How Rotha Lintorn-Orman became the unlikely founder of the British Fascisti.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
When Britain had its brush with fascism in the 1930s, it came not in the form of some ugly, uncouth gate-crasher, as has been the case in many Western nations, but a suave establishment tyro: Sir Oswald Mosley, once a Labour MP tipped for Number 10 Downing Street before becoming the leader of the British Union of Fascists—colloquially known as the Blackshirts—in 1932. When the Blackshirts suddenly, and thankfully briefly, emerged as a political force, it was widely accepted that Mosley’s good looks and sexual charisma was at least partially responsible. “He has what is known as ‘magnetism’ … sex-appeal of a sort,” wrote Lionel Birch in his 1936 study Why They Join the Fascists. “For some people, his appearance resembles that of a traditional cavalry officer, for others that of a traditional gigolo.” Mosley’s contemporary, the former Labour cabinet minister Ellen Wilkinson, thought of him as one of the cads played by Rudolph Valentino, not “the nice kind of hero who rescues the girl at the point of torture, but the one who hisses, ‘At last … we meet.’ ” As the historian Robert Skidelsky explains, Mosley deliberately cultivated a public image of a “dark, passionate, Byronic gentleman-villain of the melodrama,” twirling his waxed mustache as he vanquished his enemies and ravished their daughters.
Mosley considered his womanizing one of his great strengths, and in private took the business of treating women like dirt extremely seriously; he repeatedly cheated on his first wife, including with her sister and, so he once claimed, her stepmother. Publicly, he was “pledged to complete sex equality.” He maintained that nobody had more respect for women than he did, and that “my movement has been largely built by women.” The notion that the Blackshirts were seriously committed to furthering the collective and individual rights of women is as spurious and dishonest as most of what came out of Mosley’s mouth. Like his hero Mussolini, he considered fascism a bulwark of masculinity against women’s suffrage, consumerism, mass media, and the other emasculating assaults of the modern age. Yet, he was right that women played a more prominent role in building fascism in Britain than had been the case on mainland Europe. In fact, the first Briton to lead an avowedly fascist organization was a woman named Rotha Lintorn-Orman, the founder of the British Fascisti.
Lintorn-Orman was born into upper-middle-class comfort in the coastal town of Bournemouth, England, in 1895. Her mother was Blanche Lintorn-Orman, a billowing force of nature who was among the first women to start the Girl Scout movement, of which Rotha became a proud leader aged fourteen. The regimentation and discipline of the Scouts appealed to her, as did its emphasis on a vigorous kind of life that respectable Edwardian ladies were generally not encouraged to pursue. Slightly too young to have experienced the heat of the suffragettes’ battles, Rotha came of age—in more ways than one—as an ambulance driver in World War I. According to her own testimony she won numerous medals for her bravery and diligence before being invalided home with malaria in 1917. She found another means of serving her country, taking on an important role at the Red Cross headquarters in Piccadilly.
She returned from the continent with a burnished sense of patriotism, but afflicted by hidden wounds. The shell-shocked male soldier has become the emblem of that conflict, but less attention is given to the young women who endured similar trauma. Precisely what Lintorn-Orman experienced is unclear, but it stained the rest of her short, fractious life. The end of the war signaled the end of her military service; men filtered back from the trenches and snatched away the brief glimpse she’d had of a prominent public position. She drifted without much direction, began drinking heavily, and began to abuse drugs. Eventually, she moved to a dairy farm in Somerset, but she missed active duty with a physical pain and kept her connection to those years by cropping her hair daringly short, wearing shirts and ties, and displaying her medals proudly on the peaked lapels of her jackets. Contemporaries found her androgyny highly odd; the phrase mannish woman was used frequently. Not that Lintorn-Orman much cared about the judgments of the mainstream. To her, civilian life seemed agonizingly dull, both predictable and aimless; a continuous, stretchless yawn. For five years she waited for a beginning or an end.
