Content warning: discussion of rape and sexual violence statistics and child abuse.
The 2020 United States election marked QAnon’s formal entry in the American political arena, and women were at the forefront of the movement. While prior to this, former president Donald Trump had been frequently accused of indirectly encouraging or endorsing support for QAnon, as reported by Alex Kaplan, the US general election saw 97 candidates running for office with ties to the conspiracy theory, of which 37 were female.
Of these female Q-supporting candidates, 16 qualified to be on the ballot in the November general election after competing in primary elections or having fulfilled other requirements to be featured on the ballot. Of these 16, 12 were Republican candidates running for Congress – two others ran for Senate, one as a write-in candidate and one as a candidate for the Independent Party of Delaware.
This meant, that of the record 94 female Republican Congressional candidates in the 2020 election, just over one in seven espoused some degree of public support for QAnon. Furthermore, the only two Q-supporting candidates to win Congressional seats – Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Lauren Boebert of Colorado – were both women.
These statistics are important. Not only are women historically underrepresented in politics, but in extremist movements they are also often relegated to supporting roles, or their involvement with the group may be understudied. Thus, the number of women at the very forefront of the QAnon extremist movement is both unusual and significant.
This Insight – the first of a two-part miniseries on QAnon women in politics – will examine the score of women who ran for Congress in 2020 while promoting or endorsing QAnon. It will analyse the different ways in which they mobilised their support for QAnon during their political campaigns and examine the various narratives around which they converged.
Firm Support and Major Narratives
Of the female candidates, a number were firm and outspoken in their support for QAnon, with some, like Republican candidate for the Senate in Oregon, Jo Rae Perkins, admitting that her frequent endorsement of QAnon was both a part of her campaign strategy and a deeply held personal belief. Perkins was perhaps one of the most fervent Q supporters repeatedly posting about the conspiracy throughout the duration of her campaign.
In particular, on 27 June 2020 Perkins also posted a video of herself reciting an “oath” to become a “digital soldier” of QAnon, which Q urged followers to take in a Q drop days prior. Indeed, Perkins responded to the call to take the oath just three days after Q posted instructions to do so, making her one of the early adopters of the oath, and the first QAnon candidate to take it. This quick response to Q’s call for allegiance marks her as one of the most devoted QAnon followers within the political race. Furthermore, of the political candidates who supported Q, just four took the oath – either posting videos of themselves reciting it, or posting the text to their campaign website – and of these four, three were women: Perkins, Darlene Swaffar of Florida, and Catherine Stonestreet Purcell of Delaware.
Catherine Purcell was one of the few QAnon candidates who, despite her strong support for the conspiracy, did not run as a Republican candidate. Instead, she ran for Congress as a member of the Independent Party of Delaware – although she frequently expressed her support for former President Trump.
In many ways, Purcell’s radicalisation trajectory appears representative of the newer generation of QAnon supporters. In a YouTube video, she affirms that while she was already distrustful of so-called “mainstream media”, she first encountered QAnon while researching human sex trafficking on social media, and later confirms she has never been on 8kun, the chan site where “Q” posts directly which she mistakenly claims is hosted on the “dark web”. Like many newer followers of the QAnon conspiracy, Purcell instead appears to follow updates from fellow Q supporters on more mainstream social media platforms where Q posts are ‘decoded’ and become further diluted by other conspiracies and disinformation. Importantly, this differentiates Purcell from original followers of QAnon who were mainly isolated to chan sites, and more niche corners of the Internet prior to the conspiracy theory’s rapid growth throughout 2020.
Conspiratorial narratives of child sex trafficking appeared to be central to Purcell’s support of QAnon. She has claimed on her YouTube channel that “the main objective of the QAnon movement is to bring down the human traffickers.” Similarly, on a local Delaware radio programme, Purcell maintained that, in particular the QAnon movement has made her aware of supposed attempts by Russian and Chinese politicians to exploit US business-owners and political figures at the state and local level by inviting them to China, drugging them and removing their clothes, before taking videos of them sexually abusing young children. Purcell claims this is a “war tactic” enabling foreign states to exert total political control over the United States.
