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How Right-Wing Populists in Europe are Redefining Gender Politics

October 25, 2019

How Right-Wing Populists in Europe are Redefining Gender Politics

October 25, 2019

With the rise of populist right-wing groups in Europe, gender politics are in play. Increasingly and in what may be viewed as a counter-intuitive move, gender equality, usually understood to mean women’s rights or parity for the LGBTQIA community, has been taken up as a rallying cause by conservative groups, opening up new questions about the definition of gender and putting gender studies under attack.

Across Europe, equal rights – if not true gender equality – is increasingly being used as a stand-in for traditional Western values. In France, said Myra Marx Ferree Ph.D. ‘76, Professor of Sociology (Emerita), University of Wisconsin-Madison, this has resulted in the institutionalization of certain rights for women, a move that has gained popular support. “The state was very notably aligned with protecting women as mothers and doing maternity-based politics," she said. This has resulted in some women's groups – and some supporters of women's equality – aligning themselves with conservative politicians who resist any attempt to broaden the discussion of gender beyond mothering. "The idea that the state would say gender doesn't matter,” has been perceived as a threat by women's groups, she said. “The state had been on their side.”


In the Netherlands, the nationalist, far-right Dutch Party for Freedom has gone further, and is “actually embracing LGBTQ issues, supposedly, and women's rights issues in the name of marginalizing migrants,” said Kathrin Zippel, Professor of Sociology, Northeastern University. CES had a conversation with Ferree and Zippel before their workshop, entitled “Troubling Times for Gender Equality Politics: German and European Experiences,” which was organized by the Seminar on Social Exclusion and Inclusion. The workshop was co-sponsored by the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Ferree and Zippel discussed how, by claiming the apparent moral high ground of supporting LGBTQ rights, the party sees a way to attack Muslim immigrants, who may be seen as more culturally conservative, in particular, she explained. Across Europe, the adoption of a language critical of “gender ideology” and the ensuing identity politics have made for “strange bedfellows,” indeed, Zippel noted.

This usage of gender, specifically as a pillar of traditional family values, is urging academics to “widen the lens of what gender politics is all about,” says Ferree. True equality, stressed Ferree, necessitates understanding that the term now reaches beyond so-called women's issues, such as “reproductive choice, gender mainstreaming, equality politics, in general” to address a broader sense of gender as involved in self-presentations, sex identities and sexualities.

“It's a lot easier in some ways to win narrow fights for women's equality especially if women can be cast as just the same as men,” said Ferree. “Because then you don't actually have to address gender as a political relationship. You can just say, ‘Fine. Let women into the club. Especially well-behaved women who dress appropriately.’”

Even among those who want to think beyond formal equality for women, an overly narrow definition has resulted in simplistic responses that fail to address the underlying problems. For example, said Zippel, too often gender equality at the academic level has been addressed by providing services for working mothers, such as childcare. While such services are certainly necessary, this approach still essentially only regards women in traditional roles – as mothers – while ignoring myriad other roadblocks keeping women and non-binary people from advancement, including longstanding “old boy” networks or arcane and state- or system-specific eligibility or application procedures. “It’s not enough to think of women as mothers and caregivers,” said Zippel. What is needed, she stressed, is for those ordering these systems “to really pay attention to how universities are gendered organizations themselves.”


Those who study gender equality, the two stressed, must examine the use and definition of gender as well as the question of rights. Increasingly, noted Ferree, it is the acceptance or rejection of the idea of gender’s non-binary nature, rather than gender itself, that is key to political and social stances. Women who espouse right-wing or conservative causes, like Marine LePen and Betsy DeVos for example, may appear to be exemplars of equality. But although they identify as politically successful women – the head of a political party and a Cabinet secretary – “they do so from a position of being women who understand what real masculinity is about, women who understand what real femininity is about,” pointed out Ferree. “In effect, they affirm the gender binary.”

Angela Merkel, in contrast, “stands against a gender binary,” said Ferree. The German chancellor, who in her early years declared that she was not a feminist, “really pushes gender out of her performance,” said Ferree. “She really acted like gender didn't matter. That's not the way these right-wing parties are doing gender.”

This broader understanding of what constitutes gender is disparaged by the right wing. Specifically, the academic field of gender studies is increasingly under attack. A coalition of forces, of which a Vatican campaign is a major component, have positioned the field as “anti-family” or “fake science.”

“It’s seen as ideology,” said Zippel. “They say it’s not a science, it’s not real research.” The campaign has already had notable success. In Hungary, the government’s 2017 amendment to the Law on National Higher Education, essentially “made a law that there shouldn’t be a master’s degree in gender studies,” noted Zippel. (The government’s actions also forced Central European University (CEU) to relocate from Bucharest to Vienna in 2018.)

Going forward, however, the issue of gender equality – and the study of gender – can only gain in importance. Zippel pointed out the ongoing intersectionality of such issues as gender, sexuality, race, and class, especially in an increasingly unsettled world. “I’m very concerned about the re-emergence of hatred and war in Europe,” she said, touching as well on issues of global migration and climate change. “We always think that this is not a gender issue, but we really know it is.”

Myra Marx Ferree and Kathrin Zippel organized the workshop as co-chairs of the Seminar on Social Exclusion and Inclusion. This event was a CES 50th anniversary event and part of Harvard Worldwide Week at Harvard. It was co-sponsored by the American Friends of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

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