Making sense of conservative women’s symbolic militancy in the era of Trump

Young female gun activists are targeting Me Too — and the left’s hold on millennial voters.

Back in 2018, a number of young white women went viral on social media after posting photos of themselves posing with guns. Most of the women ended up making appearances on Fox News and becoming popular accounts for gun rights activists to follow on Twitter.

Later that year, some of the women, including Kaitlin Bennett, became proud defenders of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing, positioning their support for powerful men facing unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault against the Me Too’s movement’s ‘lynch mob’ politics.

While conservative women have long criticized feminists’ believe-all-women approach to sexual assault allegations, I was struck by the way guns had become a part of the recourse to men’s predatory sexual behavior, as evident in another Twitter post from Bennett during the Kavanaugh scandal:

Conservative women had similar responses following the deaths of American women by undocumented immigrants. Brenna Spencer, one of the women whose gun photos went viral over the summer of 2018, posted on Twitter, “I don’t understand how the left can see stories like Mollie Tibbets and Celia Barquin Arozamena and so many other similar stories & criticize women for carrying a gun.” For Bennett and Spencer, gun activism is about more than stopping further encroachment on the Second Amendment by the government. Carrying a gun is the very definition of female independence in a threatening — that is, less white and less Christian — world.

These young, gun-toting, attractive women may not have much of a platform outside of the conservative media bubble, but their popularization within that space reflects their effective messaging as a counter to Me Too-style liberal feminism, which they see as promoting victimhood rather than equality with men (as defined by women’s capacity to prevent sexual assault). Above all, their social media fame suggests that conservative women are no longer expected to be bastions of civility who can only speak on issues regarding faith and the traditional family as they had done in the 2000s. These women have shown that they can be mean, militant, and competitive with liberals for the hearts and minds of young white female voters.

Sarah Palin as a culture warrior

Gun activism has been a feature of the conservative movement for decades, but only recently have young women become the face of the gun lobby within conservative media. Though mostly remembered for her gaffe-prone network interviews during the 2008 presidential election, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is probably the most important national figure in the feminization of gun activism. Long before the current crop of female gun activists, Palin melded hard-right policy stances on gun ownership with images of female grit. She was frequently photographed carrying hunting rifles, gave a blistering speech in front of the NRA accusing anti-gun liberal activists of being terrorist sympathizers, and even once circulated a map with crosshairs targeting Democratic lawmakers who supported Obamacare, telling her supporters “Don’t retreat, instead- RELOAD.”

Despite losing her bid for Vice President in the 2008 election, Palin quickly became a darling of the emerging Tea Party movement. She resigned from the Alaska governorship in 2009 and began building her personal brand with a line of books, a reality TV show, and a PAC signaling a possible 2012 presidential run. Originally viewed as someone who could appeal to evangelical voters on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Palin ended up proving there was a bigger market on the right for women who rejected civility and fetishized acts of violence against their political enemies.

Guns become God

Sarah Palin’s rise to power in conservative media in the late 2000s mirrored that of today’s prominent young conservatives like Tomi Lahren, whose viral fame helped land her a television show with TheBlaze and later a commentator role with Fox News. Like her contemporaries, Lahren has embraced the gender politics of gun ownership among young white women, having had her own photos with guns go viral.

Make no mistake: as conservative media personalities, these women are going to bat everyday for a reactionary set of gender politics — for the economic and cultural reinforcement of patriarchal masculinity, exclusionary definitions of womanhood, and heterosexual privilege. But they are also pushing the boundaries of conventional femininity by conducting politics in a way that is historically masculine. And with dozens of television appearances and thousands of social media followers, it has paid off.

But by embracing the symbolic violence of Trump-era gun activism, conservative women are slowly coming to terms with the limits of their own political ideology, particularly that of Christianity as an organizing structure in modern life. For them, there is far greater appeal in opposing every liberal machination from Me Too to Medicare For All on the grounds that they are as strong, independent women who take responsibility for their own lives than on the basis of being dutiful Christians who don’t believe in birth control.

But for the most part I think these women see themselves in competition with liberal feminists, invoking the very sort of identity politics they are usually critical of in order to defend conservative causes. As EmPOWERed, a gun rights organization for millennial women, declared in a Twitter post defending itself from online critics, “Guns are an equalizer. Gun rights are women’s rights.”

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