By Christine Collins
In a year packed with nail-biting elections, one political phenomenon has remained constant: the rise of populism. And while its impacts are varied, scholars agree that populism is here to stay. Populism can be understood as a mobilizing discourse characterized by its “us vs. them” mentality. Ultimately, what sets populism apart is that it driven by “the people.” But who are the people? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
Distinctive and even contradicting at times, it is important to distinguish forms of left and right-wing populism:
- Left-wing populists can be defined as anti-elitist, fighting for the rights and equality of the common people
- Right-wing populists restrict the identity of the people, notably, on the basis of ethnicity and country of origin
One defining trait of right-wing populist political parties is that they tend to be led by charismatic leaders. And in Europe, a number of these leaders are women.
From Marine Le Pen of the National Rally in France to Alice Weidel of Alternative for Germany (AfD), women are making their mark in this traditionally male-dominated field. While usually this would be a call for celebration, as women have long been outnumbered by their male counterparts in the political arena, the case of women leading right-wing populist parties requires a double-take. Mainly, since these parties are known for female subordination: in Germany, the AfD has reinvigorated an Aryan vision of the nuclear family, composed of the breadwinning father going to work and child-rearing mother in the home. Further, its policies are anti-abortion, and hostile towards gay and lesbian relationships. This raises the question: what motivates women to represent right-wing political movements that shrink away from modern-day feminism? And how are they elected in a traditionally male-dominated playing field?
To answer the later question, while we may see women’s rise to the top of right-wing populist political parties as an unexpected turn of events, what is perhaps more surprising is who is voting them into power: according to a 2018 study, women across Europe are increasingly drawn to right-wing populist parties. This was demonstrated in the 2012 French presidential race, where Le Pen garnered votes from an almost equal number of men and women. This gender gap is projected to remain narrow, as a 2017 study found that women make up 48 percent of the Front National’s (now National Rally) voting base.
So what makes right-wing populism so appealing to women? Well, if you can move past the patriarchal ideology, researchers found women voted for parties who promised to strengthen state welfare systems. As European women (especially mothers) are more likely to have lower paying jobs and require state support than their male counterparts, it is reasonable to understand this voting pattern.
At the same time, right-wing populism is defined by its fiercely anti-immigration rhetoric. This likens back to nationalist movements of the 20th century, where the drive towards a collective unity coupled with a sense of superiority set fascist ideologies apart. As only certain women benefitted from fascist regimes—Aryan, middle-class—so too does modern-day right-wing populism only advantage select women. In this case, “the people” are more narrowly defined based on ethnicity and country of origin.
To those who view the surge in female representation and participation in politics as a nod to gender equality, think again. Although leaders such as Weidel and Le Pen may look the part, they routinely co-opt the notion of women’s rights as it suits their right-wing agenda. While every woman must be protected in her right “to wear shorts or a miniskirt,” this same privilege does not extend to those wishing to don a hijab in public spaces. So when making your way to the ballot box next election, be mindful that a vote for a female leader is not necessarily a vote for feminism, especially if their name shares the banner of a right-wing populist party.