While the links between the anti-trans moral panic and the far-right are well-documented, 'Gender Critical' feminists are able shield themselves from that connection because of the common assumption that feminism and fascism are polar opposites. But, at many points in history, the distinction between feminism and fascism has been far from clear cut.
Michael Richmond and Alex Charnley provide a historical study of significant moments of interaction between fascism and the women's cause. The article comes from a section which had to be cut from their book, Fractured: Race, Class, Gender and the Hatred of Identity Politics, which contains a fuller historical study of feminist politics in Britain and the US.
This article has five sections which can be read in sequence or individually: (1) an introductory survey of work engaging the relationship between "gender critical" feminism and the far right (2) an analysis of relevant splits in the fight for US suffrage (3) the importance of women activists for the massification of the second Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s (4) division in the British Suffragettes (5) the role of women in the British Union of Fascists (BUF) (6) concluding remarks on trajectories of feminist fascism. The article is primarily intended to bridge current antifascist work being done by groups such as the Trans Safety Network with feminist historians who have contributed important monographs detailing the roles and activities of women in fascist movements. Notes are provided with references for further study.
What if certain forms of feminism, historically, have not simply colluded with white-supremacist projects but have actually been fascist themselves? How might ceasing to deny that feminisms can be fascist actually strengthen antifascist organizing in this moment?"1
Sophie Lewis and Asa Seres | Fascist Feminism: A Dialogue
It is now common to see fascists supporting "gender critical" (GC)2 movements either online or out on the streets. Whether this support is rebuked, ignored or welcomed, a convergence between gender criticals - only some of whom identify as feminists but all claim to be fighting for women's rights - and a range of far right and fascist actors is plain. The Trans Safety Network have reported growing "practical crossovers" between GCs and the traditional far right, with transphobia acting as a mainstreaming funnel for the latter.3 Antisemitic conspiracism has also merged with respectable “gender critical” transphobia. As Joaquina, writing for Trans Safety Network, explains, “this transphobic paranoid style is bound by a distinctive common thread: its portrayal of trans people as an inherently deviant, predatory and deadly presence, and a menace to the safety and purity of the young.” Respectable “gender critical” transphobia and fascist conspiracism are distinguishable only by degree, “even before the far-right began focusing on a horror-themed transphobia, it was gender critical ideologues – with their talk of “child sacrifice” by a trans “blood cult” and equating trans inclusion to legalising sex crimes – whose rhetoric has echoed a much more vicious strand of antisemitism.”4
The far right has learned to shadow liberal debate and liberal debate has provided incentive for fascism. The “women and girls” paradigm, in particular, functions as a liberal (white) feminist organising handle that has often crossed over into racist conspiracy and offered opportunities for fascists to regroup. Ella Cockbain and Waqas Tufail have argued that racist media framings of child sexual exploitation cases (CSE) in the 2010s that centred on “Muslim grooming gangs” were significant for centrist-fascist synchronicity. "Grooming” became a journalist shorthand that was normalised in public debate and defended in social policy literature, despite having no basis in “established legal or social scientific categories.” As they write, “a relatively small number of high-profile ‘grooming gangs’ cases have been used to claim an ‘epidemic’ of abuse.”5 But as the authors argue, this racist framing dominated public debate from 2011 onwards and brought many liberal progressives into the fold. Labour MP, Sarah Champion, who was shadow secretary for women and equalities at the time, defended the racialised focus, writing for The Sun, “These people are predators, and the common denominator is their ethnic heritage.”6 This racist emphasis on the vulnerability of white women and girls was reciprocated on the far right. “Far-right propaganda text Easy Meat,” Cockbain and Tufail note, “features familiar claims about the ‘epidemic of child-rape by grooming gangs’, failed multiculturalism, politically-correct cover-ups and the ‘collusion’ and collective responsibility of ‘the Muslim community.’” 7 The utility of the term was its power of connotation. It helped to reshape and reboot racial stereotypes, just as “mugging” did in the 1970s.8
The primacy of transphobia, antisemitism and Islamophobia in recent conspiracies of civilisational decline have been the means for fascism to pick itself up and re-engage the old myths. Far right groups now organise around “grooming” narratives as a matter of course and GC women are often organising alongside fascist men. The instrumentalisation of women's issues and the agency of reactionary women is central to the contemporary fascist conjuncture. Women are present, and in leading roles, in Britain's hard right government and its far right parties. This includes women of colour, who have contrived stereotypes from the white feminist tradition to launch racist and transphobic attacks.9 Women have been present or led recent protests at asylum seeker accommodations in Cannock. Similar concerns for “women and young girls” have been used to incite “whiteness riots” against refugees in Knowsley and elsewhere in Britain. Ireland too has seen increasing anti-refugee and anti-immigration activity, bringing together far right Irish nationalists and British loyalists, with women videoing themselves confronting suspected migrants.10 In both countries the same social media tactic is parroted - the circulation of “grooming” rumours at targeted locations. In London, this same tactic draws GC activists and fascists into a shared calendar of eliminationist anti-trans rallies.
The centering of women in GC movements has also rejuvenated classical patriarchal violence. In this text we centre historians who study women's participation in fascist movements. This is not intended to underplay the agency of men. On the contrary, cis men today are able to recalibrate misogyny through transmisogyny and make it more respectable, just as male fascists of the 1920s could reinvent themselves and their movements through an adoption of the women’s cause. Today’s GC rally is an opportunity for fascist men (and cops) to misgender, abuse and attack who they like.
A similar dynamic is at play across the Atlantic. In recent years, women have been centrally involved in the US far right from the Tea Party to pro-Trump movements with significant numbers taking part in "Stop the Steal" efforts and the January 6 Capitol Insurrection. Women are particularly active in QAnon networks, moved by calls to #SaveTheChildren. Instagram influencers, suburban moms, lifestyle, parenting and wellness bloggers contributed to the explosion of the conspiracy theory, which accelerated during the pandemic. At the respectable end of public debate, liberal, legalistic GC pundits, also raise the alarm about trans tipping points and "social contagion" among the younger generation. Anti-trans reaction operates through the progressive institution with a new determination and is affording fascist movements entry points into state power, which did not exist previously. Historian Jules Gill-Peterson writes compellingly about "the appeal to free speech in anti-trans punditry" and what she specifies as an "intensely-avowed emotional attachment to liberalism in this genre of complaint." This is, she writes, "all the more interesting because it is so frequently accompanied by the suggestion that a lawsuit would be justified to secure their liberty against irrational critics."11 The centrist identity is organised by a spirited defence of liberal democratic values, absent of any practical interest in mounting a conceivable defence of the democratic franchise. Indeed, as Gill-Peterson notes, "what strikes me is not so much the appeal itself [to liberalism] but its appearance within a much wider illiberal field of anti-trans discourse that these figures claim not to endorse."12
It is therefore suggestive to place fascism and feminism - often thought of as opposites - in conversation. Yet such an analysis will understandably produce ambiguities and consternation. Serena Bassi and Greta LaFleur introduced an issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ) last year, asking why "critiques of how feminism has, today and in earlier times, been invoked in service of a wide range of pernicious and anti-liberationist ends have somehow not yet spurred a careful enough reckoning with the enduringly ambivalent character of feminism."13 Enzo Traverso’s conceptualisation of “postfascism” is used to examine continuities and differences between classical modes of historical fascism, neo-fascism and the developing bonds between far right and transphobic groups today. As Bassi and LaFleur write,
"The 'post' in Traverso’s “postfascism” should be read neither temporally (as a straightforward aftermath of historical fascism), nor as negating any kind of world-historical frame, but rather as drawing out the entrenched “fascist potential” in supposedly democratic presents…the gender-critical politicization of a true womanhood under threat by trans politics is not only genealogically coherent with multiple conservative moral panics and resilient fascist tropes but also with the longue durée of liberal, bourgeois, white feminist exclusions perpetrated along racial and class lines."14
While fascists are aware that they cannot appear how they have historically (where they do, they are often marginalised), the most aggressive, eliminationist postures of GC feminism maintain a semblance of innocence based on the fact that they appear to squarely contradict the appearance of historical fascism. Interaction between fascism and the “gender critical” comes to a head in the persona constructions of Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (aka Posie Parker) who has garnered a significant online audience for her transphobic rants, calls for armed vigilante violence against trans people in the US, or advice for British parents wanting to stop LGBTQ+ lessons in schools.15 Her recent rallies in Australia ran side by side with Nazi marches.16 In London, too, fascists came out to support her. Nonetheless Parker has managed to maintain a feminist form of appearance. This is actively encouraged by US conservatives, not otherwise known as vocal women's rights advocates. When Parker appeared on Tucker Carlson in 2023, she was introduced as a “women’s rights campaigner” and “feminist” who had been unjustly thrown out of the British left. Parker responded, “I’m not actually a feminist…feminism ringfences a movement in which all women can come together for their rights.” As Bassi and LaFleur write, “positing cis womanhood, as a putative experience, as under attack by trans people… drafts those who would seek to protect “women” into transphobic and transmisogynist projects, and makes it easy to do so, for who is against protecting women?"17 Carlson gently encourages the assumption, introducing Parker to the audience as if she is a civil rights campaigner, reassuring her that “sex-based rights” of “biological women” is something “every conservative would support.” The conversation melds seamlessly with the catastrophist tender of fascism. Carlson calls trans rights “civilisation ending.” Parker agrees, “it feels like the last days of Rome.”18
We want to consider the contribution of 19th and early 20th century women's movements to the ideological complex of the ‘classical’ fascist mode as such. This text brings together our notes and the analysis of historians, theorists and antifascist researchers working on genealogies of feminism and fascism. We're concerned with the interlocking structures of suffrage and white supremacy for 19th century women's rights struggles in Britain and the US before and in step with the rise of fascism. This has four parts. The breakup of US suffragists of the so-called "first wave"; the prominence of women in the 1920s KKK; the political divergences of Britain's Suffragettes; and the contribution of women, including ex-Suffragettes, to the British Union of Fascists (BUF). In both countries, early feminism grew not in opposition to but through ideological commitments to and collaborations with white supremacy and colonialism. We note similarities with GC movements where comparison is warranted. We also have the humbler aim of bridging specialist historical work, theory and communist dialogues for ongoing study.
