On a warm Saturday morning in late September, the west lawn of the California Capitol resembled a back-to-school fair as moms huddled around booths set up along the sidewalk.
Instead of brochures on lunch programs or sports teams, volunteers distributed packets and flyers on how to fight government tyranny. At one booth, a woman passed out homeschooling curriculum packets, which included a guide to the libertarian children’s book “The Tuttle Twins Learn About the Law.” A woman in the crowd wore a black tank top that read “Just a Regular Mom Trying Not to Raise Liberals.” A bed sheet banner declared: “THIS IS THE NEW CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.”
And that day, about 100 participants crowded the West Steps for an “empower the people boot camp,” where they practiced locking arms and singing, and staged a “sit-in” against public health requirements. They chanted “My body, my choice,” “I will not comply” and “I do not consent,” co-opting the language used for decades by liberal activists. To anyone following right-wing and conservative activism over the years, the scene would be startling. Male-dominated groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Oath Keepers often steal the headlines in stories about political extremism.
But women, experts say, are becoming powerful leaders in radical circles.
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They represent anti-vaccine coalitions, “constitutionalists” and doomsday preppers. They include the gun-toting “Mamalitia” and the Central Valley Liberty Belles, a group of “strong, beautiful, and patriotic women who show loyalty and pride to our sorority and country,” according to a private Instagram account.
The Liberty Belles have also been seen with the Modesto-area Proud Boys, a national coalition of self-proclaimed “Western chauvinists.” Canada earlier this year added the Proud Boys to its list of “terrorist entities,” and the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed it a hate group.
The women in extremist coalitions call themselves “mama bears.” They organize homeschooling pods and plan public protests against mask requirements and COVID-19 shots for students. They show up en masse to statehouses, school board meetings and city halls to fight against critical race theory and the “liberal agenda.”
“One thing I think they have in common very generally is this very typical American individualism,” said Meredith Pruden, a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
“None of them want to be told what to do with their lives and their bodies,” Pruden said.
The two women who organized the Saturday boot camp — Denise Aguilar and Tara Thornton, co-founders of the vocal anti-vaccine group Freedom Angels — characterized the training as preparation against an overreaching, power-hungry and Pharma-crazed government eager to strip parents of their rights.
Aguilar also founded Mamalitia, a “nonpartisan” organization for “prepper” mothers to learn how to homeschool their kids, forage for food, embrace holistic medicine and use firearms. The Mamalitia website says the group is “engaged and willing to make the changes we need to live with Freedom and Liberty.”
“Nobody else can protect my family the way I can,” Aguilar said at the boot camp, while wearing a shirt that read “I don’t co-parent with the government.”
Experts say women have been an integral part of extremist movements for decades.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a still-active group for women, successfully lobbied for school textbooks to include the distorted “Lost Cause” narrative, which argues that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery, and funded hundreds of Confederate monuments. Other conservative groups later opposed school integration and marriage equality.
But women now appear to be taking leadership and organizational roles in unprecedented numbers, experts said.
Ammon Bundy’s fast-growing “People’s Rights” paramilitary movement, which functions as an umbrella network for a variety of far-right groups, sprang up in opposition to shutdowns and other government restrictions intended to combat COVID-19.
Around 50% of its leadership is female, higher than any other modern far-right movement, according to researchers with the Seattle-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
With more women in charge, the far-right political spectrum has a new avenue to craft messages that appeal to and bring other women into their ranks, said the institute’s executive director, Devin Burghart.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re not issues that can and should be important to men as well, but women are using those issues to try to appeal to other women to try to get involved,” Burghart said.
Women have mostly been the ones speaking out at local meetings, usually about vaccine and mask mandates but also critical race theory.
“Women are leaders in every form of community organizing, even within organizing that’s anti-feminist in its ideology,” said Kate Bitz, a program manager and trainer organizer with the Western States Center, a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, focused on racial and gender equity.
Bitz said it’s unsurprising women are ascending to leadership positions in modern extremist groups, given the historical context.
