Reflections on fascism and women’s rights by British Union of Fascists member Norah Elam, from a 1935 essay in ‘The Fascist Quarterly’
Norah Elam, born Norah Doherty, was one of the most prominent members of the Women’s Section of the British Union of Fascists. Like many women leaders within the BUF, Elam had first become involved in political activism through the pre-WWI suffragette movement, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1912 and swiftly rising to become its General Secretary by the following year. It was in the WSPU that Elam developed her skills as a propagandist and rousing political speaker. She also developed a reputation as a firebrand, someone not afraid to dirty her hands in street activism – WSPU members became notorious for militant protest actions such as window-smashing or arson, and Elam was herself arrested and imprisoned in 1914 for inciting suffragettes to violence at an open-air meeting. Her eventual transition to fascist politics was driven by a number of factors, particularly a growing sense of patriotism engendered by the War and, after women’s suffrage was finally granted through legislation passed in 1918 and 1928, a sense of disillusionment that the right to vote had not led to a significant increase in the number of women representatives. The Mosley movement, with its specific promise of women’s representation in a corporatist parliament, seemed to offer a solution that the liberal-democratic system could not, and so Elam joined the BUF in 1934. Former suffragettes like Elam found Mosleyite fascism, which presented itself as a modern and forward-thinking movement, to be a welcoming environment – 25% of the BUF membership were women, women held positions of authority and leadership in the party, and a number of women (including Elam in 1936) were put forward by the Mosleyites as candidates for election. The drive and commitment of these members was not unappreciated, as Mosley observed in 1940: “My movement has been largely built up by the fanaticism of women; they hold ideals with tremendous passion.” The article below , written by Elam and published in 1935 in BUF theoretical journal The Fascist Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 3, demonstrates some of this passion in Elam’s own words, presenting arguments for fascism not only as the true guarantor of liberty and women’s interests but also, intriguingly, as the natural continuation of the original suffragette movement.
Fascism, Women and Democracy
by Norah Elam
First published in The Fascist Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 3, 1935.
“Experience shows that in all countries today democracy can develop its nature freely, the most scandalous corruption is displayed without anyone considering it of use to conceal its rascalities… Democracy is the land of plenty dreamt of by unscrupulous financiers.” – Georges Sorel, Reflexions sur la Violence.
To a genuine cynic who lived through the struggle for votes for women from 1906 to 1914, no spectacle is more diverting than the post-war enthusiast whose one obsession seems to be the alleged danger to enfranchised women in a Fascist Britain.
This unsuspected solicitude finds its most insistent champions in unlikely places, and those who were so bitter against the pre-war struggle have today executed a complete volte face. Our new-found patrons are second to none in their determination that women shall be denied nothing in principle, even if in practice they are to be denied most things essential to their existence.
To the woman who took part in that historic fight, and, regarding the vote merely as a symbol, believed that with its help a new and a better world might be possible, this kind of patronage is as distasteful as was that of a generation ago. She thinks, and with some justification, that it is humbug that those who in all those weary years never raised a hand to help her, but on the contrary were wont to describe her as an unsexed virago or a disappointed spinster, should in the hour of success endeavour to exploit her sex in the interests of a reactionary and decadent system. Such effrontery is possible only because those who resort to it entirely misunderstood and still misunderstand the meaning of that struggle, and construed the demand for political liberty as a desire for personal licence.
The time has come when the principles which underlay that remarkable and determined manifestation for ordered change, not only in the position of women but in the accepted attitude to them, should be restated.
What was it then, which underlay the passionate stirring that moved the hearts of thousands of women, and guided their heads, in those stormy years? It was not, as so many imagined, the ignoble desire of individual sex-interest, nor a struggle on behalf of women for their own sex alone. On the contrary, from the leaders to the most humble of the rank and file it was the fundamental belief, that in a world peopled by men and women and under a political system controlling the destinies of both sexes, the country which shut out from its councils the influence, viewpoint and talents of more than half its people, would be to that extent handicapped in working out the best system of government. If men were the victims of chaotic economic conditions, women suffered with them. If the social conditions under which men dragged out an almost hopeless existence were intolerable, they were equally so for their womenfolk.
Looking round on the great cities of their land, from north to south and from east to west, they saw housing conditions which man and woman agreed were a disgrace to modern civilization; watching the labour market, they gazed with apprehension on the spectre of insecurity which haunts the wage-earner and which is inherent in the old system. In the political field, they noted that, both in Home and Foreign policy, affairs were being conducted in such a manner as to strike terror into the heart of any person who cared deeply for Britain or realized the decadence that had already begun its erosion upon all parties of the State. They rose to demand that women should be called in on equal terms with men, to lend a hand before it was too late.
