Mapping European Populism – Panel 8: Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe

Please cite as:

Guidotti, Andrea. (2024). Report on “Mapping European Populism – Panel 8: Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 15, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0050           

 

This brief report offers a summary of the 8th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism panel series, titled “Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe” which took place online on January 26, 2023. Professor Dr. Agnieszka Graff moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished populism and gender scholars.

Report by Andrea Guidotti

This report provides a brief overview of the eighth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism (MEP) panel series, titled "Populism, Gender and Sexuality in Europe" held online on January 26, 2023. Moderated by Dr.Agnieszka Graff, Professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, and a feminist activist, the panel featured speakers Dr.  Elżbieta Korolczuk, Associate Professor in Sociology at Södertörn University, Sweden, Dr. Eric Louis Russell, Professor in the Department of French & Italian and affiliated with the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Davis, Nik Linders, PhD candidate at Radboud Social and Cultural Research for Gender & Diversity Studies, Dr. Pauline Cullen, Associate Professor in sociology at Center for European and Eurasian Studies, Maynooth University, Ireland.

Panel moderator Professor Agnieszka Graff began her speech with an overall assessment, choosing to define the word "gender" with two distinct meanings. Firstly, she explained its function in gender studies within the field of sociology. Secondly, she addressed the meaning that gained popularity following the rise of anti-gender campaigns across Europe, ascribed to the word by both right- and left-wing populist parties. Specifically, gender is portrayed as something unsettling, casting doubt on liberalism itself and warranting challenge. In essence, it represents excessive individualism, consumerism, and the erosion of communities due to declining fertility rates.

Professor Graff’s speech focused solely on the cultural repertoire amassed by anti-gender campaigns. According to Graff, this repertoire varies across different countries: Italian anti-gender imagery exudes chicness; Polish anti-gender repertoire leans towards raw, peasant-oriented themes; the French anti-gender narrative often incorporates references to the French Revolution. Despite these differences, there are resonances between these images, with recurring motifs such as dissolving families juxtaposed against images of united families often depicted in silhouette. Additionally, there are perverted image of people whose gender is ambiguous and threatening, along with disturbing portrayals of alienated and suffering children, sometimes represented by fetuses but more commonly as four or five-year-olds appearing terrified or even being depicted as for sale with barcodes attached. The underlying idea behind these images is to establish a link between gender equality, sexual rights, and the capitalist system, portrayed in its most menacing form. Consequently, anti-gender propaganda presents itself more as a cultural phenomenon rather than a collection of arguments. It operates in close alignment with populism on various fronts: one being the association of gender with elite versus ordinary people gender conservatism, and another in the economic dimension where both discursive and political-institutional connections come into play.

Professor Graff then presented three significant examples from European countries, each illustrating the collaboration between politicians and ultra-conservative organizations in targeting gender ideology to mobilize electorates. The first example is from Poland, where several local authorities staged protests in response to the mayor of Warsaw signing a declaration against discrimination towards sexual minorities. The second example comes from Spain, where Vox has collaborated with HazteOir, a conservative Catholic community founded by Ignasio Arsuaga. Together, they launched a campaign known as the ‘stop feminazis buses’, arguing that the issue pertains to domestic violence rather than gender violence specifically. The third example is from Hungary, where parliamentary elections coincided with a referendum on children’s education, gender identity, and sexuality. Citizens had to vote on whether to support the implementation of events concerning sexual orientation for minors in public education institutions without parental consent. The referendum aimed to legitimize Viktor Orban and his party as defenders of children. These examples demonstrate that populist actors strategically use anti-gender rhetoric with both long- and short-term objectives: the former to portray themselves as defenders of ordinary people adhering to traditional gender roles against perverse elites, and the latter to intensify campaign efforts to garner a larger share of votes.

The aim of the introductory speech is to not only inquire about the impact of gender on populists but also to explore the consequences when individuals label those parties, often referring to them as illiberal movements, using the concept of populism.