Our intentions for writing this are therefore simple enough on one level but not so simple on another. We're offering up our historical research, to try to understand our own time. We make no claim to know anything about trans liberation organising, only what our comrades tell us and what we cite. The most we can say is that we try to listen carefully.19 On another level, the matter is more complex and we'll try to be as clear as we can about this before continuing. The central problem of this study is the forms of appearance fascism can take. We argue feminism has provided one such form of appearance. This is because fascism developed through the progressive era of imperialism, when women dissenters and insurrectionists struggled for equal rights. Women were also being recruited into colonial formations of the family and fascist causes. Against the grain of how historical fascism is often portrayed, some feminist historians argue women's rights causes can in fact be reconciled through fascist movements themselves. This is the hypothesis we've set out to explore. It's possible some may read our intentions as anti-feminist, or at least another attempt to undermine feminism, especially as so much out there is. The adoption of Suffragette regalia and slogans in GC networks, it could be argued, is mere pastiche; recuperation of a noble legacy - a perversion of real feminism. We lean towards the argument made in TSQ, by feminist critics of feminism, and feminist historians of fascism, that no authentic version of feminism exists and that its reactionary histories are as authentic to it as its most radical and internationalist contributions.
It's an uneasy hypothesis to navigate. It would be disingenuous not to admit we often feel it isn't our place to explore it but have found encouragement from feminist comrades who consider the attempt worthwhile. With our book on reactions to identity politics and the Black feminist origins of the concept, we had similar reservations. It's a risk we've come to accept and perhaps only now have been able to articulate. We maintain there's something uniquely generative about studying feminist history as a complex of ideological formations, social reactions, colonial identity-thinking and liberation, not as a simple vestige of progressive culture. More, as we argue, the idealisation of feminism as good, or indeed any labour, queer or liberation struggle, as inherently good, is not only historically insincere, but formal to transphobic ideology, which induces a classical historiography of labour traditions, gay rights and feminism against conspiracies of the interloper.
There is no way of dislocating an analysis of capitalism from racial capitalism, of race from colonialism, nor can fascism be made colour- or gender-blind. Any serious commitment to antifascism entails an uncomfortable “crossing of lanes” with the concomitant risk that you might get things wrong. We've spent a long time on the anarchist/autonomous left and seen first hand that racial and gender literacy - that is, the critical compositional history of movements we call ‘ours’ - especially for men like us, is often buoyantly dismal. Anarchism, itself suffering from illusions of noble heritage, can produce proudly chauvinist anarchos, and transphobia has been a problem that is only more recently being engaged with because of the persistence of trans anarchists. Where we continue to get things wrong, we hope to be critiqued. That isn't a matter of deference, but sensitivity to the difficulties of shared understanding and seeing across our separations. Like anyone else on the left we are compelled by the horror of the present situation. The question of division has repeatedly led the left up blind alleys of beef, grief and conspiracy. Ugly feelings repeatedly run aground in essentialist safe harbours, which can have various expressions: zealous defences of political traditions or reductionist conceptions of race, class, and gender. Such defences often incite reactionary critiques of essentialism that are themselves essentialist. The left is itself a psychic and emotional artefact of dashed hopes, splits and betrayals that brutally compensatory “correct positions” hope to magic away only to further reify and reproduce. The alternative is perhaps (at risk of being miserablist) to engage the worst of us; to study our divisions seriously, thicken out the past and rethink our present relation to it.
Histories of US feminism tend not to begin with enslaved or Native women's resistance, nor proletarian migrant women's strikes in early 19th century New England, but at Seneca Falls where in 1848 the first women's rights convention was held. It was hosted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who like most leading lights in the movement, came to women’s rights through involvement in abolitionism. Other leading figures, like Susan B. Anthony, had backgrounds in nonconformist Christianity. Yet, as abolitionism and women’s suffragism grew closer to the state, leading women, unwilling to address composite framings of womanhood, became ever more abstracted from the experiences of enslaved, racialised women, domestic and factory workers - Black, immigrant and white. No Black or indigenous women were at Seneca Falls, nor were they mentioned. As Black feminists/historians of US suffrage have shown, this "first wave" universalised around the experiences of middle class white women. Some, like Stanton, used their experience in family legal professions to envision a strategic interest in legal sex. In turn, the legal identity of women as a class - the aim and object of a struggle for the constitutional recognition of women as equal - was formed by the whiteness of the movement and its class relation.
Suffragism gained momentum from the uprising of enslaved people and the crisis point of civil war.20 As the possibilities for freedom expanded, alliances between social movements were attempted. Stanton and Anthony supported Black men entering the Union Army, organising a Women’s Loyal League to rally others. They toured Northern states for the Union cause, facing hostility from pro-slavery whites, but collected 400,000 signatures petitioning Congress for immediate abolition. The American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was founded in May 1866, again by Stanton and Anthony - an attempt to combine women's rights and Black freedom movements. Republican factions pushed back, splitting this fragile alliance, favouring only Black male suffrage in what was presented as a zero-sum game. AERA conventions came to be dominated by rancour. Many white delegates insisted white women were more deserving of suffrage than African Americans, male or female. But the wheels were in motion to enfranchise Black men only. The repeated phrase was that it was “The Negro’s Hour”, often justified on the basis of Black men’s military service. Many white women campaigners, though certainly not all, reacted by opposing Black male suffrage. Feelings of bitterness and betrayal dominated. What began as a contingent alliance of equals, that is, Black men and middle class white women, who together envisaged something approaching universal emancipation as near and possible, became the rhetorical basis for division. Once the utopian, projective, radical equality between women and men, workers and slaves, was relinquished, an inverse, divisive equality took root, opening up a reactionary drive to reassert racial and sexual difference. How could it be that white women of high standing were now to be subservient not only to men but Black men, most of whom had recently been slaves? 'Equal rights' was re-framed as a backwards step for “women” who were destined to slip down the rungs into a position on a par with or 'below' the 'Negro.' Indeed, many held to a legalistic belief that Emancipation immediately put freed slaves on an equal footing with middle class white women.
While women’s rights leaders tended to be committed abolitionists, opposed to the ruling class of Southern slaver capitalism, they had little reason to criticise Northern capitalists, some of whom were husbands, fathers, friends, supporters. Early campaigner Abby Kelley, wrote: “We have good cause to be grateful to the slave for the benefit we have received to ourselves, in working for him. In striving to strike his irons off we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves.”21 This quote speaks to something genuine: many of the women who sparked a national women’s movement in the 19th century were first politicised by their passionate involvement in anti-slavery. But in such formulations the figure of the slave was always gendered as male, while women were always white. This is a classic framing that has haunted the encounter between white and Black women’s movements in America for two centuries. Stanton and Anthony, like later radical feminists, felt sexism was far more oppressive than racism or class exploitation. They saw the power wielded by men over women as the key oppression, made clear in the first sentence of their History of Woman Suffrage,:"The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history.”22 This framing groups together the oppression of all women under a unified “slavery” during a period in which millions of women actually experienced enslavement, while others, including Stanton, grew up in families that owned slaves. From the outset, it was in the interests of wealthy white women to use such sweeping, erasive definitions of “womanhood.” From the outset - for Black women, immigrant women, working women, Native American women, queer women, or combinations of these - the picture was and is a lot messier. Stanton and Anthony tried to build alliances with workers but their insistence on foregrounding gendered oppression brought them trouble. The history of male-dominated labour movements, and their often enthusiastic reproduction of patriarchy, is anything but proud. But Stanton’s classed and racialised denigration of certain men always flowed much easier than the few times she directed criticism at the rich white men holding so much more power.
