'We did our part': The overlooked role women played in the Capitol riot

Women's role in terrorism has been underestimated and overlooked, experts say.

April 8, 2021, 4:02 AM

As a violent pro-Trump mob streamed through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, two women who had breached the building through a broken window paused to film a selfie video amid the chaos.

"We broke into the Capitol … we got inside, we did our part," Dawn Bancroft said into her cell phone camera while standing next to Diana Santos-Smith, both of them wearing "Make America Great Again" hats. Referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Bancroft added: "We were looking for Nancy to shoot her in the friggin' brain, but we didn't find her," according to federal prosecutors.

Bancroft later sent the video to her children, according to the criminal complaint. Three weeks after the attack, both she and Santos-Smith were arrested in Pennsylvania on federal charges stemming from the storming of the Capitol building.

Neither has entered a plea, and attorneys for Bancroft and Santos-Smith did not respond to a request for comment.

PHOTO: An image included in a criminal complaint shows two women, identified by the FBI as Dawn Bancroft and Diana Santos-Smith, in a grab from video at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021.
An image included in a criminal complaint shows two women, identified by the FBI as Dawn Bancroft and Diana Santos-Smith, in a grab from video at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021.

Although authorities have charged hundreds of suspected rioters with participating in the violent insurrection, Bancroft and Santos-Smith are part of a specific, sometimes overlooked demographic that is attracting the attention of experts and lawmakers alike: women.

Women make up 14% of recent arrests related to the Capitol riot, according to the latest numbers from George Washington University's Program on Extremism, and experts warn that the significant role women play in terrorism and extremism around the world has been drastically underestimated and overlooked -- which may be hurting the United States' counterterrorism efforts.

"It wasn't surprising to see women on the front lines of Jan. 6," said Jamille Bigio, who served on the White House National Security Council staff during the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It built on a long history they have of contributing to far-right terrorism in the United States."

"Women were active and on the front lines and fully part of the story," Bigio said of the Jan. 6 attack. "They were part of the death toll, they were part of the plotters, they picked up arms -- and it's to our detriment to overlook or dismiss these as exceptions. Understanding their role is critical for understanding how to counter them."

Women, for example, make up at least four of those charged in a sweeping conspiracy case brought by the Department of Justice against twelve members of the Oath Keepers, a militia group that the government alleges coordinated a portion of the attack on the Capitol.

The DOJ highlighted one woman, Jessica Watkins, as someone who they say was a "key figure" in the Oath Keepers' planning, with prosecutors highlighting how her local group planned basic training exercises following the November election that included "2 days of wargames" incorporated into larger combat training for "urban warfare, riot control, and rescue operations," according to court filings.

Watkins has since denounced the Oath Keepers and her affiliation with the group, telling a judge that she had canceled her membership and disbanded her own Ohio militia group during a court appearance.

Members of the Oath Keepers militia group, including Jessica Marie Watkins, left, stand among supporters of President Donald Trump on the east front steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Members of the Oath Keepers militia group, including Jessica Marie Watkins, left, who has since been indicted by federal authorities for her role in the siege on the U.S, Capitol, stand among supporters of President Donald Trump protesting against the certification of the presidential election results by the U.S. Congress, on the east front steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Jim Bourg/Reuters

"I'm not a criminal-minded person. I'm humbled and I am humiliated that I'm even here today," Watkins told the court. Her attorney declined to comment when reached by ABC News.

Watkins' alleged role in the attack exemplifies the kind of front-line involvement that women had on Jan. 6, Bigio said. And Rachel Vogelstein, the director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that though women often play significant roles in terror attacks, little attention is typically paid to them by the federal government.

Few government terrorism databases break down data by gender and hardly any security analyses dig into gender-related questions, which creates a gap in terrorism-fighting efforts, Vogelstein told ABC News. Women often have different experiences with extremism than men do, specifically in the ways they are radicalized and how they participate in extremist groups, which creates the need for specific analysis tailored to those issues, Vogelstein said.

According to a 2019 report from the Council on Foreign Relations, authored by Vogelstein and Bigio, the United States is at a "disadvantage in its efforts to prevent terrorism globally and within its borders" because of its lack of focus on the roles that women play in violent extremism.

"U.S. government policy and programs continue to underestimate the important roles women can play as perpetrators, mitigators, or targets of violent extremism," the report said.

As a result, Vogelstein is urging policymakers to take a more comprehensive approach as they grapple with how to address the aftermath of Jan. 6.

"As a matter of national security, we ought to be collecting more data on 50% of the population," she told ABC News.

In recent months, some lawmakers have signaled that they intend to begin addressing the issue. In March, President Joe Biden instructed the Director of National Intelligence to appoint the first National Intelligence Officer for Gender Equality, who will support the newly formed White House Gender Policy Council's work on issues impacting national security.

The government, however, has been down this road before.

In 2019, a bipartisan group of House members introduced legislation aimed at improving U.S. counterterrorism and peacebuilding efforts by "focusing on women's roles as victims, perpetrators, and preventers of violent extremism." The bill would have funded women-led groups countering terrorism efforts, helped train state and Defense Department officials in how to help women counter terrorism in their communities, and supported research into the intersection of women and violent extremism.

The bill, which terrorism experts said would have been a helpful step forward, was never passed.

Related Topics