While Purcell’s remarks are likely related to some of the more obscure claims made by the QAnon conspiracy community, child abuse and child sex trafficking were certainly among the most common narratives espoused by female QAnon candidates. For instance, Mykel Barthelemy who ran for Congress in Georgia, shared a meme on her Facebook page which suggested that as a result of the QAnon movement child slaves would soon be liberated. Later, from the same account, Bathelemy also pushed the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring. Both narratives are popular parts of the QAnon conspiracy.
Finally, one of the more extreme claims upheld by some followers of QAnon is that a cabal of paedophilic “elites” are torturing trafficked young children and harvesting their bodily fluids to extract the chemical compound “adrenochrome”. While the claim has never been explicitly mentioned in Q drops, it has become a popular narrative among Q’s most hard-line supporters. Notably, as reported by Alex Kaplan, Texas Republican Congressional candidate Catherine Carr has repeatedly tweeted about adrenochrome as part of the QAnon conspiracy, claiming that the Democratic party has orchestrated a paedophile ring to farm the chemical compound. Many of Carr’s tweets also echo the claims made by Catherine Purcell that China and Russia were the largest culprits of child trafficking. In short, the conspiratorial claims relating to child sex trafficking were a particularly resonant aspect of the QAnon narrative among many female firm supporters of the conspiracy.
Of note, the women who were firm supporters of QAnon embarked on their political campaign in the hopes of being more than a simple “digital soldier”; the end goal of their campaigns was to get elected in an effort to help former-President Trump and the Q-Team fight against the Deep State. What is significant is that this is a form of non-violent mobilisation. These individuals were radicalised online and embarked on political campaigns to achieve QAnon’s ideological outcome.
Women in QAnon have been regularly mobilised to both non-violent and violent actions, which highlights that women do not simply play supporting roles in the movement, but rather act from a position of power and influence. Though these candidates do not pose a violent threat, they do pose a threat to democratic institutions. Furthermore, by gaining political capital and positions of influence, women who are firm supporters of QAnon would be an important radicalisation factor and could inspire future acts of extremist violence.
Not all candidates were as fervent in their support of the conspiracy. A handful of candidates appeared to limit their engagement with the conspiracy for fear that being labelled a “QAnon candidate” might hurt their chances of political success. One such candidate was Elizabeth Felton who ran for Congress in Florida, and who only openly endorsed the QAnon conspiracy after losing the primary election in August 2020.
Prior to the primary, Felton’s public engagement with the QAnon conspiracy was limited to (at most) three videos on her TikTok account where she warned viewers to be distrustful of the mainstream media, and to research claims made by American conspiracy theorist Cathy O’Brein in a video which featured the word “pizzagate” on screen. Notably, at this time she did not tag any of her videos with the “Q” hashtag.
However, since losing the Florida primary on 18 August, Felton claimed in a video that she “no longer had to filter [her]self,” and has since liberally posted videos explicitly referencing the QAnon conspiracy, and has used the “Q” hashtag 18 times since her defeat. In these more recent videos Felton has claimed that transgender children taking puberty blocking hormones as part of their gender confirmation process are pressured to do so by “elite paedophile cabals,” that the 6 January insurrection was a hoax, and has promoted other conspiracies popular among Q supporters. Although Felton may simply have become more radicalised since losing the primary election, that she has expressed increasingly open support for QAnon on social media since her political defeat suggests that she may have held back from wholeheartedly endorsing the conspiracy before, for fear that it would hurt her political campaign.
Similarly, Republican Congressional candidate in Georgia, Angela Stanton-King, who had one of the largest social media followings of any of the QAnon candidates, simultaneously appeared deeply entrenched in the QAnon community, while also stringently denying her involvement with the conspiracy. By all accounts Stanton was seemingly one of the most vocal Q-supporting candidates, using hashtags co-opted by the QAnon movement such as “#SaveOurChildren” on social media, and accusing Democrat politicians of using US tax dollars to “kill and dismember babies,” which is one of the more extreme claims believed by devout QAnon supporters.