The liberal-centrist instrumentalisation of early women’s movement history warms over the internal stresses and conflicts that produced these splits. US feminism from the 1990s onwards became identified with high status “trailblazers” - politicians, business women, “girl bosses” and "glass ceilings." A revised history of suffrage was used to mark the ongoing struggle of women to rise to power. Consider, for example, a 2010 TED women conference, where Nancy Pelosi recalled her first White House visit as House minority leader. Sitting in a chair, Pelosi was suddenly crowded by the spirits of Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. "I could hear them say,” Pelosi whispered, “at last we have a seat at the table.”23 Black women like Sojourner Truth and Frances W. Harper can be summoned alongside Anthony and Stanton only as phantoms, because in reality, their engagements with women’s struggle diverged. Truth and Harper spoke at AERA meetings about how Black women were being erased. They also supported the 15th Amendment enfranchising Black men but excluding women, and tried to persuade white women to support it too. The reaction of some white women campaigners was incendiary. Some would embark on a turbocharged white supremacist politics. Anthony vowed to “cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”24 She and Stanton moved closer to the Democratic Party, writing to its 1868 National Convention: "While the dominant party has with one hand lifted up two million black men and crowned them with the honor and dignity of citizenship, with the other it has dethroned fifteen million white women - their own mothers and sisters, their own wives and daughters - and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of manhood."25 The AERA fell apart upon passage of the Reconstruction Amendments as a result of this representative split. The opposing of “woman” to “Negro” not only marked a splitting of the idea of universal suffrage down the colour line, and the end of the abolitionist gesture in the women’s movement, it erased Black and indigenous women from the struggle entirely. This ‘white blindspot’ (or intentional erasure) has been a persistent feature of every feminist ‘wave’ since.
The error here has been to treat the media performances of visible and powerful women like Pelosi and Hillary Clinton as a remark on something much greater, a superficial ‘turn’ or ‘stage’ in feminist politics - as if feminism had been emptied of its authentic content by neoliberalism. This is what many on the left have in their mind when they blame “identity politics” for the dissolution of class politics, which as we've explored elsewhere, is an incurious formulation with its own reactionary history.26 Simply reacting to the reification of identity in neoliberal ideograms of feminism deliberately fails to enquire into a problem feminists have engaged with for as long as reactionary tendencies in feminism have existed. The problem of identity is not due to a stage of capitalism, but a problem of colonial identity thinking, which Black feminist identity politics in the 1970s set out to analyse. At the same time, it's undeniable that a reified imagery of women leaders became a feature of neoliberal media. This imagery and its performance worked to secure the status of reactionary women. To be a woman succeeding became good for Women, not just those succeeding. Women's rights campaigns came to signify a cause for good, rather than one that might extend carceral state violence. After #MeToo, many cis men would identify as feminists to share in the light of feminism, precisely because it was on the side of the good. The social reaction to feminism includes a hatred of feminism, but as well, idealisations, which produce associations and attachments that shift and surge around a received identity of women and women’s causes as progressive. The problem of identity and identity-thinking - something no one can plausibly claim to be above - maintains because these identifications aren't stable, they were historically produced, and in the case of feminism, no authentic version exists.
Debates around the rights and wrongs of episodes in feminist history are therefore important because they are complex and wrought. Historians of suffrage help to challenge essentialism because it is clear that womanhood had no stable identity. The role of state power in splitting movement alliances becomes far clearer when an idealised story of national women’s rights struggle is troubled. And as Ellen Carol Dubois states, the paths taken by its leaders are hard to disconnect from their social backgrounds: “Woman suffrage leaders were rarely from the ranks of wage-earners. Some, like [Lucy] Stone and Anthony, were the daughters of small farmers. Others, most notably Stanton, were the children of considerable wealth.”27 After the word “male” entered into the Constitution for the first time, Stanton wrote in 1866: “if that word ‘male’ be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out.” In fact, once Reconstruction was overthrown and white supremacy reasserted, it was a century before Black Americans finally had some civil rights enforced by the federal government. Meanwhile, white women secured voting rights with the 19th Amendment in 1920.28 For Stanton and Anthony, the betrayal of "womanhood" by Black male suffrage could only be reduced to a conspiracy of male supremacy, Black and white. The lesson Stanton took: woman “must not put her trust in man.”29 Whilst shared patriarchy was an element, Black male enfranchisement came about in larger part due to Republican Party strategy and the Northern bourgeoisie’s attempt to secure postwar Reconstruction. That is, a calculation was made: Black men would vote Republican, white women would return the white supremacist Democrats to power.
Gender critical feminism’s rallying call for “sex based rights” beelines backward into this tragic and violent historical track by reinstating legal sex segregation as a movement goal. This goal squarely contradicts the most radical vantage points of suffragists, who are nonetheless held up by transphobic women’s groups as patron saints of 100% authentic women. The women’s cause was to make rights equal, not separate. It was the introduction of “Men” into the constitution in the US and the reform act in Britain which depleted the movement of the contingent universality of the women’s cause. However, the realisation of sex segregation in law also developed alongside a fascist feminist praxis, which in the 20th century could claim achievements of its own.
Birth of the Nation's women
The first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1860s used racist terror to help overthrow Reconstruction. Half a century later, a new Klan made the same bet the Republican bourgeoisie had: Once white women got the vote, they could provide a boon to white supremacy. The second (and largest) KKK was launched in 1915 in Georgia by William Joseph Simmons, feeding off the success of the movie Birth of a Nation.30 The new Klan struggled until Mary Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Clarke, colleagues at an Atlanta public relations firm, got involved, applying modern business acumen to the flailing organisation.31 The first Klan was overwhelmingly known for its anti-Black violence and its mission to maintain Southern white supremacy. While the 1920s Klan’s anti-Black focus was undiminished, Tyler and Clarke helped shift its emphasis to new “threats” - Jews, Catholics, Communists, immigrants.32 The move prospered thanks to huge, rapid changes in US society. Immigration had increased. Black migration to Northern states was met with violent racism. Black and working class militancy intensified following World War One. The spectre of Communism frightened the propertied classes (large and small) as the Left faced brutal state and vigilante repression. The growth in divorce rates and women’s increasing independence impacted ideologies of the family. The interwar years saw chronic instability, industrialisation, urbanisation and automation. Klan politics seized on these “threats” to nation, home and white supremacy.33 They stood for “pure Americanism.” The Klan was, for a few years, a national movement with “perhaps as high as five million” dues-paying members.34 Historian of the KKK, Nancy MacLean, writes on the breadth and scale of the Klan’s reach in this period: “state and local Klans published some forty weekly newspapers” and with a national lecture bureau “its speakers addressed audiences of well over 200,000 people.” 35 The second Klan became what MacLean calls “the most powerful movement of the far right that America has yet produced.”36 Unlike the first Klan, the second prospered in the North - midwestern states Indiana and Ohio were strongholds.37 Klan success on both sides of the old Mason-Dixon line was indicative of a more general national reunification of white Protestantism.
