Fascism Goes Female: Why women join far-right groups

Illustratie door Marja Eissens
Illustratie door Marja Eissens
Alex Banciu • 29 apr 2024

Fascism seems to be thrown around everywhere these days, so much so that it almost becomes a term for everything that is on the right side of the political spectrum. Surely, there are cases when this term fits perfectly.

Europe’s current political landscape is shifting right at an ominous rate. Therefore, it is now a good time to understand why this is happening and what are the factors fueling this shift. But why exactly feminine fascism? Isn’t this movement inherently misogynistic and completely opposite to women’s rights? The answer is far from simple and unambiguous. Women have had their fair contribution to fascist regimes in the past, and the fact that is happening today - albeit, not at the same mobilising scale - should come to no one’s surprise. The female politicians of the far right have their own agenda, and most of the time, women’s rights are not on it. Rather, they use rhetoric and take advantage of an unstable political landscape to promote anti-migration policies and traditionalist principles (which is true for all extreme-right groups, generally).

It happened before: women’s contribution in fascist Italy and Germany
I do not think we can hold a discussion on fascism without mentioning the two most prominent examples in European history. The late 20s and early 30s in Germany were a contentious time, due to the aftermath of WW1 and the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party. Scholars, like Richard J. Evans studied this period and the impact it had on women. Evans states that many women were encouraged to work during the war to compensate for the labour shortage. In fact, there were plenty of women who had a blue-collar job. It does not seem likely that all these women would relinquish their rights and give up their jobs just so they would become obedient housewives, as they were encouraged after the war. The situation is more complicated than that: Evans mentioned that the Great Depression hit women in the workplace hard. This event combined with a general distress regarding the Weimar Republic - which also failed many women - led all these women to seek a different alternative. Thus, they become introduced to Hitler’s oratorical and leader-like air about him and his promises of a new Germany, that would reward all the hard-working women. Here is where the situation becomes even more confusing in Evans’ observations. Women were promised an important role by this new regime, but only if they would take their role as bearers of the next German generation.

The contradictions start to unveil themselves at this point. There is a clear misogynistic and essentialist view of womanhood in early Nazism, but it is sugar-coated with the promise of empowering German women. Evans mentions the “Nazi left,” a term I would have not taken seriously before, but that seemed a key component in the early elections of the Nazi regime. Women voted for the Nazis because it promised them a place in this new world and an important role, and many seized the opportunity. It was after the instauration of the regime, that many women turned against Nazism. It should be kept in mind that not all women - in fact, nowhere in his paper Evans says that a majority of women voted for Hitler - supported this new regime. Many were against it from the beginning, as it seemed like a club for angry men who released their frustrations by blaming women for stealing their jobs.

Numerous women were working a full-time job during the 30s and many of them had emancipatory views. But would they even be able to hold their ground and keep a position during fascism? I would like to introduce Sezione Operaie e Lavoranti a Domicillio (Section for Female Workers and Outworkers) an all-women fascist group entrusted with the role of spreading the word about Mussolini’s regime and educating the entire Italian Nation, extensively researched by Perry Willson. He found that many of the women joining this group belonged to the working class or they were servants. The Section for Female Workers and Outworkers (SFWO) offered its members a wide array of opportunities “for [...] professional training, travel, self-improvement and, sometimes, just sheer fun.” I find this observation quite striking, as it shows that women were not helpless victims, and it might just hold a clue as to why women would promote fascism.

In fact, this association had quite a large number of members. Willson argues that, although some were just excited about fascism, many of them joined because of “opportunism and material factors.” The truth is that SFWO offered employment opportunities and it might even have had an unintended modernising effect. Again, Willson points out how the members made the most out of their circumstances. It is hard to reduce women’s experiences during fascism into one statement. Research shows that women’s inclusion in fascism, albeit with the scope of promoting the regime and being the bearers of future generations, the unintended effects were that women had a job and a group to be part of. There are some key takeaways from analysing the past, the most notable one being that fascism is inherently contradictory.

Both in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, women were reduced to the role of the mother, but at the same time, they had to work and were active to some extent in social matters. I want to dive deeper into this contradiction because it has not stayed in the past. Fascist women rose to power in the past by joining the oppressor in inflicting violence on marginalised groups (the Jews, queer people etc.). Nowadays, women on the far-right are using a similar tactic: blaming the “Oriental Other” for social issues, whilst gaining power at the same time.

It is happening again, but the packaging is different
Many ultraconservative women nowadays are very vocal about how feminism failed society, turning women away from their natural role and emasculating men. One particular figure has been gaining attention on social media. She goes by the name Pearl Davis. This figure has been compared to Andrew Tate, her videos have gained attention due to her extreme views which include that women should not vote, men should be the providers of the family and cheating is only bad when the woman does it. Of course, she was met with a lot of criticism from pretty much everyone with common sense. Her views are so inherently misogynistic that it is ridiculous, absurd really to even consider what she might say. However, her beliefs are based on how society has traditionally viewed women. The conservative gender roles are still present, and many political figures have used them to push for policies and law-making that are essentially harmful to modern society.