This uprising was in short a challenge to the old antagonisms and a call for co-operation in the corporate body of the State.
In this conception of practical citizenship, the women’s struggle resembles closely the new philosophy of Fascism. Indeed, Fascism is the logical, if much grander, conception of the momentous issues raised by the militant women of a generation ago. Nor do the points of resemblance end here. The Women’s movement, like the Fascist movement, was conducted under strict discipline, and cut across all Party allegiance; its supporters were drawn from every class and Party. It appealed to women to forget self-interest; to relinquish petty personal advantages and the privilege of the sheltered few for the benefit of the many; and to stand together against the wrongs and injustices which were inherent in a system so disastrous to the well-being of the race. Like the Fascist movement, too, it chose its Leader,1 and once having chosen gave to that Leader absolute authority to direct its policy and destiny, displaying a loyalty and a devotion never surpassed in the history of this country. Moreover, like the Fascist movement again, it faced the brutality of the streets; the jeers of its opponents; the misapprehensions of the well-disposed; and the rancour of the politicians. It endured the hatred of the existing Government, and finally the loneliness of the prison cell and the horror of forcible feeding. Its speakers standing in the open spaces and at the street corners were denied the right of free speech; it champions selling their literature spat upon and reviled; its deputations were manhandled. Suffragettes became the sport of any rowdy who cared to take the law into his own hands. To make the analogy the more exact, no calumny was too vile and no slander too base to set about the moral character of its leaders, or the aims and objects of the women who owed them allegiance.
Thus it came about that women welded together in such association had no illusions about political and party shibboleths, and when the sacred words “Democracy” and “Individual Liberty” were a commonplace on the lips of their detractors, they remembered that these things were done under a Liberal Administration, and by the champions of a Party which had made the democratic system the summit of its political wisdom. That under it, they were classed with criminals, lunatics and children. They argued and with some cogency, that if this were democracy then women had little to hope for from it.
Their experience as outlaws from the democratic system was as nothing compared with that which faced them, when they found themselves honoured citizens under its doubtful protection. They had earned, it is true, the right to individual liberty for a very brief space once every five years, but when they had put that fatal cross upon the ballot paper and closed the door of the polling booth behind them, from that moment they found themselves completely helpless before the democratic machine.
Though we shall be told that this was what we had fought for, a moment’s reflexion will show that this was regarded as but the symbol. Women never made the fatal error of imagining that because men voted they were necessarily free. It is the mark of the unintelligent woman today to suppose that a woman is free because she also votes, or that democracy can ever offer anything but the careful and organized exploitation of men and women who suffer it to exist.
Given the vote on a limited basis at the close of the War, women were also granted the right of entering Parliament, and the election in the late autumn of 1918 gave them their first opportunity. The Party system was already beginning to show the first signs of decay, and by the inexorable law of retributive justice, the Party which had given birth to democracy in Britain was in full retreat before its ungrateful offspring. Nevertheless, women in the first flush of their triumph turned to the then existing parties either as voters or prospective candidates.
My own distrust of Party politics made me chary of turning in this direction, and I preferred to stand as an Independent, going down with all the other women candidates on this occasion, save one. The exception was the Sinn Fein Countess Markievicz, who though a notorious and avowed enemy of Britain, found it a perfectly simple matter under the democratic system to secure election to the Parliament of the country which she had openly boasted that she would destroy, disintegrate and discredit. She was, if I remember rightly, returned unopposed. The next example was hardly more encouraging, for the first woman to be elected for an English constituency was an American-born citizen who had no credentials to represent British women in their own Parliament, save that she had married a British subject who found himself forced to the Upper House on the death of his father.1 Detractors of the Women’s Movement pointed with a hardly disguised satisfaction to this denouement, and were at pains to hold up this lady as a sorry specimen of feminine irresponsibility. They need not have been so personal, for she was no better and no worse than any other woman elected to the British House of Commons, as a result of years of effort and struggle of the militant women. It is a sorry fact, though none the less true, that the subsequent election of Party women to Westminster has not made one tittle of difference either to men or to women, and though many able women have joined the ranks of our elected representatives their influence has been wholly negligible on the destinies of Britain or her Empire. They, like their men colleagues, are simply cogs in the Party wheels of the democratic system, marching into the lobbies at the crack of the Party Whip, helpless before the Juggernaut of the official machinery which rolls on, crushing all initiative and independence before it, and reducing every person who owes it allegiance to a mere cipher for the carrying through of its policies and its measures. And if this be true of Parliament – and who can deny it? – it is even more true of the woman voter. She, too, is caught up in this inexorable system, a veritable slave to her Party organization.