What the new Klan also had, that it didn’t allow in the 1860s, was women members. The Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK) was set up in June 1923 and “by November…chapters existed in 36 states, claiming 250,000 members age 16 and older.”38 At its height, it boasted around half a million nationwide.39 Male leadership became open to women members partly for financial reasons, not wanting to close off half their potential market. There had been pressure from white women already involved in women white supremacist groups wanting to join.40 The new reality of women’s suffrage was a game changer. With electoral politics a key terrain for the new KKK, the dismissal of women as political actors would have gone against their interests. The Klan needed white, “100% American” women’s suffrage for their project. Indeed, the Klan insisted it was the best guarantor of white Protestant women’s rights.41 As Katherine Blee writes, the WKKK, it was claimed, "could safeguard women's suffrage and expand women's other legal rights while working to preserve white Protestant supremacy."42
Different motivations and political trajectories drew women to the KKK. Some were married or related to Klansmen but any assumption of straightforward male control over women’s involvement would be wide of the mark. Many Klanswomen were already politically active, including in the two main parties. According to Blee, "some high-ranking WKKK leaders had also chaired local campaigns for suffrage."43 Many others joined through involvement in white Protestant churches, especially the Baptist church. Daisy Douglas Barr, was a Quaker preacher, Republican activist, suffragist and temperance campaigner before becoming leader of Indiana's WKKK. A leading light, Barr was a strong public speaker and often travelled with national male leaders on speaking tours, proving to be a powerful recruitment asset. Several Klanswomen cut their political teeth in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)44 or the Anti-Saloon League45 , both conservative women's organisations that outgrew or absorbed the women's suffrage groups. Such organisations shared similar foundations to the Klan: Protestant fundamentalism, anti-prostitution, anti-immigration46 and a casting of white women as possessing inherent morality and domesticity. The KKK pledged to clean-up politics and society and viewed Klanswomen as uniquely equipped to do this. The WKKK's fearsome whisper campaigns destroying rival candidates were infamous.47 They used blackmail, character assassination and intimidation as well as having an effective get-out-the-vote operation. The Klan had a powerful influence over politicians, as MacLean argues, “in 1923, for example, at least seventy-five congressional representatives were said to owe their seats to the Klan...The Klan held sway in the political life of many states; it dominated some outright, such as Indiana and Colorado.” More, they “managed to prevent either major party and all the nation’s presidents in the decade from condemning it publicly.”48
The Klan were able to operate in many areas with near impunity. With powerful Klan members and allies in law enforcement, Protestant churches and the judiciary as well as cowed, quiescent or supportive whites in newspapers, education and beyond, fighting back against them, for the few who tried, was a dangerous, often a losing, battle. Ideologies of gender and sex have always been central to the Klan's racial violence. Violence against racialised men (especially Black men) was consistently justified on the basis of accused “miscegenation,” consensual or not. Interracial marriage was anathema to all the Klan held dear. Jewish men were accused of plotting to abduct and pimp out white women en masse (known then as the “white slave trade”.) Vigilante “night-riding,” often condoned by local authorities, was deployed against racial targets, to enforce gender norms and protect the white nuclear family. As well as the moral contamination and sexual perversion the Klan saw as emerging from Black people and immigrants, they also sought to provide an interventionist cure to the eugenic health of the white race. They attempted to enforce certain community standards among “fallen” whites. Intimidation and violence were used against white men, and occasionally white women, for “crimes” such as adultery or premarital sex. Men perceived not to be adequately fulfilling their proper roles as husbands or fathers - whether due to alcohol abuse, violence or a lack of patriarchal discipline - were routinely warned, then violently encouraged, to mend their ways. Such attacks often resulted from the denouncements and tip-offs of white women, Klan member or not. Of course, sexual violence by Klansmen, and white men more generally, was rampant, both towards their white wives, and against Black women. The Klan’s gender politics were animated by such protection of white women and girls. They were also structured around conspiracy theories. Klan publications and speeches were infused with tales of Catholic plots, Jewish control and the need for “pure Americans” to prepare for coming “race war.” The Klan’s sheer combination of enemies made them somewhat distinct. The KKK's racial vision was stricter, its membership more exclusive, than even other racist formations. It was stricter too than the operations of structural racism. Like today’s US far right, however, they claimed to be the rightful inheritors of the traditions of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Blee writes: “The Klan did more than simply mirror the bigotry of the majority population. It provided an organizational means to transform fears and resentments into political action.”49 Walter White of the NAACP, a contemporary of the 2nd Klan, wrote: “The significance of such a movement is that the Klan was…the direct-action expression of a most dangerous doctrine of superiority which many Americans hold who are too respectable or too timid to translate it into violent action.”50
The KKK’s immersive social role as a cultish fellowship had broad appeal, traversing age, gender and rural/urban divides. Membership was dominated by petit bourgeoisie, white collar workers and managers and skilled, often unionised, tradesmen.51 Members were often upwardly mobile and keen to protect their social position from economic turbulence. They were teachers, ministers, shop owners, salesmen, farmers, veterans, housewives and, of course, policemen. They were solid members of the local church and even occasionally drawn from the ruling elite. More often, the Klan garnered (or forced) political backing from the highest echelons, rather than recruiting membership from there. Described by MacLean as “between capital and unskilled labor,”52 the politics of the Klan were organised around an animosity towards and moral approbation of both, though they saved their violence for Black workers and trade unionists, not big capitalists. They subscribed to a foreshortened, antisemitic analysis of capital. Like their fascist contemporaries in Europe, they sought to eliminate class strife and a flourishing of white unity in a purified nation. They tended to explain class conflict through racialisations of inferior, immoral or feckless workers (immigrant or Black depending on local context) or an all-dominating Jewish control. According to Hiram Evans, who replaced Simmons as Imperial Wizard, the Klan was a tool for “the common people...to resume control of their country.”
Though structured by strict hierarchies and chains of command similar to the male Klan's “army,” the WKKK were less involved in physical violence but played a crucial role in reproducing the movement. There was an emphasis on Klanswomen as recruiters. They gave "the brand” legitimacy. A gendered focus on “moral hygiene” was key as morality campaigns and front organisations were the KKK’s best means of recruitment, alliance building and burnishing its respectability. Whether their legitimacy was more down to its family-friendly image or the reactionary context is unclear but unlike earlier and later Klan iterations, members were less inclined to hide their membership or mask their faces. The 1920s KKK was more like a middle class social club. Across the country, Klanswomen, like MAGA women opposing "CRT" and "gender ideology" today, organised at the local level, sitting on school boards, helping to ensure continued racial segregation. They led boycotts against businesses owned by Black, Jewish or Catholic people. Boycotts were then aimed wider: Hollywood films, racialised as “Jewish”, and popular “Black” music and dancing were seen as alien poisons corrupting white youth. The KKK joined in a wider moral panic about sexually “loose” youth culture and dance halls. Klansmen burned down buildings that hosted dances and conducted night-time street patrols to intimidate or attack young couples in parked cars. Klanswomen took the lead in organising 100% American gatherings and were the providers of care, friendship and white solidarity that knitted the movement together. There was a cradle-to-grave, world-building breadth to the 1920s Klan unlike most far right movements have achieved in US history. A Junior KKK was founded for teenage boys, a “Tri-K-Klub” for teenage girls, while younger kids had the “Ku Klux Kiddies”. There were Klan christenings, funerals and weddings, where brides kissed grooms before burning crosses with guests all dressed in Klan regalia. Social functions saw members strengthen ties at picnics and cookouts, with sports, singalongs and minstrel shows. Parades and marches demonstrated white pride and white power to the local community. Camping trips were opportunities to showcase the militarism, masculinity and gender division the organisation prized. WKKK propaganda sought to enlist white American women to take action, to defend an American home and family life that was under siege. One poster read: "Foreigners can live and make money where a white man would starve because they treat their women like cattle and their swarms of children like vermin, living without fear of God or regard for man....You should by voice and vote encourage for your husband's sake the restriction of immigration. Let us have fewer citizens and better ones. Women of America, wake up."
The racism of the WKKK, the violence they embraced and perpetrated, still doesn't lead to simple conclusions about a clear-cut regression in their gender politics from the wider white women’s movement. Most Klanswomen sought to assert their rights rather than their equality with white men. They transgressed many gendered, middle class expectations just by being so politically active. Klanswomen took up different positions on the role of women in society and the Klan but fought an uphill struggle in a male dominated organisation. There were ever-present tensions between KKK and WKKK leaders and members over how much power Klanswomen had. Similarly today, far right women have spoken out about misogyny from their male comrades. Boundaries were being pushed and limits reached regarding Klan models of masculinity and femininity. Some women challenged Klan ideals of feminine domesticity or roles in the professional sphere. What was consistent was a shared vision of women’s rights applying to white Protestant women only. Indeed, as with Stanton and Anthony, “race”, ethnicity and religion were mobilised to argue for white Protestant women’s rights in particular and in competition with those of anyone who wasn't “100% American.” The WKKK synthesised an era of women’s suffrage and changes in the social and political roles of women to carve out some autonomy in the white supremacist community. In doing so they underlined a defence of white homes and family life, the future of “the race”, as even more fundamental to the aims of the KKK, and tethered it that much more to the image of the American Dream. The WKKK and KKK - characterised throughout this high period by constant infighting, power struggles, legal wrangles and money-grabbing - haemorrhaged members in the second half of the decade. Many Klanswomen remained politically active after the Klan folded, though, including in the two main parties. And they lived long, normal, white lives, remembering with pride and nostalgia the friends they had made in the Klan.
Division in the Suffragettes
Women’s suffragism in Britain was never unified. In the Victorian period, small suffrage groups lobbied power-brokers, unsuccessfully trying to plot legal routes to the franchise. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote of the period: "The women's movement…passed from timidity to timidity." These groups, often competing with each other, remained on the margins of mainstream politics. They were solidly middle class and often connected to the Liberal party. The leading suffragists were the daughters and wives of MPs, industrialists, landowners and merchants. By the end of the 19th century small gains were made in the form of local franchise rights. For example, women could be elected as Poor Law guardians - i.e. middle class women could be democratically empowered to administrate the poverty of working class women. As US suffragists were in part mobilised by the codification of women's disenfranchisement by the Reconstruction Amendments, a similar origin story pertains in Britain: "The [Reform] Act of 1832, by employing the term 'male person', for the first time in English history, expressly debarred women from exercising the franchise it created." Exclusion was confirmed in the 1867 Act.
