ideal. For instance, aggressive behaviour is reinforced through certain unit building activities, especially within combat-focused roles, such as special forces units. In this environment, violence is reinforced as one way to express one’s masculinity. The combat-focused positions in the military by nature facilitate, if not encourage, the use of violence in combination with an ‘othering’ process. This ‘othering’ can manifest throughout military careers, through the socialised normality of comparing oneself with civilians in order to positively emphasise self-discipline and martial skills gained during military service. This dynamic is also present across ratings within the services and even between branches of the armed forces, where each aims to prove its superiority through comparison of hypermasculinised ideal norms.

The military’s hypermasculine culture can be reflected in other environments, such as RWE milieus. Both the armed forces and RWE milieus are predominately male and there is some overlap in the values they hold. RWE movements are often seen to try to emulate military values, symbols and event organisational structures, as well as concepts of the ideal martial man. Many RWE milieus also share an interest in the strategic planning and tactics of military forces. Indeed, RWE movements often praise the armed forces for their tactical skills and take inspiration from the military to plan their actions. For example, pictures of the US Capitol riots show insurgents in a formation used by American soldiers during deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cultural and organisational overlap

Additionally, RWE movements often adopt concepts of heroism and valour, and then twist them with extremist ideology. The majority of RWE movements emphasise loyalty and honour, and claim to be defenders of the nation against a foreign other. For instance, the Proud Boys are a striking example of RWE movements relying on Western chauvinism. Their initiation process aims to ensure loyalty to the cause and the movement through violence. Parallels can be drawn between the cultural expectations of these groups and the military. Both the military and RWE milieus valorise the idea of being a hero willing to die for his nation. The Devoted Actor Theory explains that, in these types of martial cultures, the individual and group identities merge to the extent that the individual becomes willing to demonstrate extreme behaviour for the cause.

These elements of cultural overlap can create familiar pathways for service members into RWE movements. However, there is also organisational structure overlap, which can attract veterans. The military is an incredibly structured organisation, relying on ranks and strict hierarchies. RWE movements also adopt military-like features, with hierarchical command structures and ranking systems. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is headed by the 'Imperial Wizard' and members acquire different titles according to their rank in the organisation. For instance, comparisons could be made between the positions of ‘Grand Nighthawk’ and Army Sergeant as both are tasked to ensure the adequate training of new recruits. On the other hand, movements such as Atomwaffen Division, Stormfront, or the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (the paramilitary branch of the Proud Boys) may have looser structures but echo military organisations through their organisational names.

This relationship to ranking and hierarchy and the personal identity associated with advancement through the ranks in both milieus can partially explain the reason some veterans may be interested in joining RWE movements. When leaving the armed forces and returning to civilian life, veterans experience a transition that can be overwhelming and come as a loss of their personal and deeply-engrained soldier identity. If this sense of identity is perceived differently in the civilian environment, it can result in anger rooted in feelings of unappreciation. This phenomenon can be amplified with individuals who received a less than honourable discharge or exited the armed forces involuntarily, sometimes creating resentment towards the military and disillusionment regarding the government. In these cases, veterans can find a welcoming environment in RWE milieus.

Many RWE movements even consider veterans to be high-value recruitment targets, because of the military values instilled in them and the skills and tactical knowledge they have gained from their military experience. While this presents high level of concern about the potential infiltration and recruitment of services members into RWE, it is essential to remember that veterans should not be generalised as susceptible to RWE, or their service tainted by stereotypes. Rather, as in the general population, P/CVE programming should be there to prevent the few to whom these concerns do apply from becoming radicalised.

The journey of female veterans

Although the literature on veterans and RWE overwhelmingly focuses on males, who make up the significant majority of military membership, it is also necessary to look at the dynamics specific to female service members, as they are also being radicalised to RWE. As armed forces are aiming to become more diverse, there is an increasing need to reduce the ‘othering’ process female military members have often been subject to and improve the integration of women into, not only the ranks, but also through adaptation of the culture.

Since women are a minority, the integration process can be difficult, especially when traits associated with their gender are perceived as less valuable by their peers. Nevertheless, they find strategies to adapt to the situation, including sometimes to the degree of integrating into the culture of hypermasculinity to become ‘one of the boys’ and join the unit in-group. Indeed, in order to be accepted into this overly masculine environment, sometimes females resort to joining group dynamics reinforcing male domination. Höpfl explains that to become accepted amongst men, women need to be stripped of all feminine aspects and acquire a metaphorical penis.

Records show testimonies of female service members having to ‘give up certain feminine ways’. For example, during the Gulf War, female soldiers were encouraged to take contraceptive pills in order to prevent their menstruation. This contributes to the idea that a woman cannot be a good soldier and must choose between the two identities. There has historically also been a culture of hypersexualisation in integrated military units, such as through use of explicit comments, jokes, or even public display of genitalia, in addition to a well-established history of sexual assault within the ranks. Female soldiers have been known to ‘play the game’ and take part in such hypersexualised behaviour, as well as dismiss female traits, in order to be accepted by their male comrades. It is by joining in on such ‘traditions’ that women were considered ‘one of the boys’ and accepted as valid team members. Thus, female veterans become socialised into a hypermasculine culture.

However, it also is important to recognise that this dynamic is not static. As the armed forces have continued increasing the numbers of female members, as well as increasing the scope of ratings and roles they can pursue within the military, they have correspondingly tried to address the negative impacts of this hypermasculinised culture. There are regular required trainings on issues such as sexual assault and to encourage reporting of code-of-conduct violations. Even decreasing of frontline engagement through the modernisation of warfare has impacted hypermasculinisation in the military, as many ratings are completed in an office environment where females are not comparatively “othered” against male-dominated, combat-focused units in the same ways. However, deeply rooted military masculinity will remain until there is gender equality throughout the ranks and hierarchal structures and a fundamental shift in the culture of security institutions. Therefore, bridging this knowledge gap on the socialisation process of female service members into the hypermasculinised military environment as part of their journey towards RWE is still essential.

