Rethinking Populism

Bringing gender into the populism debate: a guided walk

openDemocracy’s latest partnership launches with an ambitious question to answer.

Spyros A. Sofos
16 December 2019, 12.01am
Rethinking Populism partner banner: Lund, Helsinki and Istanbul Bilgi universities


Back in the autumn of 2016, in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, at the margins of an academic workshop on the emergence of far right populism in Europe, I recall chatting about recent political developments with colleagues over a drink. There we were, engaging in what some commentators have identified as a hallmark of populism – “the politics of the Stammtisch (the pub)”, expressing our bewilderment over the turn politics had taken, and the role women and young people could play in rejuvenating politics.

At that moment a colleague reminded us that in the UK referendum, close to 50 percent of female voters voted for Brexit and in an instance of exasperation she said she could not understand what women wanted from the populists. This is the first of several questions that we have now decided to explore in this first debate of #Rethinkingpopulism.

Populism has become a staple term in any discussion involving contemporary politics, but there is relatively little research addressing the complex and diverse relationship between women and populism:

  • Is populism (however defined or understood) a type, or a style of politics that addresses women in specific ways, or encourages them to envisage particular roles for themselves?
  • Are women impervious to its allure as is sometimes assumed, or attracted to populist politics?
  • How can we account, not only for the high percentage of women that have supported Brexit, but also for the women who have taken leadership positions in populist movements, or joined enthusiastically the ranks of militants and activists that propagate these populist messages?

The discussion we are initiating in #Rethinkingpopulism will start by addressing some of these questions, encouraged by the work in this field already begun by openDemocracy’s 50.50 team. We probe some very different cases:

  • Soumi Banerjee focuses on aspects of the politics of gender in the Hindutva movement, while,
  • Dorit Geva explores Marine Le Pen’s “goosebump” politics and the deployment of performative practices that cross, and test, the boundaries of the feminine and the masculine.
  • Drawing on her ethnographic research, Eva Svatanova casts a closer look at the explosive mix of femonationalism and populism in the Czech Republic.
  • Caner Tekin and Feyda Sayan-Cengiz examine the “gendering” of populist discourse in a comparative context, drawing on the cases of the Rassemblement National in France and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany.

Although these contributions focus on diverse sociocultural and political contexts, and admittedly employ equally diverse and often loose definitions of populism, they seem to share some common ground. They all confirm the emphasis placed on “traditional” gender roles by the populist movements they focus on.

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While motherhood may be associated with nurturing bodies and minds, in contemporary Hindu nationalist discourse it also acquires a more active obligation to protect.

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Marine Le Pen
Gender perspectives are essential to understanding the means through which populist radical right parties instrumentalize women’s rights, often in profoundly contradictory terms.

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Has the new femonationalism solved the riddle of how to be a strong woman while supporting a fundamentally conservative patriarchal project?

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Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen as a rightwing populist is rather adored by supporters for her extraordinary ability to be a sexual and caring woman, and a virile masculine figure at the same time.

Populist movements, especially those exemplifying what the literature calls right-wing populism, address women primarily as mothers, and subsequently as wives and daughters. They idealise domesticity as an important locus for the reproduction of the “endangered nation” in places as far apart as India and the Czech Republic.

They all share an aversion towards women who challenge the gender boundaries, whose passing they nostalgically lament; they demonise and include them in a long litany of Others, enemies that are impeding the restoration of idealised societies. There is no doubt that such movements are imbued with the ideology and practice of patriarchy and partly fuelled by an intense anxiety over the challenges to male dominance mounted by feminist politics as well as the transformations of the job market and the educational system.

But these different contributions suggest also another important trend that prompts the very women who these movements urge to become mothers, wives and homemakers, to also become active in politics.

While Hindutva mobilizes the imagery of warrior goddesses as a role model for women’s activism within its ranks, less glamorous modes of interpelating women as activists are evident in at least some European countries. For the populist movements examined, the path to the restoration of the threatened patriarchal order and for the return of the women to their homes is paved in the streets and the squares; they rely on women to fight to protect “endangered nations” and repair “dysfunctional”, “broken” societies as activists and as politicians too.

What is more, as in the case of Marine Le Pen, or of the militant women awarded the title of Sadhvi in the Hindutva movement indicate, some of these women are also applauded for repeatedly crossing established gender boundaries. They gain political capital for this transcendence and apparent unsettling of the order they are arguing they want to restore.

What does this apparent paradox tell us about the place of gender in populist politics? This is a debate that remains to be had.

This first #Rethinkingpopulism debate on the ways in which women relate to populist politics includes two pieces previously featured on the 50:50 openDemocracy platform whose work intersects with our own agenda.

– In the first 50.50 piece, Lara Whyte explores a set of highly pertinent questions in a conversation with four women that joined the populist right: what attracts women to the politics of the right, and what is it about movements of the left and feminism that some young women who opt for this find unappealing?

– The second piece serves as the introduction to 50.50’s special series on women and the far right. Lara Whyte and Claire Provost, drawing on the work of several researchers, suggest that women joining far-right movements is not something new. It has a long history.

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Women’s ‘shocking’ participation in far-right politics has received much media attention. But is this a new trend, or have we been here before?

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Rejecting feminism and the political left that has apparently neglected them for too long, four young women explain why they turned right. RU

This look back to earlier publications relevant to the themes of our debates, in addition to current contributions, is part of our effort to bring together present and past work, and tease out their complementarities as well as their points of divergence in ways that provide insights into the process of research and also generate questions.

All six contributions shed light on different ways that women relate to populist politics, and of exploring that relationship. Clearly there are hard to ignore signs on the wall: the populist politics of today reproduce ambiguities even as they profess to want to end them. The promise of returning women to the domestic sphere and thus restoring a patriarchal order that is premised on, and enables “men being men”, is coupled with, and dissimulates parallel processes that are under way. Are populist mobilizations contributing or even relying on changing meanings of femininity and womanhood? Are they transforming the ways in which gender is performed and experienced? And finally, what does this tell us about populism? Does it have transformative social potential ? And does this take the form of a ‘thin ideology’, or a more substantial political project?

We hope that by opening up our minds and hearts to a new version of a rather old question – “what do women want?” – we can stimulate a dialogue that will enable us to share insights, test our certainties and embrace new ways of understanding populism, its relationship to patriarchy, and the ways of imagining women and men it encourages and sustains.

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