To those who challenge this, the question must be put: What power has the woman member or the woman voter, under the present system, to alter any one policy of any government yet elected? Does the most enthusiastic admirer of the present system allege that women, no matter to what party they belong, are satisfied with the existing position of this country? Are they willing to see economic conditions whereby the employment figures have reached the incredible total of between two and three millions remain unchanged? Do they rest content with the spectacle of those derelict areas which strike despair into the heart of every living person? Are they indifferent to the decay of the agricultural districts and the plight of the farming industry and unconcerned with the appalling housing conditions which all parties alike deplore?
Turning to the vast field of Imperial and Foreign politics, is it to be contended that the bulk of British women desire to see the disintegration of the Empire, or the orientation of the present foreign policy of the alleged National Government, whereby pacts and commitments are being made in their names and in secret with the avowed enemies of this country, while at the same time we are being left defenceless, not only for the purposes of our own immediate defence, but if the need should arise to honour those commitments? Do we indeed know to what we are being committed; what this policy of collective security involves, or what is the sinister power which dictates it? “Democracy is the land of plenty dreamt of by unscrupulous financiers,” says Georges Sorel. Have enfranchised women any power to check a Home or a Foreign policy dictated for the purpose of making that dream a living reality? Let it be remembered that when the time comes to foot the bill, we shall be driven as sleep to the slaughter, helpless before the results of these policies. What is the value of so-called freedom if it cannot give us the power to alter these momentous issues?
If it be true that the average woman voter wants none of these things, why, if she be free under the democratic system, does she permit them? If she possesses this freedom, is she not doubly and trebly guilty in suffering them for one hour longer? This is the test of her claim to a responsible part in the government of her country. If she has gained the necessary power and liberty under the existing system, the charge that she is incapable of playing a citizen’s part in the affairs of her country, and is in fact unfitted for responsibility, is proved up to the hilt.
None of these things is true. The truth will be found in the fact that there is no freedom either for men or for women under the present antiquated system. What fetters both men and women is that the Party system is in decay, and this is the more noticeable since the granting of adult suffrage under an unbridled democracy. Throughout the world the same decadence has set in, by the inevitable march of time and circumstance, the change from a world of poverty to a world of boundless plenty makes ordered planning not only requisite but vital to existence. Under these changes the methods of the old world are obsolete and must give place to the new. If women are to be worthy of their place in the councils of the nation, they must face as realists the new world conditions which are gathering round them. Sooner or later they must choose. The decision is momentous, for upon it will depend the status of women for a considerable period of time. It is therefore no light matter that they should weigh well in the balance the history of the world.
There are two courses open to women. The first is that she should struggle on with the decaying system of the old world, content to be the handmaid of the professional politicians of the various parties to which she attaches herself. Of this it may be said that she has given it a long and faithful trial, and that if under it she could have accomplished any practical change in the direction of social, political or economic freedom, she has lamentably failed. She must now consider whether the fault lies within herself or within the system to which she still clings. In this connexion she will note that the separate parties are themselves gradually disappearing. The Liberal Party has passed into the twilight of the past; the Conservative Party is in rapid disintegration, and we know upon the assurance of its own Leader, that there is no hope of its regaining its independence. The same fate awaits the Socialist Party,3 since it too must travel along the same road which has sucked the other two parties under the quicksand of Social Democracy.
She must therefore look for some better system; one more in accord with modern conditions. What is to take the place of the tottering edifice of the past?
Every student of politics realizes that the issue now lies between Fascism and Communism. So far as British women are concerned, Communism makes little appeal. To go no further, it is the philosophy of destruction, and is the negation of the natural instincts of womanhood. It is the antithesis of every principle and practice which women value and require.
Fascism seems to be the only solution. It has within it every principle peculiarly suitable and adaptable to the genius of the British character. It offers real freedom and liberty to all men and women of goodwill towards this country. Lest there should be any misunderstanding, we shall define these so often loosely-used terms, in words with which no democrat will quarrel, for they are taken from that apostle of unadulterated democracy, John Stuart Mill.
