We’re away until January 3, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2016. Enjoy your holiday!
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.