Dr. Elżbieta Korolczuk: “Explaining the Relation Between Populismand Gender in Europe”

The adoption of anti-gender rhetoric enables populist leaders to reinforce the core ideological principles of their rhetoric, thereby delineating boundaries between the ‘authentic traditional citizen’ and the ‘pervert deviant citizen.’ Sexuality is framed as a question of morality in a broader sense, allowing populists in power to depict elites (rather than themselves) as the ones demoralizing children and undermining the country’s integrity.

In her presentation, the first panelist, Dr. Elzbieta Korolczuk began by emphasizing that the rise of the anti-gender movement can be attributed to the alignment of far-right parties with populism, particularly their adept adoption or proposition of a populist version of anti-gender rhetoric. The objective of her speech was to explore the theoretical connection between populism and gender, highlighting the gaps in existing literature on this subject. These gaps stem from the predominant focus of analyses on either the supply or demand side. For instance, some scholars argue that gender is significant for the supply side, as the presence of a charismatic leader is often crucial in populist politics. However, exceptions like the case of the uncharismatic Polish populist leader Jarosław Kaczyński challenge this notion. On the demand side, women have been increasingly identified as more inclined to vote for right-wing populist parties in recent years.

Dr. Korolczuk suggests that the most insightful conceptualizations of the relationship between gender and populism are currently being proposed by scholars engaged in anti-genderism or anti-gender campaigns. Some propose viewing anti-gender rhetoric as a means to sanitize extreme discourses, while others advocate for an engendering approach, focusing on ethnic scandals, the gendered nature of social inequalities, or even the concept of gender colonization. Additionally, scholars discuss populism as a project of masculinist identity politics, underscoring the effectiveness of right-wing parties in identity politics compared to the left. 

Another perspective is to examine the common roots of populism and illiberal anti-gender mobilization in both their economic and cultural dimensions. These conceptualizations enable us to recognize similarities between different movements while also cautioning against oversimplifications, advocating for a dynamic and relational approach. In essence, the proposal articulated is not merely to explore how populism is ‘gendered’, but rather to examine the role of gender in shaping relationships and specific discursive structures employed by populist leaders. An important aspect here is also the organizational and financial dynamics of this relationship.

In summary, according to Dr. Korolczuk, the adoption of anti-gender rhetoric enables populist leaders to reinforce the core ideological principles of their rhetoric, thereby delineating boundaries between the ‘authentic traditional citizen’ and the ‘pervert deviant citizen.’ Sexuality is framed as a question of morality in a broader sense, allowing populists in power to depict elites (rather than themselves) as the ones demoralizing children and undermining the country’s integrity. In conclusion, these narratives enable populist leaders and parties to bridge the cultural and economic arenas, as seen in the cases of Hungary, Poland, and Sweden, positioning themselves as protectors of social welfare provisions for children.

Dr. Eric Louis Russell: “Language of Reaction: European Populist Radical Right and LGBTQA+ Rights”

Language should be perceived as a verb, existing in a dynamic manner rather than in the static form we typically envision. The concept involves examining what speakers accomplish when they ‘do’ language, as well as their actions when they ‘do’ ideology. The focus is on the linguistic and discursive output of actors as a manifestation of their actions. Various examples can illustrate this approach: a formal linguistic division based on in-group and out-group framing; a structural linguistic positioning, whether of a populist hero in relation to the ‘true people’ or of the ‘true people’ against others; semantic transitivity associated with an ‘allochthonous Other’; and relational or functional juxtapositions between the ‘true’ and ‘other.’

The panel’s second speaker, Dr. Eric Louis Russell, approached the topic from a slightly different angle, drawing on his background as a critical linguist and his research agenda focused on how language activity reflects Weltansichten, or cognitive contexts. Expanding on this, language should be perceived as a verb, existing in a dynamic manner rather than in the static form we typically envision. The concept involves examining what speakers accomplish when they ‘do’ language, as well as their actions when they ‘do’ ideology. The focus is on the linguistic and discursive output of actors as a manifestation of their actions. Various examples can illustrate this approach: a formal linguistic division based on in-group and out-group framing; a structural linguistic positioning, whether of a populist hero in relation to the ‘true people’ or of the ‘true people’ against others; semantic transitivity associated with an ‘allochthonous Other’; and relational or functional juxtapositions between the ‘true’ and ‘other.’

