Notes on Women and Right-Wing Movements

by Matthew Lyons
September 2005

This article was written for Three Way Fight, a radical anti-fascist blog which presents the perspective that fascism represents a right-wing revolutionary force confronting both the left and global capitalism.

Sources are listed at the end of the article.

-- Part One --

A "three-way-fight" approach to fascism challenges simplistic frames of analysis. In particular, it challenges (1) a dualistic "Oppressor-versus-Oppressed" model of struggle, (2) caricatures of far-right movements as simply agents of top-down repression, and (3) the idea that the left is the only insurgent force that speaks to people's grievances and needs. These points are clear in three-way-fight discussions of fascism's potential to rally mass working-class support.

We need to use this same nuanced approach when it comes to discussions of fascism and women. Women and gender politics are major issues for the right, and our analysis of fascism needs to address this in a central way. In particular, we need to address the following realities:

(I'm using "far right" here to include both fascist movements and also right-wing populist movements that are related to fascism in terms of ideology, organizing dynamics, and social base, but which stop short of fascism's revolutionary challenge to the status quo.)

I offer here some tentative thoughts about the ways right-wing movements have addressed women and gender issues, which I hope will stimulate further discussion, research, and debate. Part One of these notes concentrates mainly on classic European fascism and its political descendents -- what we might call "conventional" fascism. Part Two will discuss religious-based movements, such as the Christian right and Hindu nationalism, which fall outside the conventional fascist tradition but have a lot in common with it. A list of sources and suggested readings appears at the end.

Since the end of World War I, when fascism first emerged as a major organized force, far-right movements have promoted gender politics based on some synthesis -- or contradictory mixture -- of four themes:

Patriarchal traditionalism - Often formulated in religious terms, this current promotes rigid gender roles based on a romanticized image of the past. Women are confined to domestic roles as wife, mother, caregiver, plus at most a few (under)paid jobs that extend these roles into the wage economy. Women are to obey men, especially fathers and husbands, who supposedly provide them security and protection (especially, in racist versions, protection against sexually aggressive men of other ethnicities). Traditionalism emphasizes the family as the main framework for male dominance. Heterosexuality is required. This is the most conservative current of far-right gender politics, although the "traditions" being defended are arbitrary, selective, and often made up.

Male bonding through warfare - This theme emphasizes warfare (hardship, risk of death, shared acts of violence and killing) as the basis for deep emotional and spiritual ties between men. It is often implicitly homoerotic and occasionally celebrates male homosexuality openly, and is frequently at odds with "bourgeois" family life. In the cult of male comradeship, women may be targets of violent contempt or simply ignored as irrelevant and invisible. In Europe during and after World War I, this current flourished as an ideology that spoke to the cameraderie of the trenches and later street-fighting organizations.

Demographic nationalism - This theme embodies fears that the nation (or privileged classes or ethhnic groups within it) is not reproducing fast enough. A variant says that the quality of the national "stock" is declining because of cultural degeneration or racial mixing, and therefore eugenics programs are needed to control human breeding. Demographic nationalism says women's main duty to the nation is to have lots of babies (and, in the eugenics variant, the right kind of babies). This doctrine rejects homosexuality as a betrayal of the duty to reproduce, but also sometimes clashes with patriarchal traditionalism -- for example in the Nazis' program to encourage out-of-wedlock births among "racially pure" Germans. Demographic nationalism (especially eugenicist versions) also tends to centralize male control over women through the state, which weakens patriarchal authority within the family.

Quasi-feminism - This current advocates specific rights for women, such as educational opportunities, equal pay for equal work, and the right to vote, and encourages women to engage in political activism, develop self-confidence and professional skills, and take on leadership roles. But quasi-feminism can't go too far with this, because like other fascistic ideologies it assumes that humans are naturally divided and unequal. This means that quasi-feminism accepts men's overall dominance, embraces gender roles as natural and immutable, advocates only specific rights for women rather than comprehensive equality, and often promotes rights only for economically or ethnically privileged women. (None of this is unique to the far right, of course.)

