Women of the far right and the historic appeal of fascism

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Two women gathered at a rally in support of former President Donald Trump. “2017.03.04 Pro-Trump Rallies Washington, DC USA 00401” by tedeytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Many of the infamous images of insurrection from January 6th feature men – Podium Guy Adam Johnston, Viking Guy Jake Angeli, and the man with his feet propped up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk Richard Barnett all come to mind as the obvious examples. Yet there were also plenty of women there that day.

There was Gina Bisignano, who, to quote HuffPost reporter Ryan Reilly, “stormed the Capitol in a Louis Vuitton sweater.” There was Dawn Bancroft and Diana Santos-Smith, who as NBC News reported, were arrested in connection with a video in which they claimed to have been in search of Pelosi in order “to shoot her in the friggin’ brain.” Ashli Babbitt, the first reported casualty of the day, was a virulent QAnon conspiracy theorist, the New York Times reported

Following the 2020 U.S. election, a New York Times exit poll found that 55 per cent of white women voters cast their ballots for Trump, compared to 44 per cent for Biden. While there is plenty of discourse back and forth over what exactly to make of that number, and semantic debates about its accuracy, there is a simpler truth that the number tells us: the alt-right appeals to white women, and not just a few of them. 

In looking to the historic participation of women in fascist regimes, we see that there is precedent for the appeal of fascism and the far right to white women in particular, despite these being causes that, some would argue, are detrimental to their interests.

As historians Sofía Rodríguez López and Antonio Cazorla Sánchez note, in seeking to understand the motives of women, too often that understanding relegates women to “merely supportive roles,” when the reality is that women were active and enthusiastic contributors to their causes. And those causes, as López and Sánchez explain, included active and enthusiastic support of fascist regimes such as in Francoist Spain.

Led by Pilar Primo de Rivera (center left), a group of Spanish women Falangist leaders, representing the Nationalists, were welcomed in Berlin by members of the Nazi Women’s Workers’ Division.

And yet while there are documented instances of this participation, López and Sánchez argue that these remain understudied. This is in large part due to the fact that the study of ordinary conservative women tends to exist in opposition to the values of gender-focussed historians. While the actions of women in leadership may be reviled, they can still be understood as some form of feminism.

Analogous to today might be someone like Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. While not a fascist, Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the highest court in the U.S. sparked many discussions about the dichotomy she embodies. She is only the fifth woman to serve on the court, out of the 114 justices in U.S. history, and yet for many women she represents a powerful threat to the rights of women, particularly around reproductive rights. But a degree of understanding is extended to her because, despite all of that, she is still a woman seizing power in a male-dominated arena; there’s an air of feminism to it.

Yet as the historian of Nazi Germany, Claudia Koonz, showed us in her book, Mothers of the Fatherland, ordinary women were both drawn to and complicit in fascism.

Feminist scholar Catharine R. Simpson writes that although “many societies deprive women of power over themselves, women still have power to exercise. Women, though Other to men, have their Others too.” She calls to mind the ownership of Black slaves, both men and women, by white women in the U.S., as well as Koonz’ point that women in Nazi Germany did participate in genocide, both actively and passively.

Italian historian Daniella Rossini describes how, in Italy from 1911 to 1912, there was a marked shift within the Italian feminist movement to more closely align themselves with Italian nationalism, throwing their support behind the colonization of Libya. Rossini argues that the war, and the promise of a new Italy, strengthened those bonds, and soon Italian women found themselves part of a regime which in turn sought to stifle them.

In shifting focus to the present day, many have theorized what appeal 21st century iterations of the far right hold for women, and notably white women. Annie Kelly argued that QAnon held a natural appeal for mothers, given the rhetoric within QAnon advocating “Freedom for the Children.” In the Guardian, Angelique Chrisafis, Kate Connolly, and Angela Giuffrida found that these allegiances are attributable to financial hardship, which disproportionately affects women, and populist messaging warning feminists that immigration will result in a women’s rights backslide.

But what is certain is that it is not a new phenomenon, and when seeking to ascertain motive and understanding, we should be reminded of the wide range of experiences and circumstances which have historically brought women into the fold of the far right.


Historical analogy – does it help or harm?

Michaela Bax-Leaney

As Peter Gordon and Samuel Moyn converse with one another about the efficacy of historical analogy and comparison – particularly in the context of fascism and the current political climate – there appears to be a misunderstanding between the two authors which de Grazia addresses very early on in her article. It seems that Gordon and Moyn are basing their articles on two different meanings of fascism – Moyn engages with fascism as a historical phenomenon, while Gordon’s definition extends more broadly to the political label. De Grazia strikes an important balance in her piece. There is the essential task of knowing and remembering fascism as an historical event – it led to some of the worst suffering humanity has borne witness to. However, there is a very real risk of oversimplifying that event and applying it to modern goings on. That is not to say that fascism is not a real and present threat in the 21st century, but rather, an effort must be made to understand it for what it is, rather than as a shadow or imitation of something else.

There also appears to be a disconnect in the language employed by Gordon and Moyn in the use of analogy vs comparison. Gordon very intentionally prefers analogy, and makes a point of it, writing that “there’s an important difference between analogy and comparison but I’ll ignore that difference here.” Moyn, on the other hand, titles his piece “The Trouble with Comparison.” This may simply be a matter of semantics, but one wonders if the difference speaks to a broader misunderstanding between the two. After all, they both seem to be working towards a similar overall point – that there is a very critical need to address and seek to understand fascism in the modern context, and historical sensibility is very necessary in achieving that understanding. While their disagreements on how exactly to undertake the historical sensibility do differ, and I do not believe those differences can be boiled down to word choice and a slightly different working definition of the word fascism, they both recognize the benefits and pitfalls of analogy/comparison, and caution against similar things; namely, that historical comparison, if it is to be done, be done very cautiously, intentionally, and in recognition of De Grazia’s point that modern fascism ultimately does need to be recognized as its own phenomenon. In coming away from their articles, I am left wondering how best to go about that, in an actionable and practical sense, rather than just the theoretical.

Works Cited

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square

https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-historymussolini- hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

Peter E. Gordon, “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” NYR Daily (7 January 2020),

https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Samuel Moyn, “The Trouble with Comparisons,” NYR Daily (19 May 2020)

https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/