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12 June 2024

“Pro-family” rhetoric and its fascist resonances

Traditional gender roles have propped up authoritarian regimes of the past. In Republicans’ views on women, the echoes are clear.

By Jill Filipovic

After Joe Biden’s most recent State of the Union address in March, Katie Britt gave the official GOP response from her kitchen table. Britt introduced herself as the US senator from Alabama, then clarified: “That’s not the job that matters most. I am a proud wife and mom of two school-age kids.” She made “a direct appeal to the parents out there and in particular to my fellow moms, many of whom I know will be up tossing and turning at 2am wondering how you’re going to be in three places at once and then somehow still get dinner on the table”. She brought up the kitchen table more than once (“It’s where we laugh together, and it’s where we hold each other’s hands and pray for God’s guidance”). Children, kitchen, church: these were the foundations of Britt’s speech. They were also, according to Nazi ideology, the central tenets of women’s lives: kinder, küche, kirche.

Across much of the developed world, panic is spreading about low birth rates, and self-identified “pro-natalists” are advocating for women to have more babies to halt population decline. If we don’t boost births, they argue, economies will suffer. Some claim that cultures will suffer too, which is why liberal immigration laws are rarely proposed by population Chicken Littles. At the same time, conservative states in the US are banning or tightly restricting abortion, while right-wing groups are setting their sights on fertility treatments and contraception, too.

The aim is clear: force women to have babies, whether they want to or not. It is a modern version of what was made appallingly explicit in the Nazi era: an ideology that wants more reproduction from certain kinds of people, and leaders who understand that women must be subjugated in order to carry out that vision.

In Hitler’s Germany, mothers were discouraged from entering the workforce, and were even paid to stay at home with their children. This was, of course, spun as pro-family. But in reality, it was about incentivising white, ethnically German women to reproduce, and keeping them from gaining too much independence. The Nazi party, as a general rule, did not put women in office or in positions of responsibility. Women were formally barred from many professions. Feminism and the concept of the liberated woman were stigmatised. Abortion, and even information about abortion, was banned.

Men had clear roles and obligations, too: they were to be restored to their vaunted place as family leaders. They earned the bread and offered protection. Nazism tied itself tightly to traditional masculinity, putting power nearly exclusively in male hands, and elevating a leader who sought to broadcast not just strength but total dominance, often through sadistic cruelty.

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Similar patterns can be observed in the other fascist bad guys of the 1930s and 1940s, Spain’s Franco and Italy’s Mussolini. In Spain, “Patria” (homeland) and the patriarchal family were emphasised as the organising mechanisms for both nation and home, and tied to the Catholic Church. Government programmes sought to indoctrinate women into desiring acceptable roles as wives and mothers. And they often perverted the language of feminism and women’s dignity. As José Antonio Primo de Rivera, a Spanish fascist politician, put it, “True feminism should not involve women wanting roles which today are deemed superior, but should instead surround women’s roles with increasingly greater human and social dignity.”

In Italy, fascism came with ideals of virility, pro-natalism and anti-feminism. One of Benito Mussolini’s pithy lines was: “War is to man what maternity is to a woman” – in other words, each sex has its natural role; a man’s is aggression while a woman’s is reproduction. Abortion was outlawed and contraception access limited; sharing information about either was also banned.

Perhaps this sounds familiar to followers of American politics. In the US, gender equality is a partisan issue. Women are under-represented in the halls of power, but the gender balance is especially skewed in the GOP. The Republican Party’s leader and its candidate for president is a man who relies on the language of fascism and authoritarianism, who boasts about his masculine virility and who plans to round up millions of undocumented immigrants and put them in camps before deporting them. Britt’s vision of a traditional family in a conservative culture dovetails with Republican Party efforts to strip away women’s reproductive rights, including the rights to prevent and end pregnancies, but also the ability to use modern technology to create new ones. Today’s Republican Party is stocked with and supported by people who wring their hands about the declining white birth rate; who suggest that it was a bad idea to give women the right to vote and that no-fault divorces should end. Who argue that mothers should be in the home, not in the paid workforce; that birthright citizenship should be ended so American-ness can be reserved for a select few. GOP politicians have tried to ban speech and sharing information about abortion.

Authoritarian ideologies are not exclusively right-wing. But right-wing authoritarianism has rarely existed without conservative gender roles to bolster, enable and perpetuate it. The ideal woman as submissive homemaker and obedient child-bearer, and the ideal man as dominant patriarch, is a model that authoritarian regimes emulate in law and governance. It is a very old model. And it is one that is seemingly endlessly resurrected by men in search of total power.

[See also: Donald Trump, guilty but not out]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency