A review of Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment, Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk (Routledge, 2021), £120
The need to understand how and why the populist far right has been so successful has never been more urgent. The victories for the Law and Justice Party in Poland and the re-election of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the continuing support for Donald Trump in the United States, and the popularity of Marine Le Pen in France and other far-right parties across Europe all bear painful witness to this. Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment is an important contribution to understanding how the far right has been able to go “mainstream”.
Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk argue that we have entered a new phase in the struggle for gender equality and sexual democracy since 2010, with campaigns against gender equality spreading around the world. A new wave of global ultra-conservative activism has established “gender” as a catch-all term to denote support for gender equality, reproductive rights, LGBT+ equality, sex education, legislation against violence against women, sexual freedom, assisted reproduction (surrogacy and IVF treatments) and trans rights. The “anti-gender” movement is flexible enough to incorporate this range of targets, but coherent enough to be a movement rather than just a series of unrelated campaigns. This coherence is anchored in framing hostility to women’s and LGBT+ rights as resistance to neoliberalism and global elites. Opposition to “gender ideology” has become a “symbolic glue” which unites different currents within the far right.1
Anti-gender activists build on hostility to elites by painting a picture of a “gender establishment”, which they argue has taken over the United Nations, the European Union and the World Health Organisation, aided by wealthy philanthropists such as Bill Gates and George Soros. The association of “gender ideology” with powerful institutions and the super-rich means that it can be identified as the cause of the multiple anxieties and humiliations produced by neoliberalism. The far right has been remarkably successful in demonising the word “gender” and “making gender equality appear like an enemy of the people”.2
The book develops a subtle and sophisticated analysis of how “gender” has become a key factor in the growth of the right. The authors are deeply rooted in the feminist politics of Poland, and their activism informs a comparative analysis of the anti-gender movement in Western and Eastern Europe. A note of caution is, however, necessary here. The authors see anti-genderism as a global phenomenon and do draw on some examples beyond Europe. Yet, this global dimension is very underdeveloped. An effective account would need a much longer study and greater engagement with debates about homophobia and women’s oppression in the Global South. The book is at its strongest when it focuses on gender in Europe, and particularly in Eastern Europe.3
Graff and Korolczuk focus on two new developments. First, opposition to “gender” has generated support for and legitimised right-wing populist politics. Anti-gender campaigns have whipped up support for right-wing populists, who aim to harness people’s anger against neoliberal elites in order to undermine democracy altogether. Second, both anti-genderists and right-wing populists have successfully mobilised widespread anger and frustration about neoliberalism in reactionary directions: “Millions of people in Europe and beyond have been mobilised against ‘gender ideology’ and in support of ‘family values’”.4 Intensifying attacks on abortion rights in the US make it hard to disagree with the authors that supporters of gender equality and sexual freedom now face real dangers.
Anti-gender movements and right-wing populism are not the same, but they often draw on common intellectual sources, deploy the same tactics and support one another’s worldview. The authors describe the relationship between them as an “opportunistic synergy”, in which two distinct movements generate support for each other. Both express the idea that a pure, honest “people” are being threatened by unaccountable elites and heartless neoliberal institutions. Both pose as defenders of a “traditional”, heterosexual family and a “natural order”.5 Both turn the shame generated by personal failure into a sense of national, racial and gender-based pride. Right-wing populism thrives on real threats, such as the dismantling of welfare provision, and imagined threats, such as a distorted idea of Islam. Anti-genderists intensify this sense of threat by asserting that transglobal institutions, foreigners and those who do not conform to conventional ideas of gender are intent on undermining “natural” relationships, Christian values and the traditional family.
The family is of central importance to anti-gender campaigners because it can be presented as the only institution that protects ordinary people from the impact of unrestrained free markets and the associated rise of individualism and consumerism.6 Today’s right-wing populists tend to be much more critical of neoliberalism than previous conservatives. European right-wing populists often argue for a state-provided safety net for families, albeit one that excludes immigrant families—a policy of “welfare chauvinism”.7 Those who supposedly undermine the family are demonised as wanting to leave people defenceless in the face of the brutalities of the free market.