They’re good at fundraising and coordinating events, Pruden added. They’re accepted as leaders by men in extremism because they’re “needed to recruit new members.”
It’s also an evolutionary tactic for groups that need to clean up their image in order to expand their ranks and survive, said Amber Muller, a UC Davis and Sonoma State professor who researches gender, sexuality and race politics.
Because women are traditionally framed as “nonviolent and apolitical,” Muller explained, they’re afforded “a lack of surveillance in some cases.” That can help bring in new members who might not align themselves with extremism but who feel safe joining groups with women in prominent positions.
“It’s a matter of optics,” Muller said, “and allows a whole lot of things to fester under the surface.”
CO-OPTING POPULAR SLOGANS
Social media often helps.
“Women of the far right are particularly active on Instagram, which makes it a good lens to observe how they function in kind of improving the ethos of the movement in general,” said Sara Aniano, a graduate student of communications at Monmouth University who researches far-right women and QAnon followers on Instagram.
“They would all have these glittery, welcoming feeds,” Aniano said, but then they would post content touting “anti-semitism, COVID denial, anti-vax — before there was even a vaccine — MAGA, Trump stuff.”
Mamalitia’s Aguilar, who lives in Stockton and says she was once in a gang, uses her social media skills and motherhood to appeal to new followers. She frequently posts TikTok videos and memes with anti-vaccine and anti-government messages.
In one Instagram post, Aguilar wrote: “And now the divine feminine is awakened. They came for our babies and now we are gathering the women. Join the movement.”
Experts also say they’ve noticed that women in extremist circles are co-opting popular slogans from progressive causes — particularly about bodily autonomy — as a messaging strategy.
“Instead of it being about abortion,” Aniano said, “it’s about anti-vax conspiracies.”
During October and November protests at the Capitol against vaccine mandates in schools, crowds of mostly parents carried several signs with messages such as “My kids, my choice” or “My mama calls the shots.”
“When you are talking about health care and children, motherhood is a very powerful tool,” said Vaccinate California director Leah Russin. “The anti-vaxxers have certainly realized that. They have attempted to use language that situates them in a broader discourse about civil rights by co-opting language from the pro-choice and the #MeToo movements.”
Despite the supposed femininity of the messaging, experts are also quick to point out that women in extremist circles often use their leadership to uphold white male culture.
“These movements are rooted in white, male supremacy,” Aniano said. “So having women to push these extreme ideologies works in favor of the men that kind of created them. I think it’s sad that women in the movement and women of color in the movement … are being used as pawns in a game where the white men are always going to win.”
In one TikTok video, Aguilar, who identifies as “American-Mexican,” blasted certain men for failing to fight for the causes she promotes.
“I don’t roll with beta males. I don’t roll with the dudes talking about women’s makeup, what their hair looks like, and what they look like. I don’t have time to fight with b-----s, because not all b-----s are women,” Aguilar said. “You know what I like? Alpha males. The f------ men that stand up and say, ‘f------ no.’ Sit on the sidelines and watch, because eventually, you’re going to f------ get them mad. They don’t argue like b-----s. They’re pretty hot.”
‘AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY MOVEMENT’
The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol underscored changing gender dynamics in the far right, said Kurt Braddock, an assistant professor of public communication at American University who focuses on violent extremism and radicalization.
Eleven people connected to the national Women for America First group were recently subpoenaed for their role in helping to organize a rally ahead of the deadly riots.
At least 80 women out of approximately 675 people were charged for their participation in the siege, according to a USA Today tracker. Several are from California. One woman, Dr. Simone Gold of Beverly Hills, is the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that promotes sham COVID-19 cures and touts vaccine falsehoods.
Ashli Babbitt, a Southern California woman who traveled to D.C., was shot and killed by a Capitol police officer as she tried to breach the building.
“I think Jan. 6 showed us that the far right has become an equal opportunity movement,” Braddock said. “Women are playing multiple roles in these movements. They’re not just caretakers, they’re not just front-line people. They can be both.”
