Women’s History Of Combatting The Radical Right

Nancy Pelosi confronts Donald Trump in the White House on October 16, 2019. (Source: @realDonaldTrump/White House Photo)

Throughout world history, women have not only been targets of the radical right, they have also been one of the leading forces combatting them.

In July of 2019, Donald Trump launched an attack on four female congresswomen who have consistently challenged his use of rhetoric that has time and time again risked inflaming racial tensions and giving cover – and at worst inspiration – to violent extremism. In return they were told, in effect, to ‘Go Home’ by Trump and the American Right. As a result, their reputation as leading figures against the radical right in America was cemented in the public consciousness, but it would be a mistake to think of women as only occupying this rhetoric-driven upper echelon of counter-Radical Right activism.

The Radical Right does not exist in a vacuum, and so to understand its nature and organization structure it is important that we also understand those that oppose them. This includes female involvement throughout the structures of antifascism and other counter-Radical Right movements, and the impact that their experiences have had on these movements and on the Radical Right movements they opposed.

As we see today in clashes between Proud Boys and anti-fascists in Portland, direct action holds an important place within counter-Radical Right movements. This takes many different forms, from intelligence operations, public education and leafleting campaigns, creation and training of community-based movements, and of course through counter-demonstration. Indeed, one of the most famous events in British anti-fascism was the Battle of Cable Street where protestors clashed primarily with the police to stop Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

This direct action was echoed in the physical opposition to the return of Mosley and other Radical-Right leaders after the Second World War, with groups like 43 Group and 62 Group breaking up meetings and clashing with Radical Right movements in events such as the 1962 Trafalgar Square riot. These often-violent direct-action styles have been traditionally seen creating a very male space, but when we examine in detail those opposing the Radical Right we see the key role that female activists have played at all levels.

Held at the Searchlight Archives at the University of Northampton are a collection of oral histories of anti-fascist activists who have stories going back 80 years on the fight against the radical right. Such collections allow us a glimpse into the raw histories of the movements, and the role of women played in opposing the emergence of the Radical Right, and their impact upon the Radical Right. These roles were varied, from protestors and organizers, through street fighters, infiltrators and all the way to those editing and running complex investigations on behalf of the anti-fascist press.

For Anna Sullivan, born in 1939 in Northampton, anti-fascism was a family pursuit – her father, an active trades unionist, fought in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, was at Cable Street and at Olympia, where Mosley’s rally was violently disrupted. It was not just her father, however, in her interview, Anna recalls a phone call from her mother to tell her to ‘Put on the telly! We’re knocking the shit out of those Nazi bastards’. That was the Battle of Lewisham, a huge clash on August 13th, 1977 between anti-fascists, National Front marchers and the police.

Anna herself became active in anti-fascism within London, having been active in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) she was asked to organize the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) in the south of Islington. She speaks in her interview of multiple arrests, of her role in convincing fellow anti-fascists to turn up for confrontations, and of battles that would involve being beaten with flag poles. Anna even recalls a violent assault by a National Front protestor with steel toecap boots, resulting in leg injuries as she was forced to the ground. These narratives of the risks of women took in active anti-fascism run through the interviews.

For Anna, her continued involvement in the ANL resulted in her expulsion from the SWP, she was labeled as a ‘Squaddist’, which she described as meaning ‘..when people hit us, we hit them back’. It also led to her, in 1987, being targeted by a firebombing of her home by the extreme right while she was asleep upstairs. For other interviewees, there were high costs for their involvement as well.

Celia Stubbs was born in Singapore in 1940, attended school in Shropshire and went to secretarial college. Celia admits that she came late to politics, and her involvement came only after she had started her family life and her first marriage ended, leading to her relationship with Blair Peach. Blair was a teacher from New Zealand who had moved to England in 1969. Blair was, according to Celia, a big influence in her political awakening that saw her become involved in community action, and later joining the SWP. With Blair, Celia protested pubs that operated a colour bar, joined the ANL to fight against the NF. Tragically though, Blair Peach and Celia Stubbs are most remembered for the march at Southall in April of 1979.

Celia, by now a social worker, describes how the trades union movement was instrumental in calling people out to protest the National Front meeting that was occurring on 23rd of April, 1979 in Southall Town Hall. The march, with thousands of people attending, became violent with repeated clashes with the Metropolitan Police Special Patrol Group. As Ward reported in his 1986 book Death and Disorder, police officers reported no direction from the top, that it became a free-for-all. In her interview, Celia speaks about how she was chased by police in Southall Park, with those caught by the police beaten, and as a result she never got to meet with Blair as planned. Celia went home expecting Blair to be there, but got a phone call from a friend that Blair was in hospital.

Blair Peach had been caught in Beachcroft Avenue while trying to get away from the confrontation. The Special Patrol Group arrived in vans and tried to clear the marchers, using truncheons. Blair was struck on the head by an unauthorized weapon, suspected to be a lead-weighted cosh, severely injuring him. He was taken into a nearby house and an ambulance was phoned. Celia went to see him, and they had operated to try to save him, but he died around an hour later, never having regained consciousness. This tragic loss led Celia to be involved in campaigning with groups urging inquests into deaths in custody, as well as for a proper inquest for Blair’s death. In her interview Celia describes how she went on to work on refugee rights, but also the emotional impact of Blair’s death and the question of blame.

Alongside these two examples from the archive, and ‘The Squad’ mentioned at the start, we can think about the role of women who were part of the far right scene who moved into an anti-fascist role such as Elisa Hategan (former member of the Canadia-based Heritage Front) and the place Heather Heyer now occupied in American anti-fascist culture following her tragic killing during the Unite the Right Rally.

This begins to show the many ways in which women became involved both in non-direct and direct action against the Radical Right, and the place that they can take within wider anti-fascist and counter-Radical Right cultures. Both Anna Sullivan and Celia Stubbs took up important roles in their communities that placed them at the center of pivotal moments in the fight against the Radical Right, in the campaigns of the ANL in London and the fight for physical control of the streets with the National Front. We see how, especially in the case of Anna Sullivan, women were involved in events of escalating radicalization, as their opposition to the Radical Right prompted violent response.

Though both the Radical Right and the movements that oppose them have their own ideological motives, we cannot ignore the impact that their battles against one another have on the nature, structure, and impact of the Radical Right. It is therefore vital that more is done to not just understand the movements that oppose the Radical Right, but that we also understand the role that women have played – not just as standard bearers and leaders, but as activists at every level and in every role.

Mr Daniel Jones is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Doctoral candidate at Department of History, University of Northampton. His profile can be found here.

©Daniel Jones. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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