Why Former Suffragettes Flocked to British Fascism

Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist movement appealed to even the most revolutionary of suffragettes.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence, Hastingspress.co.uk/Wikipedia, and Scotland Yard/Wikipedia.
British women who worked for women’s rights, including Mary Sophia Allen (right) and Margaret Damer Dawson.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence, Hastingspress.co.uk/Wikipedia, and Scotland Yard/Wikipedia.

This article supplements Fascism, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Fascism.

Excerpted from Hurrah for the Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh. Published by Penguin Random House UK.

Sir Oswald Mosley’s immediate appeal consisted in his economic program, a marriage of Keynesian ideas for stimulating domestic demand and a policy of economic autarky influenced by the example of the United States, with its huge home market insulated from the fluctuations of the world economy. A former Labour MP and founder of Britain’s pre-eminent fascist paramilitary organization, the British Union Fascists (BUF), Mosley spent the summer of 1932 writing a 40,000-word manifesto. The Greater Britain combined Mosley’s economic strategy with an explanation of the case for fascism.

It was a cogent document, offering a far more considered approach to fascism than any of his continental counterparts had done. His protectionist-nationalist emphasis made an obvious appeal to frustrated Conservatives and to workers in depressed industries. Although the BUF was finally disbanded by the British government after the outbreak of World War II, Mosley easily outflanked his right-wing rivals in the 1930s with his relentless attacks on successive governments for promoting imports of foreign goods, and on city financiers for damaging British manufacturing and agriculture by making loans to foreign countries: “These are alien hands which too long have held their strangle grip on the life of this country…”1

While this radical social-economic program was Mosley’s chief draw, he never concealed the fact that signing up to fascism also involved a rejection of Britain’s traditional political system, which was “devised to turn a man into a windbag in the shortest possible time.” In The Greater Britain, he rehearsed the recent failures of British politics arising from a system almost calculated to prevent governments from governing, and he frankly advocated a more authoritarian state which would be above party and sectional interests.

Aware that this made fascism appear alien to British traditionalists, he attempted to place Britain in the wider context of fascist development: “If our crisis had been among the first, instead of among the last, fascism would have been a British invention. As it is, our task is not to invent fascism but to find for it in Britain its highest expression and development.”2

Although Mosley admired Nazism for the spiritual regeneration of German youth, at this stage British fascists looked more to Italy and the corporate state for their model; it was only after 1936 that Germany loomed larger. The rival Imperial Fascist League was the organization of British fascists most closely linked to the German Nazis in the early 1930s, largely because they regarded the Italians as soft towards the Jews. Movement founder Arnold Leese correctly diagnosed that, initially at least, the BUF largely lacked the obsessive anti-Semitism that he considered the hallmark of fascism and derided Mosley’s members as “Kosher fascists.”

Mosley undoubtedly shared the prejudices of his class and his era toward Jews, but they scarcely figured in his early writings and speeches as a fascist. Of course, the organization attracted extreme anti-Semites and, over time, it increasingly treated Jews as a central target of its propaganda. Despite the common ground between his movement and continental fascism, Mosley was anxious to present the BUF as a British form of fascism. Mosley envisaged his movement as a progressive modernizing one capable of attracting working men and ex-Socialists by its social program.

There is no doubt that Mosley was the BUF’s chief asset; he quickly elevated it into a far more serious proposition than the earlier fascist organizations. His main weapon proved to be his masterly platform performances, which numbered about 200 a year. In the early 1920s, he had learnt to speak without notes by getting someone to read a Times editorial to him and making an immediate reply to each point in turn. He was also a master of sarcasm and repartee when he chose to be; indeed, he sometimes instructed his stewards to leave the hecklers alone so that he could exercise his wit on them.

Much of his impact depended upon sheer physical presence. As a Labour MP, Mosley had played up to the admiring young women in his audiences by smiling at them, caressing his moustache with one hand while slapping his trouser leg with the other, and being rewarded with cries of “Oh Valentino!”3 Mosley believed in the power of platform oratory, and he never felt as comfortable with an age that increasingly relied on the more subdued radio broadcast. Consequently, he was easily misled by enthusiastic mass rallies, interpreting each ephemeral triumph as a genuine upsurge of support.

Initially, the BUF’s Fascist Defense Force comprised 300 men—nicknamed Blackshirts, like their Italian counterparts—who lived a semimilitary life at headquarters; many were unemployed men who appreciated the accommodation and pocket money of £1 a week. In August 1933, when the BUF acquired college premises in King’s Road, Chelsea, some 5,000 members could be accommodated. An elite section known as “I Squad,” who wore breeches and leather boots, were paid £3 and trained to quell disorder against armed opponents. In addition to the black shirts of their namesake, unit leaders wore six badges and stripes to denote rank. Initially the Italian fasces, or bundle of rods, was used as the emblem, but in 1936 this was replaced with a flash of lightning in a circle worn as an armband.

Until recently, it has been difficult to know what fascist activity was like at the local level. But newly available oral evidence and unpublished memoirs by surviving Blackshirts leave little room for traditional assumptions about the class and gender composition of the BUF. In industrial towns, members were drawn from unemployed men and women, factory hands, and textile mill workers; and they came from a Labour family background as often as from a Conservative one. “The story was that Mosley was a millionaire,” one member recalled, “and all you had to do was join the BUF and you’d be looked after.”4 Middle-class businessmen often supported the BUF financially but preferred to be discreet about it or were “not interested enough to come onto the streets you know, that sort of thing.”5

The British Union of Fascists has traditionally been seen as predominantly an aggressively male movement concentrated in large conurbations. But local evidence increasingly reveals a far wider social range and some distinct regional variations. The movement was highly opportunistic in that it exploited issues which had local relevance. Mosley focused his speaking tours in areas of declining industry, notably Lancashire and Yorkshire, where the working-class Conservative tradition offered potential recruits. In the cotton towns, he campaigned for the recovery of Britain’s export markets in India; in the Yorkshire woolen centers, he denounced competition by low-wage Asian countries and the boycotting of British goods by Jews; and in mining districts such as Barnsley he condemned imports of coal from Poland while British workers remained unemployed.6

The most surprising aspect of the BUF was the extensive participation of women in its activities. Its counterparts in Germany and Italy, which enjoyed a reputation for extreme patriarchal attitudes, had effectively suppressed their feminist movements. In Britain, pro-fascist writing by philosopher and social critic Anthony Ludovici in the 1920s had attributed the degenerate state of politics partly to female emancipation, and 1930s fascists continued to uphold such prejudices. In 1932, Mosley himself wrote: “We want men who are men and women who are women.”7 On the face of it, the heady homoerotic atmosphere of the BUF headquarters with its unmarried men, military barracks, and public schoolboys was not attractive for women.

Yet in practice, the movement became remarkably open to women. The Women’s Section was established in March 1933 under Oswald’s mother Lady Maud Mosley, who adopted a motherly role on behalf of the young women who seemed vulnerable to the predatory male Blackshirts.8 She was later succeeded by ex-suffragette Mary Richardson, and by Anne Brock-Griggs and Olga Shore, who were responsible for the south and the north of the country, respectively.9 The women, who appeared prominently at fascist functions, have been estimated to comprise one-quarter of the total membership.10 They wore a black blouse, black beret, and gray skirt—but no lipstick or other makeup.11 When the Sunday Dispatch promoted a beauty contest for female Blackshirts in 1934, no one entered; Mosley explained: “These were serious women dedicated to the cause of their country rather than aspirants to the Gaiety Theatre chorus.”12

Although the organization obviously included many anti-feminist men, it seems clear that the female members of the BUF played a very active role. “You weren’t just a tea-maker, you know,” recalled Louise Irving of Birmingham. Nellie Driver conceded that in Nelson, the women did make tea for the men returning from active duty, but they also received training in jiujitsu so that they could throw people out of meetings; this was thought necessary if only because male Blackshirts could not decently manhandle female Communists.13 By the interwar period, many conventional upper-class ladies had become accustomed to participation in political and electoral activity, and some of these recruits had been active Conservatives—including Lady Pearson, the sister of conservative MP Henry Page Croft, who was thought to have a crush on Mosley. The movement also attracted adventurous young women, not least the racing driver “Fabulous” Fay Taylour, the first woman to drive on a dirt track.

During the later 1930s, these female members became increasingly prominent in the BUF’s peace campaign.14 They were also essential to the development of an electoral machine which was central to Mosley’s long-term strategy. As doorstep canvassers, the women presented a more reassuring image of fascism than that created by street violence and mass demonstrations.15 Mosley himself had enough experience of Conservative politics to understand how great an asset women were at the constituency level. In November 1936, Norah Elam became the first BUF parliamentary candidate at Northampton; Anne Brock-Griggs stood at Limehouse in the London County Council elections and was parliamentary candidate for South Poplar, while Lady Pearson was adopted at Canterbury. The fascists boasted that 10 percent of their candidates were female, a higher proportion than in any other party, and that this proved they were not trying to force women back into the home.

In explaining the motivation that led women into fascism, it would be erroneous to dismiss them as being either misguided or manipulated. Many joined for reasons that had little to do with their gender; middle and upper-class women from Conservative backgrounds were reacting against conventional politics for the same reasons as men. Dorothy Downe, Norah Elam, and Mercedes Barrington, for example, had worked for the Tory Party but simply grown disillusioned. However, several female fascists had once been active suffragettes, including Mary Richardson, notorious for slashing Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in 1914, and Mary Allen, who had pioneered the women’s police force during the First World War.

