Women and Fascism
Elsewhere I have criticised fascism studies, a way of looking at the history of fascism which focuses on the ideas of the far-right, to the exclusion of its practice. The pressure to come up with new approaches to the subject is intense. Yet the impact of new theories is not always positive. The love of controversy has given a spur towards new approaches, some of which assert the originality of their argument at the expense of the material which would be needed to defend their case. This paper will criticise one strand of fascism studies, namely the recent study of the relationship between gender and fascism. The authors I have in mind are mostly writing in Britain, and several chose British fascism for the object of their historical study. This paper will first discuss and criticise the work of these recent authors, and then offer an alternative theoretical model of how the relationship could be understood. That counter-theory will be based on the work of a generation of anti-fascist activists from the 1970s, historians who were part of a large anti-racist milieu, and whose theories offered more vivid insights than the approach of these more recent authors.
The literature which I criticise is one that challenges the older argument that fascism and women's interests were incompatible. I do not suggest that merely writing about women and fascism should be problematic. The study only becomes controversial when the authors have accepted fascist claims that their movement represented women's interests. One good example of the problematic literature is Martin Durham's recent book, Women and Fascism. This study addresses the nature of women's support for fascism. As its author points out, millions of women voted for the fascist parties or supported the fascist regimes. Indeed women often represented Mussolini or Hitler's greatest admirers. For evidence, we only need to see the pictures of the huge fascist rallies - with teenage girls screaming with a gusto that puts contemporary teen-band-groupies to shame.
What is Durham's distinctive argument? The first general claim is that for too long historians have written gender out of the picture. 'Fascism has much to say about women, and discussions of the extreme right are woefully incomplete of they do not make this crystal clear.' The second claim is that the traditional historical assumption that fascism was anti-female is too simple, 'It is hard now (although, unfortunately not impossible) to envisage an account of the extreme right that does not take the importance of gender seriously. Instead the great danger may now be that studies will recognise the importance of the relationship between the extreme right and women but in such a way as to obscure its complexity.' The traditional approach is regarded as over-simplistic, historians 'can no longer believe that fascism is to be seen by definition as a masculine movement pursuing a misogynist agenda.' The purpose of Women and Fascism, is summed by a sentence from its introduction, 'Conventional accounts see fascism as, by definition, an anti-feminist movement devoted to the removal of domestic servitude and the unceasing production of children... In important ways, this study is intended to subvert that supposition.'
Martin Durham establishes that fascism was a feminist issue, but he has more difficulty in making the case that fascism was itself a feminist movement. His difficulties might be compared to those of a comparable historian of Islamic fundamentalism. It is agreed that many Islamist parties have received their strongest support from women, but how far does that make these organisations objectively women's parties? The most persuasive test would lie in the practice of the ideology, in the extent to which women were involved in the actual running of the organisation, in the ideas which were promulgated, and in the nature of the laws which were introduced when the movement achieved state power.
Tested in these ways, Durham's own research makes it clear that fascism was an anti-feminist ideology. In Italy, Benito Mussolini campaigned to return women into the family, insisting that Italian birth-rates were too low. Contraception was banned and feminism described as a 'Jewish' invention. Within Adolf Hitler's party, women made up just six to eight percent of the membership. The British Union of Fascists (BUF) may have been more sympathetic to women than its sister parties, and a minority of its writers did accept that women might have a right to work. Yet even in this Martin Durham's home case, the party as a whole was eugenicist, fixated with increased birth-rates, and opposed to women's independence. Indeed the third chapter of Women and Fascism demonstrates that the few recognisable feminists within fascism (including Mary Richardson and Mrs. Carrington) left the BUF precisely because it would not meet their demands.
