Academics, including historians, are not insulated from implicitly or explicitly avoiding or even actively preventing female perspectives and stories from being heard. This is especially the case when female experiences and perspectives challenge our generalizations of historical events and how these generalizations confront the role of women in seemingly male-dominated movements, such as fascism. Not only is this visible in history (Lopez and Sanchez 2018; Lower 2013), it is also apparent in contemporary right-wing movements (Chrisafis 2019).
Lopez and Sanchez (2018) argue that historians have underestimated pro-Franco women’s participation in anti-Republican underground activities, because of a false distinction between a ‘real’ Fifth Column, where men were predominant, and the supportive roles, where women were crucial and often the majority (692). The article argues that Nationalist women played a key role in intelligence and resistance activities against the Spanish Republic and abroad.
Although the Republicans were aware of female Nationalist resistance, sabotage, and espionage, they could not comprehend that Nationalist women could have their own organizations and agency. This resulted from a mix of misogynistic contempt for their capabilities and paradoxically, fear. Moreover, the Republican conception of femininity, meant they were reluctant to punish women as harshly as men. The Republicans paradigm of the female spy was either the hyper-sexualized femme fatale-type, or the ‘light-headed’ gossip who manipulated her man or was manipulated by him (Lopez and Sanchez 2018: 707). This misogynistic perception helped female Nationalist’s objectives, as many operatives escaped detection. The majority of Nationalist female actions and their significance have been semi-forgotten due to historical and social biases, but also because of methodological limitations. After the eventual fall of the Republic in 1939, the vast majority of Nationalist female operatives adhered to quiet, domestic, and traditional Catholic lives. As Lopez and Sanchez (2018) conclude, these Nationalist females fought for this reality.
Lower’s book Hitler’s Furies (2013) captures female activity in fascism at a broader and deeper level of analysis. Nazism mutated with the synergy of idealism and youthful energy, created an obedient mass movement and assertive force (Lower 2013: 16). Pseudo-racial science, female comradery, and the political and economic instability of the Weimar Republic influenced female participation and/or tacit consent in Nazism. There were also historically rooted in conservative cultural traditions. These traditions became mixed with Prussian militarism that “cultivated a culture of total wars and ‘final solutions’…. Integrat[ing] women into a martial society as patriotic nurturers and combatants (Lower 2013: 29). Women ‘empowered’ by Nazism camaraderie (through the Hitler Youth League of German Girls and the Nazi Women’s Organization) were not ‘feminists’, but “agents of a conservative, racist revolution” (Lower 2013: 24).
In 1934 Hitler declared crushing the Jewish intellectuals and female activists that ‘spoke of emancipation’ and that Nazism would “emancipate women from woman’s emancipation” (Lower 2013: 24). For Hitler, female equality was a Marxist demand, and stated that equality would only put women in a precarious situation where they could not strengthen their position, but only weaken it (Lower 2013: 22), as women were inferior in Nazi ideology. For these conservative and Nazi women, their enemy was not the oppressive male, but the Jew, asocial, Bolshevik and the feminist, as many in the younger generation women saw the suffragettes as passé.
According to the regime, an Aryan woman’s main battle was for births, sacrificing their bodies in the service of the state and selective breeding. This gave zealous women power in socially policing, for a dictatorship does not require a massive secret police force when one’s neighbours are willing to do the surveillance work of the regime, out of fear, conformity, fanaticism, and spite. In particular, women policed pregnancies, preventing genetic disorders, including alcoholics, and the depressed, prostitutes with venereal diseases, Roma, Sinti women, and Jewish women. Thus, the “civil war for perfect Aryan babies was underway even before the outbreak” (Lower 2013: 23) of the war. This female involvement explicitly implicated women in the regime’s atrocities and its genocidal institutional and cultural structures.
In Chapter 6, Lower (2013) mentions Ruth Kempner’s post-war study on the Denazification of German women, determining that 600,000 were still dangerous because they were politically active leaders and indoctrinators. After the war many Nazi women did not see themselves as guilty, this might be explained by an immoral perception of duty, loyalty, or secrecy. But also, this was a self-defence strategy, for the Final Solution was a ‘defensive’ act against the encroaching power of a globalizing Jewry (Lower 2013: 162). This exhibits clear indoctrination, that may be explained by Theodor’s Adorno’s work, that authoritarian personalities result from moral socialization in a child’s upbringing. However, as Lower (2013) states, minimizing the violent behaviour of women creates a false shield against a more direct conformation with genocide and its disconcerting realities (Lower 2013: 158). Herman Weissing, Chief Officer for the Investigation of Nazi War crimes in North Rhine-Westphalia explains, he did not encounter anyone who could be described as psychopathic, for the individuals were not insane, it was the Nazi system that was crazy (Lower 2013: 161).
Although the Nazi and Franco leadership and military were dominated by men, women played a far larger role in ‘supporting’ fascism. Although women were largely implicated in fascism along intricately social and propagated gender lines, for instance in the female sectors of concentration camps, their position as birth-givers and socially policing ‘female roles’, women were also active in covert operations and physical torment by killing Jewish children and/or ‘rejected’ individuals.
Historians have largely dismissed the sophisticated and tangible value that women had in fascist movements. This exhibits a flaw in historical analysis and how historical evidence and methodology has been gathered. Moreover, the dismissal of the role women played in right-wing movements is limited by our own liberal biases and a dichotomy that female agency is largely a left-leaning equality driven process. Whereas, history has shown that counter-revolutionary women’s movements have also been intricate in right-wing and fascist movements.
Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). Chapter One and Chapter Six.
Sofía Rodríguez López and Antonio Cazorla Sánchez. “Blue Angels: Female Fascist Resisters, Spies and Intelligence Officials in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–9.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 53, no. 4, (Oct. 2018), pp. 692–713.
Angelique Chrisafis, “From Le Pen to Alice Weidel: How the European far-right set its sight on women” The Guardian January 29, 2019.