Role expectations in right wing extremism

Another interesting dynamic of this journey specific to female veterans is role expectations, both their own expectations for their contributions and those of the RWE milieus they may join. The publicly visible violent roles within RWE movements seem taken primarily by men. This could be due to the predominance of male membership, or due to their professed ideological stance. Most RWE movements hold belief systems founded on different levels of misogyny, which therefore delineate specific roles for women. However, more research is needed on the roles of women. Their involvement in RWE violence should not be underestimated. Women often hold key strategic and logistical positions within these movements. While sometimes thought of as lesser-than or supporting roles, the visibly violent roles would not be possible without these. This presents a differentiated journey for female versus male veterans, as some RWE groups may welcome female veterans for their military training and tactical knowledge the same as their male counterparts, others may focus on their gender rather than their experience.

Campion presents six forms of participation for women in RWE movements: thinkers, promoters, exemplars, activists, facilitators, and violent actors. The typology can be divided into two categories. The first one includes: thinkers, promoters, and exemplars, and focuses on strategic support.

Thinkers are involved in the spread of RWE ideas. They do not necessarily participate in violent actions, but they provide the rationale behind such actions. Thinkers actively contribute to RWE ideology and its propagation, thus facilitating the radicalisation and recruitment of new members, especially online. Promoters might not  contribute new ideas to RWE ideology; however, they actively participate in their dissemination. They reformulate RWE ideology and theories in order to make them understandable to their audience. Exemplars refer to the women who became symbols and heroines of their milieus. They are celebrated for their embodiment of certain values and norms, which is meant to become an inspiration for the rest of the movement.

Due to their military experience and their symbolic status, female veterans could effectively operate in these roles. Indeed, they could tailor RWE ideas related to the military, as well as be able to frame RWE ideas in a relatable way for active and former members of the armed forces. In addition, service members are regarded as heroes willing to die for their country, and this symbol can be used to recruit and radicalise more individuals, including other service members.

The second category of the typology includes: activists, facilitators, and violent actors, and focuses on logistical and active support. While men are seen as dominant in the violent roles, research shows that women also perform roles necessary to carry out violent and non-violent actions. Facilitators enable actions by taking on organisational and logistic roles. They engage in activities such as obtaining weapons and organising crimes to further the movement's goals. Due to their military training, female veterans may have the leadership and organisational skills necessary to efficiently facilitate such actions. Activists are at the forefront of non-violent actions, such as protests and political rallies. They also organise social meetings, search for donations and manage finances. Part of that activism is organised by and for women in parallel to the male-dominated circles. Activists are often responsible for the maintenance of the RWE formal and informal networks. Violent actors engage in a wide range of actions from terrorism and hate crimes to vandalism. Records show women participating in violent acts such as shootings and bombings. Women are also involved in less violent acts of vandalism and intimidation. This was the case of Ashli Babbitt and Yvonne St Cyr, both veterans who participated in the 06 January Capitol Riot.

Although this typology provides useful insights into the roles taken on by women, they can overlap and women may participate across categories. Female service members receive military training highly valued in RWE circles, including the strategic and tactical skills necessary to plan, organise, and implement action – for example, the weapons training sought out by RWE movements when carrying out violent attacks. These desirable skills may challenge the role perceptions for women among some RWE milieus, making the journey for female service members into RWE dynamically different to their male counterparts, as well as giving females very diverse and multifaceted strengths across roles. Therefore, the radicalisation of some  female veterans has the potential to increase the threat and growth of RWE movements.

Looking forward

The literature on RWE milieus and their connection to the military is overwhelmingly focused on men, which creates a knowledge gap regarding female service members. Dedicating more research to this topic would improve understanding of the pathways female veterans can take into RWE and the roles they make take up within these movements.  This knowledge would inform and improve effectiveness of P/CVE measures. Although their number may be small, female veterans have a unique and dynamic ability to apply their skills across roles within RWE groups, making them potentially very effective and significant actors. This impact may be enhanced by the various skills acquired through military training.

There are hypermasculine cultural and structural overlaps between RWE movements and the military, which can facilitate the recruitment of some current and former members of the armed forces. Nevertheless, the potential threat represented by female service members has rarely been acknowledged by policymakers. Indeed, for too long women have been considered only as victims of violence or partners in peacebuilding efforts, which undermines recognition of the extent to which women are actively participating in violent extremism.

A better understanding of the radicalisation journey of female veterans, as well as the roles they subsequently take up in RWE movements, would not only allow for a more detailed mapping of RWE structures, but in turn potentially improve P/CVE efforts. Research shows that the transition point out of the armed forces represents a critical point in a potential pathway towards radicalisation, indicating the dual need for effective P/CVE programmes for active-duty service members, and adequate veteran support. As the US Armed Forces, and other Western militaries, make moves to address concerns of violent extremism within their ranks, this Perspective highlights why P/CVE programming for service members needs to account for the ways in which male and female members have different military experiences. More research on the pathways taken by some female service members is needed in order to improve the gendered aspects of military P/CVE programming. Research must also account for the hypermasculine structural and cultural environment of the military, and the negative impacts that this could potentially have in driving both male and female service members’ radicalisation processes. A fundamental shift is essential within the military environment to encourage an effective and equal culture, conducive to positive socialisation processes, rather than hypermasculine military integration encouraging the radicalisation of some female service members on their journey to becoming ‘one of the boys’.