Tracing the divergent paths taken by members of Britain's leading suffragist family, the Pankhursts, gives us a longer perspective on “womanhood” as an identity formed through colonialism. It also underlines that the demand for suffrage alone was no clear indicator of political content. The horizon of Emmeline and Christabel's ambitions became the enfranchisement of women like them. In the end, they envisioned little change to women’s roles in society, not to mention the lives of women colonised and exploited across the Empire. The British women’s movement more broadly reproduced much of the imperialist and racialising discourses of the ruling class. In her seminal book Beyond The Pale: White Women, Racism and History, Vron Ware shows the importance of family and “race” discourses in the ideology of British imperialism and the role of early British feminism within it: “It was not just as mothers that British women performed a central role in maintaining the Empire: the ideology of white womanhood, structured by class and race, embraced women in all their familial roles. Whether as Mothers of the Empire or Britannia’s Daughters, women were able to symbolize the idea of moral strength that bound the great imperial family together. In their name, men could defend that family in the same spirit as they would defend their own wives, daughters or sisters if they were under attack.”53
Within a few years of its 1903 founding, the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) grew to be an impressive, highly centralised organisation. It was elitist, hierarchical and dominated by Christabel. It raised huge sums through donations, its newspaper had a circulation of 40,000 and it could mobilise huge numbers for demonstrations. By 1910, it had 110 salaried staff and "an income and central offices far exceeding those at the disposal of the Labour Party." The direct action the Suffragettes are known for began in around 1909 with campaigns of window-breaking and other criminal damage (including large scale attacks on property and the targeting of high-ranking politicians). This garnered mass publicity and condemnation (including from other suffragist groups and labour movement organisations), not to mention ferocious police violence. Titillating press coverage was captivated and horrified by Suffragette “violence,” as it subverted expectations of how middle class Edwardian women "should" behave. The tactics led to many stints in prison for the Pankhursts and dozens of other women who conducted sleep, thirst and hunger strikes, often being force-fed by the state. Sylvia later critiqued this strategy: “the movement required not more serious militancy by the few, but a stronger appeal to the masses to join the struggle.” She rejected vanguardism at the expense of coalition-building and deeper organising: “Secretly planned militancy was a method of desperation adopted in the hope of shortening the longer struggle.”54 The strategic shift from lobbying to what would now be called “terrorism” complicates the Suffragette image. Respectable, nationalist memorials today cynically emphasise the legalistic results of their campaigns. Their actual confrontations with state and property, however, were also not incommensurable with Suffragette allegiances to the nation. As with much memorialisation, historical figures and movements are open to wide ranging identifications in the present. Including affirmative, nationalist identifications with the Suffragettes by GC feminists. Britain is on the “front line” of a “battle” against “gender ideology”, writes Dana Vitalosova: "Just as at the beginning of the past century, when British women of the First Wave were grappling with the injustice of being denied the right to vote, women are now fighting the unfairness of being denied the freedom of thought and expression. Although women and feminists in many countries are currently battling gender ideology, it is in the UK where the clashes seem most severe. A century ago, it was here the fight for women‘s suffrage took the most ferocious form." 55
Splits formed within the WSPU as leading members dissented from Emmeline and Christabel’s command leadership. Even loyal supporters and lifelong friends were expelled. Bitterness grew between competing suffrage groups. The WSPU came to see itself as something resembling a true vanguard. In 1912, Sylvia founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), a large working class movement rooted in London’s radical East End. ELFS participated in multiple struggles. It had “by 1917...30 branches nationwide (the majority in the East End), capable of mobilising thousands of women.” Sylvia was expelled from the WSPU in 1914 for aligning more and more with socialist causes. She was particularly censured by Christabel for publicly showing solidarity with Irish trade unionists in the famous Dublin Lock-out dispute. The political differences she had with her sister and mother were profound and grew more so as they went their separate ways, remaining estranged for the rest of their lives. Sylvia set up one of the best radical newspapers of the period which she edited for a decade. The changing name of the paper - from Woman’s Dreadnought to Workers’ Dreadnought - showed the changing ideological basis and political focus of Sylvia and her comrades. ELFS led anti-war campaigns, rent strikes, and practical organising to share the burdens of local women left without husbands, food or income. According to her son Richard: "During the first years of the war [Sylvia] established the Mothers' Arms, a maternity clinic and Montessori school, and four other clinics, two cost-price restaurants, and a co-operative toy factory designed to provide work for persons unemployed on account of the conflict. She also founded the League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives, to work for better pensions and allowances." Their feminist focus was undiminished by a turn towards revolutionary class struggle as the whole movement was impacted by the Easter Rising and the Russian Revolution. Women’s rights campaigners took up positions for or against the Revolution as political trajectories diverged wildly through times of upheaval. ELFS organised demos demanding equal pay, prison reform and an end to “sweating” labour, with trade union collaboration - especially East End dockers, many of whom were married to ELFS women.
The WSPU continued its march rightwards with a stridently nationalist-imperialist reaction to Britain’s entry into war. Emmeline and Christabel rebranded as the “Women’s Party,” rechristening their “Suffragette” newspaper “Britannia.” They believed “the eventual reward for such loyalty would be the parliamentary vote.” They suspended all suffrage activities, subordinating themselves to the war effort and advocating women's war work. Male workers went on strike to oppose women in munitions factories, which horrified Emmeline as much for its lack of patriotism as its sexism. WSPU/Women’s Party figures spoke in eugenic terms, linking the role of "women" to the propagation of the white race in service to nation and empire. Christabel argued, in fascistic language, that enfranchisement was necessary on the narrow, essentialist basis that women had “a service to render, to the state as well as the home, to the race as well as the family.” 56 Sylvia noted: “she urged, a working women's movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex...Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest...we want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!'" In contrast, Sylvia's first Woman’s Dreadnought editorial, launched on International Women’s Day 1914: “Some people say that the lives of working-women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful force in winning the Vote, many though they are. Such people have forgotten their history.” 57
As Emmeline and Christabel’s horizons narrowed, viewing votes for some women as an end in itself, a movement for itself, Sylvia’s perspective only expanded. She saw the vote as a vital class and gender question that could open other paths to social justice. Her mother and sister insisted on equidistance from political parties - that the WSPU's quest relied on its neutrality. Sylvia couldn’t separate the fight against patriarchy from the class struggle and the workers movement, from which much of the Pankhursts’ politics had originated. Class division ripped through questions of citizenship and women’s rights as constitutional reform neared and rights were bestowed by the state. The looser contours of the question of emancipation tightened as the question of how change would happen became polarised by assimilation questions – in which order should different groups be enfranchised? The WSPU demand was for woman suffrage on the basis of equality with men - a sleight of hand more likely to lead to equal voting rights for men and women of property, leaving most women and many working class men still disenfranchised. Some suffragists genuinely cared about universal suffrage and working class struggle, many didn’t. Some labour movement men supported women’s suffrage, others vehemently opposed it. The enmity between middle class women reformers and men of the workers movement, however, was increasingly challenged by the emergence of working class/socialist women who were also suffragists.
In 1918, all men and some propertied women over the age of 30 were added to the franchise. Interwar post-suffrage politics was a period of demobilisation and demoralisation for feminists. A national backlash attacked women voters and politicians as ignorant and inferior. Broader unease festered about the demographic female majority, increased by the war’s carnage. Women’s employment was blamed for (white) male unemployment. Another decade passed before all women over 21 got the vote. By then, Sylvia saw the struggle as being so much bigger: “Women can no more put virtue into the decaying Parliamentary institution than can men: it is past reform and must disappear…The woman professional politician is neither more or less desirable than the man professional politician: the less the world has of either, the better.” 58
The WSPU, like radical feminist and gender critical approaches, made the oppression of all women identical, while representing this identity through their own experiences, against which all other experiences were measured. As Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O'Rourke write in their introduction to Transgender Marxism: "The figure of the trans woman interloper, disrupting otherwise stable and harmonious relations within the community of women, functions to relieve radical feminism of the indignity of acknowledging the incoherence of the radical feminist project as such. Conveniently, the trans woman as pest distracts from long-running doubts around radical feminism’s claimed ability to speak for, represent, and defend the sanctity of women-in-general: women’s rights, women’s interests, women’s spaces and women’s knowledge. Here, the grit of trans women is abraded into the pearl of a rear-guard defence of female universalism. What the earlier feminist movement had sought to destabilise now becomes anxiously reasserted." The story of the Pankhursts also mirrors the elitist, reactionary progressivism of Stanton and Anthony, if not for the dissident exception of Sylvia, who committed herself to workers emancipation and antiracism, organising alongside proletarian women, and Black and Jewish workers. Just as Stanton and Anthony became more committed white supremacists and some reformers became Klanswomen, some Suffragettes became fascists, or simply imperialist Conservatives. What these passages in suffrage movements force us to recognise is that rebellion is not necessarily non-conformity.
Women and the BUF
A small number of ex-Suffragettes sought the lost fellowship they remembered, as well as a promise of ultra-nationalist renewal, in the shape of Oswald Mosley’s59 British Union of Fascists (BUF). Mary Richardson committed arson, set off explosives and destroyed paintings for the Suffragette cause, serving three years in prison. By middle age, Richardson was active in the Labour Party, standing as a parliamentary candidate as late as 1931. She joined the BUF in 1933, citing its “imperialism and action combined with discipline” as reasons for joining.60 Women made up around a quarter of the membership. Richardson became Chief Organiser of the BUF's Women’s Section. She explained in a public correspondence with Sylvia Pankhurst in 1934 that she "was first attracted to the Blackshirts because [she] saw in them the courage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service and the ability to serve which [she] had known in the suffragette movement." 61 The autonomy of the Women's Section, and its fortnightly paper The Woman Fascist, quickly waned and came under the tightening control of party leadership. Having ascended to a position of power, and established a national club for fascist women, Richardson had also feuded with Mosley’s mother, a powerful figure in the party. She was expelled in 1935 for challenging the BUF’s unequal pay structure.
