by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Annie Kelly is a Ph.D. student at the University of East Anglia studying “the impact of digital cultures on anti-feminism and the far-right.”In a recent New York Times opinion piece she reports that:
Over the past few years, dozens of YouTube and social media accounts have sprung up showcasing soft-spoken young white women who extol the virtues of … being “traditional wives.” These accounts pepper their messages with scrapbook-style collections of 1950s advertising images showing glamorous mothers in lipstick and heels with happy families and beautiful, opulent homes. They give their videos titles like “Female Nature and Advice for Young Ladies,” “How I Homeschool” and “You Might be a Millennial Housewife If….”
But running alongside what could be mistaken for a peculiar style of mommy-vlogging is a virulent strain of white nationalism. One such advocate who calls herself “Wife With a Purpose” made international headlines last year when she issued something she titled “the white baby challenge.” Citing falling white birthrates in the West, she urged her followers to procreate. “I’ve made six!” she wrote. “Match or beat me!” Wife With a Purpose might be the most prominent and certainly most openly white supremacist of the women who call themselves tradwives, but she is not an anomaly: These accounts veer dizzyingly from Cosmo-style tips on pleasing your husband to racist musings about “ghetto music” to, on some occasions, calls to reassert their vision of the white race. The seemingly anachronistic way they dress is no accident. The deliberately hyperfeminine aesthetics are constructed precisely to mask the authoritarianism of their ideology. …
A frustrated yearning for a mythic past of material abundance, at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to build careers and achieve financial security, is not gender-specific. Young people face ever more obstacles, higher demands and continually dwindling returns in the form of work benefits, job security and pay. We shouldn’t underestimate how some young white women, when faced with this bleak economic landscape and then presented with a rosy image of 1950s domestic bliss, may look back to 1960s Friedan-era feminism as having cheated them out of a family and a luxurious lifestyle, all supported by a single income. The men on the alt-right might point to diversity initiatives and mass immigration as having dismantled their career prospects; the women are furious that they have to consider career prospects at all.
Tradwives also point to the ways that the half-finished work of the sexual revolution has brought about not just male but also female discontents. The likes of pickup artists and incels claim that the sexual revolution has brought about a consequence-free life of pleasure for young women, while socially awkward or unattractive men are left behind. But the existence of tradwives points to a more nuanced reality. Female fears of objectification and sexual violence remain as potent as ever; the tradwife subculture exploits them by blaming modernity for such phenomena, and then offers chastity, marriage and motherhood as an escape. As one such YouTube commentator, a teenager, told her audience, traditionalism does “what feminism is supposed to do” in preventing women from being made into “sexual objects” and treated “like a whore.”
It’s a lie, of course. Modesty has never been a safeguard against degradation or rape, and we know that a rapist is no less likely to hurt a woman simply because he’s married to her. But it’s not difficult to see how it could be a seductive lie; the continuous headlines made by the #MeToo movement, paradoxically, were eagerly shared among tradwife networks, as supposed proof that sexual liberation had made life unacceptably dangerous for women. …
Like most political networks primarily based on the internet, the alt-right evolved extremely fast. When I began studying digital anti-feminist and far-right networks for my doctorate in 2015, the number of women in these spaces seemed small enough to be insignificant. There has since been such a surfeit of women beginning careers off such networks, many infusing their particular brand of far-right ideology with “trad” rhetoric, that it now seems irresponsible not to think about them, their roles and what they reveal. The material conditions that allow far-right movements to thrive seem unlikely to change, and feminism’s work is far from done in countering the kind of sexual anxieties that the alt-right exploits. Tradwives may seem like a lunatic fringe at present, but they may not stay one for long.