This interview has been lightly edited from a transcription with Professor Julie V. Gottlieb undertaken by Louis Dean.
The first fascist party in the UK, the British Fascisti, was founded by a woman, Rotha Linton-Orman. Fast forward a century to the recent Batley and Spen by-election, and you have two women standing representing radical right parties, Anne Marie Waters and Jayda Fransen. What draws women to join and even to lead radical right groups that are traditionally highly patriarchal, chauvinistic, or even outright misogynist?
That’s a really fundamental question. I think it’s helpful to have this longue durée view of things, but it’s problematic on many levels. Let us go back to the beginnings of ‘Feminine/ feminised Fascism’, and the way that in Britain especially and almost uniquely, the first fascist organisation was founded by a woman. So, this immediately puts a different spin on what Fascism is probably going to look like in Britain. That doesn’t mean that Rotha Linton-Orman had an easy time of it, and it is not due to sympathy for her that I say that, but one does see how her gender definitely counted against her, and how the successes and more importantly the failures of the British Fascisti do probably come down to the fact that it was a woman who was founder and eventual leader. This can be seen after 1926, as following an internal dispute about how to respond to the General Strike, that many of the leading male leadership figures defected, and she was left with the rump of the organisation– gradually she emerged leader of a much diminished organisation. From 1926 to her death in 1935 it was really a story of chronic decline, and again, I think that has to do with the fact that she was a woman but also the type of woman that she was and the person that she was, accounts for the failure of that movement. So, as I say, from the very start we see a brand of fascism, a national brand of fascism, which doesn’t immediately exclude women, in fact it has women at the centre of it and I think that has a lasting impact. We see how certain women have emerged in leadership positions in UKIP and as the face of UKIP in certain elections and by-elections. On the far right we have the contemporary example of Jayda Fransen of Britain First. Fransen was, for a short time, temporary deputy leader of Britain first, and the rhetoric of Britain First was evoked by the murder of Joe Cox, so her presence in Batley and Spen in the 2021 by-election couldn’t have been more offensive on every level. So yes, that was an interesting litmus test moment for the gender politics of extremism.
What draws women to these ultra nationalist organisations, these exclusionary and racist organisations? One of the fundamental findings, and something that I’ve become more and more convinced about over the 20 plus years I’ve been working on this is that we have to separate histories of women in politics from women in feminist politics. We are so accustomed to thinking about women’s politicisation as a form of, or an expression of feminism, and that is not necessarily the case. We think through the lens of women’s liberation, a second wave feminist perspective, and I have come to believe that the lens is very distorting, especially if that lens doesn’t take in the vast majority of women who are not mobilised for purely feminist causes. Indeed, there’s a very long history of women’s nationalism transcending their gender identity or merging with their gender identity in complex and interesting ways. So we need to really acknowledge and change the way we think about women’s relationship to politics, that difference between women’s engagement in politics, across the board, and women’s politics which can sometimes have some interesting and worrying overlaps with feminism, but at the same time it’s a distinct thing. So there is a long tradition here of nationalist and patriotic feminism. It is clear from the title of my book Feminine Fascism that female political engagement can occur in the absence of or outside of feminist activism. As I explained both in the new preface (2021) and in the original edition, I went out of my way to avoid calling this feminist fascism. My views have not changed about the incompatibility between feminism and fascism.
Much of my research since then has looked at women on the centre right or more in the mainstream right, and there are examples where I think we can talk about this long tradition of nationalist or patriotic feminism in individual cases and individual life stories. Some examples of this embodied or performative nationalist feminism are Edith Lady Londonderry, Flora Drummond, even Emmeline Pankhurst, who ended up in the conservative fold at the end of her life. So, we know in practice that we do see many examples of women who prioritise their gender identity but still are wedded to what we would consider an anti-progressive political agenda, or one that is conservative with a capital C, and a small c at the same time. So, I think that is one of the insights of my work, and it remains an important paradigm for me. We speak today about intersectionality and I think it’s a fluid paradigm that can be helpful for understanding identities that we may not have expected to be compatible, identities that we would assume were contradictory, or mutually exclusive. As I say, women can be powerful, they can be forceful, they can be formidable, they can be assertive/aggressive for a whole range of causes, and these areas of my research have convinced me that that that concept of intersectionality can be used to widen our understanding of anti-feminist or non-progressive politics as well. The question is not only whether some women are attracted to extremist politics, but about how these movements, how their organisations, how their cultures, admit women, both on an individual and on a collective basis. On an individual basis, I think it’s quite clear that these organisations have always admitted women, but whether they do so collectively, and on what basis I think is an important question – and we can explore that maybe a little bit further.