Other ex-Suffragettes also became fascists. Norah Elam and Mary Allen were close friends, sharing a passion for animal rights. Elam, a trusted part of Mosley’s inner circle and a BUF parliamentary candidate, was deemed important enough that the British state interned her during the war, and so she returned to Holloway prison, a place she knew well from her Suffragette days. Following her suffragism, Mary Allen was a pioneer of the women’s police force during war-time, a vocation she refused to abandon after the war’s end, though the Met police disbanded it. In the 1920s, Allen’s attraction to authoritarianism became aligned with fascism and a passionate anti-communism. She organised a volunteer police force during the 1926 General Strike and took her obsession with uniformed women’s policing into an unsuccessful political candidacy followed by a tour, spreading the good word about women’s policing capabilities, including meetings with Hitler and Franco. As Julie V. Gottlieb writes, “Allen’s road to fascism was logically sign-posted, and the progress from women in blue to women in black was not a grand leap.” 62 Other connections between British suffragism and the interwar far right 63 included WSPU member, Flora Drummond, who led women against strikes in 1926 and formed the Women’s Guild of Empire in 1928, an anti-Communist group. Mercedes Barrington, a Suffragette, later joined the BUF and stood as a parliamentary candidate. Lady Houston, a large donor to the WSPU, later operated in British fascist circles.
Over the 1930s, BUF women became more devoted to Mosley’s leadership cult. “Moderates” left and the BUF further embraced National Socialism. BUF women were just as racist as the men. Indeed, virulent antisemitism was synthesised through discourses on “women’s issues.” The figure of the predatory Jewish man, like the Klan's, was often depicted as an unscrupulous employer of British women, a demonic perpetrator of assaults and sex traffic, or a purveyor of pornography. The party engaged in an extensive production of policy, speeches, publications and propaganda outlining the role of women, family structure and sexual propriety in the party and in a future fascist Britain. There was a clear gender hierarchy and an essentialist ideology determining women and men's "natural" roles and strengths. The party saw “women’s work” as generally limited to caring and nurturing jobs like teaching and midwifery. If women were to be leaders in a fascist Britain, they could only lead other women. The BUF's vision was of a highly developed economy with full employment of the male citizenry and a “family wage” sufficient to keep almost all women in the domestic sphere. The BUF sought to politicise this sphere - to emphasise, rather than invisibilise, domestic work, claiming it represented women’s value to the state and to fascist life. The primary ideal for womanhood was as “mothers of the race” and wombs for the state. As Mosley put it in his manifesto, The Greater Britain, “we want men who are men and women who are women.” 64 A 1934 article in The Blackshirt proclaimed: “Fascism sees women as complementary and equal to man, standing beside him in no less honourable a fight, living a no less noble life, achieving in domesticity things parallel and of equal importance with man.” 65
The BUF liked to play up its claims to inheriting the Suffragette tradition, publicising its ex-Suffragettes as strong militant women, even if fascism promised to do away with liberal democracy and voting rights entirely. The legacy of the Suffragettes - and the defining of feminism - became battlegrounds, fought over by veterans who had scattered themselves across the political spectrum. The international socialism of Sylvia, the conservative imperialism of her mother and sister, and the fascism of BUF women all laid claim to the legacy of a movement based on women’s autonomy, self-activity and direct action to force a change in women’s legal and political status that, once enacted, they were sure would not be reversed. Though British women were enfranchised, veterans of suffrage movements shared a sense of anti-climax. Many felt let down by the state and disillusioned by the next generation of women inheriting rights they fiercely fought for. Each Suffragette-turned-fascist had first sought integration into the existing system they had put their bodies on the line to oppose. Each stood unsuccessfully for a main party: Richardson for Labour, Allen for the Liberals and Elam for the Tories. In some ways, their resentful, racist lashing out 66 following political defeats are comparable to Stanton and Anthony’s following the disintegration of the AERA. The BUF ex-Suffragettes were scathing about political paths taken by other suffragists following enfranchisement yet “in some sense…still regarded themselves as feminists” 67 and continued to identify with the Suffragette legacy, believing women should be active in politics.
Whilst party policy was undoubtedly constructed by male leaders, it would be wrong to characterise BUF women as downtrodden bystanders. It would also be wrong to assume they were any less passionate in their fascist beliefs compared to their male comrades. There was little direct exclusion of women from party functions. They took part in most BUF activities: marching, stewarding, public speaking, fundraising, selling newspapers, fighting. There was a Women’s Defence Force, trained in jiu-jitsu and involved in constant street battles with Jews and communists. BUF women stood for election. Like the WKKK, BUF women were key to recruiting new members. Come election time, they presented a ‘softer’ face of fascism. Party publication, The Fascist Week, explained: “Fascism in Britain knows that its women members go a long way to help the cause; and that it is a woman’s influence that has converted many male members.” Gottlieb agrees: “The feminine presence on the door-steps of the nation went some way towards disarming public apprehensions of BUF hooliganism and disorderliness...women were to act as the publicists, the temptresses, and the vendors of fascism to a British market suspicious of fascism’s machismo and masculine aggression.” 68
The BUF proudly trumpeted its higher percentage of women candidates than other parties. Mosley often referred to those he sought support from as "normal women," capturing something of the GC reliance on what Bassi and LaFleur call a "feminism of the 99%", that is, the "idea that what should…bring women together is a shared self-definition as biologically overdetermined and authentically gendered subjects." 69 Mosley said: “We are pledged to complete sex equality. The German attitude towards women has always been different from the British, and my movement has been largely built up by the fanaticism of women; they hold ideals with tremendous passion. Without the women I could not have got a quarter of the way.” 70 An even greater dependence on BUF women came in later years as male Blackshirts were drafted or imprisoned. Women led in the party’s “peace campaign” - a front for recruitment and to demoralise a war effort the BUF opposed. The state proscribed the party in 1940. Its leading members were interned, including several women.
As with the WKKK, a party politics of everyday life developed. Party structures helped to cement gender roles and harden racial hatred. BUF weddings were held between members as happy couples consecrated their vows before party and leader. Whilst the KKK bonded through their enjoyment of blackface, the BUF had “Jazz Without Jews” played by the “Aryan Dance Band.” 71 In keeping with past white women’s movements, women “of the race” were seen as guardians of morality and respectability. BUF women led the party’s opposition to pornography, prostitution, loose morals and sexual perversion. The party saw in Britain a corrupted national state, what they referred to as decadent "financial democracy", attributed to Jewish manipulation. The family unit was the domain of the fascist woman. It stood as microcosm of the perfectible fascist state. White British women, at the height of imperium, were to British fascism the “gatekeepers of the national community” 72 - key to the survival of the race. Fascist women were also enlisted in a priority struggle for the fascist project: the regeneration of a British masculinity seen to have been emasculated and the flourishing of a warrior society. Like the 2nd KKK, BUF ideology denied the importance of class division. Unity was to be found in racial purity and service to the state.
Contemporary trajectories of feminist fascism
White women have always been involved in the operations of white supremacy. This statement is less an accusation, more a mundane fact. It bears repeating that historical developments of whiteness were reproduced through colonial and settler colonial forms of domination, which as a matter of course, recruited from the negatively racialised and the negatively gendered. This is why the historical mutability of whiteness was the most important consideration for its early theorists. In colony and in metropole, on plantations, in households, in workplaces and in high statecraft, white women have for centuries been able to exercise forms of power through inclusion within this ever-shifting colonial identity. As we've seen, there have also always been white women in far right movements - either in fringe groupuscules, in online platform-building or in historical fascisms, the most successful of which took state power.
Far right/GC women's relation to "feminism" is often to disparage it or to say that it has fallen from past standards. Some may still lay claim to it as they do battle for its ownership. As we've seen, some women come to take as a given the results of past rights struggles or they orient themselves to the liberal mythologies projected onto them, enabling them to partake in a variety of political modes and postures that take for granted some measure of that inheritance. Women in far right movements often played, and continue to play, reproductive, organisational and caring roles that are the lifeblood of movements. WKKK and BUF women were prized for their organising and recruiting, while gender segregation and roles were emphasised internally even more than they were in the surrounding society. Existing gendered divisions of labour are only reinforced by far right politics. White women joined these movements because they actively shared their racist vision and saw far right politics as being in their interests, as being in defence of them. They were not dupes, nor were they simply coerced. However, as Terese Jonsson shows of white feminism writ large in her book Innocent Subjects: “by investing in discourses of white innocence, white women align themselves with a white supremacist patriarchy in ways which not only enforce the oppression of people of colour, but also their own patriarchal subjugation.”73
Historically, much like today, it isn't always easy to clearly demarcate liberal reformist movements from far right ones, whether feminist or not. These movements can often morph or overlap. Look at the rhetoric spouted and positions taken by Stanton and Anthony or by Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst and how easily it could have appeared in the propaganda of the WKKK or BUF. Women went straight from suffrage or temperance activism, from membership in the Democratic or Republican parties, into the Klan. Routes into the BUF weren't just from suffragism. Many BUF women were Tories, some came from Labour. Most Women's Section meetings were held in Women's Institute buildings, a clear parallel to the "ordinary", inoffensive mainstream-ness of the website Mumsnet and the radio programme BBC Women's Hour - focal points for the growth of GC feminism today.
Confusion over fascism and the far right today, and the involvement of women in it, can emerge from chaotic compositions. Groups or movements often catch alight then fizzle out just as quick, only able to cohere around limited goals before splits occur. Confusion also springs from the presence of prominent racialised women in the ranks of far right politicians and provocateurs. In the US, figures like Candace Owens, Jewish women like Laura Loomer and Pamela Geller or a new cohort of far right Latina Republicans promote white supremacist discourses to advance their careers, gain power or simply because they believe in it. 74 This seems to scramble many people's expectations based on historical fascisms, and provides racialised far right women with a level of plausible deniability in the liberal public sphere. In Britain, Conservative Home Secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman have intensified the convergence between far right politics and government rhetoric and policy in terms of bordering and policing regimes.
Mallory Moore has outlined how today's call for “sex-based rights” is out of keeping with decades of Women's Liberation Movement demands.75 The legal significance of this offer to the far right is not a peculiarity of postfascism, but an iteration of liberal-fascist collaboration across gender divisions, which barely deviates from the organisational conceits of 19th and 20th century reactions. This is not to say that nothing new is afoot. Conspiracies of Jewish cabals funding “transhumanist” plans to turn women into motherless containers for a globalist new world order have been central to the transphobic reactionary anti-capitalism of Jennifer Bilek. Erstwhile middlebrow Economist journalist, Helen Joyce, now a radicalised anti-trans activist, was accused by Bilek of plagiarism because her arguments so closely resembled Bilek's.76 Transphobia borrows from the antisemitic structure of reactionary forms of anti-capitalism because transphobia is how fascism is becoming functional.77 Much of its ideological spirit is buttressed by a reactionary anti-capitalism against “open borders” that has been rudimentary on the conservative left for some time. The need for a strong, moral state to combat the incursions of neoliberalism has traction in the prose stylings of self-identifying “reactionary feminist” Mary Harrington, who reels,
“My first political memory was an epochal one: the fall of the Berlin Wall. The grainy footage of East and West Berliners in stone-washed denim, hammering at the graffitied concrete that had so long separated them, and pouring through breaches in Die Mauer to embrace one another, still chokes me up. That astonishing moment stood, and still stands, as a governing metaphor for the age that followed: one which seemed to be all about breaking down walls, and opening everything up. Think of all the nice liberals celebrating “open” societies and tutting at “closed” ones; NGOs such as Open Democracy and Open Society; the respectively positive and negative connotations of “inclusion”, and “exclusion”. Opening, expanding, breaking down borders and boundaries is always better than the inverse. Isn’t it?… 78
The paucity of an “against open borders” framing that many mistake for socialist is used here to defend the ancient anointing of Britain's newest monarch. A laissez faire metaphor of market penetration impresses on the reader a deeper logic of open and unbounded commodification and its implications for the body. And the sense of ecstasy of the Berlin Wall falling gives way to dismay at what followed. “Our official culture still pays lip service to openness, whether of borders, gender categories, flows of capital, the political process, or whatever.”79 Gleeson and O'Rourke have outlined clearly that the utility of "gender ideology" - as an ever mutating global panic about gender relations, deviant sexuality and threats to the sanctity of the family - has its material roots both in the longue durée crisis of the family and in the more historically specific contours of the current conjuncture, the crisis of social reproduction and chronic instability across society:
"Reactionaries have cast the rise of Transgender Marxism as one hydra of a beast named ‘gender ideology’. A malign force of delusion, confusing the youth and gutting previously sturdy norms. But in truth, gender has come to be a topic of such attention, and explicit confusion, thanks to a disintegration of material circumstances – one inaugurated by the right and since officiated by liberals of every possible orientation. The family was supposed to play a dominating role in the stabilisation of capitalism, which in the event exposed its underbelly. Now, many fear, one generation will not follow so easily from the next."80
It is through transphobia that fascism coheres ideologically, as “gender ideology” provides an explanation for the “exposure” of families to social breakdown. It picks up on the hues of youth culture and images of corporate engineering to satiate for the safety of children from insidious puppet-masters. And it pressures the state to act.
Michael Richmond and Alex Charnley are the authors of Fractured: Race, Class, Gender and the Hatred of Identity Politics, available from Pluto Press.
- 1Sophie Lewis and Asa Seresin, "Fascist Feminism: A Dialogue," TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 9, no. 3, (August 2022): 463, Duke University Press, DOI 10.1215/23289252-9836120.
- 2The adoption of the term “gender critical” provides transphobic public figures with a respectable group identifier. It was partly conceived in reaction to people being called Terf ("Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist"). We use "gender critical" throughout the essay to distinguish the feminist form of appearence that various transphobic figures and groups adapt. The political ideologies of transphobic groups are various.
- 3 Trans Safety Network organisers have, for years now, been contributing anti-fascist research on the convergence of far-right and liberal "gender critical" fronts in Britain. They also cover the British GC relation to anti-trans and anti-rights lobbying internationally. For reports documenting the convergence see Sarah Clarke and Mallory Moore, “ALERT: Transphobic Feminism and Far Right Activism Rapidly Converging,” Trans Safety Network, March 18, 2021, accessonline. See also: Meryl Links and Mallory Moore, “Gender Critical and Fascist social media increasingly promoting each other,” Trans Safety Network, Jan 22, 2022, accessonline.
- 4Joaquina, “Analysis: Transphobic social terror and its Nazi origins,” Trans Safety Network, September 19, 2022, accessonline
- 5Ella Cockbain and Waqas Tufail, "Failing victims, fuelling hate: challenging the harms of the ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ narrative", Race & Class, 61(3), 3–32. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306396819895727 accessonline.
- 6Full article, with (content warning), Sarah Champion, "British Pakistani men ARE raping and exploiting white girls… and it’s time we faced up to it," The Sun, August 2017, accessonline
- 7For full reference to this fascist propaganda text (with content warning), see Peter McLoughlin, Easy Meat: Inside Britain's Grooming Gang Scandal, (New English Review Press, 2016) cited in Cockbain and Tufail, "Failing victims, fuelling hate."
- 8"The ‘grooming gangs’ narrative belongs within a broader tendency to racialise crime in political and popular discourse. The classic example is the racialised panic in 1970s Britain in which young black men were cast as ‘muggers.’ A reference to Stuart Hall. et al., Policing the Crisis: mugging, the state and law and order (London: Macmillan, 1978), cited in Cockbain and Tufail "Failing victims, fuelling hate."
- 9"I suppose the ethnicity of grooming gang perpetrators in a string of cases is the sort of fact that has simply become unfashionable in some quarters, like the fact that 100% of women do not have a penis.” See (with content warning) "Suella Braverman describes grooming gang comments as 'unfashionable facts' after backlash," Sky News, April 2023, accessonline. Braverman is a significant threat who should be taken seriously on her own terms, but fascist incitement like this should not be understood as the consequence of a recent coarsening of the public sphere, or as a form of "distraction" calculated from above. There is cross-bench advocacy for Islamophobia and transphobia. New Labour provided Tories with a template for such discourses, which are also observant of other developments in Europe, such as the success of Viktor Orban in Hungary.
- 10For analysis of Knowsley, the British far right and developments in Ireland see Sophia Siddiqui, "Attacks on asylum housing: fighting the weaponisation of gender-based violence," IRR, March 2023, accessonline. For an analysis of "whiteness riots," in respect to British and US colonial settings, see Michael Richmond and Alex Charnley, Fractured: Race, Class, Gender and the Hatred of Identity Politics, (Pluto Press, 2022). Particularly chapters 6 and 7.
- 11Jules Gill-Peterson, "From Gender Critical to QAnon: Anti-Trans Politics and the Laundering of Conspiracy,"The New Inquiry, Vol. 75 (Summer 2021),accessonline.
- 12Gill-Peterson, "From Gender Critical to QAnon".
- 13Serena Bassi and Greta LaFleur, "Introduction: TERFs, Gender-Critical Movements and Postfascist Feminisms." TSQ 1 August 2022; 9 (3): 311–333. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/23289252-9836008, accessonline.
- 15Parker's fear of civilisational decline and her concern for protecting "biologically female-only" spaces led her to call on armed cis men to protect women's bathrooms from the threat of trans women. See Josh Milton, "Gender critical feminist" Posie Parker wants men with guns to start using women’s toilets," Pink News, Jan 2021, accessonline.
- 16Jess O'Thomson, "At Kellie Jay Keen’s latest rally, only one side was standing for women’s rights - and it wasn’t Keen’s," Trans Safety Network, May 2023, accessonline.
- 17Serena Bassi and Greta LaFleur, "Introduction: TERFs".
- 18(Content warning) "Kellie-Jay interviewed on Tucker Carlson Today," FOX, May 2022, accessonline.
- 19Thanks to Mallory Moore, in particular, for her feedback on the text. Also, Jaemie, for their perspectives on trans struggle and the anti-fascist stand at Hyde Park and Honor Oak.
- 20See David Roediger, Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty For All, (London: Verso, 2015).