Former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, repeated by far-right politicians like Republican Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, has also emboldened women in extremism, Braddock said. Another GOP politician, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, encouraged his female followers in a mid-October speech to reject societal efforts to “demasculate” their sons and instead raise them to be a “monster.”
“Trump and Trump’s allies empowered all types of individuals who normally weren’t engaged,” Braddock said.
Chelsea Knight, a Placer County mom of three, didn’t mean to become a leading figure in Northern California’s reddest corners. Knight is the co-founder of the Facebook group originally named Placer County for Trump. She has spent months organizing what she calls “patriot rallies” in support of the former president.
But that’s not how Knight’s shift into conservative activism started, she told The Sacramento Bee.
Knight said both her sons have a slew of diagnosed development issues, including autism and Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can cause delays, learning disabilities and behavioral issues. Throughout the pandemic, she struggled to get school-based services for her sons, especially for 8-year-old Broderick.
Knight characterized virtual learning during the pandemic as a disaster. She said Broderick, a current second-grader in Loomis Union School District, struggled to focus for hours a day during Zoom lessons. Speech and occupational therapy sessions were useless, Knight said.
Knight, who works as a bartender, grew tired of waiting for schools to reopen as her sons suffered through the pandemic without any help.
That’s when she started organizing the rallies and connecting with other parents.
“I wasn’t going to sit at home and be angry anymore. I needed my voice to be heard,” Knight said. “I guess you can say that basically a lot of people were sitting on the couches, screaming at their TVs and getting mad at what was happening. … When I met some of these people who I would refer to as patriots, they became like family to me.”
Knight said she started the Placer County for Trump group on Facebook and watched it grow “exponentially” as she joined other activists who organized car and boat rallies in Northern California and at the Capitol.
Her activism has, in part, paid off. Finley, Knight’s younger son, started getting services after his teacher saw her on TV doing an interview about the protest. Knight said she was angered that it took a media appearance before she finally felt she was being heard by the school.
It took much longer for Broderick to get help, Knight said. She has in recent months fought for the school to accept his doctor-issued mask exemption. Knight said Broderick refuses to wear the mask due to sensory issues.
Since her early protest days, Knight has become a figure of the far right. She and her husband were accused by a blogger earlier this year of running a neo-Nazi Telegram channel and for identifying as members of the Asatru Folk Assembly, a whites-only church based in Brownsville near Grass Valley.
Knight denied the allegations, but she’s since scrubbed some of her social media content. She said she is friends with members of the Proud Boys and looked into Asatru before deciding “it wasn’t for us.”
At an Oct. 30 rally in Ceres, just south of Modesto in Stanislaus County, Knight spoke to a group of around 50 people about the need to attend rallies as well as publicly speak out against school boards and other systems. Attendees included California State Militia members and the Proud Boys, the latter of whom Knight stood next to and chatted with during the event.
She recently changed the name of her Facebook group to Placer County for Freedom and said she’s shifting her fight to focus on “medical freedom.” She rejects being called an extremist.
“Have I been labeled as one? Yes,” she said. “But people don’t know my full views. I don’t see everything as black and white.”
‘THE GOVERNMENT ENDS AT MY SKIN’
Andrea Hedstrom similarly rejects an extremist label. Anyone who has either visited the California Capitol or tuned in to a virtual hearing over the past year and a half is likely familiar with Hedstrom, a Citrus Heights mom of four.
She focuses her activism on vaccines and is easy to spot in the building because she often wears shirts or sweaters that read something like “We the People ARE P----D OFF,” “No, I don’t want a flu shot” or “Make pHARMa liable again.”
She said her kids are “100% vax free” and that she has to homeschool them because they’re being “discriminated against” in California schools for not being vaccinated.
“The government ends at my skin. … You cannot do medicine by mandate,” Hedstrom said. “What’s going on in the California Legislature is ‘Animal Farm.’ They own our children. It’s unmitigated corruption.”