One of fascism's distinctive features is the tension between forward- and backward-looking tendencies -- what Michael Staudenmaier has called a "dialectic of nostalgia and progress." Gender politics is one of the main arenas where that tension gets played out, and the four themes outlined above are one way to think about that. If patriarchal traditionalism represents fairly pure nostalgia for the past (even if it's an imaginary past), each of the other three themes represents fascism's forward-looking side, its push to shake things up and create something new. By combining these conflicting themes fascism not only appeals to constituencies that want different things but also speaks to people's self-contradictory longings and impulses.

In addition, quasi-feminism embodies fascism's tendency to take on, in distorted form, elements of political movements it aims to destroy. It's the same dynamic that produces fascist "socialism" -- which attacks specific features of capitalism and specific groups of capitalists, but not the principles of economic exploitation and class hierarchy on which capitalism is based.

In the era of "classic" fascism (1919-1945), quasi-feminism was generally the weakest of the four themes shaping far-right gender politics. But in certain contexts where feminism had made an important impact (notably through campaigns for women's suffrage), quasi-feminism played a surprisingly important role on the far right. Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists supported women's right to work for pay equal to men's, and recruited former suffragists who saw fascism as a way to continue fighting for women's rights. In the U.S., the 1920s Klan movement (a right-wing populist movement that had many fascistic characteristics) included a semi-autonomous women's organization, Women of the Ku Klux Klan. The WKKK built directly on earlier women's suffrage and temperance movements, in which racism and nativism were rampant. The WKKK criticized gender inequality among White Protestants and described the home as a place of "monstrous and grinding toil and sacrifice" for women. (On the BUF, see Durham; on the WKKK, see Blee.)

These patterns have continued in recent decades among classic fascism's political descendents. Neofascist groups embody all four of the gender politics themes outlined above. In North America and western Europe, neofascist groups tend to be explicitly male supremacist and mostly recruit men. But some of them have also tried to mobilize women and neofascists sometimes incorporate feminist-sounding themes in unexpected ways.

White Aryan Resistance, a leading third positionist group in the 1980s US, sponsored a women's affiliate called the Aryan Women's League, which promoted the slogan "White power plus Women's power!" Germany's Republikaner opposed abortion but declared in their 1990 platform that "women and men have equal rights. The right to self-actualization applies equally to women and men; this is especially true in occupational life." The Italian Social Movement (MSI), which for decades was Europe's largest neofascist party, urged a "no" vote on the 1974 referendum that legalized divorce, yet advocated a salary for housewives.

A 1985 MSI poster highlighted the contradictions of fascist quasi-feminism. It denounced Marxist feminism ("which is based on an equality which goes against nature") but also rejected "the exploitation of traditions, which relegate women to restricted and historically obsolete roles." Instead, the poster called for a form of equal rights based on the complementarity of the sexes and women's "unrelinquishable freedom to choose which roles to pursue in society." (On the Republikaner and the MSI, see Durham, pp. 86-88.)

It would be an exaggeration to treat these sentiments as typical of neofascist gender politics, just as it would be a distortion to treat working-class fascism as a major reality. In both cases, we are dealing with subcurrents that deserve special attention -- because they're key to the far right's potential to "take the game away from the left."

-- Part 2 --

Gender politics has always been important to the political right, but in the current period it's more important than ever before. To get a full sense of this, we need to look beyond classic fascism's direct descendents to the array of religious-based rightist movements. Globally, the religious right is highly diverse, encompassing movements that define themselves in terms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths—and many of these movements are themselves highly fragmented. Some of these movements, or sections of them, arguably deserve the label "fascist," and many more of them have important points in common with fascist ideology, organizational strategy, and social base.

Unlike classic fascism, some religious-based movements, notably the Christian right and the Islamic right, put gender politics at the center of their program. For them, reasserting heterosexual male dominance and rigid gender roles are more important than any other goals. These may be the first organized mass movements—at least since the European witch-burnings of 400 years ago—that have placed this degree of emphasis on promoting women's oppression.

At the same time, religious-based rightist movements generally embody some mix of the four gender-politics themes I outlined in Part One of these notes: patriarchal traditionalism, demographic nationalism, militaristic male bonding, and quasi-feminism. Even the Christian right and Islamic right show some of the same complexities we see in conventional fascist movements.