It was Mussolini who offered the chance for reinvention. In October 1922, he was invited to form a government by King Victor Emmanuel III, effectively ending Italy’s experiment with democracy. Seven months later Lintorn-Orman formed her own fascist movement, inspired not just by Il Duce’s audacity but an unusual epiphany. As she always told it, she was digging her garden in the spring of 1923 when the realization hit her that Britain was being ruined by foreigners and communists who could only be stopped by the decisive actions of brave patriots prepared to descry the shibboleths of liberal democracy. On the spot, she began the British Fascisti, an ultraconservative paramilitary organization that saw itself as a sort of middle-England minutemen.
As far-right origin myths go, this was tame stuff, and the image of her suddenly sensing the leftist threat while pottering around in her sleepy Somerset village—not a fantastically fertile breeding ground for Bolshevism—doesn’t quite ring true. There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of her anticommunist views, but perhaps what terrified her more than the thought of the Soviet flag fluttering above Buckingham Palace was the prospect of watching her life seep into the herbaceous borders, tending to nature but never mastering it.
The British Fascisti afforded Lintorn-Orman some control over a world in which she felt a powerless misfit, punished by the fact of her sex and her unconventionality. Indeed, she was one of a number of British women who came to this early incarnation of fascism in part because of a sense of self that could be neither expunged nor accepted by polite society. Valerie Arkell-Smith, born in the same year as Lintorn-Orman, also served in the war, signing up for the Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1914. In 1926, she joined the National Fascisti, a splinter group of Lintorn-Orman’s organization, but did so as a man. Arkell-Smith, as she was, had been a mother of two young children until 1923, the year she left the man she was living with and married Elfrida Haward under the new identity of Colonel Victor Barker. In its invective against complacent elites, and its veneration of the unthinkable and the unspeakable, this radical new creed—yet to accrete the horrors of the thirties and forties—offered the hope of refuge to at least some of those on the fringes.
From the start, the British Fascisti was a piebald beast: it attempted to fuse provincial British decorum with political violence and authoritarianism. The inherent contradiction in aping an Italian political movement in order to protect Britain from non-British influences does not appear to have occurred to Lintorn-Orman, at least not until 1924, when she changed the group’s name to British Fascists, which was marginally more fitting. Only marginally, though. As far as fellow travelers of the far-right were concerned, Lintorn-Orman’s group was fascism of the fourth-pressing. That view is supported by the BF’s activism, which comprised mainly strikebreaking and the stewarding of public appearances of far-right speakers and agitators—but not the intimidation of journalists, or disruption of democratic elections that had been the signature moves of Mussolini’s squadistri. The fascism-lite approach meant that within a couple of years of its founding, the British Fascists began to be outflanked by other fascist organizations, especially the one run by Arthur Leese, an ideological anti-Semite who lambasted just about every other British extremist for not being adequately exercised about the international Jewish conspiracy. Even Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts were derided as limp-wristed “kosher fascists.” Trenchantly xenophobic though she may have been, Lintorn-Orman could never out-fascist a thoroughbred crackpot like Leese, who explicitly advocated using poison gas to murder every Jew on the planet several years before the Nazis attempted it.
Leese had been an early member of the BF, but quickly became disillusioned with its tepidness; “conservatism with knobs on,” to use his words. He was also one of its many members who criticized Lintorn-Orman for being chaotic, vacillating, and divisive. From the testimony of other members, it does seem that she had a rare ability to rub people the wrong way, and was the sort of impassioned politico who could start a stand-up row alone in the confession booth. But the same could easily be said of Leese, and in a man they may well have been qualities he admired. What probably underpinned his dislike of Lintorn-Orman was her commitment to protecting female participation in the leadership of the organization she created and bankrolled. The BF had female-only paramilitary units, and to encourage the involvement of mothers it created the Fascist Children’s Club. At one of the club’s Christmas parties, Lintorn-Orman dressed up as Father Christmas, dispensed presents, and bounced toddlers on her knee. The BF also had several women on its executive committee who ensured their voices were heard. Around the time of the General Strike in 1926, a proposal was tabled to integrate the BF with another far-right group in order to combine resources and to more effectively act against the trade unions. But Lintorn-Orman and the other women at the top of the BF voted it down. They were determined not to lose the BF’s independence and with it a place of prominence for women in the nation’s burgeoning fascist movement.