All these examples are taken from Durham's book, although it would be possible to add further evidence of fascism's hostility to women's independence which has been discovered by other historians over the past twenty years. The obvious starting point is Weimar Germany. According to Anne Alexander, this was a relatively liberal and female-friendly society, a positive example of women's relative equality, 'Liberation meant more than the chance to vote. Weimar Germany witnessed a cultural flowering which seemed to promise both sexual and artistic fulfillment. More than 150,000 Germans subscribed to the journals of sex reformers such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Helene Stöcker, the leading figure in the radical Bund für Mutterschutz. Music hall songs celebrated women's sexual and political confidence: "Chuck all the men out of the Reichstag" was one popular chorus.' The contrast with what was to follow could not have been more striking. In power, the NSDAP attempted to ban women from professional employment. The measures introduced fitted with Nazi ideology, while also increasing opportunities for men seeking work. The state introduced marriage loans, dependent both on the political loyalty of the family, and the woman's consent to give up paid employment. Nazi racism had a particular impact on women. It was mothers who would breed the new race of fit Germans, free from racial and political taint. The implementation of eugenic policy meant an unprecedented increase in the state supervision of the birth process. Older women were surplus to requirements. Younger women could only hope that their child would not be one of the 100,000 German children killed in cold blood for their inherited disability.
Richard Evans has described how after Hitler's victory in 1933, even Nazi women's organisations felt a need to condemn the independent status of women. So Gertrud Bäumer, the leading figure in the BDF supported women who resigned from political office in the early 1930s and retreated into the home, on the grounds that the rough and tumble of politics was 'foreign to women's natures'. In a similar vein, Stefan Berger points to the failure of the German government to mobilise women workers, even during the war. 'In January 1943 the regime finally decreed that all women between the ages of 17 and 45 had to register with the unemployment office. Yet out of 3.1 million women, only 1.2 million were regarded as fit to work.' Democratic Britain and Stalinist Russia, neither of them exactly havens for women workers, did not make the same mistake as Adolf Hitler.
Meanwhile, similar notions of eugenics and natalism reinforced the unequal status of women in Mussolini's Italy. A National Agency was established to regulate maternity and infancy. Family loans and allowances were granted to the most productive women, their production being measured in childbirth. A demographic campaign was established to push up the birthrate (it largely failed). Women were instructed to leave employment, both in order to 'return' their jobs to men, but also to resume their natural role as the keeper of the home. With the expansion of the Italian empire into Africa, and the copying of anti-Semitism from Hitler's Nazis, anti-feminism and racism were mixed together. White women were instructed to breed. If they failed to carry out this instruction, their failure was blamed on the memory of 'Jewish' feminism. One difference, though, in the Italian experience, was the residual legacy of the Catholic Church, which reinforced the misogyny of the regime, while drawing on the values of traditional Italy to justify its role.
So there is a considerable body of established scholarship, which is rejected by the new writers, because its analysis of women's roles lacks 'complexity', and because any crude account of women's lives will write real people out of history. But how do you argue against the experience of the majority, what can you say when so much of women's experience was so negative? The author of Women and Fascism is aware of many of the points made here, and skates over the contradiction in his book between the argument and the evidence by invoking a series of yes-buts. 'Italian Fascism was not ascribed with anti-feminism from its beginnings... The party was not uniformly misogynist... A closer examination suggests a more complex picture... Nazism is not to be understood as the uncomplicated expression of patriarchal power... There is more fluidity than we might have thought in fascist notions of the feminine.' The tone of the argument is uncertain.
There are other ways to write about fascism and its impact on women. Twenty-five years ago, there was a large milieu of socialist and feminist historians in Britain, organised in the History Workshop and other Socialist History networks. Members of this movement did write about fascism, but in a more critical way. One reason for the greater hostility to fascism expressed in their work is that many writers were actively involved in the large anti-racist campaign that was so important in Britain at the end of the 1970s. This campaign gave birth to an array of organisations, including Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League, and Women Against Racism and Fascism. The contention of this paper is that the activist history produced by writers sympathetic to the anti-racist movement offered a more compelling explanation of the relationship between women and fascism, than that offered in Durham's book. So what did these historians argue?
