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The WSPU and Fascism: Nora Dacre Fox

John Simkin

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On the surface it might seem strange that there are close links with the WSPU and fascism. After all, the WSPU fought for equal rights for women whereas fascists believed that men were superior to women. However, several leaders of the WSPU also held senior positions in the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Emmeline Pankhurst and two of her daughters, Adela and Christabel, moved to the far right after the First World War. Adela actually joined the fascist party in Australia. The main reason for this is the WSPU was run as a dictatorship. Those who believed in a democratic organisation left to form the Women's Freedom League. In reality, the WSPU, was always a very small organisation. At its peak it only had 2,000 members and by 1914 it only had a small number of activists. On the other hand, the fully democratic, National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had over 100,000 members. After women gained the vote, the NUWSS were active in the Labour and Liberal parties, the WSPU members tended to join the Conservative Party and the British Union of Fascists. Under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU was an authoritarian organisation. It therefore attracted authoritarian personalities. For example, one member of the WSPU, Mary Allen, founded the Women Police Volunteers in 1914. In 1920, Allen became the new Commandant of the Women Police Service. Later she joined the British Union of Fascists.

Nora Dacre Fox (Norah Elam) provides a good example of WSPU and BUF membership. She joined the WSPU in 1912 It has been argued by the authors of Mosley's Old Suffragette (2010) that her remarkable rhetorical skill allowed her to rise quickly through the WSPU ranks to become, by early 1913, its General Secretary. In this role she led the "campaign against forcible feeding, concentrating particularly on attempts to persuade Church of England bishops to denounce the practice." In May 1914 Norah Dacre Fox was arrested during a demonstration. While in Holloway Prison she went on hunger-and-thirst strike and was released on licence.

Nora Dacre Fox was involved in the production of The Suffragette, the WSPU newspaper. Emmeline Pankhurst later recalled: "The Government made several last, desperate efforts to crush the WSPU to remove all the leaders and to destroy our paper, The Suffragette. They issued summonses against Mrs. Drummond, Mrs. Dacre Fox, and Miss Grace Roe; they raided our headquarters at Lincoln's Inn House; twice they raided other headquarters temporarily in use; not to speak of raids made upon private dwellings where the new leaders, who had risen to take the places of those arrested, were at their work for the organisation."

On 30th July 1914 she was arrested at Buckingham Palace while attempting to present a letter from Mrs Pankhurst to King George V. According to Julie V. Gottlieb this resulted in her "thrice being imprisoned in Holloway for militant acts, and she had gone on hunger strike for which she received a medal with three bars from the leaders of the WSPU."

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. The leadership of the WSPU immediately began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."

Annie Kenney reported that orders came from Christabel Pankhurst: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Kenney later wrote: "Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war."

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, Norah Dacre Fox helped the WSPU organise a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.

By 1917 she had developed a very strong anti-German position. In one speech she argued: "We had to make a clean sweep of all persons of German blood, without distinction of sex, birthplace, or nationality." In the 1918 General Election she stood as an independent candidate in the Richmond constituency. During the campaign she argued that people of German birth should be deported from the country. She later recalled that "my own distrust of party politics made me chary of turning in this direction, and I preferred to stand as an Independent, going down with all other women candidates on this occasion, save one."

In 1922 she gave birth to a son. The father was Dudley Elam, who was already married to another woman. She now added "Elam" to her name by deep poll. According to Elizabeth Crawford: Having little interest in motherhood, arranged for a nanny to bring up her son. He was 9 years old before he realised that she was his mother."

Norah Elam now joined Flora Drummond and Elsie Bowerman to establish the Women's Guild of Empire, a right wing league opposed to communism. Drummond's biographer, Krista Cowman, pointed out: "When the war ended she was one of the few former suffragettes who attempted to continue the popular, jingoistic campaigning which the WSPU had followed from 1914 to 1918.... She founded the Women's Guild of Empire, an organization aimed at furthering a sense of patriotism in working-class women and defeating such socialist manifestations as strikes and lock-outs." She was also active in the Anti-Vivisection Society.

In the early 1930s she was living in Chichester with Dudley Elam. She was also an active member of the Conservative Party until she defected to the British Union of Fascist (BUF) in 1934. Her husband became an unpaid receptionist at the BUF's National Headquarters whereas Norah became the BUF County Women's Officer for West Sussex. She was also a regular contributor to BUF publications for the next six years.

It was not long before Norah Elam became very close to Oswald Mosley. The author of Femine Fascism: Women in Britain's Fascist Movement (2003) has pointed out: "Elam's status in the BUF and the sensitive tasks with which she was entrusted offer some substance to the BUF's claim to respect sexual equality. While, in principle, the movement was segregated by gender and women in positions of leadership were meant to have authority only over other women. Elam was quite evidently admitted to Mosley's inner circle."

In November 1936 Norah Elam was one of ten women the British Union of Fascists announced would be candidates in the next general election. Elam was selected to fight the Northampton constituency. Mosley used Norah's past as one of the leaders of the Women's Social and Political Union to counter the criticism that the BUF was anti-feminist. In one speech Norah Elam argued that her prospective candidacy for the House of Commons "killed for all time the suggestion that National Socialism proposed putting British women back in the home".

The outbreak of the Second World War reduced support for the British Union of Fascists. On 22nd May 1940 the British government announced the imposition of Defence Regulation 18B. This legislation gave the Home Secretary the right to imprison without trial anybody he believed likely to "endanger the safety of the realm". The following day, Norah Elam, Mosley, and other leaders of the BUF were arrested. On the 30th May the BUF was dissolved and its publications were banned.


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