The U.S. Christian right has recruited large numbers of women with a contradictory blend of messages. On the one hand, the movement promotes a system of gender roles that offers many women a sense of security and meaning and, in Andrea Dworkin's words, "promises to put enforceable restraints on male aggression" (p. 21). Women are told that if they agree to be obedient housewives and mothers, their husbands will reward them with protection, economic support, and love. Feminism is denounced as unnatural, elitist, man-hating, and a dangerous rejection of the safety that the traditional family supposedly offers women.

Within this overall framework, however, Christian rightists often implicitly use concepts borrowed from feminism—for example, arguing that abortion "exploits women" or that federal support for childcare is wrong because it supposedly limits women's choices. A bestselling sex manual by Christian right leaders Timothy and Beverly LaHaye declares that (married, heterosexual) women have a right to sexual pleasure, endorses birth control, and encourages women to be active in lovemaking. Christian rightist women's groups have also encouraged many women to become more self-confident and assertive, speak publicly, take on leadership roles, and get graduate training—as long as they do so in the service of the movement's patriarchal agenda.

Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America, which claims over half a million members, vilifies feminism as a threat to the traditional family and healthy moral values. Yet the CWA's website is studded with feminist-sounding language regarding political and social equality, sexual harassment, violence against women, the importance of women's education, and other themes. A CWA position paper opposing comparable worth is titled "Undermining Women's Choices." It argues, not that women have a duty to be homemakers, but rather "women have taken incredible strides in the workplace" and "it is already illegal to pay unequal wages to equally qualified men and women who do the same job." "The real hardship women face is having to compromise staying home with family and working outside the home for financial reasons. Women who choose to stay at home with their children have not received the respect and support they deserve." In such ways, Christian rightists use specific realities of women's oppression to bolster their patriarchal agenda.

In many countries, the Islamic right offers women a comparable mix of traditionalist and quasi-feminist incentives. Islamic rightist women's organizations, Nikki Keddie argues,

provide outlets for activity and creativity that are usually approved by one's family, even dominant males. This means that for many Muslim, fundamentalist women ... young women can go to the mosque or women's religiopolitical gatherings without overt family control. Some may reject marriage partners their parents propose, on the ground that the intended are not good Muslims. Many women note that men respect them more if they dress in the fundamentalist women's covered but novel 'uniform,' and they thus avoid sexual harassment. On the one hand, religiopolitics gives an ideology and greater self-respect to women who want to devote time and concern to their families, and it avoids some of the dilemmas of free choice regarding sexual questions. For women who want to work outside the home, on the other hand, religiopolitics offers a badge of traditionalism and respectability to carrying out a new way of life, and, in Iran and other countries, many women can work in fundementalist dress who could not work outside the home before. Activity in religious politics creates a proud ideology for those with traditionalist views, and, for some women, is more a way of coming to terms with the modern world than a rejection of that world. Fundamentalists commonly accept many contemporary, and even Western-oriented, changes in women's status, including education, companionate marriage, and, de facto, a place in the workforce. Their family ideal is often only a few decades old.
Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) illustrates some of these dynamics. FIS supporters have murdered women for appearing in public without the veil, yet the movement has also attracted women in substantial numbers. Algerian feminist Khalida Messaoudi has argued that this mobilization must be understood in relation to decades of rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN), which sought to modernize and secularize Algeria while maintaining women's oppression:
The FLN destroyed all the traditionally valued places, the places of the inside, but without proposing others: only 4.2 percent of women work in Algeria.... The FIS, for those who accept the veil, offers them all 'some places outside,' for example, the mosque. There, they are allowed what even the FLN denies them: a political voice. FIS women's 'cells' debate every subject all over Algeria. This way they have the impression of acquiring a certain power and power that interests them (quoted in Slyomovics, 217).
Policies toward women vary substantially among Islamic rightist movements. Afghanistan's Taliban represent the most repressive end of this continuum, with their near-total effort to drive women and girls out of public life. The Taliban closed all girls' schools and barred women from working in nearly all jobs, leaving their homes without a male relative or without being covered head to toe, being treated by male doctors, playing sports, singing, and much more. Women's courtroom testimony was legally worth half of a man's testimony and women could not petition a court except through a close male relative, family planning was outlawed, and women were frequently beaten, mutilated, or killed for breaking the rules.

The Taliban have always been a fighting organization of men only, with no interest in recruiting or mobilizing women. In terms of the far-right gender themes I outlined in Part One, the Taliban blend patriarchal traditionalism with a culture of militaristic male bonding similar to the fascist paramilitaries of the 1920s and 1930s.