Famously a handful of suffragettes joined the BUF, which seems to many the opposite of what activists for women’s voting rights stood for. How did they see their feminism to be compatible with fascism? Do you believe that they could still legitimately call themselves feminists while in the BUF?
Yes, that is a really important question and an illuminating case study. I think we go back to the point I’ve just made about thinking about women as individuals or thinking about women as a collectivity. When we look at the case of the three, and it’s always important to emphasise that these are three women, it challenges our understanding and defies our expectations. These three women are, to refresh our memories, Mary Richardson, who had been a suffragette and had fought in the vanguard of the WSPU. She was famous for walking into the National Gallery in 1914 and slashing Valesquez’s “Rokeby Venus” – as a result she became known as ‘Slasher Mary’. The second was Nora Elam who, during the Edwardian period, was a militant suffragette and had engaged in militant acts. At that time she was known as Mrs Darce Fox, because she was married to someone else. She probably has the clearest trajectory from militant feminism, to fascism, with few interruptions on her path to fascism. The third one was Mary Allen, who also was a member of the WSPU before the war and then, during the war, devoted herself to establishing the women’s police service. Allen was a real pioneer for women in uniform and for women to be involved in police work. This became the cause to which she devoted the rest of her life. Her journey to fascism was pretty clear too; again, she was one of these people who nationalised feminism and found a way of merging patriotic beliefs and her kind of nationalism with her own brand of feminism, and a kind of activist feminism. We’ve spoken briefly about Rotha Lintorn-Orman, and Mary Allen’s life has lots of overlaps with Rotha Lintorn-Orman. We know that they were friends and colleagues and certainly like-minded on key issues. Mary Allen was at hand to help Rotha Lintorn-Orman during the General Strike, and they must have a close friendship and a common agenda. Mary Allen skirted around fascist politics throughout the 1930s, both nationally and internationally. She also took her women police cause on the road throughout the world, South America, North America and throughout Europe. She managed to go to Germany in the 30s and have interviews with top Nazi officials, by whom she was very much impressed and convinced. So, there was really little doubt about where she was leaning politically and in 1940 she ‘came out’ as a member of the British Union (Mosley’s organisation). Allen claimed that the reason she was doing so at that moment was because of her strong support for the movement’s anti-war campaign. Again, it wasn’t so sudden but her public ‘coming out’ had to wait until 1940.
So these three women had three quite different stories. Mary Richardson rose to the highest position within the British Union of Fascists: she became a leader of the women’s section in 1934 but by 1935 she was gone. What explained her defection was her disillusionment with what kind of opportunities the movement did or did not give women. So it was her feminism, let’s say, that cured her of her fascism, whereas in the other two cases it was the opposite, and their feminism took second seat to their views on international affairs, economic policy, war and race. Mary Allen and Nora Elam were deeply antisemitic, and had very little difficulty in expressing their racist views and feelings. Mary Allen, for instance, when she was arrested and her home was searched, police came across lots of pamphlets of Arnold Leese and the Imperial Fascist League, so there was no question on where she stood on issues of race.
In all, we have three different stories and each of these life stories is kind of quirky and eccentric. All three of their stories, alone and together, suggest that there are these kinds of counterintuitive possibilities, and the journeys that women take are no way predictable. There were also other women on the right who had begun in the law breaking ILP and sympathising WSPU who moved progressively to the right, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel, Flora Drummond. There were a number who subscribed to ultra-nationalism, and their embrace of what we would consider highly problematic positions, worked alongside their feminism.
Now what is so interesting about these three suffragettes is how the BUF responded to their membership. The BUF embraced their decisions to join the movement and it promoted them in terms of giving them leadership roles, but also publicly to appear as role models for younger women activists. When you look at memoirs and oral histories it is very clear that younger women responded with pride to the fact that there are these three feminist icons among them. These three role models exemplify that women can emerge within a fascist movement and can take on high profile roles.
These three suffragettes therefore paved the way for women, especially younger women, to later take this path. So the movement really emphasised the fact that – and Mosley said this on a number of occasions – how amazing it was that these women were fascist activists and candidates, because Nora Elam was one of the prospective parliamentary candidates. Mosley made the point that on numerous occasions it showed that his organisation was different when it came to women than the Nazi Party and that British fascism will be ‘British’ in how it gave a certain regard and position to women. This is in stark contrast to the Nazi movement which in terms of its gender policy was very much in line with kind of Germanic culture of the three K’s [kuche, kinder and kirche] meaning that women belonged in the kitchen, with children, and in the church. Mosley went out of his way to really exploit the fact that these three women had thrown in their lot with his organisation. However, what Mosley and other male leaders thought privately is hard to tell and certainly it must be said that they were making a virtue of necessity, because there is no indication that the movement went out to secure this kind of adherence, but when these women were attracted to the movement they made the best of it.
