Bringing gender into the populism debate: a guided walk

Populist movements, especially those exemplifying what the literature calls right-wing populism, address women primarily as mothers, and subsequently as wives and daughters. They idealise domesticity as an important locus for the reproduction of the “endangered nation” in places as far apart as India and the Czech Republic.

They all share an aversion towards women who challenge the gender boundaries, whose passing they nostalgically lament; they demonise and include them in a long litany of Others, enemies that are impeding the restoration of idealised societies. There is no doubt that such movements are imbued with the ideology and practice of patriarchy and partly fuelled by an intense anxiety over the challenges to male dominance mounted by feminist politics as well as the transformations of the job market and the educational system.

But these different contributions suggest also another important trend that prompts the very women who these movements urge to become mothers, wives and homemakers, to also become active in politics.

While Hindutva mobilizes the imagery of warrior goddesses as a role model for women’s activism within its ranks, less glamorous modes of interpelating women as activists are evident in at least some European countries. For the populist movements examined, the path to the restoration of the threatened patriarchal order and for the return of the women to their homes is paved in the streets and the squares; they rely on women to fight to protect “endangered nations” and repair “dysfunctional”, “broken” societies as activists and as politicians too.

What is more, as in the case of Marine Le Pen, or of the militant women awarded the title of Sadhvi in the Hindutva movement indicate, some of these women are also applauded for repeatedly crossing established gender boundaries. They gain political capital for this transcendence and apparent unsettling of the order they are arguing they want to restore.

What does this apparent paradox tell us about the place of gender in populist politics? This is a debate that remains to be had.

This first #Rethinkingpopulism debate on the ways in which women relate to populist politics includes two pieces previously featured on the 50:50 openDemocracy platform whose work intersects with our own agenda.

– In the first 50.50 piece, Lara Whyte explores a set of highly pertinent questions in a conversation with four women that joined the populist right: what attracts women to the politics of the right, and what is it about movements of the left and feminism that some young women who opt for this find unappealing?

– The second piece serves as the introduction to 50.50’s special series on women and the far right. Lara Whyte and Claire Provost, drawing on the work of several researchers, suggest that women joining far-right movements is not something new. It has a long history.

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