In fact, their migration to fascism was far less anomalous than it appears at first sight. For women who sought a great leader and had become alienated by conventional parties, the BUF seemed a natural successor to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU): the militant women’s suffrage organization which was dissolved in 1917. “I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the courage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service, and the ability to serve which I had known in the suffragette movement,” explained Mary Richardson.16 Several of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s colleagues regarded her movement as a forerunner of the interwar dictatorships because of its insistence on total obedience to the Leader. During the war, the suffragette leadership had adopted an extreme brand of patriotism and after 1918, suffragette Christabel Pankhurst repudiated votes for women along with the entire parliamentary system.

Above all, the semimilitary style of the WSPU had offered adventurous women the same challenge and satisfaction as the BUF.17 Mary Allen had tried to recapture this by maintaining a women’s police reserve in the 1920s. In some sense, the ex-suffragette fascists still regarded themselves as feminists. However, they had become detached from the feminist movement which, like most fascists, they regarded as a symptom of a degraded political system; they derided Nancy Astor, the first female member of Parliament, as “this sorry specimen of feminine irresponsibility” and accused the “professional spinster politicians” of selling out to the political parties.18

Despite this, the BUF couched much of its propaganda in distinctly feminist terms, and the movement claimed to offer a “true feminism” by way of disparaging the other parties; some members argued that equality of the sexes was part of its attraction for them.19 In contrast to its continental counterparts, the movement was at pains to assert that fascism did not imply the return of women to a life of domesticity. As Alexander Raven Thompson and Anne Brock-Griggs explained, the corporate state would give women greater privileges than they enjoyed under democracy by ensuring proper representation for them as housewives.20 Additionally, the corporate system would raise their status as workers by ensuring that they enjoyed equal pay, by increasing remuneration in low-paid occupations, and by abolishing the marriage bar restricting the employment of married women.21 The rationale for all this lay not in promoting women’s individual rights but in serving the interests of the state by making full use of women’s skills.

The same motive led fascists to uphold women’s role as the mothers of a reborn and regenerated race, which meant trying to arrest the falling birth rate by means of maternity classes, more female doctors, better paid midwives, more maternity beds and home helps for recuperating mothers. But while Mosley regarded a higher birth rate as desirable, he accepted the need to offer women better advice about birth control so that they could make the best use of modern scientific knowledge; the ignorance about birth control from which many poor people suffered was simply not in the national interest.22

All of this amounted to a feminine expression of fascism, rather than feminism, but at a time when the main parties adopted a very equivocal attitude towards issues like equal pay and birth control, the BUF clearly managed to come to terms with a generation of women who took a measure of female emancipation for granted.

Excerpted from Hurrah for the Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh. Published by Penguin Random House UK.

1. Speech at Edinburgh, The Times, 2 June 1934.

2. Mosley, Greater Britain, 20.

3. Mosley, Rules, 57–8.

4. B. Rowe, 5, Stuart Rawnsley Interview. 

5. Nellie Driver, Shadows of Exile, 21; B. Rowe, 6, Stuart Rawnsley Interview; G. P. Southerst, 13, Stuart Rawnsley Interview, 16 February 1977. 

6. R. R. Bellamy, in J. Christian (ed.), Mosley’s Blackshirts: The Inside Story of the British Union of Fascists1932–1940 (1986), 62; “The British Union”

7. Mosley, Greater Britain, 41.

8. Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 56.

9. Ibid., 53–4.

10. Robert Saunders Papers, file E / 1; Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 46–7.

11. Nellie Driver, Shadows of Exile, 12.

12. Oswald Mosley, My Life (1968), 344.

13. Nellie Driver, Shadows of Exile, 32.

14. Ann Page, in J. Christian (ed.), Mosley’s Blackshirts, 16; Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 44.

15. Nellie Driver, Shadows of Exile, 32.

16. The Blackshirt, 29 June 1934.

17. Cecile Hamilton, Life Errant (1935), 68; Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, My Part in a Changing World (1938), preface.

18. Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (2001), 356, 381; Norah Elam, Fascist Quarterly, July 1935, 290–4.

19. The Blackshirt, 22 February 1935; Ann Page, in J. Christian (ed.), Mosley’s Blackshirts, 15–16.

20. The Blackshirt, 7 September 1934; Anne Brock-Griggs, Fascist Quarterly, October 1935, 435–44.

21. The Blackshirt, 19 August 1933, 19 October 1934.

22. Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism, 114–15.