In contrast to the Taliban, Iran's 1979 revolution included many women on the front lines and brought in a significantly different set of gender policies. Iran's Islamic Republic placed many new strictures on women, such as barring them from certain occupations and courses of study and requiring all but their hands and faces to be covered in public. Husbands received full control over divorce and child custody, polygamy was legalized, and the marriage age for girls was lowered to nine years. At the same time, the Islamic Republic allowed women to vote and hold seats in the legislature (but not as judges). Mass literacy campaigns and free education raised female literacy from less than 25 percent in 1970 to over 70 percent in 2000.

Over the years, some of Iran's misogynistic policies were softened, either because of economic development needs (as Farideh Farhi argues) or pressure from Islamist women activists (as Homa Hoodfar contends). Keddie, writing in 1999, noted a "resurgence of women's activities in the media, teaching, filmmaking, literature, and the arts, and a maintenance of women's employment, so that women are far freer and participate more broadly throughout the labor force than in some Muslim countries that do not have Islamist governments."

In the Islamic Republic's first decade, demographic nationalism led the government to dismantle family planning programs, but this policy was later reversed. Subsidized contraceptives are now widely available through a network of health clinics, religious leaders have issued fatwas encouraging birth control, and both men and women are required to take a class in contraception to get a marriage license (although the responsibility still falls mainly to women). Even abortion, which is currently illegal except to save the mother's life, has been seriously debated: In 2005 the Iranian parliament passed a law that would have allowed abortion within the first four months of pregnancy -- if the fetus was disabled and would impose a financial burden on the family. The Guardians Council struck down the law on religious grounds.

Keddie draws a useful, if imperfect, distinction between religious fundamentalism and religious nationalism. Fundamentalist movements (whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish) emphasize a narrow reading of scripture or a specific set of religious practices and aim to impose their version of religion on society as a whole through control of the state. Rigid gender roles and subordinating women are central to this program.

Religious nationalist movements, by contrast, don't usually stress purity of religous doctrine or practice. Instead, they use religious identity as a rallying point, coupled with the exclusion and vilification of other ethnoreligious groups. Examples of this kind of movement include Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist nationalist movements in South Asia, Serb and Croat nationalists in the former Yugoslavia, and militant Israeli settler groups such as Gush Emunim (although Gush Emunim actually includes many religious fundamentalists in coalition with more secular nationalists).

Religious nationalists, Keddie argues, tend to put less emphasis than fundamentalists on subordinating women, and sometimes present themselves as champions of gender equality. But religious nationalists "discourage any independent assertion of women's rights as divisive to the national struggle."

India's Hindu nationalist movement, centered on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and related organizations, is a prime example of religious nationalism. Promoting Hindu supremacy and the hatred (and mass murder) of Muslims, the movement has become one of the most powerful political forces in India, with the BJP heading two coalition governments between 1998 and 2004. For the most part, Hindu nationalists uphold a deeply patriarchal form of traditionalism, and anti-Muslim pogroms have specially targeted Muslim women for rape, mutilation, and murder. But some Hindu nationalists see themselves as opponents of women's oppression -- which they identify with Islam. In Keddie's words, "Hindu nationalists use women's equality issues as a rhetorical stick with which to beat Muslims, and not as a basis for a struggle for equality and against atrocities against women [perpetrated by Hindus], such as 'bride-burning' to accumulate dowries."

It's important to put all of these movements in a larger context. Rightist gender politics and the right's increased focus on controlling women overlap with what Butch Lee calls "the worldwide war against women and children" -- the wave of battery, murder, and sexual assault, including the organized use of mass rape by soldiers and paramilitaries, from Bosnia to Darfur to Tailhook. Many rightist movements are major players in this war, using systematic violence and threats to enforce women's obedience. At the same time, these movements also hold out to women the prospect of safety and protection from male violence if they follow the rules.

Like the overall wave of misogynistic violence, the political right's gender politics is also intertwined with global capitalism's campaign to pull women more systematically into the international market economy, as consumers and especially as wage workers. This process, at the center of capitalist globalization, is shifting gender roles and restructuring male dominance -- sometimes in ways that erode the traditional male power of fathers, husbands, and local elites.