One important collective was the 'Women and Fascism Study Group', based at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. This group contributed to a Women Against Racism and Fascism (WARF) conference held in Birmingham in early 1978, and then published a pamphlet of their own, the following year. Their argument was that fascism should not be seen primarily as a racist movement, but rather as a party which was sexist and homophobic as well. In their words, 'Fascism does address women as women - or rather, as wives and mothers, breeders for race and nation - and it aims to win support on that basis. Fascism also addresses men - it sees itself as virility personified, and regards liberalism as "feminine".' Members of the group saw the phrase 'breeders for race and nation' as central to their argument, and this became the title of their pamphlet. Having criticised mainstream writers for neglecting the distorted masculine politics at the heart of fascism, the Women and Fascism Study Group did not replace the existing one-sided theories with a further one-sided approach of their own. Instead they sought to integrate their analysis of fascism and sexism into a total argument which also emphasised the racist and nationalistic character of fascism as well. Sections of their pamphlet addressed racism, eugenics, and also the impact of the demand for women's liberation.
A further aspect of the Women and Fascism Study group pamphlet is worthy of mention. In order to sustain a consistently anti-sexist understanding of fascism in inter-war Italy and Germany and post-war Britain, the authors drew on an earlier generation of witnesses to fascism, including Wilhelm Reich, Virginia Woolf and Winifred Holtby. I will mention only one of these earlier writers here. Virginia Woolf's 1938 essay 'Three Guineas', asked how to prevent the collapse into fascism and European war. Her conclusion described the fascist invocation of a cult of muscularity:
The importance of this symbol to Woolf was that it raised clearly the connection between 'the public and the private worlds'. A public dictatorship could only become a private dictatorship, a society in which women would be dependent and at home. Yet if fascism made a claim to understand the universal status of Man, so did anti-fascism. 'The human figure even in a photograph suggests other and more complex emotions. It suggests that we cannot disassociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure.' This discussion provided Woolf's conclusion, the need was to challenge the fascist image of universal man, 'we can prevent war not by repeating your worlds and following your methods but by finding new worlds and creating new methods.' It was a message endorsed by the authors of Breeders for Race and Nation.
Another group which attempted to study the gender dynamics of fascism was the Liverpool socialist group, Big Flame, in a pamphlet, Sexuality and Fascism. This was typical of the literature of the 1970s, in that it began by stressing the sexist character of fascism, 'Discussions of the ideology of National Socialism has often underestimated, or ignored, the vast importance of their anti-feminist ideas.' What made fascism sexist? First, fascism's anti-liberalism demanded an assault on women's organisation. Second, fascism's racism required control of the birth process, which justified a draconian supervision of the private sphere. Third, fascism's alliance with conservatism reinvigorated the traditional Christian dominance over women's lives. The authors of this pamphlet were motivated by the rise of fascism in 1970s Britain, the threat of the National Front (NF). Big Flame observed that the NF did recruit some women to its organisation. Yet this fact was connected to the contemporary crisis in the family, the rise in divorce and abortion, the emergence of alternative lifestyles and gay sexuality. One of the Front's appeals to women was that it claimed to defend the family. This call may have represented a defence of the subordination of women, but this was not the first time in history that people have supported a demand which was opposed to their own objective interests.
