Far-right movements are no longer shelters of undereducated, anti-establishment chauvinists, thus the importance of female leaders should not be underestimated. Populist parties have increased their public appeal and offer seemingly attractive alternatives to the current employment crisis of Europe, promoting an anti-modernist perspective on emancipation. Progressive forces need to counteract.
Queries: In spite of the vast array of academic literature on the populist radical right, there is still relatively little attention paid to the role of women in such movements. Is it changing with the emergence of leading women such as Pia Kjærsgaard or Marine Le Pen?
Andrea Peto: In the past twenty years there has been cutting edge critical research on gender, mobilisation and the far right, and also on understanding the far right from a gender perspective, which raises questions about the lack of visibility of this research to a wider audience.
In Germany, the network of researchers Women’s Network on Researching Far-Right Extremism has been working on gender and the far right for more than ten years and tried to coordinate its efforts with researchers in other European countries. These women who are diligently researching far-right politics and subcultures, sometimes even putting themselves at risk, are still not recognised in mainstream academia, and they are constantly struggling with obtaining funding for their work. They are also bringing in new research topics such as far right and masculinity.
On the other hand, there has been a vast amount of money put into researching far-right political movements and activism from Germany to other countries, especially after Breivik’s attack and the gloomy forecasts for the upcoming EP elections, but this is mostly descriptive political science-oriented research.
Q: Does the emergence of these female leaders make the far right more acceptable to women?
A.P.: I think some far-right strains have always been acceptable to some women. Here the question is what characterises women who are mobilised as voters and what are the institutional mechanisms that promote women to leading positions. The traditional image of far right is that it is a masculine movement and if you analyse the electoral appeal of these parties, you see that there are more men supporting them than women. But this is not a reason to forget about women supporting and voting for far-right parties.
In the past years, a major shift has happened in the mobilisation for far-right parties: these parties are changing their agenda, changing their public appeal, those who are participating in these parties are not the undereducated anti-establishment losers who were previously portrayed by the media, but they are highly educated professionals, speaking foreign languages, who know the language of politics and have experience in this political system. The women who actually make it in those political parties have very good education and social skills. These women have a symbolic presence, and they are inviting more women to join and to do politics according to their terms, as we do not see too many female leaders emerging in progressive politics, especially in “New Europe.”
Q: Can the increasing role of women leaders in populist movements be considered as a structural change or rather as a communication strategy?
A.P.: This question is actually related to the very traditional understanding and interpretation of far-right women in politics, as pendants or relatives of powerful male politicians.
In the past few years several new female leaders have emerged not only in France and Hungary, but also in Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, and they are actually changing the face of far-right activism. The emergence of racist feminism advocated by the far right is a serious challenge for progressive politics.
These women are agents of change, no matter that you disagree deeply with what they are saying, but you should not frame them as puppets. They are the advocates of an anti-modernist emancipation. If you are framing them as puppets, it is not only disrespectful to them as human beings, but it is also a major political mistake, because you are underestimating the political appeal and political support they have, and you cannot beat them with political arguments. It is a major political and strategic issue.
Q: When it comes to voting, women with populist views do not often vote for populist parties, while men are more likely to do so. Why is that so?
A.P.: This question is about the taboo of supporting far-right ideas publicly. And it is a very gendered assumption that men are more ready to represent taboo topics in public as women are expected to be shy. Generally those who support the far right were until recently very cautious about coming out with those ideas, but here I see a major shift in rhetoric. In the past five to ten years, these ideas of xenophobia and welfare chauvinism have become more and more acceptable and mainstream, getting more and more public space, as the internet and social media opened a new chapter in transmitting those ideas, transcending public and private distinction even more.
If men are more likely to be in a position to express their ideas publicly, which is an assumption, then you can say that the question is legitimate. But I would not say that women are reluctant, because that would indicate that women do not have the agency to say what they would like to say. And that is not the case. In Poland the “mohair berets” commando, as the press called them, the elderly, religious women around Radio Maryja played a crucial role in transforming the publicly tolerated discourses about major human right issues.
Q: In recent years there has been a notable increase in the use of the feminist discourse by populist radical-right politicians as a weapon to be used against certain minorities (Muslim, Roma, Travellers). Is this genuine, or just an instrument to be used for electoral gain? What effect will it have on the overall gender discourse?
A.P.: The discourse about minorities is a very complex issue, because the minorities are usually portrayed as the non-Christian, coloured migrants. All those differences are related to the concept of European whiteness, and this is a constitutive part of the far-right ideology, which is deeply rooted in the European colonial legacy.
This is not only instrumental, but it is a constitutive part of the far-right thinking to create difference and to support the supremacy of one group over another.
Q: Are there regional differences in the interaction between populism, far right and gender? For example, is there more machismo in the far right of some countries than in others?
A.P.: The far right parties are deeply rooted in their national context. But this should not mislead us, because they are a part of a European, global phenomenon. Their differences are related to their respective national political cultures. The Norwegian far-right Progress Party, which is currently in the government, is very different from the Romanian far-right party.
The political culture is different in Norway and in Romania, but as far as the major concept of family is concerned, their far-right parties are very close to each other. Family is a key notion for these movements, as according to them it is the core element that makes up the nation. This family-centred imagination about the future is very strictly a heteronormative nuclear family where the mother takes care of the children and stays at home, and only does part-time activity, which appears to offer a solution for growing unemployment in Europe.
It is dangerous, because there is a real problem, the problem of unemployment and transformation of the concept of work as we knew it before, and here they offer a kind of solution. And very often you see in history that when real problems emerge, very harmful solutions are offered to offset them.
Q: How can you differentiate between the conservative discourse and the far right discourse? Both seem to share a colonial legacy.
A.P.: You see very often that in the media these lines are very much blurred. In the case of women’s issues and gender politics, there is a very thin borderline between the essentialist feminist movement and the far-right women’s movement which is based on the discourse of difference. There is a possibility of mainstreaming that kind of discourse into conservative political thought through gender politics.
There is the example of the Hungarian conservative women’s umbrella organisation, which awarded a female journalist (Beatrix Siklósi) who previously interviewed David Irving on public television and who is posting and representing anti-Roma and anti-Semitic sentiments with their annual award called the “Golden Wheat”. Here you see this very poisonous mixture coming together under the heading: women protecting the nation as they protect of family.
Q: Could the difficulties faced by certain women in accessing the political system push them to the fringes, and make the far right more attractive to them?
A.P.: Women who support the far right are actually not on the fringes. If you look at the composition of far right supporters and voters, for example in the case of Hungary, you see that their electoral support is from the middle class, rural areas, and those with a university degree. We cannot characterise them as losers of the transition as some of them a pretty successful businesswomen who made career in the ethnocentric market they are advocating as a response to globalisation. Definitely what you see now with the far right is a very attractive response to the structural crisis of representative democracy.
Q: But it’s not gender-specific, is it?
A.P.: It is gender-specific, because this kind of liberal democracy, which in Europe is connected with the free market, is a deeply gendered system. This democracy structurally excludes women, and the far right is offering an agency for these women in a different, anti-modernist framework. Again, this is a challenge for progressive politics, how to reform, how to reconceptualise democracy in a way that does not marginalise women. It would really offer an opportunity for women to be represented and their interests to be articulated in an intersectional perspective.