The Nazis and Mussolini’s blackshirts offered very limited and gender normative roles for women, both in their organisational structures and in their vision of society. Yet in the BUF women were active, held positions of some authority, and were even candidates for elections. To what extent did the BUF offer a more female-friendly form of fascism?
That’s another really good question. In terms of organisation, the BUF was quite ‘reactionary’ but I say reactionary in inverted commas because if you look at the BUF structure, the fact that it had a women’s section and the fact that its activities were largely sex segregated – at least in principle – well, you need to consider these features comparatively. The other mainstream political parties were organising similarly in the same period. The BUF’s structure, and its gendered division of labour were not actually that strikingly different from what was going on in the Conservative Party, the Labour Party in the Liberal Party. After the 1935 General Election the BUF put up their first 100 prospective Parliamentary candidates and 10 were women, so 10%– even my maths can figure that out pretty quickly. This was striking because that was actually a higher percentage than any of the three other major parties, even higher than the Liberals, the party which would have been really in some ways the most progressive in fielding women candidates. So the British Union of Fascists could actually claim this and counteract the left narrative that they were misogynist and that they intended to purge the political system of women. There were obvious reasons for counteracting this narrative: the movement wanted to continue to recruit women and wanted to appeal to women and to a kind of independent-minded woman. I mean this was a movement, this wasn’t a regime– they were only going to appeal to women if they offered women a certain amount of freedom and offered them the opportunity to do work that was worthwhile and not demeaning. Of course, however, we need to question what would have happened had the fascists come to power and ask what would have happened to women. I suppose it’s quite plausible to suspect that few or maybe none of these promises would have been kept. Yet at this stage of the movement it was important not to turn women away, and to try to appeal to them and offer a place where they could realise themselves politically, where they could engage in worthwhile and also enjoyable activities where they would be involved in political work but also the kind of entertainment and leisure, that surrounded that political work. The BUF created this environment by holding summer camps, dances, bazaars and all kinds of things that other political parties were doing as well. As we would expect, women were often responsible for organising the social side of the movement. Now, on an organisational level concerning who could be a blackshirt, who was drilling and training was very sex segregated. When looking at the BUF marching columns, you certainly in the early years had the women’s section marching on its own; later they had the women’s drum corps. In this respect women were confined to certain parts of the organisation.
However, and I’m not saying this in any way to suggest this is a wonderfully progressive organisation and we should look back on it with rose tinted glasses, but the truth was, and again a lot of testimonies strongly suggest this, that sex segregated structures and hierarchies broke down in practice. I mean don’t forget this is a small organisation and it is therefore not surprising these structures broke down. At a high point we have a figure of about 50,000 max and by the mid 1930s, according to Special Branch and the authorities, probably only about 5000 active members. There’s another little spike later in the 1930s and around the peace campaign where women play an increasingly prominent role as well because of the relationship between women and peace. The movement managed to exploit that notion that women represented a peace block, that they are the natural pacifists, that they will always want to resist war and save their husbands and sons.
In all these cases you have segregation in principle, but in practice, it looks quite different. In addition, it’s a small organisation with very fluctuating fortunes, and therefore in practice men and women are working together. They’re on the streets together selling Blackshirt, they work together at branch premises, and many of them pair off establishing fascist families. Lots of relationships and marriages and families have their basis in the movement.
How, if at all, do the attitude of fascist parties from the 1920s and 30s towards women differ from those held by the contemporary radical right today?
Okay, so I think I always struggle a little bit with that one because first of all it’s a huge question. So, my sense of things is that actually we find in the 1930s there is a much more open, progressive, avant- garde views of women within the British fascist organisation and British fascist movement as compared with the post war period. I think in many ways post-war fascist movements were more reactionary and much more narrow in their view of what women could do. Examples of this would be Mosely’s Union Movement or the National Front, various skinhead movements such as Combat-18. These are much more explicitly and exclusively male, misogynistic and hyper masculine. I’ve worked of course on masculinity and fascism and ideas about body fascism too and there are lots of resonances from the 1930s to more contemporary movements. But the thing I think is important here is that from the 60s and 70s forward post fascist movements and radical right organisations are more explicitly misogynist due to the backdrop of the Women’s Liberation Movement. As the WLM was peaking in the late 1960s and 70s, it coincided with a new phase of radical right mobilization. In the thirties the feminist movement was at a low ebb– at one of the low points if we consider the wave model of feminist activism. You have first feminism in the Edwardian period, and then we wait until the 60s for the second wave. The kind of pressure for political movements to respond to feminism was much lighter. Whereas in the 60s and 70s going forward, second wave feminism has been a formidable force and as much as women pushed for their equality, rights and sexual freedom, the blowback was that much stronger. We see that in bold relief on the far-right. Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of women who support the far-right, and there are a lot of individual cases, but when you look at the propaganda, the ideology and the imagery of the post 60’s far-right it’s much less nuanced, and much more aggressively masculinist.