The example of Pearl Davis is not an isolated one. Many female influencers copy her style, and whilst one can speculate about the reasons behind such a mentality one thing is clear: the videos attract plenty of views. I was reluctant at first to include these examples because the argument can easily be misinterpreted and turned into a misogynistic one against all women. Because these female figures are ultraconservative and represent no interest in women’s rights and safety, some sexists will say that it is because women have no place in politics or in debating social issues and that is why their comments do not make sense. YouTube has plenty of channels that spread this idea of how women are not rational enough to debate complex issues, and people like Davis reiterate that by being a woman and a vocal misogynist.

Examples of women holding a regressive view on the role of women are not limited to extremist YouTube channels. Even within the political establishment, populist right-wing female politicians such as Marine Le Pen, Siv Jensen and Giorgia Meloni, to name a few, are taking advantage of being #girlboss to promote political agendas that target other groups. Sophie Boulter has analysed the politics and rhetoric of these figures and points out that the cultural context is important to understand how conservative women make their statements. Boulter states that “progressive cultures are more receptive to selectively progressive rhetoric coming from a (white) woman of the Far Right.” This might explain why Marie Le Pen (France) and Siv Jensen (Norway) have attracted such a following. Both identify as feminists, as Boulter noted, but they use feminist rhetoric to promote an anti-migration attitude. Their policies are completely Islamophobic, targeting Muslim people for the wrongs in Western society. It is very dangerous when a politician who identifies as a feminist creates policies that are harmful to groups of people.

Nationalist women are instrumentalizing feminism to push an Islamophobic agenda, and this phenomenon is called femonationalism (not to be confused with “feminazis,” an insulting term used by alt-right men groups for feminist activists). This concept was coined by Sara Farris in her book In the Name of Women's Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. The way conservatives use feminist rhetoric to praise Western values, whilst at the same time demonising the Muslim other shows a colonialist perspective. Muslim women should unveil themselves if they want to be feminists because that is how things are done in the West. Whilst, on the other hand, Muslim men are dangerous, “the unredeemable other” as Farris mentioned in an interview with Niki Seth-Smith. But what does this have to do with fascism? It seems that I have taken a detour, but bringing colonialism and islamophobia into the discussion is crucial for understanding how ultraconservative women echo fascist ideals.

Liberal feminism goes fascist
In the scene of the Barbie film, when Barbie attempts to connect with Sasha, she gets told by the teenage girl: “I haven’t thought about you in years, you fascist.” Sasha makes some pretty incriminatory points about Barbie’s influence on society, such as sexualised capitalism and commodifying rampant consumerism. And she has a point. Barbie seems unaware of the intersection between different factors influencing someone’s life, i.e. class, gender, race, and ethnicity.

Liberal feminism seems to be doing exactly the same thing. In a video essay titled how liberal feminism turns into fasc*sm,” Alice Cappelle points out that Western feminist values are colonialist, stating that “liberal feminism remains biased when it comes to race and class.” And this is a fact that cannot be ignored since “the West” has done close to nothing to stop the genocide in Gaza. Politicians have been busier banning the veil in public schools and on the streets because that is not what civilised feminists do. Cappelle touches on this issue and introduces us to Françoise Vergès’s book A Decolonial Feminism, where the concept of civilisational feminism appears. This idea perpetuates a neocolonial perspective that some cultures are superior to others. We see this happening in Europe with the banning of the veil, and the integration courses refugees and migrants from Arabic countries have to follow if they want to be part of European society. When we let this form of feminism rule, it is very easy for a country to become authoritarian. In such a state, different actions would be justified because they are for preserving Western feminist values.

What is left to do?
It has been a long and complicated journey to analyse the female face of fascism and the article has but managed to scratch the surface. In doing so, facts about our modern society have become apparent. Women’s contribution to fascist regimes cannot - should not - be overlooked. Failing to do so, reveals a deep flaw in how we organise society. Women have been considered peaceful makers, and docile, whilst only men have been the tyrants. Claire Provost and Lara Whyte also argued how this societal flaw led historians to overlook women’s involvement in fascism. This exemplifies how people still divide actions by a gender binary. Women, just as men, can be capable of violence.

I started this article by saying that fascism gets thrown around easily in the media, and there is some truth to that. Robert O. Paxton has looked at the different stages a fascist regime goes through, and for it to become an actual one is to gain political power. What one observes nowadays in politics are extreme right movements that could, if not stopped early, turn into fascism. It is important that each and everyone continues to educate themselves on matters of politics and society in general. However, it is important to be critical of the information. As I have shown, alleged feminists use rhetoric that seems progressive only to attack a certain marginalised group. Such figures should be called out because they are not only harming the feminist tradition but also fueling other fascists to join ranks and escalate the situation.

This article is a collaboration between feminist magazines LOVER and Raffia. Raffia is affiliated with Gender & Diversity Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen. It publishes articles, columns and reviews around the themes of gender, diversity and feminism.

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Alex Banciu is the Secretary and Social Media Manager at Raffia Magazine. They hold a Bachelor degree in English Language and Culture from Radboud University and they are currently enrolled in a Master in Graphic Design and Digital Media. Topics of interest are gender, queer theory and migration.