It's tempting to see far-right gender politics as a straightforward rejection of capitalist globalization, a drive to force women out of the wage labor force and back into full domestic submission. While there's some truth to this, I think it's only part of the story. As we've seen, even the Christian right and the Islamic right often blend patriarchal traditionalism with a measure of quasi-feminism, telling women that it's okay to move into new jobs and new roles as long as they do it in an ideologically controlled way.

In addition, patriarchal traditionalism itself can serve global capitalist interests, at least in some contexts. Maria Mies, in her groundbreaking book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, argues that "housewifization" -- the process of defining all women as housewives -- is itself a part of capitalist development and replaces older gender roles, as the nuclear family replaces older forms of social organization. In today's global economy, housewifization enables the new international division of labor to function smoothly. When homemaking is defined as women's natural, proper role, then all of women's paid work can be defined "as supplementary work, her income as supplementary income to that of the so-called main 'breadwinner,' the husband" -- which means women can be paid much less than men. Housewifization also makes it easier to control women politically: "Housewives are atomized and isolated, their work organization makes the awareness of common interests, of the whole process of production, very difficult. Their horizon remains limited by the family. Trade unions have never taken interest in women as housewives" (Mies,118, 116).

If global capitalism's "housewifization" has something in common with far-right gender traditionalism, that doesn't mean the two will always agree. It does mean that there's room for both compromise and open warfare between right-wing movements and international capital, on policies for women as on other issues. With complexities and contradictions on both sides, the specifics will vary from society to society and from one historical moment to another. In some cases, this dynamic may intensify the conflicts over gender politics within the far right, for example over how much to emphasize the state versus the family as the center of male dominance, or how much and in what ways to seek women's active support.

Sources for Part One:

  • Blee, Kathleen M. Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Bridenthal, Renate, Atina Grossman, and Marion Kaplan, eds. When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984.
  • De Grazia, Victoria. How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
  • Durham, Martin. Women and Fascism. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Koonz, Claudia. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.
  • Kühl, Stefan. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Mosse, George L. Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

  • Sources for Part Two:

  • Bahramitash, Roksana. "Revolution, Islamization, and Women's Employment in Iran," The Brown Journal of World Affairs 9, no. 2 (Winter/Spring 2003).
  • Concerned Women for America, "Undermining Women's Choices," 25 February 1999.
  • Andrea Dworkin, Right-Wing Women. New York: Cowar-McCann, 1983.
  • Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Farhi, Farideh. "The Contending Discourses on Women in Iran," Focus (newsletter of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center), nos. 11 & 12 (March & September, 1998).
  • Hale, Sondra. "The Women of Sudan's National Islamic Front." In Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report, 234-249. Edited by Joel Beinin and Joe Stork. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Hardisty, Jean. "Kitchen Table Backlash: The Antifeminist Women's Movement." In Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon, 1999.
  • Hoodfar, Homa. "Devices and Desires: Population Policy and Gender Roles in the Islamic Republic." In Political Islam, edited by Beinin and Stork, 211-219.
  • "Iran's Parliament eases abortion law," The Daily Star (Lebanon), 13 April 2005.
  • "Iran Rejects Easing of Abortion Law," LifeSiteNews.com, 9 May 2005.
  • Keddie, Nikki. "The New Religious Politics and Women Worldwide: A Comparative Study,"Journal of Women's History, 10, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 11-34.
  • Larsen, Janet. "Iran: Model for Family Planning," Washington Free Press, no. 60 (November/December 2002).
  • Lee, Butch. "Women's War Daily #1: For Women Only: after Anti-War movements win or lose in Iraq...there's still Women."
  • Lee, Butch. "Women's War Daily #2: For Women Only: The Rape Movement in Iraq & Men's Anti-War Politics."
  • Mies, Maria. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. London: Zed, 1986.
  • Omvedt, Gail. "Hindu nationalism & women," The Hindu, 27 & 28 April 2000.
  • Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, "Some of the restrictions imposed by Taliban on women in Afghanistan."
  • Sharma, Jyotirmaya. "The Women of the Sangh," The Hindu, 24 September 2004.
  • Slyomovics, Susan. "'Hassiba Ben Bouali, If You Could See Our Algeria': Women and Public Space in Algeria." In Political Islam, edited by Beinin and Stork, 220-233.

  • Return to Matthew N. Lyons Bibliography