A new pamphlet from the Bristol Radical History Group explores the appeal of interwar British fascism to a number of women who were formerly militant suffragettes. Written by Rosemary L. Caldicott, Lady Blackshirts: The Perils of Perception – suffragettes who became fascists (2017), surveys the extent to which various women who had previously fought for emancipation took surprising new ideological directions in the aftermath of the First World War.
Caldicott’s 64-page study acknowledges in its introduction that this is ‘a peculiar conundrum’, because fascism generally brings forth images of a patriarchal, disciplined, macho force, with members wearing masculine military uniforms and showing unquestionable loyalty to a male leader (often via a ‘cult of personality’ built around such a figure). Yet, as Caldicott points out, it is estimated that at one time up to 25% of the members of the ‘British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) in this country in the 1930s were women. Moreover, the original fascist party in Britain, the ‘British Fascists’ of the 1920s (created in 1923) was founded by a woman, Miss Rotha Lintorn-Orman (1888-1935), and also saw some significant input from former feminist activists, especially in the London area and the Southern Counties of England.
Seeking to explain the context to all this, Caldicott notes: ‘This was an era when many social and political organisations were opening up to new ideas…’, and ‘some women changed their political allegiance from socialism to fascism’. Moreover, a small number of former suffragettes and feminist campaigners appear to have genuinely believed that a new fascist way of running the country might ultimately achieve better living conditions for ordinary women in society.
A good example is the militant feminist Norah Dacre-Fox (1878-1961), who was later known as Norah Elam. After being imprisoned three times for her actions on behalf of women, in 1913 she had been appointed General Secretary of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). But the War evidently changed some of her views, pushing her to the right of the political spectrum.
In the 1918 General Election, she stood as an Independent candidate in the Richmond-on-Thames constituency, and included in her campaign various warnings about German ‘immigrants’ in the country. By the 1920s, she had moved towards the Conservatives, becoming chair of the Chichester branch. She then joined Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1934, and became the organisation’s County Women’s Officer for West Sussex (see photo).
Another example discussed by Caldicott is Mary Sophia Allen (1878-1964), former Branch Leader of the West of England Women’s Social and Political Union. Allen became Commandant of the Women Police Volunteers and, later in the interwar period, she became a speaker and propagandist for the BUF. Allen was also a keen aircraft pilot and, at one point, loaned her plane to a special flying club for BUF women members. As Caldicott observes, this did not go unnoticed by the authorities, and questions were even raised in the House of Commons, the concern being that the BUF was enabling its own Air Defence Force.
Indeed, Caldicott has identified and discussed a notable number of women who went from feminism to fascism, and sets out some important material on how the BUF in particular set out to ‘woo’ such women. She argues that Sir Oswald Mosley (see photo from 1936), who founded the BUF in October, 1932, soon realised that the Blackshirt movement needed women to ‘politicise’ the home, the internal weapon that could convert both man and child.
Furthermore, he also needed women who were trained and already sufficiently radicalised to confront conventional, ‘mainstream’ forms of politics. Such women, he felt, would make ideal militant activists for the BUF. And former members of the WSPU and other women’s movements often met many of these requirements.
Interestingly, just six months after the launch of the BUF in 1932, the ‘Women’s Section’ was created in March, 1933, chaired by Lady Ester Makgill. Makgill was later expelled for stealing party funds, and was replaced by Mosley’s own mother, Lady Katherine Maud ‘Ma’ Mosley (1874-1948). Lady Mosley was apparently an extremely active recruiter for the BUF. Similarly, on February 28th, 1934, at Holborn in central London, the first significant BUF indoor meeting organised entirely for women was held, addressed by the Chief Women’s Officer, Anne Brock-Griggs (d. 1960), who became editor of the ‘Woman’s Page’ in the movement’s newspaper, Action. Brock-Griggs later penned a key BUF pamphlet, Women and Fascism: 10 Important Points (1936).
As Caldicott correctly notes, the original aim of the suffrage movement in Britain was to involve more women in politics and to secure the right to the vote. This was partly achieved, of course, in 1918. By the 1930s, however, as younger women between the age of 21 and under 30 had only been able to vote for the first time in 1929, there was still the perception that the progress of female emancipation had been too slow and limited, leaving many former suffragettes and other feminist activists disillusioned. The BUF was in the market to recruit such women and, in some cases, clearly succeeded.
Although the topic of women and British fascism has been previously covered in the work of historians such as Martin Durham, Stephen Cullen and Julie Gottlieb, Caldicott’s new pamphlet is a worthy addition to the available historiography, and offers further important detail on fascist policy towards women.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)