Nester Webster and Rotha-Lintorn Orman were arguably two of the most influential British fascists of their time. Could you say a bit about who these two women were? And following on from that, do you see any women today as influential in the radical right?
So these two women were, while alive, politically irrelevant, but they have had a lasting influence, especially Nesta Webster. Regarding Rotha Lintorn-Orman, she stands out as the founder of Britain’s first fascist organisation, but her political influence was really negligible. It is interesting though how her story has been picked up more recently, and how she is a reference point for all kinds of political reconfigurations. Many people on the internet are starting to see her as a kind of an icon, as well as Mary Allen, because both of them were not only lesbians but they were ‘mannish women’ by the terminology of the time. This was very clear even by the standards of the era in which they lived, and they made no effort to hide their sexuality in the sense of the way they dressed, comported themselves, the company they kept etc. Both were unmarried. We know even for documents that Mary Ellen had a woman partner, and we assume that the same was the case for Rotha Lintorn-Orman. They were as ‘out’ as they could be, even if their sexuality was unspoken.
So, they have now become, I don’t want to say icons, I think that’s taking it too far, but their lives are being reassessed because of our current interest and fascination and need to locate the prehistory for our particular moment in gender history. In any case, Rotha Linton-Orman has come in for a reassessment; not on the basis of her politics, but on the basis of her lifestyle and her sexuality. I think that this is interesting but also a little bit dangerous because when a life story like that is unearthed in order to suit a different agenda one can distort , misunderstand, dismiss or underplay Lintorn-Orman’s central political concerns and the nature of her activism. It’s also interesting that when the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was expanding its entries of women in politics about 15 years ago I was asked to write the entry for Rotha Lintorn-Orman. I remember there was a newspaper article which was speaking about this expanded remit of the ODNB, and the journalist made a point of saying how ridiculous it was that we have a figure like Rotha Lintorn-Orman in the ODNB – and I tried not to take it personally! Yet it is interesting how times change, and only a little more than a decade ago she was seen as an irrelevance, and that her story should not be considered part of the national record. Contrast to this present interest in her because of her lifestyle and sexuality, her projected image of being a ‘mannish woman’ and her preference for men’s clothes has meant she’s become a potential icon.
Nesta Webster is a very different case, however. Yes, her life intersects with Rotha Lintorn-Orman. She was interested in the British Fascists organisation in the 1920s, she was even, for a short time, on the Grand Council of the British Fascists, but that’s not why she’s well-known. Why she’s famous is because she was a kind of grandmother of conspiracy theory. She wrote at least a dozen books that outlined her view of the world conspiracy, and the role of the so-called Illuminati in world politics, secret societies who were the puppet masters of historical change, and in the rise especially of the left from the French Revolution forward. She too was mostly irrelevant, albeit she had a small following in the 1910s and 1920s when she was most active. She more or less dropped off the map until in the last couple of decades and with the power of the internet she was rediscovered and her work was posted quite freely in bits and pieces as well as in unexpurgated versions on the internet. This seems to provide again that important pre-history for present day conspiracy theorists.
Today we see radical right groups manipulate so-called ‘female issues’ to promote exclusionary politics. One example would be Marine Le Pen’s stance against Muslim immigration by portraying Muslim male immigrants as the sole perpetrators of sexual violence. Did previous fascist groups deploy similar tactics?
That’s a really important question and yes there are countless precedents in the British context. Some of those come from the British Union of Fascists, while many of them come from the more extreme, neo-Nazi Imperial Fascist League. Arnold Leese of the Imperial Fascist League famously called Mosley’s fascism ‘kosher fascism’ because it just wasn’t antisemitic enough. The Imperial Fascist League put stickers on lamp posts about this exact fear of Jewish men polluting white women. Their main allegation was that the Jewish men were defiling white women, that they were bringing them into prostitution which was then called white slavery, and exploiting and corrupting women. So yes, there’s a lot of precedent for that even in the British of that sexualized racism, very apparent in BUF rhetoric, imagery and cartoons. All of that is already deeply embedded in fascist paradigms, worldviews and imagery, so yes sadly, it was already a feature of British fascist culture, from the start. It is a good example of the distinct continuities in the way fascism and the radical right gender their politics; the way fascists sexualize their racial enemies.
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