“The sole end,” he wrote, “for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”
This is precisely the Fascist conception of individual liberty, and it is obviously a conception that so far as women are concerned gives them every opportunity that they can legitimately require in their future status as women citizens. In no other system are these principles embodied. Moreover, in the machinery of the Corporate State, Fascism assures women an equal status with their menfolk, for it holds within it the only means whereby they will be enabled to direct and control the conditions under which they shall live; thus Fascism alone will complete the work begun on their behalf by the militant women from 1906 to 1914. In addition, it will rescue them from the vitiated atmosphere of corruption inherent in the Party system, and for the first time it will give an opportunity, through the machinery of their own special Corporations, tackling with some hope of success those great questions which so closely concern their own and their children’s lives.
In the economic field it will assure security with equal pay for equal work, that eternal bone of contention which has rent the sexes asunder with such dire results to industry.
In the social sphere, it removes all class barriers, while in the political, it gives justice and equality for the first time in the history of the Women’s struggle.
And most important of all, Fascism comes to lay for ever the haunting spectre of war, by removing the fundamental causes, which exist and have their being in Internationalism, an instrument forged for the purpose of enabling “unscrupulous financiers” to take advantage of that “land of plenty” called “democracy” of which they dream.
To enable all this to be accomplished, Fascism will require that women equally with men should offer a disciplined cooperation in the welding together of an ordered State, and Fascism will rightly lay upon all the citizens of the State the responsibility and the duty of working in harmony, not in the interests of any section or class but for the benefit of all its people. It will call upon women as upon men, to subordinate all selfish individual privileges, that the less fortunate may under its protection be safe from exploitation.
This is Fascism. All else is mirage. Is it to be said that British women cannot rise to this great occasion in the history of their country? Those who would bid them reject this opportunity are the enemies not alone of women, but of all progress and of civilization. Those women who endured the ordeal of the great struggle of pre-war days have at least learned the right to challenge the people who once again would enslave them in the subjugation of the past, and fetter them within a system which denies them all opportunity to play an honourable part in the necessary reorganization of their country. British women have never failed or faltered when Britain has had need of them. They too, with the men of their generation, will raise aloft the banner of British Fascism, and bearing it high above the turmoil and sordid quarrels of the Party system, will hasten that day which shall see their nation reborn. In that triumphant hour, they will have truly earned the proud right to pay homage to a regenerated and Great Britain, and to rest at last within the Peace, Security and Prosperity of her Sovereign People.
1. Probably a reference to Emmeline Pankhurst, the leading figure within the Women’s Social and Political Union. Pankhurst and Elam knew each other well, working together within the WSPU and spending time together incarcerated in Holloway Prison. The Pankhurst family experienced their own drift into nationalist politics. Emmeline and her husband Richard (who died in 1898) had begun as socialists and advocates for unionism; they were early members of the Independent Labour Party and had links to various other social-democratic groups. Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel had continued this tradition when they first founded the WSPU in 1903, but the Great War saw both drift in a strongly patriotic direction with the WSPU and its subsequent iterations evolving into stridently pro-Empire, anti-socialist organizations (both Emmeline and Christabel eventually ended up in the Conservative Party). Youngest daughter Adela Pankhurst emigrated to Australia, where she co-founded that country’s Communist Party (CPA) before becoming disillusioned with Marxism. After being expelled from the CPA, Adela founded the patriotic Australian Women’s Guild of Empire in 1928, then co-founded the national-socialist Australia First Movement in 1940; she was interned by the government for pro-Japanese views in 1942. Only Emmeline’s middle daughter, Sylvia, remained a committed left-wing socialist throughout her life.
2. Following from the passage of the 1918 Qualification for Women Act, which gave women limited active and passive suffrage depending on their status (full active and passive suffrage for all women aged 21 or over was not granted until 1928), 17 female candidates stood for the 1918 general election – including Emmeline Pankhurst for the Women’s Party (a renamed WSPU) and Norah Elam as an Independent. Elam won only 3615 votes. Countess Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected to the House of Commons, representing Ireland for Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin were following an abstentionist policy at the time, however, meaning none of its elected MPs actually took their seats. The first woman to actually sit as an MP was Viscountess Nancy Astor, elected for the Tories at the Plymouth Sutton by-election in 1919. Lady Astor was an American citizen who, as Elam notes in this essay, was able to stand for Parliament as a consequence of her British husband’s peerage. Lady Astor’s election received mixed reactions from some suffragettes. While many welcomed her as the first-ever sitting female MP, others (like Elam) resented that she was an American and that she had never been involved in the suffragette movement.
3. Elam most likely means the Labour Party, rather than more obscure competitors like the Socialist Party of Great Britain. ‘Socialist’ tended to be used interchangeably with ‘social-democrat’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Labour Party was still regarded to be an indisputably socialist party at this point in its history – Clause IV of the party constitution explicitly called for the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” to be secured for British workers.