Old debates, new perspectives: Exploring understandings of women under fascism.

Author: Grace Vanderkolk

Sub-editor: Charlotte Allan

Editor: Julia Richards

Image Credit: Unknown author. Olga Bjoner, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, Toyoko Oshima, Pilar Primo de Rivera, and Olga Medici at the International Fascist Women’s Meeting in Berlin, 7 October 1941. Accessed at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1976-112-03A,_Internationales_Frauentreffen_in_Berlin.jpg

The role of women in the study of history has been sorely neglected, in favour of ‘real’ history, concerning great men, politics and economics. Discussions of women under fascism have been hindered further as paradigmatic cases exalt the idea of unchanging, ‘traditional’ masculinity at women’s expense. Nevertheless, study within this realm has flourished since its emergence in the 1980s. The scope of analysis widened alongside understandings of gender as a socially constructed phenomenon, in the 1990s and 2000s, to address questions of women’s conflicting roles within fascist movements and more recent analysis, though the field is slow-moving, has built on those foundations to analyse the means through which fascism constructs femininity how these constructions are accepted and resisted. This article will illustrate the broad strokes and key questions of the study of women and fascism, using case studies of European fascisms, to evaluate the current state of historical consensus.

Early studies of ‘women’s history’ and fascism were stymied by a revulsion towards acknowledging the possibility of women’s collaboration with Fascist regimes. Second-wave feminist readings of history, such as those of Andrea Dworkin’s, which interpret patriarchy as the single enduring, malignant force in history, rejected the possibility of women’s collaboration with fascism as logically incoherent because, as an extension of patriarchy, fascism necessarily strips women of agency. Complementary to this ideological revulsion there appeared a general disinterest or, charitably, a blind spot in studying women under fascism. 

Nevertheless, preliminary study emerged in the 1970s to investigate policies aimed at women in Nazi Germany, exposing the simultaneously regressive and progressive role ascribed to middle-class women in Nazi society. Though women were expected to return to the home, as mothers and wives, there, they would hold the position of ultimate authority. Contemporaneous study of Italian Fascism illustrated similar goals in the regime’s desire to subject women, but also the ways women, when it was of benefit to them, accepted developments alongside the men of their class. This work was highly valuable in building a foundation for analysis, but meaningful analysis of what women’s involvement under fascism revealed about fascist ideology, movements and regimes was yet to emerge.

Claudia Koonz made a breakthrough with her 1987 book Mothers in the Fatherland, providing one of the first comprehensive discussions of women and fascism. She argued that women gravitated towards the Nazi regime as a means for emancipation, an unfinished goal of the Weimar years. Koonz illustrates that other German feminists brought ‘women’s problems’ into the male political sphere. Contrastingly, Nazi women embraced the conservative gender roles offered by the Nazis and accepted a ‘separate spheres’ feminism which heralded men as the movers and shakers, while women were the proud protectors of the community’s values, instantiated in the home. This separation, Koonz argues, was supported by women as a means to protect their sphere from male encroachment, as the home was the last place women could effect change for themselves. Informal Nazi women’s organisations emerged as the movement gained prominence, which were eventually brought into the fold officially. These women’s fervour for Nazi ideology, whether they were formally incorporated or not, illustrated their willingness to cooperate.

Victoria de Grazia, in her 1991 book How Facsism Ruled Women, emulated Koonz’ approach, with a focus on women in Fascist Italy. She noted that women utilised Fascist rhetoric to carve out a feminine sphere, complemented by women’s organisations, concerned with drafting social policy and charity work. De Grazia does not view this as prompted by a desire to protect the ‘women’s sphere’, as Koonz does, rather that Italian women were enamoured by the promises of Fascism and hoped to further the cause. Jill Stephenson presented an alternative to these interpretations, contending that Nazi policy towards women followed the precedent of Weimar policy, in that men were the architects of women’s liberation, and that women resisted the policies introduced by the Nazis despite the veneer of emancipation.