Hedstrom said she has gone into the building at least 200 times to protest a range of issues: “medical fascism,” the “bloated, corrupt mess” that is the California Legislature and “tyrannical, pharmaceutical lunacy.”
Lawmakers who run the meetings tend to cut her off midspeech or ignore her completely. She’ll chase after them in the hallways, eager to repeat her talking points.
Hedstrom rejects political labels but said she identifies as a libertarian. She named her son after Gov. Gavin Newsom, she said, long before she became heavily involved in the effort to oust the governor from office. She now protests frequently at Newsom’s home.
Hedstrom, a goat farmer when she’s not at the Capitol, said she and her family are ready to leave California for another state, somewhere like Florida. She’s pro-choice and supports marriage equality, but the “craziness” in Sacramento isn’t worth the sacrifice anymore, she said.
“I admire Ron DeSantis,” Hedstrom said, speaking of Florida’s governor. “Let the people decide.”
PARTNERING WITH LOCAL POLITICAL LEADERS
Freedom Angels emerged during a 2019 debate over legislation to tighten childhood vaccine requirements in California. They found new life during the pandemic as they expanded their efforts to more broadly reject public health recommendations like mask wearing and physical distancing.
Mamalitia flourished in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, during which Aguilar suggested in a since-deleted video that she was among the throngs of rioters who roamed Capitol grounds. Since then, Mamalitia says that chapters have sprung up in 30 California counties and 22 other states, plus Washington, D.C.
On Mamalitia’s home page, an image shows a group of 11 women posing with rifles. Owning a firearm isn’t a requirement for membership, Aguilar said in an informational video, but gun safety is part of their training.
Aguilar now markets a new group on her social media channels called the San Joaquin County Liberty Coalition, a “non-partisan coalition of individuals working to preserve our country’s constitutional freedoms,” according to its website.
The coalition declined interview requests. But its website features eight women, many of them mothers, who advocate for homeschooling and the freedom to parent as they choose.
In recent weeks, these women have focused on partnering with local political leaders to protest vaccine requirements in San Joaquin County. They hosted a town hall meeting on Oct. 19 in Stockton with County Supervisor Chairman Tom Patti, who helped pass a ban on so-called “vaccine passports,” which the board approved 4-0. Upwards of 60 people attended the meeting, and most who spoke in support were women.
East of Sacramento in El Dorado County, a woman named Keeley Link similarly collaborated with the Freedom Angels this year to attempt to end local COVID-19 restrictions.
“As a community, we declare the end to the pandemic and will be peacefully not complying with the unwarranted and unjust restrictions,” Link wrote in a January email obtained by The Bee in a public records request.
Like the San Joaquin County Liberty Coalition, Link had sympathetic allies in office.
This past spring, Link was appointed by District 2 Supervisor George Turnboo to the county’s Commission on Aging. As a commissioner, she helps advise the Board of Supervisors on how to better care for the area’s elders, who are disproportionately at risk of being hospitalized with or dying from COVID-19. Link did not respond to interview requests.
Her appointment coincides with a national push for conspiracy theorists and other extremists to find power within government institutions they once decried for their handling of the pandemic.
Former Nevada City Mayor Reinette Senum resigned last year after criticizing Newsom’s mask mandate and rejecting his authority over statewide public health decisions. She’s now running for governor of California on a platform of “creating an army of mama and papa bears who are ready to protect their cubs.”
Four days after the Capitol boot camp, a small group of mostly moms had gathered at Walter & Doris Rickey Park in Roseville for a similar cause. Moms for Liberty Placer County organized the event as a prayer circle. From their lawn chairs and blankets, they called on Archangel Michael and Joan of Arc for protection of all those involved in a legal case to block California’s COVID-19 regulations in schools.
Their children chased each other and climbed equipment at the nearby playground. Several cars parked just yards away had bumper stickers with messages like “Kevin Kiley Fighting for California” and “Unmask Our Kids.”