Still in 1970s Britain, the socialist writer Jane Hardy wrote an important article for the magazine Women's Voice on 'Women and Fascism'. Her piece argued for anti-fascism from an explicitly socialist feminist perspective. First of all, she described how Hitler's Germany had forced women back into the home. Next she gave examples of how fascist speakers, Hitler and Goebbels had defended their vision of women's role in society. Then Hardy showed that these right-wing ideas had come back to haunt in more recent times, 'What is so sickening is that it is not so very different from what we hear every day; women should give up their jobs, the 1967 Abortion Act should be tightened or restricted or abolished; Gay News is threatening our moral fibre. These are not attacks by fascists, but it is a thin line that divides conservative ideas from those of the extreme right.' Women's Voice operated around this time as the main publishing vehicle for another woman's anti-fascist organisation, Women Against the Nazis. For the editors of this magazine, the question of women's relationship to fascism was a consistent theme. In February 1978, Women's Voice ran an interview with Miriam Karlin. She was a prominent member of the ANL, responsible for recruiting several fellow actresses, including Mia Farrow, Janet Suzman, Peggy Ashcroft, Glenda Jackson and Dorothy Tutin. Karlin's felt that too many men were thinking about their career, 'Women are far more prepared to stand up and be counted on their gut reaction to something.'
Another organisation to mention was Rock Against Sexism, again part of this general, anti-racist and anti-sexist milieu. In an article for the magazine Temporary Hoarding on Wilhelm Reich, a radical psychologist anti-fascist from Weimar Germany, Lucy Toothpaste the founder of Rock Against Sexism attempted to demonstrate that fascism (and indeed all political authoritarianism) represented an onslaught against sex, not just in the 1930s, but forty years later as well: 'In case all that lot seems a bit far-fetched to you, we couldn't resist giving you some living proof of the connection between authoritarianism in the home and in the state. "Love and discipline went together. My father sometimes took his pit belt off and leathered me. I shed tears, but I knew he was right and I was wrong." That's what James Anderton said in an interview in the Observer in February. It was a belief that right and wrong were as distinct as black and white that reinforced his one and only ambition "to be a policeman and if possible the biggest policeman of all." Sadly by 1979 James Anderton's goal had been achieved, as Lucy Toothpaste went on to record, 'Well, he grew up to be a policeman alright, the chief constable of Greater Manchester to be exact, the second most powerful cop in the country.'
The interest in Reich was common across the writers in this milieu, but why did he exert such influence? Half of the answer lies outside the question of the relationship between fascism and gender. A Dialectics of Liberation Conference was held in 1968 at the London School of Economics. The speakers present at this conference included R. D. Laing, David Cooper, Lucien Goldmann and Paul Sweezy. The glue binding together this disparate range of economists, psychologists and cultural studies writers was (as one participant David Widgery observes) 'neither Sartre nor Fanon, but the Marxist Reich of the inter-war years'. Taking place at such pivotal time and location for the counter-culture, this Conference had a symbolic appeal and remained a point of reference for the British left for at least the next ten years to come. The other reason for Wilhelm Reich's appeal has more to do with the subject under discussion. Reich's theories appealed to anti-fascist writers in the late 1970s because of his interest in questions of gender, sexuality and the fascist mass movement. So Wilhelm Reich was a key reference-point for the authors of Breeders for Race and Nation. For them, the significance of Reich lay in his interest in the mass psychology of fascism, 'Reich was one of the few in the 30s to pose the question of why fascism appeals to the mass of men and women. Why did so many join the Nazi movement. What anxieties and fears was fascism addressing? These questions are still central to a feminist and socialist analysis of right wing and fascist movements.'
In order to explain the appeal of fascism, Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933), combined insights from Marxist economics and Freudian psychology. For Reich, the crisis of the 1930s was a crisis of sexuality. Capitalism was in crisis, and disrupting the traditional structures of family and sexual life. As a consequence, sexual desires were repressed, both for men and women. Yet fascism appeared to celebrate the sexual unfreedom of women in particular. Political reaction consciously exploited 'the sexual effect of a uniform, the erotically provocative effect of the rhythmically executed goose-stepping'. The classic example of this process was the swastika. Reich believed that this symbol had been chosen deliberately for its historic, sexual connotations. Not only did fascism exploit sexuality, but it did so in a way understood by its audience, 'The exhibitionistic nature of militaristic procedures have been more practically comprehended by a sales girl or an average secretary than by our most erudite politicians.' The rise of fascism, the adversary of sexual freedom, represented a failure of human creativity, it was an extended sado-masochistic response to the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilisation and its mechanistic-mythical conception of life.'