However, when asked about her affiliation with QAnon, Stanton-King repeatedly denied that she supported the conspiracy theory, dubiously claiming that she simply used QAnon-affiliated hashtags to reach a wide audience on social media, and, on a separate occasion, alleged that she “[didn’t] know anything about QAnon” before storming out of an interview.
It should be stressed that, at the time Stanton-King was campaigning, mainstream social media platforms were attempting to regulate QAnon, and thus followers of the conspiracy adopted the hashtag “#SaveTheChildren”, to attempt to circumvent ‘censorship’ and having their posts removed (after a short period, followers changed the preferred hashtag to “#SaveOurChildren”, after a conspiracy theory that the “Save the Children” campaign was a deep state operation funded by the Rothschilds). It is highly likely that Stanton-King’s apparent ambivalent embrace of QAnon was a similar attempt to avoid being removed from social media platforms, whilst also signalling her support of the narrative to the wider QAnon community.
Indeed, Stanton-King represents a number of female candidates who attempted to ‘have it both ways’ during their Congressional campaign, by clearly signalling their support for the conspiracy to their followers online, while simultaneously attempting to distance themselves from the conspiracy in order to protect their political legitimacy. Other candidates like Tricia Flanagan who ran for US Senate in New Jersey also appeared to attempt this strategy, consistently refraining from directly endorsing QAnon, while simultaneously hinting their belief in the conspiracy to potential prospective voters online.
Finally, it is important to note that during her political campaign, Stanton-King was open about her own experience as a survivor of child sexual assault, referring to it as one of the experiences which motivated her to run for Congress. When discussing the QAnon conspiracy at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, she also noted that her own experiences as a survivor of assault meant that she was open to investigating the claims of sexual abuse made by the QAnon conspiracy. These motivations likely represent one of the harshest realities of the QAnon conspiracy, which is that it may have particular resonance with survivors of sexual assault.
This is echoed in a 2021 report by START which studied a group of 31 QAnon adherents who had committed crimes in the US before or after the Capitol insurrection. The report notes that 44% of this sample radicalised after experiencing some kind of traumatic event. In particular, it emphasises that 83% of the women in this sample radicalised after their child was physically or sexually abused by a family member or romantic partner. It further stresses that “these women appear to have been drawn to the QAnon conspiracy theory due to a narrative that casts followers as key players in the fight against child exploitation and sex trafficking.”
This is especially important to consider when discussing women’s involvement with the conspiracy, as women are overrepresented as victims of sexual violence, and, relative to other crimes, conviction rates for crimes such as rape remain extremely low. While QAnon attracts a wide base of support across various demographics, appreciating its appeal to survivors of sexual violence will be key to understanding many women’s support for the conspiracy.
This first part of the QAnon women in politics miniseries has demonstrated the importance of understanding the conspiracy’s appeal to women, and how this can be used (primarily by Republicans) to gain popular support. It should be stressed that although not all candidates have been outspoken and explicit in their support, more subtle signalling to the wider QAnon community online has also been a successful tactic adopted by some of the female candidates who ran for Congress in 2020. Narratives which appear to have particular resonance with female supporters, such as child sex trafficking, should also be understood – particularly as they may have some resonance with individual followers’ own experiences of sexual assault.
It will be crucial to understand women’s roles within QAnon extremism as, despite multiple blows being dealt to the QAnon community since Donald Trump’s electoral defeat, the threat of the conspiracy appears to be enduring. It is highly likely that a large number of QAnon candidates will resurface in the next US Congressional elections, with multiple female candidates already declaring their intentions to run for office again, and many more currently running for positions in regional local elections.
This part of the WQmen of QAnon series has highlighted the role women have played in propelling QAnon into the formal political sphere, and has stressed that understanding women’s roles within QAnon extremism will be crucial to tackling the continued rise of the conspiracy. The next part of this miniseries will explore the careers women have founded within the political sphere and how they use their positions to further promote the QAnon conspiracy. In particular, it will examine how women have become Congresswomen, in the cases of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, political figureheads, in the case of Sidney Powell, and professional conspiracy theorists in the case of DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero.