Notes on Women and Right-Wing Movements - Part One
A "three-way-fight" approach to fascism challenges simplistic frames of analysis. In particular, it challenges (1) a dualistic "Oppressor-versus-Oppressed" model of struggle, (2) caricatures of far-right movements as simply agents of top-down repression, and (3) the idea that the left is the only insurgent force that speaks to people's grievances and needs. These points are clear in three-way-fight discussions of fascism's potential to rally mass working-class support.
We need to use this same nuanced approach when it comes to discussions of fascism and women. Women and gender politics are major issues for the right, and our analysis of fascism needs to address this in a central way. In particular, we need to address the following realities:
* Far-right movements range from some that are mostly or virtually all male to others that include large numbers of women activists.
* While all far-right movements are male supremacist, they embody a range of doctrines and policies on women and gender issues -- including some drawn from the left and even feminism.
* Far-right movements don't just repress and terrorize women but also mobilize them -- largely by offering them specific benefits and opportunities.
(I'm using "far right" here to include both fascist movements and also right-wing populist movements that are related to fascism in terms of ideology, organizing dynamics, and social base, but which stop short of fascism's revolutionary challenge to the status quo.)
I offer here some tentative thoughts about the ways right-wing movements have addressed women and gender issues, which I hope will stimulate further discussion, research, and debate. Part One of these notes concentrates mainly on classic European fascism and its political descendents -- what we might call “conventional” fascism. Part Two will discuss religious-based movements, such as the Christian right and Hindu nationalism, which fall outside the conventional fascist tradition but have a lot in common with it. Both parts include a list of sources and suggested readings at the end.
Since the end of World War I, when fascism first emerged as a major organized force, far-right movements have promoted gender politics based on some synthesis -- or contradictory mixture -- of four themes:
* Patriarchal traditionalism - Often formulated in religious terms, this current promotes rigid gender roles based on a romanticized image of the past. Women are confined to domestic roles as wife, mother, caregiver, plus at most a few (under)paid jobs that extend these roles into the wage economy. Women are to obey men, especially fathers and husbands, who provide them security and protection (especially, in racist versions, protection against sexually aggressive men of other ethnicities). Traditionalism emphasizes the family as the main framework for male control over women. This is the most conservative current of far-right gender politics, although the "traditions" being defended are arbitrary, selective, and often made up.
* Male bonding through warfare - This theme emphasizes warfare (hardship, risk of death, shared acts of violence and killing) as the basis for deep emotional and spiritual ties between men. It is often implicitly homoerotic and occasionally celebrates male homosexuality openly, and is frequently at odds with "bourgeois" family life. In the cult of male comradeship, women may be targets of violent contempt or simply ignored as irrelevant and invisible. In Europe during and after World War I, this current flourished as an ideology that spoke to the cameraderie of the trenches and later street-fighting organizations.
* Demographic nationalism - This theme embodies fears that the nation (or privileged classes or ethhnic groups within it) is not reproducing fast enough. A variant says that the quality of the national "stock" is declining because of cultural degeneration or racial mixing, and therefore eugenics programs are needed to control human breeding. Demographic nationalism says women's main duty to the nation is to have lots of babies (and, in the eugenics variant, the right kind of babies). This doctrine rejects homosexuality as a betrayal of the duty to reproduce, but also sometimes clashes with patriarchal traditionalism -- for example in the Nazis' program to encourage out-of-wedlock births among "racially pure" Germans. Demographic nationalism (especially eugenicist versions) also tends to centralize male control over women through the state, which weakens patriarchal authority within the family.
* Quasi-feminism - This current advocates specific rights for women, such as educational opportunities, equal pay for equal work, and the right to vote, and encourages women to engage in political activism, develop self-confidence and professional skills, and take on leadership roles. But quasi-feminism can't go too far with this, because like other fascistic ideologies it assumes that humans are naturally divided and unequal. This means that quasi-feminism accepts men's overall dominance, embraces gender roles as natural and immutable, advocates only specific rights for women rather than comprehensive equality, and often promotes rights only for economically or ethnically privileged women. (None of this is unique to the far right, of course.)
One of fascism's distinctive features is the tension between forward- and backward-looking tendencies -- what Michael Staudenmaier has called a "dialectic of nostalgia and progress." Gender politics is one of the main arenas where that tension gets played out, and the four themes outlined above are one way to think about that. If patriarchal traditionalism represents fairly pure nostalgia for the past (even if it's an imaginary past), each of the other three themes represents fascism's forward-looking side, its push to shake things up and create something new. By combining these conflicting themes fascism not only appeals to constituencies that want different things but also speaks to people's self-contradictory longings and impulses.
In addition, quasi-feminism embodies fascism's tendency to take on, in distorted form, elements of political movements it aims to destroy. It's the same dynamic that produces fascist "socialism" -- which attacks specific features of capitalism and specific groups of capitalists, but not the principles of economic exploitation and class hierarchy on which capitalism is based.
In the era of "classic" fascism (1919-1945), quasi-feminism was generally the weakest of the four themes shaping far-right gender politics. But in certain contexts where feminism had made an important impact (notably through campaigns for women's suffrage), quasi-feminism played a surprisingly important role on the far right. Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists supported women's right to work for pay equal to men's, and recruited former suffragists who saw fascism as a way to continue fighting for women's rights. In the U.S., the 1920s Klan movement (a right-wing populist movement that had many fascistic characteristics) included a semi-autonomous women's organization, Women of the Ku Klux Klan. The WKKK built directly on earlier women's suffrage and temperance movements, in which racism and nativism were rampant. The WKKK criticized gender inequality among White Protestants and described the home as a place of "monstrous and grinding toil and sacrifice" for women. (On the BUF, see Durham; on the WKKK, see Blee.)
These patterns have continued in recent decades among classic fascism's political descendents. Neofascist groups embody all four of the gender politics themes outlined above. In North America and western Europe, neofascist groups tend to be explicitly male supremacist and mostly recruit men. But some of them have also tried to mobilize women and neofascists sometimes incorporate feminist-sounding themes in unexpected ways.
White Aryan Resistance, a leading third positionist group in the 1980s US, sponsored a women's affiliate called the Aryan Women's League, which promoted the slogan "White power plus Women's power!" Germany's Republikaner opposed abortion but declared in their 1990 platform that "women and men have equal rights. The right to self-actualization applies equally to women and men; this is especially true in occupational life." The Italian Social Movement (MSI), which for decades was Europe's largest neofascist party, urged a "no" vote on the 1974 referendum that legalized divorce, yet advocated a salary for housewives.
A 1985 MSI poster highlighted the contradictions of fascist quasi-feminism. It denounced Marxist feminism ("which is based on an equality which goes against nature") but also rejected "the exploitation of traditions, which relegate women to restricted and historically obsolete roles." Instead, the poster called for a form of equal rights based on the complementarity of the sexes and women's "unrelinquishable freedom to choose which roles to pursue in society." (On the Republikaner and the MSI, see Durham, pp. 86-88.)
It would be an exaggeration to treat these sentiments as typical of neofascist gender politics, just as it would be a distortion to treat working-class fascism as a major reality. In both cases, we are dealing with subcurrents that deserve special attention -- because they're key to the far right's potential to "take the game away from the left."
(To be continued)
* Kathleen M. Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).
* Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossman, and Marion Kaplan, When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984).
* Victoria De Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
* Martin Durham, Women and Fascism (London: Routledge, 1998).
* Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (New York: St. Martin's, 1987).
* Stefan Kuhl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
* George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).