Regarding discourse, according to Dr. Russel, it can be viewed in various ways: as textual, oral, or multimodal; as the ‘bounded residue’ of language action in a specific domain; and as describable using linguistic methods. Based on this, certain core features of populist discourse can be distinguished: the representation of a ‘strong man’ as a savior; the reframing of modernity juxtaposed with the ‘allochthonous Other’; the portrayal of autochthonous people as under threat; a narrative of role reversal with victims depicted as victimizers, such as LGBTQ+ communities; and complex intersectionalities with hegemonic structures.

A final theoretical consideration is the phenomenon of enregisterment, the process by which a linguistic repertoire becomes associated, within a culture, with particular social practices and individuals engaging in those practices. In this sense, the populist linguistic repertoire serves to connect different cultural domains with various practices. The mechanism operates through the circulation of register, its clasp, relay, and grasp. In other words, it links to areas of social action, connects across different arenas, and ultimately implants into a new arena, often with superficial or contradictory meanings.

The first example presented pertains to Dewinter’s populism in Flemish Belgium and his discourse. The warranting principles rely on superficially pro-LGBTQ+ stances, while in reality being homophobic, thus reinscribing LGBTQ+ people as instruments of both populism and illiberalism. This represents a table-turning strategy, re-articulating them in a manner that can be perceived as homophobic. 

Another significant example is Poland, where discourse revolves around using gender to denote an ideologized ‘Other’ by the Law & Justice Party (PiS). The clasping of registers of nationalism and historical victimization is employed to rearticulate traditional discourse formations of sex, personhood, and belonging to the Polish nation. These example illustrates how populist discourse practices ultimately extend into various domains, portraying gender ideology as a threat to Polish existence.

A final example concerns Italy after the election of Georgia Meloni as Prime Minister, which sheds light on key elements of the linguistic landscape surrounding non-binarity and non-binary linguistic interventions in Italy. While the predominant populist reaction denies the potential expansion of identity beyond man/woman binaries, other reactions assert various mechanisms of representation through language. Here, the articulation of language is crucial, as it reflects both the actor’s ideational world and their material reality, including or excluding categories and possibilities.

Dr. Russell also provided some concluding remarks on the issue of futurity. Given the central role of language in populism, there should be greater focus on the ecological systems of meaning-making and how they can be disrupted, as well as on the pathways through which illiberalism hybridizes and grafts onto pre-existing meaning-making processes, and how these can be disrupted.

Nik Linders: “Gender & Sexuality in Dutch Populist Voter Profiles”

While it’s possible that populist leaders have influenced their voters with conservative ideas, the key point is that gender and sexuality may carry similar effective connotations as ideas of nationhood and citizenship. This highlights the interconnectedness of these concepts and their importance in shaping political attitudes and discourse.

As the third panelist, Nik Linders focused on examining the attitudes towards gender and sexuality among the Dutch popular radical right electorate, and how these attitudes intersect with other beliefs often associated with populist radical right politics. Pim Fortuyn, the first Dutch populist radical right politician to gain popularity, positioned himself as a gay politician, arguing that his sexual orientation uniquely qualified him for leadership and presenting a form of progressive radical right-wing populism. While his positions were primarily directed against immigration and Islam, they were also informed by the amalgamation of Dutch identity with what he termed ‘sexual modernity.’ His somewhat progressive stance and legacy on gender and sexuality continue to resonate in parts of the Dutch electorate and contemporary political parties.

