Steve King's rape comments reveal the misogyny at the heart of white supremacist ideology

From King's Twitter feed to the manifesto of the El Paso shooter, white supremacists and white nationalists are obsessed with falling birth rates.
Image: Republican Rep. Steve King Holds Town Hall Meeting In Boone, Iowa
Republican Congressman Steve King from Iowa at a town hall meeting at the Ericson Public Library on Aug. 13, 2019 in Boone, Iowa.Joshua Lott / Getty Images
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By Mona Eltahawy

On Wednesday, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, catapulted into the news again after musing that humanity might not exist if not for rape and incest. These cruel and highly offensive remarks were in service of the argument that even sexually assaulted women should be denied abortions. But King’s comments were just the latest reminder of the way sexism and white supremacy so often go hand in hand.

Whether in Europe or in the United States, white supremacists and white nationalists are obsessed with falling birth rates, and by extension they are obsessed with the recruitment — and total control — of women’s wombs.

Whether in Europe or in the United States, white supremacists and white nationalists are obsessed with the recruitment — and total control — of women’s wombs.

In 2017, when the far-right, anti-Islam and anti-immigrant Dutch politician Geert Wilders was polling in second place in the Netherlands’ national elections, Breitbart’s European sister site Voice of Europe tweeted an image of Wilders plugging a hole in a wall labeled “Western Civilization.” King approvingly retweeted that image, noting that “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

King doubled down on this sentiment after an outcry, telling CNN's Chris Cuomo on "New Day": "You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else's babies. You've got to keep your birth rate up, and that you need to teach your children your values. ... In doing so, you can grow your population, you can strengthen your culture, and you can strengthen your way of life."

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This connection between racism and fertility is not simply the obsession of politicians like King and Wilders, however. Just minutes before a white man shot dead 22 mostly Latinx people in El Paso, Texas, a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto potentially connected to the man appeared online, claiming “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” and warning that white people in the United States were being replaced by foreigners.

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This was the fourth such screed associated with white supremacist mass shootings in the past year. All of these posts, while containing various racist and misogynist undertones, also refer to what has become known as “replacement theory,” which claims that white people are being replaced by nonwhite people around the world because white women are not having enough children.

In her book "Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination," Alexandra Minna Stern explains the variety of ways that influential white nationalists and far-right men and women encourage their followers to procreate by appealing to the “urgency of perpetuating ancestral white bloodlines.”

Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief of neo-Nazi magazine Counter-Currents, berates them. “Are you going to be the whiny little maggot who brings all of their striving and struggles to oblivion?" Johnson says, referring to ancestors, Stern notes in her book. "Because you just can’t get your act together and decide to go off the goddamn pill or stop using condoms or whatever and just take the plunge and carry the race forward one more generation?”

Stern also cites a blogger known as Wife with a Purpose, who gained some notoriety in 2017 with a viral "white baby challenge." “As a mother of 6, I challenge families to have as many white babies as I have contributed,” said the blogger, whose name is reportedly Ayla Stewart.

But this push to recruit white women’s wombs for the cause is an inherently misogynist one. Hence the push against anything that could dissuade or distract women from reproducing, be it feminism, working outside the home, or even voting. Much of that work is done by a subculture of far-right women online who “have sprung up showcasing soft-spoken young white women who extol the virtues of staying at home, submitting to male leadership and bearing lots of children,” Annie Kelly, who is researching the impact of digital cultures on anti-feminism and the far right, wrote in The New York Times in June 2018.

The trad-wife subculture, Kelly says, blames the objectification of women and sexual violence on “modernity” and “offers chastity, marriage and motherhood as an escape.” As evidence, Kelly quotes a teenaged YouTube commentator who 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.”

For a March article examining the “replacement theory” published after the Christchurch mosque massacre, Kelly told the New York Times’ Nellie Bowles that she had noticed a worrying trend in the online white supremacist subcultures she studies, namely the need for white women to be re-educated. Kelly has also observed more and more talk of reversing women’s suffrage.

“That was something I used to see in the overtly neo-Nazi spaces, but now I’m seeing it introduced in less extremist spaces,” Kelly told The Times. “First introduced as a joke, of course, then as an acceptable policy that maybe not all users agree with but is worth discussing.”

For now, such a goal is essentially impossible. But this kind of virulently sexist rhetoric has not stopped women, especially in Europe, from voting for right-wing populist parties. As I write in my new book, “The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls,” a 2017 study into right-wing populist voters in Germany, France, Greece, Poland, Sweden and Hungary by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), found that women are increasingly drawn to right-wing populist parties and are often more radical than their male peers.

This kind of virulently sexist rhetoric has not stopped women, especially in Europe, from voting for right-wing populist parties.

Tellingly, the study found that while many right-wing populist parties have prominent female figures among their leadership, such as Marine Le Pen in France, Poland's former prime minister and PiS member Beata Szydło and AfD co-leader Alice Weidel, women are conspicuously absent elsewhere. Most of the right-wing parties’ parliamentary representatives are male.

"These women are there to give these parties a more open, modern guise and to appeal to female voters," Elisa Gutsche, who edited the FES study, told Deutsche Welle. "These are not progressive parties; there is no real gender equality."

Gutsche said many right-wing populist parties sought to garner female votes by promising to raise child benefit payments and other financial allowances to promote families. White supremacist parties who promise “family benefits” are clearly not interested in all families, though. Their main concern is white heterosexual families. White supremacy, whether in the U.S. or Europe, is absolutely patriarchal. The right-wing party in Poland, much like Steve King and plenty of his GOP colleagues in the U.S., has fought for a ban on abortion with few or no exceptions.

Thus, white women who vote for those parties allow race to trump gender. They are an example of women who accept crumbs thrown to women in return for a limited form of power in the form of protection and privilege gained via proximity to white men.

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Analysts of white supremacy focus on the violence carried out, mostly, by men. But they aren’t paying enough attention to the role of women. Exposing the ideology’s racism and violence is important, but the misogyny at the heart of the ideology must not be erased or ignored. Replacement theory, which reduces cis-gender heterosexual women to their wombs and considers giving birth to lots of white babies to be a woman’s highest calling, is an important part of the foundation of white supremacy. Connecting the threads of sexism and racism is essential when trying to understand the ideology of men like Steve King.