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Multiple white nationalist groups hold the grounds Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, during a 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday, August 12, 2017. (Via OlyDrop)
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

The controversial "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year brought together a cadre of white nationalists and Neo-Nazis. But, one gender was noticeably underrepresented: the women of the far-right. 

The lack of female supporters at the August 2017 event, which ended in the death of one counterprotester and dozens of injuries, could be attributed to a variety of reasons, including how the leadership of far-right groups has portrayed women in the media and a culture of excluding women from certain groups and in certain instances advocating for violence against women. 

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Alt-right activist Richard Spencer, who spoke at the Charlottesville protest, has said he is not sure women should have the right to vote and tweeted that women are too "vindictive" to handle foreign policy. Andrew Anglin, founder of the far-right website The Daily Stormer who helped publicize last year's rally, has a long history of posting sexist comments online – many of them unsuitable to repeat here.

So, why are women getting more involved this year for the second Unite the Right rally Sunday in Washington?  

For Avialae Horton, one of the event's lead organizers, this year's rally is a way to change the "rhetoric" of the far-right. "We’ve wanted everything to be different in terms of our tactics and our approach to this situation than it was last year," Horton said.

Horton and "three or four" female friends made up the majority of the women present at last year's rally where Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a car crashed into a crowd. Horton  said she wants to make Sunday safer.  

"No violence should ever be necessary at any of these events, regardless of your political affiliation and beliefs," she said. "No violence should ever be instigated, and certainly no one should ever have to lose their lives over a political disagreement." 

Multiple women have been instrumental in planning this year's rally,  Horton said. The 21-year-old said the 12-person team is almost split between men and women. 

Jason Kessler, who obtained the permit for both last year's and this year's rally, said having women on the "front lines" of the movement is "invaluable."

"I'm happy to include exceptional women in volunteer and leadership positions. I've been fortunate to have a variety of female volunteers this year," Kessler said. "I'm proud of the women who've volunteered their time and effort to helping make this year's event possible." 

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Avialae S. Horton, 21, one of Unite the Right 2018's lead organizers.
Courtesy of Avialae S. Horton

Women getting involved in the leadership of far-right movements such as Unite the Right is still rare, even if they agree with the movement's beliefs, said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

"In some parts of the movement right now, in the alt-right, the misogyny is so rampant that it’s even worse than just thinking that women should stay at home and raise a family," Beirich said. "There’s talk of things like legitimate rape and really egregious misogynistic comments about women. So it’s interesting to see women playing a role in this Unite the Right reboot.”

Beirich said women might be getting involved in the rally because many of the groups who participated last year aren't returning this year. Multiple groups faced lawsuits and other repercussions  because of their involvement, in addition to being removed from social media and fundraising platforms. That absence could leave room for women to take on leadership roles, Beirich said. 

“People have definitely left the field, and there are a lot of folks in the alt-right who are not happy with Kessler and, looking back on it, don’t think the rally was worth it for the price they paid," Beirich said. "That opens up some space for other people to be involved, and perhaps that’s part of what’s happening with these women.”

The 2017 rally addressed a broad range of racial issues, such as illegal immigration and the backlash against Confederate statues and memorials. This year's rally will focus on "white civil rights," according to Kessler's permit.

Horton, who identifies as a conservative and a nationalist, said she is willing to work with extreme groups, even though some have sexist or misogynistic views, because they can all be united behind causes like freedom of speech. 

More: One year after Charlottesville tragedy, Heather Heyer's mother talks about daughter's death

More: White nationalists have entered mainstream conversation

More: Charlottesville declares state of emergency for rally anniversary

More: What is the alt-right? And how is it using social media to spread its message?

"It isn’t necessary for us to agree on every single thing because we have this moderate understanding that we’re able to have a civil conversation and work together and cooperate without having to agree on all of these ideological differences," Horton said. 

Horton said the shift in this year's tone will attract different activists on the right, including more women. She said the new rules organizers instituted this year also will help tone down the event. Attendees are not allowed to bring any weapons this year, and they can carry only American and Confederate flags. 

"I think we are appealing to a larger number of people due to the fact that we’re saying, 'Hey, we’re only going to this event to have a civil demonstration, and that is the only intention we have,'" Horton said. "We are not in any way, shape or form encouraging any kind of violence or radicalized rhetoric at this event."

Kessler agreed. 

"Hopefully bringing in more women for European-American advocacy will bring some of the testosterone-fueled fight culture surrounding these rallies down a notch," Kessler said.

But Beirich called  the shift nothing more than a "less obnoxious rebranding" for far-right groups and a tactic to engage more protesters this year. 

“I’m sure Kessler is thinking, ‘What can we do to attract people to the movement that doesn’t seem like scary robes and crosses and torches like last time around?'” Beirich said. "This is just a way to couch what is white supremacy as being less threatening.”

Beirich conceded, however, that women holding so many leadership positions in a far-right rally is a shift for white nationalists. 

“That’s a striking situation, and something you never see,” Beirich said. “That shows a really different dynamic for Unite the Right this time.”