Nationalist movements have long instrumentalised gender and sexuality. Around 2015, at the height of the so-called European refugee crisis, anti-gender rhetoric was partially merged with a panic over those fleeing war and poverty. Far-right organisations in Germany, France and the Netherlands warned that refugees brought with them the threat of sexual violence. Violence against women, traditionally a preoccupation of feminists and the left, was opportunistically adopted by the far right. This co-option of feminist ideas by anti-Islamic and xenophobic campaigns, known as “femonationalism”, relies on the demonisation of hijab-wearing women and “patriarchal” Muslim men. Femonationalism is an example of how Western Europe’s right-wing populists can cynically combine hard-right bigotry with seemingly feminist positions. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally) in France, poses as a defender of women’s rights, which are supposedly being compromised by influxes of refugees.8 The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) distinguishes between homosexuality, which it acknowledges to be an “acceptable lifestyle choice”, and “genderism”, which it portrays as a dangerous ideology. In Sweden, anti-gender campaigners focus on undermining gender studies.9 In Eastern Europe, right-wing populists draw on and amplify the continuing influence of the Catholic Church to legitimise openly homophobic language.
Anti-gender activists spread their message on social media, through street protests and within grassroots campaigns. They have also developed a theoretical critique of “gender ideology” that they promote in academia. Anti-genderists insist that gender is ideological and therefore manipulated, whereas sex is biological and therefore factual. Academia, they argue, must be purged of the ideology propagated by gender studies programmes and gender theorists such as Judith Butler. When Butler visited Brazil in 2017, an effigy of the writer was burnt. Some 370,000 people signed a petition that called for Butler’s lecture in São Paulo to be cancelled on the basis that gender theory is equal to paedophilia.10
Another dimension of anti-genderism is its use of anti-colonial rhetoric, however divorced from any actual experience of colonial subjugation. Referring to the Council of Europe’s convention on violence against women, a banner at a large anti-sex education rally held in August 2015 in Warsaw declared: “Gender + convention about so-called violence against women—this is Ebola for Poland from Brussels”. Ideas about gender are presented as being imposed on unwilling populations by undemocratic, politically correct global institutions. In 2016, the Pope gave an influential speech in Kraków, Poland: “In Europe, Latin America, Africa and some countries in Asia, there are genuine forms of ideological colonisation taking place. One of these—I will call it clearly by its name—is the ideology of gender”.11 Promotion of reproductive health, family planning, gender equality and sexual rights is portrayed as a cover for Malthusian attempts to eradicate local populations. In Europe, the idea of a population under threat feeds into the far-right conspiracy theory of a “Great Replacement” of white Christians by Muslims and non-whites. Eastern European anti-gender activists also draw on a narrative of opposition to Western moral depravity. They claim to be engaged in a noble struggle against both Western degeneracy and Muslim barbarism, fantasising about playing the double role of both victim and saviour of the corrupted West.12
The book concludes by considering the inspiring global wave of feminist organising: the international women’s strike, women’s demonstrations against Trump, the Czarny Protest (“Black Protest”) demonstrations in defence of abortion rights in Poland and the Ni Una Menos (“Not One Less”) movement opposing violence against women in Argentina. These creative and dynamic new women’s movements oppose the incorporation of feminism by state and global institutions—vital since, as the authors argue, feminism must not be reduced to individual success and work-life balance. To be effective, any women’s movement must be broad-based, inclusive and anti-capitalist.13
Feminism and identity politics have not gone too far, and they are not to blame to for the rise of right-wing populism. However, mainstream politicians and liberal feminists have ignored social welfare and failed to address the anger of those let down by promises of economic growth. This has allowed the right to channel opposition to neoliberalism, offering welfare chauvinism and a return to the traditional family as the only possible alternatives to dismantling welfare provision.14 The authors argue that feminism must reclaim the terrain of care, social provision, welfare and community to undermine the appeal of the right.15
The authors do not explore the issue of so-called gender-critical feminism and trans rights in detail. Perhaps this is explained by the fight for trans rights in Poland being clearly identified with feminism and the left and opposition to trans rights being straightforwardly associated with the church and the far right. However, their analysis contains a warning to those feminists who think they can oppose “gender ideology” without strengthening the right. “Gender-critical” feminists are feeding support for right-wing populism, which will not only undermine trans rights, but also the rights of women and all LGBT+ people, thus weakening the fight against all forms of oppression.
Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment demonstrates that reactionary discourse about gender is central to far-right politics and must be seen alongside racism, Islamophobia and nationalism as a key element in far-right ideology. This book is both a scholarly investigation of the role played by anti-gender agitation in the rise of right-wing populism and an intervention that seeks to fortify resistance to far-right politics. Graff and Korolczuk’s book can help to arm socialists against the theoretical development of the far right, thus strengthening much needed opposition on the streets.
Judy Cox is a teacher in East London. She is studying for a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at Leeds University. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020).
1 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p20.
2 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p4.
3 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p3.
4 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p3.
5 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p42.
6 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p37.
7 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p95.
8 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p26.
9 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p88.
10 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p62.
11 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p94.
12 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p89.
13 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p31.
14 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p169.
15 Graff and Korolczuk, 2021, p111.