The relationship between populist politics and gender is surely a complicated yet understudied one. With populists defined as the contemporary movement of political leaders who strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups, they have also often become the representatives of anti-feminist sentiments. Yet many representatives of the same movement have also avoided the issue altogether, steering clear from the topic. So whether you choose to vocally attack equality or ignore it, a clear conclusion that can be made is that opposing any progressive stances on gender is strangely enough good for business when it comes to populism. Yet when half of the voter base in most countries facing populist rises is female, how is it still a viable strategy to oppose women in politics?
It is first of all important to acknowledge that the support of a certain voting category overall cannot determine the political landscape of a country. Looking at the 2016 US elections, the overwhelming majority of women voted in favor of Hillary Clinton, yet within this vote there were still strong disparities on factors such as ethnicity and level of education. For example, 53% of white US women still voted for Trump. So while the total sum of female votes clearly favored a non-populist candidate, the victory amongst white voters presented cause for celebration on Trump’s part.
The first answer to why anti-feminist rhetoric is therefore effective often lies in a lack of response towards it. In countries with higher levels of equality and education, sexist politics still leave important amounts of voters both male and female unaffected, often in their support for the politician’s promises and political agenda. In countries with lower levels of political equality, those opposing sexist policies and rhetoric often do not have the tools to express themselves. This leaves populists with an open platform, relatively free from consequence when opposing such causes
One major example of this first case is the movement of ‘Women for Trump’, the organization of American female voters that support the right-wing president in spite of the numerous gender-related scandals the politician was involved in. When asked why they still chose to support him many of them cited his political promises and ideology as a reason to look past his transgressions. Another strong reason for their support has become the increasing distrust of political news and media. Combining these with their strong belief in the populist’s ideology makes for a dismissive attitude when it comes to his perspectives on women.
To exemplify the second situation, one might look to the recent election of Jair Bolsenaro in Brazil, boasting a strong stance for traditional family roles and values, while thoroughly opposing any rights to abortion. While a case can also be made for the women who supported him in his campaign for law and order, the failure of those opposing him on grounds of his sexist attitudes was in great part due to their lack of representation and legitimacy from a political standpoint. Feminist efforts during the election race often passed under the radar of national media and politics, often dismissed or underrepresented. The lack of voice therefore lead to a lack of representation, taking focus away from the populist leader’s disregard for women.
While sexist politics can often pass through political oppositions without too many negative consequences, the opposite might also be true as some anti-feminist stances have actually generated increased support for certain populist figures. This first of all holds true in political landscapes where traditional gender roles and family values are still seen as a norm. Political systems dominated by patriarchal thinking have had no issues in the past when speaking out against the advancement of women. But even today it can loan to certain populists to speak out in defense of such thinking. In countries such as Turkey, where patriarchy is not only commonly accepted yet also institutionally embedded, the leader’s support for conservative and non-egalitarian thinking is not only expected but arguably required to display his strength in front of his supporters. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has therefore become the posterchild of the country’s patriarchal society which has in return generated increased support from his conservative voters. Yet while a growing opposition is looking to call him on the errors of his ways, the systematic nature of such oppression, when it’s engrained within the very political and cultural make-up of a state, makes this task a lot more difficult. Even more so, the very existence of a vocal conservative majority gives such populists an advantage, slowing down the growth and audibility of support for feminist causes.
Another, possibly more worrying reason for being anti-feminist seems to also be of importance in this matter, the question of simply staying on top. When it comes to this there are two possible reasons for remaining oppressive, the first of which has to do with hiding your indiscretions.
When the world learnt of the US president’s now famous words “grab them by the pussy”, it became an international scandal furthering the steady decline of trust and support for Donald Trump. And while many called out on his moral unfitness for office, his personal take on the matter, bolstered by his pre-existing views on women, made it a case of inflated allegations and irrelevant personal matters.
What this translates to in the populist handbook is that when your personal transgressions do come to the surface, make sure to have an already existing disregard for the matter, or even better, make sure nobody cares. Political history is riddled with cases of inappropriate behavior and harassment on behalf of state leaders, and their only barricade used to be a sexist outlook on the matter. What makes the strength of populists today is if they can harness that outlook in their favor, then handling scandals becomes just a little bit easier.
The second reason why a sexist attitude seems to work in favor of populists is a lot more subtle, and this is their response to a fear of equality. The unfounded yet noteworthy claim of some populist supporters reads that the rise of equality and furthering feminist causes can result in the decline of the men in society. While it can be argued that it would cause the disappearance of unjustified privilege, these claims go into more absurd territory when their fear of equality predicts a drop in economic effectiveness and marriage rates due to the independence and rise of women in society. One of the ambassadors of such predictions is unsurprisingly a Fox News Host by the name of Tucker Carlson. His pseudo-patriarchal logic has made it clear to the channel’s host of Trump fanatics that the support of a sexist leader results in the continuation of male privilege. And while this can seem as a fairly isolated example, the underlying argument still makes sense to a multitude of other populist regimes: supporting a contemporary populist leader with an ignorance for equality means a continuation of patriarchal values and privileges.
Yet what if a populist leader isn’t outspoken on issues of equality and feminism? And what if they avoid the subject in an effort to avoid controversy? This is the case of multiple leaders in Europe holding the populist torch such as Marine Le Pen of the French Front Nationale and Geert Wilders of the Dutch PVV party. While they express no views on the matter, their voter bases do the talking for them, as many of the voters corresponding to their political parties associate the promise of traditional and conservative values to those of sexist gender roles and antiquated views of feminism. In other words, their lack of expression on the subject is exactly what can give the opportunity for wrongful interpretation. While they might not express any intolerant views, their voters often overwhelmingly do.
Therefore, whether a populist is overtly sexist or categorically abstaining, the reality of the issue remains that in a multitude of cases harnessing such attitudes can lead to positive outcomes to their endeavors. And while such views are of course not only reserved to populist politicians, and not all populists express or embody such views, it remains striking how many do harness them and how well it has worked out for their political careers.
Maurits writes for Sensus as Editor in Chief. He is a second year Ba. International Relations student at King’s College London.
His particular interests of study and writing include international security, migration, human rights law and international relations.
A closer look at the gender gap in presidential voting, Chaturvedi Richa, Pew Research Center, 28 July 2016
Gender Knowledge, and Opposition to the Feminist Project: Extreme-Right Populist Parties in the Netherlands, Verloo Miecke, Politics and Governance (ISSN: 2183–2463) 2018, Volume 6, Issue 3, 14 September 2018
Gender, populist attitudes, and voting: explaining the gender gap in voting forpopulist radical right and populist radical left parties Spierings, Niels ; Zaslove, Andrej West European Politics, 04 July 2017, Vol.40(4), p.821-847
Gendered Identities: Criticizing Patriarchy in Turkey, by Fazilet Ahu Özmen and Rasim Özgur Donmez, Lexington Books, 2013
Populism and Gender, Sahar Abi-Hassan, The Oxford Handbook of Populism, Edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy, October 2017
The real ‘shy Trump’ vote – how 53% of white women pushed him to victory, The Guardian 2016
Tucker Carlson Blames Higher-Earning Women For ‘Men In Decline’, Lee Moran, Huffington Post, 03 January 2019