Feminist readings of history injected heat into early conversations regarding women’s collaboration with fascist movements. Koonz’s book became the target of much backlash, with similar criticisms able to be made for De Grazia’s book due to their similar conclusions. From the perspective of general feminist historical interpretations, the insinuation that women could wield any power, and therefore collaborate, in a patriarchal society was ludicrous. More pointed criticism was levelled by German historian, Gisela Bock. Her 1989 review of Mothers in the Fatherland decried the work as ahistorical and antifeminist. Two factors influenced this harsh reaction: 

1. Bock’s own work argues that women, rather than collaborating with Nazis, were some of its first victims, owing to forced sterilisation measures introduced in 1933.

2. German debates regarding collaboration carry the weight of living memory and must be engaged with tactfully..

Bock’s criticisms are important in the German context, but there is also a need to temper them as the rejection of women’s collaboration is also ahistorical. Historians outside the realm of women’s history were able to reconcile the dual nature of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy; however, both Koonz and Bock adhere steadfastly to either side though the divide is not clear cut. Other scholars have noted that the idea that anyone living under a fascist regime could be considered ‘clean’ of responsibility is inaccurate. Shy of support, acceptance confers responsibility to those who engage in fascism, though it may not necessarily warrant the label ‘collaborator’. Despite the building consensus regarding the victim-perpetrator question, the agency debate remains.

Another key question early scholarship sought to contend with was the nature of fascist regimes as reactionary or progressive with regards to women. Again, Koonz and Bock, and their contemporaries, fall to either side of a dichotomy which does not exist. Bock and Stephenson both maintain that the direction which fascist ideology took women’s issues was congruent with the path of modern women’s emancipation as constructed by men. Fascist politics sought to dismantle the ‘women’s sphere’ by imposing policy on their bodies which would deny them agency, such as those of forced sterilisation. Koonz and De Grazia, illustrate the nature of fascist regimes to be fundamentally reactionary, as illustrated through the turn away from the emancipation of the Weimar years. General trends in fascist policy were conservative, in their goal to occlude women from work and encourage child rearing, while simultaneously building support by mobilising women in support of these policies. Like the victim-perpetrator debate, it appears that early investigation resulted in the development of a dichotomy, modern-regressive, where none exists. It is entirely possible that fascist regimes could develop a modern approach, mobilisation of women, in service of a regressive ideology, which subordinated and controlled women. This also complicates the agency question, as mobilising women in their own oppression complicates the meaning of agency.

Throughout the 1990s, gender emerged as a more thorough analytical tool through which to analyse interactions between different groups and states they lived under, thus ‘women’s history’ was eclipsed by ‘gender history’. The mainstay of this shift was an understanding of gender not as an a priori category, but as socially constructed. Gender is instantiated in societies through ‘religious, educational, scientific, legal and political doctrines and typically takes the form of a fixed binary opposition,’ however, ‘real men and women do not always… fulfil their terms either of their society’s prescriptions or of our analytic categories’. Alongside these developments, analysis, like Bock’s, which unquestioningly accepts the role of women as motherly, nurturing and at ease in the domestic sphere, and which views the aberration of fascism as stemming from their encroachment into this sacred sphere, cannot be upheld because no a priori ‘female sphere’ exists. Acknowledgment of the regressive nature of prescriptions applied to women under fascism ought also to understands that this reconstructed women’s understanding of their identities and encouraged acceptance of fascist ideology.

The shift to gender history, alongside growing interest regarding women and fascism, encouraged discussions of women’s fascist experiences outside paradigmatic cases. Of particular interest were Spain and Britain. Some new work employed a comparative methodology, as striking parallels emerged between women’s experiences of fascism. Of interest was the way women’s identity was constructed under fascism and by extension, the means through which historians should reconcile the conflicting roles women held in fascist societies. 