In the 1970s, a number of writers attempted to develop and extend the insights of Reich's work. Beyond those already mentioned, Reich was also cited by David Widgery, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism (RAR), the anti-racist organisation which acted as the inspiration for the later Anti-Nazi League. This for example is his description of the Carol Grimes concert at which RAR was effectively launched:
Here Reich was used as a symbol of resistance to fascism, rather than as a detailed critic of how fascism's sexual mysticism worked.
One author who mined Reich's work most deeply was the Italian leftist Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi, whose 'Female Sexuality in Fascist Ideology' was translated by Jane Caplan for the first issue of the socialist-feminist journal, Feminist Review. Macciocchi went out of her way to criticise those anti-fascist writers who romanticised the relationship between women and fascism, exaggerating the extent of resistance, and thus writing women out of history. She described this process as the 'new female metaphysics which risks making the women's movement digress into a childish creed: Women the Supreme Being, Women the Absolute Good.' From Reich, Macciocchi borrowed an emphasis on sex, and the manipulation of an ideology of sex, as one foundation of the regime. In her words, 'The characteristic of fascist and nazi genius is their challenge to women on their own ground: they make women both the reproducers of life and the guardians of death, without the two terms being contradictory.' Perhaps one difference which separated Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi from Wilhelm Reich was her greater emphasis on death, 'The body of fascist discourse id rigorously chaste, pure, virginal. Its central aim is the death of sexuality: women are always called to the cemetery to honour the war dead, to come bearing crowns and they are exhorted to offer their sons to the fatherland.' So fascism was about the denial of sexual pleasure - procreation combined with 'a violent rejection of all sex'. Did that mean that fascism appealed to a general condition, in which women would always oppose the implications of 'femininity' (feminism)? Macciocchi was less confident about the past, more so about the present. 'We are in the presence of the opening up of a new continent of history', she argued, 'If all the feminist movements, if all the revolutionaries could understand this, one day we can do away forever with fascism.'
These Reichian insights have not been restricted to feminists and activists of the left. Since the 1970s, several working historians have attempted to integrate them into more conventional histories of fascism. One such is George Mosse, whose account of fascist sexuality in Hitler's Germany makes much of the relative invisibility of women's bodies in fascist art compared to the abundance of men's bodies, especially in fascist sculpture. As Mosse documents, even female fascists observed the contradiction implied in the Nazi party's rhetorical support for procreation when this was combined with an ideological hostility to sex. One female Nazi affected by this conflict was Lydia Gottschewski, the organiser of the League of German Girls (BDM). Although Gottschewski was an extreme anti-feminist, she observed that the Nazi denial of bodily love could only reduce the status of women. Similar perspectives inform Klaus Theweleit's two-volume Male Fantasies, a compelling reading of the books and letters produced first by members of the Freikorps, and then by male Nazis. His interest like Reich's is in the overlap between fascism as a form of class-rule and fascism as a form of gender-domination. In his words, 'along with capitalist relations of production, a specific male-female (patriarchal) relation might belong at the centre of our examination of fascism, as a producer of life-destroying realities.'
This analysis of fascism has also spread beyond the confines of academic history. The Canadian author Margaret Attwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale represents an attempt to translate this understanding of fascism into the sphere of literature. In her book, a contemporary clerico-fascism conquers North America, leaving Japanese tourists in their knee-length skirts to photograph the surviving and fully-veiled women, divided into a complex hierarchy of wives, cooks, and biological mothers. Older women disappear, to work in conditions of extreme manual labour in the Republic's colonies. The novel's heroine Offred is a Handmaid, which means that she is trained to produce the children of her Commander. Outside the bedroom, her day is spent wandering veiled head-to-toe, bored and desperate for amusement. Women are also denied the freedom to read and write. Of course, The Handmaid's Tale is not a historically-accurate account of what fascism was like, indeed its targets includes American fundamentalism Christianity, as well as fascism. The truths of literature are different. Instead the book points in an exaggerated way to one real aspect of historic fascism namely its intense restriction of the lives of women.
