Manipulating the Vote: How Populists Exploit Gender Roles
Right-wing populist movements in the United States and across Europe differ significantly, but they have one aspect in common: the exploitation of archaic, limited gender roles. These days, democracy is challenged by resurgent authoritarianism, weakened liberal democratic values, and rising populism. This is accompanied by the portrayal of women in traditional roles — as someone serving men and in need of protection.
Donald Trump’s objectifying comments about women during the 2016 campaign evidently show this view of women. Meanwhile, on the European continent, populist parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany have been promoting the traditional image of the woman as a mother with children. Yet, it is a paradox, in fact, that some populist leaders are women — and that they too do not shy away from exploiting traditional gender roles for political campaign purposes.
White, working-class men are the main supporters of populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. As shown in 2014 European Social Survey, with data across nine European countries, and in a Pew Research Institute survey in November 2016, these men feel excluded by conventional parties and a trend toward liberal norms, such as the focus on minority and women’s rights or global trade deals. Yet, populist commentary also attracts women; in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, a surprising 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. On the other side of the Atlantic a similar trend was visible — 49 percent of women versus 54 percent of men voted in favor for Brexit.
Theories on why women vote for right-wing populists point to diverse causes. On the one hand, people stick with what is familiar — traditional gender roles or chauvinist behavior. Suzanne Moore, for example, stresses the underlying misogynist roots among American women themselves who voted for populist candidates such as Trump as a way to remain desirable to his male supporters, receiving protection in return. Others, such as Hannah Fearn, instead point to the social class of the women who voted for Trump. While these women experience sexism on a daily basis and were thus familiarized with his behavior, she also argues that they felt disregarded by progressive, left-leaning women who do not seem to consider their perspectives and choices; Clinton’s feminism felt rather threatening to these women.
Populist leaders’ appropriation — and misuse — of aspects of feminism are purely opportunistic with the aim to attract more voters.
Kelly Dittmar adds that female voters are often regarded as a single block, while there are in reality significant differences between women when it comes to race, age, class, and education levels. Women do not necessarily vote according to their gender identity but rather according to class or ethnicity. These trends can also been seen in Europe — as shown in research — that underline the notion of white women as racist and xenophobic because they are fearful of the influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Populist leaders such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have skillfully stressed the oppression of women under Islam — then argued that Dutch women need to be protected from Muslim men who do not respect their rights and liberties as Dutch citizens.
Marine Le Pen in France reformed Front National’s (FN) party program by highlighting more funds for stay-at-home-mothers and dropping references to the limitations of abortion from the agenda. Le Pen used her “femininity” as a strategic political choice to soften the FN’s image. By stressing her role as a divorced, single, working mother in campaign ads and posters, she aimed to present herself as a typical modern woman — quite successfully as many failed to recognize that she defied just that by holding an exposed political leadership role.
Marine Le Pen has also used similar gendered language during her campaign to increase anti-immigrant sentiments promoting herself as the protector of French women against male foreigners. Spokesperson for Osez le Féminisme, Clair Serre-Combe, even stated that Le Pen’s feminism is racist when she “speaks of sexual violence only when the aggressors are foreigners.” Similar biased discourse has also been evident in the United States as Trump infamously characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
Populist leaders’ appropriation — and misuse — of aspects of feminism are purely opportunistic with the aim to attract more voters. What is disturbing is the fact that women, even those in leadership positions, are reduced again to either social, peaceful, motherly types (Merkel) or to overly-ambitious and power-hungry figures (Clinton). Women leaders on the right profit from this first typology. It covers the misanthropy of their ideology and gives them credibility, because they only want the best for their “children.”
The new rhetoric regarding women is not only a challenge for democracy at large. Peace negotiation, state building, and political transitions need to include women (and other groups) in multiple sectors and levels in order to be effective and sustainable — only then can political leadership truly be representative. But the new rhetoric is a particular challenge for the various initiatives around women and gender, be it political participation, professional advancement, motherhood, or simply about personal choices. In the current turbulent political circumstances, we need to stay vigilant how gender is used in politics. A first step would be to stop referring to women as something special.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.