Martin Durham’s Women and Fascism presents the first comprehensive look at the effect and influence of women under British fascism, though a later publication from Julie Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism superseded it in scope and specificity. Both authors contended that the British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) adherence to a ‘separate spheres’ variety of gender equality constructed women as a legitimate, though constrained, political lobby; The success of corporatist social organisation would instantiate representation of women’s as mothers and housewives. Gottlieb illustrates women’s identity within the BUF as a radical departure from what was expected of women in wider British society. The BUF’s ‘ideal woman’ was stern, intelligent, and physically healthy but ultimately, these faculties were expected to be utilised only in the domestic sphere. Here, the contradictory nature of the modern-reactionary dichotomy, which Koonz and Bock fell to either side of, is highlighted and transgressed. Gottleib and Durham illustrate the fusion of modern political needs, which necessitated women be accounted for as political actors, with fundamentally traditional understandings of femini0nity as equal to motherhood and domesticity, which ought to place women outside the political sphere. Unfortunately, this sort of analysis remains unarticulated as neither author connects these discussions with broader understandings of generic fascism, though analysis along the lines of Robert Eatwell’s ‘Third Way’ may aid this discussion.

Gottlieb acknowledges the gendered segregation of labour in the BUF, but rejects the trend that equates this with subordination and therefore rejects the export of analysis regarding continental fascism to the British case, within which women can be shown to have been subordinated in their organisations. The power women were able to secure over other women within their organisation, and their propensity for working closely with BUF men, especially following the imprisonment of much of the male leadership in 1940, precludes the notion that their agency was extended as a formality. Unusually, Gottlieb does acknowledge that women were often placed in subordinate roles to men, though as she maintains the argument that this did not hinder their influence in the BUF.

Gottleib also provides interesting answers to the question of women’s agency. She shirks interpretations of women as victims under fascism by illustrating the eager acceptance of BUF rhetoric and women’s desire to carve out space for themselves in which they could exert influence over the trajectory of the movement with relative freedom from patriarchal influence, rather than being constrained by that influence. This fits alongside Koonz and De Grazia’s analysis, that women exerted agency where they could. This also aids in refining understandings of the breadth of fascist experiences, as study of women under continental fascisms broadly follow the same pattern of pseudo-emancipation and return to subordination, where Gottlieb’s account of the BUF transcends this.

Recent trends in scholarship have taken up analysis in the vein of body politics. Based on Michel Foucault’s notion of biopower, analysis concerning the way power is exerted over women’s bodies under fascism has emerged, noting that this also confers an ability to resist and subvert power. Additionally, this shift provides room to investigate the intersectionality of women’s experiences under fascism as women are rarely viewed as a cohesive group under fascist regimes or movements. Multifaceted exercise of power over the body confers differing ability for women to contest power. This understanding breathes new life into old debates. Koonz and De Grazia’s conclusions that women utilised their subordinated role to take agency and forge an identity for themselves and this is precisely what led to their becoming collaborators with fascist regimes. Bock’s analysis is redeemed too, as in her analysis of the treatment of women in concentration camps, and of violent policies like forced sterilisations, the multiplicity of women’s ability to exert power, given contexts of perceived racial and genetic ‘inferiority’, can be accounted for to explain how women were dually victim and collaborator under fascism.

Other recent scholarship tackles some of the finer aspects of fascism’s relationship with women. Natasha Chang’s, The Crisis Woman details the way the body of the ‘modern woman’ became the site for the fears of the Italian Fascist state. Propaganda depicting the donna crisi (crisis woman) provided a negative example, of a thin, sterile, ‘masculine’ woman, to the ‘healthy’, ideologically and physically, donna madre and donna nueva. Chang argues that this had a two-fold effect of providing a scapegoat for the troubles of the Fascist regime, and acting as a means of exercising surveillance over women’s bodies.

The body of the crisis woman can be viewed within similar frameworks to that of Jewish women, as Bock posits, and of Spanish women deported to German concentration camps, as posited by Amalia Rosado Orquín. Analysis along the lines of body politics illustrates that women’s ability to take agency under fascism is inextricably linked with the way bodies are instrumentalised to the cause. Considering fascism as a global phenomenon with national links, the need to understand the pervasiveness of this goal is vital to comprehensive understandings of women under fascism.

Having overcome the aversion towards ‘women’s issues’, investigations of women under fascism have exploded over the last 40 years to yield much interesting analysis. Women’s influence is undeniable, though our key questions remain. Old debates, the benefit of new frameworks, are still highly valuable in understanding women and fascism.


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