None of which is to say that she should be raised up as a feminist pathbreaker. As the historian Julie Gottlieb has argued, her cause was to earn women the right to serve the state, rather than to secure full civil and voting rights. It may be that Lintorn-Orman, a woman frequently referred to as a “fascist feminist,” falls short of either designation, although several other women of her generation could lay claim to both. Mary Richardson, a suffragette best remembered for defacing Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus during a “Votes for Women” protest in 1914, became one of Mosley’s Blackshirts in the thirties, as did her friend, the Hitlerian fanatic Mary Allen, who traveled Europe investigating the workings of fascist regimes. Twenty years earlier, Allen and her lesbian partner had overseen Britain’s first division of female police officers, and before that had been active members of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union. “I was first attracted to the Blackshirts,” she explained, “because I saw in them the courage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service, the ability to serve which I had known in the suffragette movement.” She also admired the fascists’ use of political violence, something the suffragettes had employed to protect themselves against assaults from men. Seeing that “the Blackshirts were attacked for no visible cause or reason,” Allen wrote of her decision to join the party, “I admired them the more when they hit back, and hit hard.”
After a failed attempt to merge the BF with a rival in 1926, Lintorn-Orman strengthened her hold on the group, but continued to be an ineffective leader. With no clear objective other than to oppose and disrupt the left, the BF floundered. Like its leader, it represented little more than a cloudy vision of national pride and antiforeign prejudice. When Lintorn-Orman boasted in 1932 that the BF had nearly a million people on its books, it might have been an expression of her self-delusion, but more likely a sign of desperation: Mosley had just announced the formation of his own fascist party with the blessing of Mussolini. Under the weight of Mosley’s glamorous celebrity, the BF was bound to be crushed. Immediately, there were discussions about folding the BF into the new organization, but Lintorn-Orman resisted, in part because she knew that Mosley’s Blackshirts would never allow women the same prominence and freedom they’d enjoyed in the BF. The conflict, inevitably, became violent, culminating in several dozen of Mosleyite thugs storming into the BF headquarters, smashing the place up, and injuring four people with blows to the head. For the second time in her life, Lintorn-Orman’s sense of purpose was being undermined and removed from her.
The stress of these events very likely contributed to a dramatic decline in her health. In the summer of 1932 the BF’s own newspaper reported that she had sustained serious injuries after having a heart attack. The next year, the Metropolitan Police recorded that her mother feared that Lintorn-Orman was being led astray by manipulative members of the BF, who were corrupting her with drugs, “drunken orgies and undesirable practices,” and stealing her money. Certain of her friends made similar claims to the police, and the picture of Lintorn-Orman that emerges from the mid-1930s is one of a desperately ill woman who had lost control of her life. By 1934, the intelligence services believed her to be receiving treatment for a serious alcohol-related illness. A few months later, in March 1935, she died at the Santa Brigida Hotel on the Canary Islands, at just thirty-nine.
For ninety years the story of Rotha Lintorn-Orman and the BF has puzzled, shocked, and amused. It seems perverse that well-to-do young women should have assumed roles at the vanguard of a priapic antidemocratic movement just as women across the Western world began to win their long struggle for suffrage. But perhaps the strangeness of the notion also says something about the way we expect women to behave in the political arena: women with astringent views at the poles of the political spectrum still seem to have the power to wrong-foot, despite the fact that the last century is replete with female support for causes that were meant to have been toxic to women. Donald Trump’s run for the presidency is a piquant recent example, though the American far right has always had powerful women at the fore. Even at the peak of his malevolent powers, Stephen Bannon would struggle to outstrip Elizabeth Dilling, whose anti-Semitic, white-supremacist screeds sold in disturbingly huge numbers in the United States during the 1930s and forties. It’s a reminder that whether we’re talking about “nasty women” or Nazi women, female engagement in politics has never been conducted solely on the plane of gender issues as we are sometimes encouraged to believe, but in the baffling three-dimensional universe that is the real world.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.