Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Female leaders on the rise?

From Emily McHugh

Only a small proportion of far right politicians are female, and yet their success has proven to be immense. A glance at the political leaders in Europe confirms that women are no oddity to right-wing territory. Could this be coincidence? Or is there more to it?

When most people think of nationalist leaders, the image of a white, elderly man comes to their mind. However, this past year may have fiddled with developments for two figures fluttered into European media attention: the Front National’s Marine Le Pen – who was votes away from becoming France’s new president in April 2022- and Giorgia Meloni, who was elected as Italy’s first prime minister in September. Both women;  both far rightists. Neither particularly unsuccessful. So: Could gender play a role in the growing popularity of female nationalists in Europe?

To answer this question, it is firstly important to investigate what makes women on the far right so noticeable nowadays. When questioned about this, Viktoria Rösch – a researcher at the sociology department of the TU Dresden university – rectifies: “Nobody can claim that women have taken over far right politics. It is still a field heavily dominated by men, and there isn’t necessarily a higher number of females in right-wing extremism than there are in other parts of the political spectrum.” Though she agrees that the increased number of female right extremists is remarkable, she doesn’t understand the amazement that was met with this development. Now that the majority of  European women have a better understanding of politics, and their inspirations sharpened by their female idols, it is only natural that some of them turn to politics. “What has changed”, Viktoria Rösch continues “is the visibility of women on the far right. Back in the time where their political ideas weren’t taken seriously, women were expected to lead a household, and not a political party.”

What didn’t exist until the 20th century – however – was the female right to vote. Women’s suffrage entered Germany in 1918. It was in 1944 that women’s right to vote arrived in France, and Italian women were granted the right to vote two years later. That makes the female right to vote younger than cars, which were invented in 1886. Nevertheless, the feminist movements that have been rattling the earth since 1848 have taken effect, for the idea of a female politician has trickled into acceptance.

But still, the thought of women in the blazing heights of the far right could be seen as puzzling, because far right ideology speaks against them. Frauke Petry – who was a member of the AfD (“Alternative für Deutschland”) from 2013 to 2017 – is a good example for it. Despite having six children and being a full time politician herself, she stood for a party that criticizes working mothers and reduces women on their family lives. Disturbed by the declining birth rate in Germany, the AfD believes women should devote more time to their families than to their careers. Petry isn’t the only female campaigner of this party. During the eight years Beatrix von Storch has been part of the AfD, she has expressed numerous antifeminist ideas. One of these is her frustration over Gender Mainstreaming. Originating from the 1985 Nairobi World Conference On Women, this strategy aims for the equality of the two sexes. However, Storch identifies a problem spiking this operation. Not only is she concerned that Gender Mainstreaming discourages women from being full-time mothers, but she claims it denies the existence of gender. Although she doesn’t have any children of her own, the idea of a traditional family still harmonises beautifully with the ensemble of her political ideas, her disapproval of abortion sounding equally as loud. Not the slightest whimper of feminism defines her melody. And yet during her time as Deputy Leader, the AfD still clung onto a fair amount of voters, also from women.

Politicians Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni have also made comments against abortion. Perhaps people assume that what comes out of a female mouth cannot be damaging for women. Simply the fact that it is a lady spreading these ideas convinces electors that they aren’t voting against female rights. Especially for people who don’t follow politics or don’t understand that being a strong woman and a feminist are two different things, the thought of supporting a female politician might seem attractive.

Considering how we all socialized, there is another notable point that could explain the success of female politicians in the right populist parties: Women are considered to be the softer sex. Political sience researcher Jenny Degner-Mantoan states “A lot of people have this natural presumption that women are less dangerous than men. Even if they are just as capable of having extreme right views, people generally find it less likely that women will use violence as a solution”. That is very much the case with Marine Le Pen – the former leader of France’s far right Rassemblement National . Unlike her father, Jean Marie Le Pen – who thrust his anti-immigrant ideology into the public’s ears – Marine Le Pen avoids sharing her radical views. By changing the name of the Front National, and sweeping anti-semitism out of her political program, she has made it clear that her opinions aren’t just photocopies of her predecessor’s. Her opposition to immigration is disguised as an attempt to save French women from sexual assault of immigrants.

Words like “Frexit” – the hypothetical French withdrawal from the European Union – melt into harmlessness when they tingle out of Marine’s mouth, compared to when Jean-Marie pronounced them. Also the fact that she urged her father to leave the Front National – as it was still named until 2018 – suggests that Jean-Marie’s views were representing too much extremism for her own taste.

A scroll through her Instagram feed only exaggerates her innocuous image showing her posing with cats, dogs and children – photos that don’t only indicate tenderness, but also maternity.

Instagram/@marine_lepen: self representation of Marine Le Pen on Social Networks

In September 2022, an article called “Mütter der Nation” (eng. “Mothers Of The Nation”) appeared in the German newspaper “Die Zeit”. In this piece of writing, journalist Thea Dorn explores how the motherliness of a woman could impact her political success. Focusing mainly on Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni, Dorn examines how the two female right-wing politicians represent their maternity. Social media is one of her key points. Le Pen’s Instagram is overflowing with pictures of her embracing her fans. This exhibition of maternity is enough to convince people that Le Pen is a caring woman. Also popular representative figures of France such as Delphine Wespiser – 2012’s Miss France –  expressed her support of Marine Le Pen during an interview in April 2022, describing her as someone who could “unite” and “protect” with  “feminine sensitivity”.

However, the longing for a national mother doesn’t only linger through France. The results of the Italian general election in September 2022 prove that the appeal of a maternal leader is to be found elsewhere as well. With her slogan “Italy and Italian people first”, Giorgia Meloni is promising her citizens endless protection. Yet her maternity doesn’t stop there. The forty-five year old politician has a young daughter: Ginevra Giambruno. Her love for this girl isn’t only illustrated on social media, but also through Meloni’s decisions. By refusing to move into Palazzo Chigi – the official residence of Italian prime ministers – she is emphasizing that the corridors of her life burst through the walls of Parliament, and lead to her child. Meloni’s devotion to Ginevra dances to the rhythm of her politics, where family is one of her top priorities. Encouraging heterosexual couples to have more children, and disagreeing with same sex marriage, Meloni is hoping for traditional families to take over. The motherhood Meloni and Le Pen show their countries might not appear to be dusted with danger. Yet Dorn detects a great threat slicing through their gentleness: these women might do anything to protect their citizens, but what is their attitude towards those who both see as “the others”? Could it be that by cushioning their self-representation with softness, a female right-wing populist could bring the world harder consequences than a man?

Nevertheless, it isn’t solely on the far right where women sparkle with success. With German’s far left party Die Linke boasting Janine Wissler as one of its co-chairmen, and Ricarda Lang co-leading Die Grünen (eng. The Green Party), female politicians in Germany exist in the spectrum of all political parties. Such as in France, where Paris’ mayor is Anne Hidalgo from the parti socialiste (eng. Socialist Party) since 2014, and also in Italy, female left-wing politicians are no rarity. Piu Europa’s (eng. “More Europe”) campaigner Emma Bonino is just one example. In the end, it is vital to remember that political success is more than gender. Excellent rhetorical skills and an up-to-date Twitter account are merely seeds in the soil from which a populist politician emerges – male or female.

About the author:
Emily McHugh

There is nothing Emily loves more than an excuse for bunking lectures. Born and raised in London, she deeply regrets her decision to study German with Germans only at the University of Freiburg. Participating in this journalism workshop has not only been a brilliant distraction from the course, but a fun, educational experience she would recommend to other students.

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