From the literature which has been described here, four key points emerge. First, in power fascism represented a attack on women. Considerable attempts were made to remove women from the public sphere of work and politics, and to place women instead in the private sphere of home life. Second, such misogyny was connected to other themes in fascist ideology. For example, fascism's concern with race was part of a general concern with the help of the 'Volksgemeinschaft', or national community. Both in Germany and Italy, fascist parties attempted to supervise the birth process, increasing the number of births and decreasing women's control over their own bodies. Third, as Wilhelm Reich pointed out, fascism was a sexualised movement. A large part of its appeal (to both men and women) relied on a visual imagery, which glorified the human body, while remaining resolutely hostile to the representation of sex. Fourth, fascism's hostile attitude towards women's rights was not merely a matter of past history. Neo-nazi and fascist parties in post-war Europe have been equally hostile towards the goals of Women's Liberation.
In all fairness, Martin Durham could argue that these potential criticisms are tangential to his central argument, which is that at times women did join the fascist parties. If fascism was so hostile to women, then how could any woman ever join a fascist party? To answer this point, however, requires going beyond the recent literature. In so far as its authors have a consistent theory to explain women's occasional support for fascism, it is simply to repeat (with some distance) the claims of fascists themselves, that there was something objectively pro-female about fascism. Hence the quote cited earlier, 'fascism was not uniformly misogynist'. The alternative explanation is to indicate that (in general terms) people are capable of supporting a movement which is hostile to their interests.
The best known (but not the only) theory of 'false consciousness' is the Marxist theory of ideology. This maintains that at certain times, people are quite capable of supporting a party or a trend which is hostile to their interests. In the work of Karl Marx himself, the classic example of such an observation, was his analysis of the role of Christianity, 'Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.' This claim is a dual observation: religion is believed by ordinary people and engages with the alienation that millions feel in their lives; but this belief is partial, and needs to be renewed if it is to be sustained. A parallel claim could be made to explain the position of that minority of women who supported the fascist parties. Although fascism was not in their interests, fascism raise enough important questions for at least some women to find its answers appealing. Fascism could not be a women's movement - but it could do enough to recruit some women. In contrast to the recent work criticised here, such an argument would be neither controversial nor new.
For the anti-fascists of the 1970s, it was not enough merely to announce that fascism was an anti-feminist ideology (in this sense of the term). Instead, this generation of writers progressed from a general theory of ideology to a much more specific and historical theory of fascism, rooted in Wilhelm Reich's work on sexuality. As such, an explanation was offered for the success of fascism, namely that this movement had a sexualised appeal to women which co-existed with the anti-feminist imperative to drive women back into their homes. The total impression of fascism which emerges then is of a contradictory movement, which offered young women the chance to worship their leaders, while simultaneously denying them the chance to lead fulfilling lives inside and outside domestic sphere. This emphasis on the contradictory character of fascism co-existed with an emphasis on the ultimately sexist nature of the movement. To borrow from one of the most common fascist images, under Mussolini and Hitler, women could play a role in the crowd, but they were not allowed to appear on the platform. One of the motives of fascism was always to deny women a role as real agents in shaping their own lives.
The argument of this paper should be clear. To explain the paradox of female support for Hitler and Mussolini, arguments are required which the recent literature does not supply. Here, the anti-fascist literature of the 1930s and 1970s becomes especially valuable. These writers attempt to explain fascism's gendered appeal to women, without in any way suggesting that fascism was in women's interests. Their theories offer a more compelling insight into the contradictory relationships of the past.