Turning to the present and the 2021 elections, we observed three populist radical right parties with varying positions on gender and sexuality: PVV, FVD, and JA21. The PVV is the most progressive among them, consistently supportive of gay and lesbian rights as well as transgender rights, even outside discussions on Islam or immigration. FVD, on the other hand, is the most conservative on the topic, as evidenced by their sarcastic campaign slogan "how many genders do you have today?" However, they still publicly position themselves as pro-gay rights. As for JA21, while they do not explicitly address gender and sexuality, when they do, they appear to be more progressive than FVD.

The speaker discussed how these positions were correlated with the preferences of the Dutch electorate, utilizing nationally representative survey data from the Dutch parliamentary election study and employing latent class analysis. In his study, along with other colleagues, they identified different voter profiles within the populist radical right electorate. They selected respondents who not only claimed to have voted for these parties but also expressed the intention to do so.

The first item extracted from the dataset measures whether the respondent supports adoption by same-sex couples. The second item assesses support for sex change operations, while the third item examines whether the respondent believes there is something wrong with individuals who identify as neither man nor woman. These items serve as pivotal points in the Dutch public political debate and thus act as reliable proxies for gender and sexual preferences.

To complement these measures, according to Linders, other issues such as nativism, colonialism, nationalism, anti-Islamism, and anti-immigration were included. It’s important to note the distinctions between nativism and nationalism: while nationalism refers to the belief that anyone could theoretically assimilate into the national identity through adaptation to the idea of national hegemony, nativism specifically pertains to individuals born in the Dutch context, i.e., in the Netherlands to Dutch parents, who are considered the only ones legitimately entitled to become part of the citizenry.

Linders stated that the researchers identified five profiles of voters: gender-conservative; solely nativist; undecided or divided on gender; gender-moderate; and atypical for the populist radical right, yet gender-moderate. One key finding is that only 9% of the electorate consider voting for parties that are truly gender conservative. Despite some evidence of increasing sentiment in this direction, the majority of people still generally don’t feel threatened. Consequently, an important distinction between progressive and moderately progressive voters can be drawn on three levels.

First, there appears to be an overlap between conservative or orthodox religiosity (Christianity) and the more gender conservative outlook, as evidenced by the relatively higher popularity of the Dutch Orthodox party among the small gender conservative group.

Second, considering that 60% of the profiles are men, it’s notable that the most gender-progressive group consists of 55% women, while the most gender-conservative group is composed of approximately 73% men. This indicates that the anti-gender sentiment remains closely linked with an overrepresentation of men and masculinity.

Third, while all groups consistently exhibit highly nationalist conservative tendencies, only the truly conservative group and the group that is undecided or divided on gender and sexuality attitudes demonstrate ethno-nativist thinking. This suggests that individuals with gender-progressive values are placing less stringent demands on what nationality means to them, and that gender essentialism aligns with traditional ideas about the family and nativist notions about citizenship.

In conclusion, Linders offered an analysis of the relationship between anti-gender sentiment and populism. While it’s possible that populist leaders have influenced their voters with conservative ideas, the key point is that gender and sexuality may carry similar effective connotations as ideas of nationhood and citizenship. This highlights the interconnectedness of these concepts and their importance in shaping political attitudes and discourse.

Dr. Pauline Cullen: “Populism and the backlash against gender equality: Feminist responses to right-wing populism in Europe”

The resistance to gender equality, notably observed in extreme right opposition movements, thrives due to the neglect of gender equality goals by more centrist forces. There is also a concern about a radical flank effect, which allows those seeking cover to hinder progress on gender justice. Moreover, the professionalization of EU feminist civil society organizations, their adherence to certain aspects of EU discourse, and their reliance on EU funding opportunities pose additional risks. These factors can weaken feminist arguments for gender justice and their ability to oppose right-wing parties effectively.

As the final speaker, Dr. Pauline Cullen presented the findings of her paper published in the Journal of European Politics and Society. The central question addressed in the research was how the rise of populism has impacted political opportunities for civil society organizations in the European Union (EU). The study focused on feminist civil society organizations, specifically an urban women’s lobby with a transnational scope, funded by the EU and emblematic of European elite technocrats.