- 21 quoted in Ed. Lauri Umansky, co-editor with Paul K. Longmore, Michele Plott, Making Sense of Women's Lives: An Introduction to Women's Studies, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000) p392.
- 22Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda J. Gage, History of Woman Suffrage Volume One, originally published 1881, 27, open source e-book, accessonline.
- 23Richard Galant, "For women, a seat at the table", CNN, 8 December 2010, accessonline
- 24Quoted in Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class, (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 76.
- 25Ibid, p76.
- 26Fractured: Race, Class, Gender and the Hatred of Identity Politics,(Pluto Press, 2022).
- 27Ellen Carol Dubois, Woman’s Suffrage and Women’s Rights, (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 70.
- 28Once the white women's suffrage movement reunited following the splits of the AERA it came to embrace an expanding imperialism bolstered by turn of the century US invasions of Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico. This imperialism was underpinned by an ideology of moral and racial improvement that “exceptional” America would bring to “savage” populations. Women’s suffrage had emerged during a time of national conflict and national rebuilding, and was couched in the language of national citizenship and constitutional rights. But it developed through an age of imperialist expansion. Suffragists had to decide how to orient themselves to the new political terrain. Allison L. Sneider argues in Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870–1929, that “the history of the U.S. woman suffrage movement is also inseparable from the history of U.S. expansion and the related political rights for potential new citizens that expansion inevitably raised.” (5) Sneider explains that the ideological concepts, discourses and limits of the movement are bound up with their relationship to imperialism: “By the end of the nineteenth century, many suffragists were increasingly well versed in the language of empire. In this imperial frame of reference, voting was less a right of citizenship than of civilization, and less defined by universal inclusion than by a shared capacity to exercise the privileges of democracy based on a combination of racial traits and religious commitments.” (6) Allison L. Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870–1929, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- 29Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda J. Gage, History of Woman Suffrage Volume Two, 864. Originally published 1882, open source e-book, accessonline
- 30The KKK's rebirth was also inspired, or at least bolstered, by the lynching of a Jewish man, Leo Frank, in Marietta, Georgia, after he was convicted of murdering a white girl but authorities decided against executing him.
- 31Simmons, Tyler and Clarke had all previously been in fraternal organisations - popular among early 20th century white Americans. The KKK would recruit many of its members from them. Tyler and Clarke individually prospered from the membership boom they helped bring about through hefty commissions and were powerful figures in the organisation.
- 32The spectre of Communism, invariably coded as Jewish conspiracy, portended, for the Klan, the downfall of monogamy and racial hierarchy which represented the ideological and material basis of US society.
- 33In this they followed on from the relative success of Populist politicians before them. Notably, Georgia Senator Tom Watson.
- 34Nancy MacLean, Behind The Mask of Chivalry, (Oxford University Press, 1994), 10.
- 35 MacLean, Behind The Mask of Chivalry, p10.
- 36MacLean, Behind The Mask of Chivalry, Intro xi.
- 37The 2nd Klan was also strong in New York, where the father of Donald Trump was once arrested, fully robed, on a Klan march in 1927, see Matt Blum, "1927 news report: Donald Trump's dad arrested in KKK brawl with cops," BoingBoing, September 2015, accessonline.
- 38See Michael Newton, [i] White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866,[i] (McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2014), 51.
- 39Laura Smith, "The Truth About Women and White Supremacy", The Cut, 13 August 2017, accessonline
- 40The Klan’s need to compete with these organisations that were also growing in popularity contributed to their decision to open up membership to white Protestant women. The WKKK would ultimately absorb most of these competitor organisations. There was also competition internally. As different factions of Klansmen vied for the national leadership, they could see the benefit of broadening their support base by building good relations with WKKK members.
- 41They also had consistent positions against birth control. Encouraging large white families was part of their eugenic racial vision.
- 42Kathleen M. Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, (University of California Press, 2009), 1.
- 43 Cited by Ko Bragg, "First came suffrage. Then came the Women of the Ku Klux Klan," The 19th, 28 December 2020, accessonline
- 44Temperance was a safe movement for women, one that was far more socially acceptable for them to take a lead on without challenging boundaries.
- 45For whom Mary Elizabeth Tyler had previously worked. She also did PR for the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
- 46WCTU was a racist, nativist movement but not as systemically or violent as KKK. Membership formally open for eg.
- 47"poison squads of whispering women" as Vivian Wheatcraft proudly termed it. Wheatcraft was a leading Indiana Klanswoman who had long been an influential operator in that State's Republican party. Rival candidates were frequently denounced as being secret Jews or Catholics or as having shadowy connections. MacLean, Behind The Mask of Chivalry, 17. See also Blee, Women of the Klan, 3, 115, 148-149.
- 48 MacLean, Behind The Mask of Chivalry, 17-18.
- 49Blee, Women of the Klan, 154-155.
- 50Walter White, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch, (A. A. Knopf, 1929), 120.
- 51Although industrial wage-labour was increasing at this time, rapidly in the South, factory workers made up a small proportion of the membership.
- 52MacLean, Behind The Mask of Chivalry, 54.
- 53 Vron Ware, Beyond The Pale: White Women, Racism and History, (Verso: 1992), 150.
- 54 Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement, (Longmans Green and Company: 1931), 36.
- 55 (content warning), Dana Vitalosova, "Striking Similarities Between Treatment of Modern Gender Critical Feminists and British Suffragettes," 4wpub, accessonline
- 56 Quoted in Mary Davis', Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics, (Pluto Press: 1999), 97.
- 57 Editorial of the first issue of The Woman’s Dreadnought, launched on March 8, 1914, International Women’s Day, accessonline.
- 58 Sylvia Pankhurst, Woman's Dreadnought,15 December 1923, accessonline .
- 59Aristocrat former Tory MP turned proto-Keynesian employment minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government, Mosley quickly moved on from failed venture "The New Party", launching, in 1932, what became the largest fascist party in British history.
- 60Julie V. Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement 1923–1945, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), 151.
- 61Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 164.
- 62Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 154.
- 63Women’s involvement in the far right was not new by this point. The first fascist group in Britain, the British Fascisti, was set up by Rotha Lintorn-Orman in 1923, a young woman from a wealthy family inspired by vitriolic anti-communism.
- 64 Oswald Mosley, The Greater Britain, (London: Jeff Coats Ltd), 54. accessonline
- 65Quoted in, Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 102.
- 66"each believed that she was owed more than she had received for her dedication to the women’s suffrage struggle, and that this inheritance had remained wanting. In their ultimate rejection of liberal democracy, each in her political life personified the disillusionment and the disappointed hopes of politicised women in post-suffrage Britain.” Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 155-156.
- 67Martin Pugh, "Why Former Suffragettes Flocked to British Fascism", Slate, 14 April 2017, accessonline
- 68Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 68, 70, 94.
- 69 Bassi and LaFleur, "Introduction: TERFs," 319.
- 70 Quoted in, Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 43.
- 71 Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, footnote, 101.
- 72Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 106.
- 73 Terese Jonsson, Innocent Subjects: Feminism and Whiteness (London: Pluto Press, 2020), 166.
- 74 Li Zhou, "How 2022 became the year of the Latina Republican", Vox, 20 September 2022, accessonline
- 75 Mallory Moore, "How Much of a Joke is Sex-Based Rights in Feminism?", Medium.com, 13 November 2021, accessonline
- 76The philosopher Christa Peterson has done a lot of work to analyse and publicise such connections. "In her new book, the Economist’s Helen Joyce claims the trans “global agenda” is “shaped” by three Jewish billionaires. The sourcing is vague in the book, but she has previously cited Jennifer Bilek. Bilek has previously cited an explicit Nazi. Gendercrit launders antisemitism." @christapeterso, accessonline.
- 77 Gender Criticals also borrow from and work with Catholic and Evangelical movements. For close to a decade, British anti-trans campaigner Julie Bindel (a secular second wave radical feminist) and US anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ conservative, Jennifer Lahl, have been collaborating. The two share common cause in anti-surrogacy politics, but also, seemingly, warm relations, sharing selfies and cocktails. Lahl is a “new feminist” who pursues a pro-life conservative activism modelled around feminist themes of women’s empowerment and anti-exploitation. These conservative initiatives not only anticipated the gender critical movement, but provided ideas, legal infrastructure, funding streams and a public speaking circuit adaptable to (and enthusiastic for) the anti-trans cause. Thanks to Mallory Moore (@Chican3ry) for highlighting the US "new feminist" connection to "gender critical" movements in Britain. Mallory first documented the Bindel-Lahl connection here: Mallory Moore, "From as early as 2016, Julie Bindel was doing collaborative activist work with Christian conservative Jennifer Lahl of the religious "bioethics" group CBC." accessonline. Lahl has also been on panels with other anti-trans hate groups who operate with charity status, such as Gary Powell of LGB Alliance. See Vic Parsons, "Activist instrumental in the launch of the LGB Alliance linked to anti-abortion and anti-LGBT+ hate groups," The Pink News, June 2020, acessonline.
- 78Mary Harrington, "What is King Charles hiding?", UnHerd, 8 May 2023, accessonline
- 80Gleeson and O'Rourke, Transgender Marxism, intro p22.