Why do women join radical-Right parties?
An increasing number of European women are viewing radical-Right parties as representing their interests, despite their anti-feminist agendas
There is evidence that the number of European women joining or voting for populist radical-Right parties, and more broadly far-Right movements, is growing. With the mainstreaming of radical-Right politics, these parties have brought immigration and identity issues into public debate and some, such as the Lega Nord (re-branded Lega in 2018), have even held office. But why are women joining parties that oppose gender equality? Does this political behaviour stand in conflict with their gendered interests? And are these women activists victims of ‘false consciousness’ or ‘sexual alienation’?
In the mainstream, these women are often dismissed as apolitical actors who follow their partners, are ‘puppets’ of male activists, or are driven by an attachment to ‘traditional family values’. But these interpretations are highly questionable, especially given that these women activists may be difficult to reach, and that scholars have disproportionately investigated ideology rather than activists’ experiences, which remain largely unmapped.
To answer these questions I interviewed a number of women who joined the Front National in France and Lega in Italy and it was clear to me that they were not ‘dupes’, as the dominant view suggests, but gender-conscious political actors who willingly join these parties, with gendered interests rooted in their experiences of the family and work.
This is what I explore at length in my forthcoming book, ‘Gender and the Populist Radical Right: Caring for the Nation’. What I found is that these radical-Right parties (much like most other political parties) are structured around a gendered division of work that reproduces women’s marginalisation and is sustained by a masculinist ethos.
I also found that women from the radical Right actively negotiate their parties’ anti-feminist ideologies to make sense of their lives, based on their experience of gender, class, ethnicity and age, and how they intersect.
Younger, single, women who have benefitted from the progress brought about by Second Wave feminism are attached to the rights it won, and take them for granted. They hold liberal positions on issues of gender and sexuality, but regard sexism as a non-issue and consider feminism obsolete.
Conversely, older, mostly married women recognise, to some extent, the achievements of First Wave or even Second Wave women’s movements, while at the same time attacking feminists as libertines and men-haters. These women – based on their experiences as mothers and workers – are aware of the mechanisms through which men maintain their gendered privileges, and do not shy away from expressing their dissatisfaction with gender inequalities, including within their own organisations.
In their attempt to forge a more ‘modern’ public image, and address a wider audience beyond their traditional male constituency, radical-Right parties have increasingly mobilised gender issues
Importantly, however, their criticism is expressed within a neoliberal framework: sexism is seen as an individual (and rather inevitable) problem, which women can and must overcome, based on their own resources and strength. Women’s emancipation is presented in terms of choice and individual responsibility. For example, Maria, a 63-year-old Lega activist told me, “These are problems that will never be resolved, because everyone must rely on her own strengths. I think these issues must be dealt with at an individual level; [a woman] has to understand how far she can get with her own resources.”
Rather than seeing radical-Right parties as distant from their own interests and needs, both the middle-class and working-class married women I spoke to saw them as supportive of their endeavours as women navigating challenges as mothers, wives and workers. Jeanne, a 56-year-old Front National activist, conveyed her feelings of injustice as a middle-class single working mother experiencing downward social mobility, and her outrage at what she called migrant “welfare scroungers”. She saw her political engagement in the Front National as a means to act upon her sense of victimhood.
Co-opting gender issues
In fact, in their attempt to forge a more ‘modern’ public image, and address a wider audience beyond their traditional male constituency, radical-Right parties have increasingly mobilised gender issues.
In the context of rising anti-Muslim hostility, gender equality issues have become a major battlefield for anti-immigration actors, who frame Islam as incompatible with women’s (and, in Nordic countries, LGBTQ) rights.
Furthermore, the emphasis recently placed by these parties on social issues and keeping welfare payments from immigrants resonates with many women’s concerns, as they rely more heavily than men on social and health services.
However, this growing relevance of gender equality issues is combined with a highly gender-conservative agenda. Alongside religious organisations and far-Right groups, radical-Right parties are key actors in current campaigns opposing gender and LGBTQ equality. Although their positions present significant cross-national differences, overall these parties champion the traditional heterosexual family and portray native heterosexual men as victims, emasculated by feminism.
At the same time, these gendered developments in ideology have been accompanied by a ‘feminisation’ of these parties’ support. The traditional ‘gender gap’ in the radical-Right vote has narrowed, and sometimes closed – as was the case in the 2017 French presidential elections and the 2018 Italian elections.
The radical Right women activists I spoke to considered immigration and the political elites to be a threat to their families’ well-being and livelihood, and described their political engagement as a quest for social justice. They saw the struggle against immigration as a highly moral enterprise undertaken for the welfare of the weakest members of the nation, with whom they identified.
Specifically, radical-Right parties’ celebration of the native traditional family and their emphasis on socio-economic issues deeply resonates with many working-class women’s experiences, allowing them to claim respectability as native mothers standing against the racialised ‘welfare scroungers’ and feminists.
It is by studying the experiences of the men and women who join ‘those parties’ that we can better understand radical-Right politics and see that it is neither alien to mainstream values nor limited to the margins of society, including when it comes to gender. Only by doing so can we really inform the initiatives countering the gendered appeal of these movements.
*This article is an output of the British Academy Mid-Career fellowship Gender and the Populist Radical Right in Europe (2018-2021) (award n. 170054) and is based on data collected through the European Research Council starting grant Gendering Activism in Populist Radical Right Parties: A Comparative Study of Women’s and Men’s Participation in The Northern League (Italy) and The National Front (France) (2012-2014) (award n. 312711).
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