“Whatever happens is going to be God’s will,” one woman said before reminding the participants that Joan of Arc was “burned to death” for her heresy. “We were born for this. … There is a reason we are all here right now.”
When a Sacramento Bee reporter and photographer approached the circle, several participants requested they leave and declined interview requests.
ORGANIZING ‘STRAIGHT PRIDE’ RALLIES
Mylinda Mason has spent more than 30 years fighting for far-right causes.
A Modesto native, Mason still lives in the city in a home she calls the Patriotic Cottage. American flags stick out of the hedges and indoor flower arrangements. A framed copy of the Bill of Rights, a cardboard cutout of Trump and a large banner for the Constitution Party of Stanislaus County decorate her dining room.
Mason said her political philosophy centers around her religion and belief that the United States is an inherently Christian nation. Its laws should reflect that, she said. Mason is primarily focused on abortion, but she also ran for school board in 2011 on an anti-gay agenda and was a delegate for Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Years ago, Mason said she pulled her children out of public school — which she and many in the movement now call “government schools” — in favor of homeschooling. As many have, she has recently turned her activism toward protesting vaccines, which, despite overwhelming evidence of their safety, she said she believes are harmful.
What Mason is most known for in the community is her organization of Modesto’s “straight pride” rallies. Since 2019, the annual event has brought supporters together in what they label a celebration of heterosexuality, Western civilization and babies “born and unborn.”
Counterprotesters have shown up all three years to push back against the group. This year’s event ended when a fight broke out between straight pride attendees and counterprotesters, leading riot police to shut down one of the city’s main streets and arrest two people.
In its notoriety, straight pride has attracted other far-right groups, including the Proud Boys and militia members.
Mason said she does not believe the Proud Boys are dangerous.
“They were helpful, and they were genuine, lovers of America and their families,” Mason said. “That’s the men I met.”
Now Mason said she sees an opportunity to educate the next generation of female activists who are looking to emulate a more gender stereotypical role in the family. Mason cited several stories in the Bible where Jesus raised up women who were often ignored by the men in their community at the time.
“I think (God) also honors women by calling them to something that’s higher than themselves, and that would be, first and foremost, leading and raising their children and then, secondly, in the community,” Mason said.
Mason isn’t the only female leader in extremism who’s welcomed Proud Boys into their circles.
Aguilar has also partnered with the Proud Boys for security during her events. During a November 2020 Capitol rally, she thanked the group in front of a crowd waving Trump banners for protecting her followers.
“I’ve worked with them. I know them. I love them. I trust them,” she said. “And I trust them so much that they’re here protecting you. And thank you to the California militia guys out here as well.”
Where the Modesto-area Proud Boys go, the Central Valley Liberty Belles have also been known to follow.
The small group had 43 members in its Facebook group and 77 Instagram followers in early November.
Janet Rocha, a moderator for the group’s Facebook page, has identified herself as a gay woman and naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico. During a Modesto City Council meeting at the end of June, Rocha said she doesn’t think people are racist or homophobic.
Rocha declined The Bee’s interview request.
Jeyna Griffin, another woman associated with the Liberty Belles, also spoke during that same public comment period about how she was among the crowd that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. She said counterprotesters at the meeting that night were mischaracterizing the Proud Boys.
Griffin also applied to the city’s Forward Together police review committee, where she listed her education to include “some critical thinking and behavior modification certificates.”
She has often been seen with the Modesto-area Proud Boys, and leader Sean Kuykendall, at local events. Griffin has shown up to various events at Kuykendall’s side, even when others haven’t been there. At an Oct. 30 rally in Stanislaus County, Kuykendall stood before a far-right gathering of about 50 people ranging from Proud Boys and militia members to homeschooling moms.
While giving a speech to the crowd, Kuykendall said change needed to begin inside the home, noting how many of the groups taking a stand have large numbers of women in their ranks. He called out “satanic” public schools and the need to support women who are trying to protect children from government forces.
“The strong men of this country,” Kuykendall said, “need to back their women.”