Why the far right is obsessed with "gender ideology"

The global far right see women, first and foremost, as the “womb of the nation”. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Among the stalwarts of the far right, the contemporary threats presented by climate change, Iran, and even global Islam all pale in comparison to “gender ideology”. Earlier this month, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro called for a bill to ban “gender ideology” in the country’s elementary schools. In Poland, the far-right Law and Justice (PiS) government has prohibited gender (and gay and lesbian studies) from schools so that children will once again “study normal, classic subjects”.

In Hungary, students beginning university this year will no longer be able to take courses in gender studies, after the Prime Minister Viktor Orban issued a decree revoking funding for gender studies programmes in October 2018. “The government’s standpoint is that people are either born male or female,” said a spokesperson. For these politicians and others like them, gender ideology is an attack on the traditional family – and an existential threat to the nation.

What is “gender ideology”, though? Where sex is a biological category, gender is a social construct. It's about how society perceives gender roles and what their alleged characteristics are. For the far right, gender is a left-wing conspiracy theory, designed to weaken the traditional nuclear family structure and even the nation state – which is based on the role of women as literal mothers of the nuclear family, and figurative mothers of the broader nation.

Still, far-right politicians and activists have distinct ideas about gender roles, which in part reflect the views of their respective societies. These differences can be grouped together as traditional, modern-traditional and reactionary.  Traditional views of gender are more evident in machismo and conservative cultures.

Paradoxically, reactionary perceptions are increasingly popular among younger and more highly educated men in northern Europe and North America. At second glance, this makes sense; their generation is the first to be an increasingly marginalised minority in college – inferior in numbers, grades, and job prospects.

Most far-right politicians take a traditional view of gender that sees women first and foremost as mothers, discouraging them from working outside of the household. The idea that women are “virgin-mothers” points to a kind of benevolent sexism where women are vulnerable and dependent upon (and deserving of) protection from strong men. Such politicians view gender ideology as a threat to the fundamentally different and “natural” roles that men and women play in society.

Where the European Union has embraced a strategy of gender mainstreaming that strives for gender equality, Hungary and Poland have introduced their own policies of “family mainstreaming” as a way to promote the traditional family structure. As the Hungarian Minister of Human Capacities recently stated, “women will give birth if raised to do so.”

But other politicians take a different view. For the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) or the Sweden Democrats (SD), women are more than just future mothers. This approach falls into the “modern-traditional” view of gender, where women’s important and unique social role as mothers doesn’t negate their equality in society and the workplace.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Rally (RN, previously known as the National Front) embodies this modern-traditional view; the twice-divorced mother of three presented herself as a woman, a mother, and a lawyer (in that order) in her campaign video for the 2017 presidential elections.

Politicians like Le Pen believe feminism was initially well intentioned but has since gone too far. Her mentality is one of raising the drawbridge, in the belief that gender equality has been achieved for “real” women – who no longer need quotas or special protection.

As Barbara Pas, leader of the Flemish Interest (VB) faction in the Belgian parliament, declared: “You know what I find denigrating for women? Quota[s]!” In the view of Pas and others, left-wing feminists ignore the real threat to gender equality: Islam. Francisco Serrano, a candidate for the Spanish far right party Vox and a family court judge, captured this in a recent tweet: “I wonder: why won’t these opportunistic, transgenic radical feminists go to Muslim countries to defend the rights of women there?”

The British sociologist Sara Farris has called this “femonationalism”. The modern-traditionalist far right presents itself as the real defenders of women and womens' rights, against an alleged “Islamisation” of Europe. Its exponents spout an eclectic mix of traditional racist tropes – innocent white women brutalised by animalistic non-white men – with pseudo-liberal defenses of gender equality and womens’ rights.

This leads to unexpected outcomes, as when Marine Le Pen approvingly quoted feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir in an op-ed warning that mass immigration would endanger “the precious freedoms hard won by our mothers and grandmothers.”

The internet has become a fertile petri-dish for another iteration of far-right beliefs about gender. Across online communities – from popular message boards like 4chan and 8chan, to a flowering movement of “incels”, a portmanteau describing the misogynistic men who define themselves as involuntary celibates because they can’t find a sexual partner – far-right followers are espousing reactionary and hateful views about women.

Common to these online communities is a view of women as morally deviant and psychically weak, but as politically and socially strong. Men are allegedly oppressed, while “Femi-Nazis” (feminists) supposedly control society through “political correctness”, and women control men through their use (or  refusal) of sex.

As the US “men’s rights activist” and “alt-lite” social media personality Mike Cernovich put it:Women love aggressive men, but only if they are alpha males.” But this reactionary view is no longer limited to online grifters like Cernovich. Thierry Baudet, leader of the Dutch Forum for Democracy (FvD), the fourth-biggest Dutch party in the European elections, once said: “The reality is that women don’t just wanted to be treated ‘respectfully’ by their sex partner; they don’t want you to respect their ‘no’, their resistance. The reality is that women want to be overruled, dominated, yes, overpowered.”

To be clear, toxic masculinity and misogyny are not absent from the more traditional far right. Think of US President Donald Trump bragging about “grab[bing] ‘em by the pussy”, or Jair Bolsonaro saying a female opposition politician was too ugly for him to rape. These cases break with the officially propagated line of benevolent sexism.

This is why benevolent sexism is almost always ambivalent – combining supposed concern for women with underlying hostility. Among gender reactionaries, hostile sexism is the norm; women must be dominated, not protected, by alpha males like themselves.

Recalling Sigmund Freud’s “Madonna-whore complex”, where men either see women as saintly Madonnas or debased prostitutes, for those like Thierry Baudet and Mike Cernovich, women are always the latter.

Despite the growing diversity in gender views, though, the global far right converges on one thing: they all denounce contemporary feminism and “gender ideology”, and see women, first and foremost, as the “womb of the nation”. Consequently, far-right men believe it is their right (and even duty) to control and police their women. After all, as the Hungarian Speaker of Parliament recently said, “individuals’ decisions on having children are public matters.”

To be clear, the far right is not the only political movement to reject “gender equality” and advance various forms of sexism. Many religious and secular conservative movements do the same, and have been doing so for centuries.

What makes the far right particularly important is that it has been much better at adapting its sexist views to changing gender relations in society – where several distinct cultural changes have created a situation in which men no longer have the access to, or power over, women’s bodies that they might once have had in a previous era. This adaptability is one of the key reasons for the far right’s growing success across the globe.

Cas Mudde is a Dutch political scientist and the author of The Far Right Today (Polity, 2019). He tweets @CasMudde