The Politics of Gender: How Women Will Make or Break the Future of European Populism

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Europe Desk

Written by: Nathalie Bussemaker, Morse College ’21

Imagine your typical European populist. They probably belong to a right-wing party, spew anti-immigrant rhetoric, and rant against the establishment elite. 

And odds are, they’re a man. From Sweden to Spain, Austria to Estonia, the leaders of Europe’s right-wing parties are overwhelmingly male. In a time when Europe’s electorate is more than 50 percent female and the gap in voter turnout between men and women is inching shut, this development might spell danger for the likes of Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini, and Geert Wilders. 

That most populist leaders are men is no coincidence. Populists tend to be narcissistic, aggressive, and opposed to compromise  — all characteristics that are more often found in male leaders. While these patterns might help populists appeal to disenchanted male voters, they often hurt their chances with women. Per a 2018 Pew Research Center study, 75 percent of women found it essential that a candidate for political office maintains a tone of civility and respect, compared to just 61 percent of men. Women were also significantly more likely than men to believe that a candidate must be compassionate and empathetic and must serve as a role model for children. 

Populist movements are also more likely to erode women’s rights. The right-wing Lega party in Italy has launched an anti-abortion campaign, Brexit is predicted to hit women hardest, and most European populist parties are less likely to support policies like quotas for women in politics or business. 

These policies and rhetoric are already coming back to bite. Last week, female MPs in Britain reprimanded Boris Johnson in the House of Commons for his incendiary comments on Brexit, especially his remark that “the best way to honor the memory of Jo Cox,” an anti-Brexit MP who was murdered by a far-right zealot, “would be, I think, to get Brexit done.”

Moreover, a post-election European Parliament survey found that women are more likely to vote when there are more female candidates — a trend that has resulted in the gender gap in voter turnout for national elections almost closing over the past 25 years. 

In spite of these trends, to view women as a monolith would be a mistake.  As populism has evolved in the 21st century, so have the faces — and voters — of Europe’s right wing. The most famous example is Marine Le Pen of France’s National Rally party, who narrowly lost a 2017 race against center-left Emmanuel Macron for the French presidency. Meanwhile, the far-right Danish People’s Party was founded by Pia Kjaersgaard, and Germany’s populist Alternative for Germany has had Alice Weidel and Frauke Petry among its leaders. 

Several of these women have been responsible for campaigns to soften their parties’ image and so appeal to a broader range of voters, especially women. Le Pen expelled her father and National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen for his controversial comments on the Holocaust, while Weidel is in a same-sex partnership and Petry left the AfD over extremist statements by fellow party leaders. Le Pen has also tried to frame her party’s anti-immigrant policies as pro-women. Citing mass sexual assaults in Germany on New Year’s Eve, she wrote in 2015 that “I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights.”

To an extent, these strategies have worked. According to 2018 study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, women are increasingly drawn to far-right parties and are often more radical than men who vote for the same parties. In some countries such as Poland and Italy, women even voted for far-right parties at higher rates than men. 

If current trends in women’s political participation continue, the dominance of European populists may soon go the way of the dodo. But if the right learns to adapt to the aspirations and anxieties of working-class women, they could cement their position in Europe’s halls of power for years to come. 

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