The main argument of the paper is that feminist opposition to anti-gender equality interests and ideas is complicated by the co-optation of constructions of gender justice by right-wing populists, along with the proximity between right-wing populist ideas and feminist critiques of economic governance based on austerity. The findings suggest that while feminist and pro-gender organizations work to counter right-wing populist grievances, they are still constrained by EU imperatives and weakened by multiple crises.

Furthermore, the study highlights that these grievances, along with the ideas, actors, and institutions behind them, benefit from the absence of a strong political commitment to gender equality at the European level, the neoliberal instrumentalization of gender equality, and the lack of tactics from the center-right flank.

From a sociological perspective, European integration can be viewed as a relational ecosystem comprising organized societal groups that often benefit from the financial opportunities provided by the European Commission. This enables these organizations to serve as agents of policy integration and disseminators of EU policy ideas. As a result, women’s and feminist civil society organizations have experienced a decline in influence, particularly in terms of access.

Conversely, populist forces have created a challenging environment for these organizations. Currently, we observe a more crowded and conservative landscape of right-wing competitors operating at the European level and exerting influence across European institutions.

In response to this evolving landscape, according to Dr. Cullen, these organizations have attempted to adapt, drawing on insights from the social movements literature. Strategies include adaptation, exit, abeyance, professionalism, radicalization, and the adoption of new managerial and communication techniques. Furthermore, there are emerging collaborative efforts to establish common frameworks and approaches while maintaining strategic differentiation based on the focus of each civil society group.

The challenge lies in avoiding the reinforcement of right-wing populist anti-feminist frames and staying focused on equality and democracy. This involves minimizing conflict, engaging in less visible front-stage actions, and emphasizing more informal and backstage initiatives, resulting in a general decrease in their formal presence.

Dr. Cullen’s paper also explores the dynamics of the relationship between feminism and populism at the national and regional levels. There is a growing recognition of a backlash narrative, acknowledging the long-term impact of these processes, which have become embedded in the institutional fabric, reinforcing social gender conservatism and nationalism. This perpetuates existing patriarchal power relations through the guise of seemingly reformist agendas.

Ultimately, European civil society groups face challenges when aligning with EU values that are often technocratic and insufficient for their broader scope and goals.

One notable aspect, Dr. Cullen said, is that both European feminist civil society groups and right-wing populist movements share a common critique of the European project, viewing it as undemocratic, disconnected from the realities of European women, and committed to austerity measures. The challenge for feminist organizations is to craft frames that acknowledge the limitations of EU integration for gender equality while avoiding alignment with right-wing populist narratives of Euroscepticism.

Merely employing tactics of vilification, debunking, and frame-saving may not always suffice, as they tend to construct adversaries in a negative light. The central argument suggests that by employing specific framing and counter-framing techniques aimed at depoliticizing gender equality, particularly as a European ideal, and portraying feminism as a project for the common good, it is possible to revitalize a stagnant policy context. This approach can be directed towards EU elites to highlight the link between illiberal threats to gender equality and broader threats to European democracies.

In other words, gender equality should serve as the battleground for shaping Europe’s future. By reframing the discourse and emphasizing the importance of gender equality in safeguarding European democracies, feminist organizations can contribute to a more inclusive and democratic European project.

Dr. Cullen’s conclusion highlights that the resistance to gender equality, notably observed in extreme right opposition movements, thrives due to the neglect of gender equality goals by more centrist forces. Additionally, there’s a concern about a radical flank effect, which allows those seeking cover to hinder progress on gender justice.

Moreover, the professionalization of EU feminist civil society organizations (CSOs), their adherence to certain aspects of EU discourse, and their reliance on EU funding opportunities pose additional risks. These factors can weaken feminist arguments for gender justice and their ability to oppose right-wing parties effectively.

Some current strategic developments include the emergence of "feminist Europe 2.0," represented by organizations such as the European Institute for Gender Equality. Other strategies involve incorporating gender experts into policymaking, fostering feminist critical voices within EU and national institutions, disseminating feminist critiques through academia and research, and empowering and establishing feminist think tanks.

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