When Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing bloc won last month’s elections in Italy, concern swept across Europe. It was a new chapter in the advance of the Far Right in a scenario marked by political and economic crises. But Meloni is not a novelty — she is preceded by “classic” right-wing leaders, such as former British prime minister Liz Truss, and “restorers” like Marine Le Pen of the French National Front and Alice Weidel of Alternative for Germany.
One person who does not appear to share this widespread concern is Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State and icon of glass ceiling feminism, who reacted to Meloni’s victory with the following words: “The election of the first woman prime minister in a country always represents a break with the past, and that is certainly a good thing.” She knows Meloni belongs to a far-right party, yet her election still seems like good news to Clinton.
Clinton’s statement is the most recent and paradoxical, but it’s not the first. Every time a woman assumes a high-ranking position, the question arises as to the influence of the gender of those administering the state on policies and qualitative change. Gender washing — framing the presence of women in places of power as something positive per se — is effective. This is because women are seen as born caregivers, conciliators, and empaths, and these are thus presented as “feminine” qualities. That is why women are often invoked in official speeches, election campaigns, and advertising.
At the same time, during the pandemic and in other times of crisis, the presence of women in positions of power, such as Silvina Batakis’s short tenure as Argentina’s minister of economy, reopens another old debate, that of the “glass cliff.” Are women more likely to occupy important positions in times of turbulence, only to quickly be discarded?
A Strange but Effective Mix
Meloni’s campaign slogan was “God, homeland, family,” and in 2019 she declared, in a defining speech, “I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am a Christian.” She openly rejects feminism and the LGBTQ+ movement (“in favor of the natural family and against the gay lobby”). One of her most important campaign issues was increasing the Italian birth rate, in line with the reactionary theory of “ethnic substitution.” Unlike other right-wing women leaders, she easily uses the “woman, mother, family” profile to her benefit.
Where Meloni converges with these other politicians is in something that researcher Sara Farris terms “femonationalism”: the use of feminist demands to support reactionary policies. Farris and other researchers have sought to understand European right-wing parties’ co-optation of feminist issues, as well as why some feminists were becoming increasingly Islamophobic. Debates over the headscarf ban — which many on the Right and even some feminists support — are one example of this phenomenon, revitalized by the protests in Iran over the murder of Mahsa (Zina) Amini. Confusing the struggle against oppression with support for reactionary state bans has political consequences: it can enable the right wing to use “women’s rights” for its own purposes.
To achieve this, these right-wing sectors invoke gender stereotypes. Male migrants, especially those of Arab or Muslim origin, are presented as a sexual, security, and economic threat. Women are presented as victims who need to be saved from an oppressive culture. At the same time, complicating this picture, migrants play a very important role in the labor market and in European welfare in general. As the state has retreated from providing adequate welfare and social services, migrants have increasingly filled the gap, especially when it comes to care for children and the elderly.
The “cultural threat” argument is commonly used as a cudgel against immigration. For example, Rocío Monasterio, leader of the Madrid branch of Spain’s far-right Vox party, claims that “true feminism” means opposing immigrants who want to end women’s equality in the country. Le Pen likewise wrote in 2017, “I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights.” Meloni did the same when she disseminated a video of a sexual assault on a Ukrainian refugee woman and stressed that the aggressor was an African migrant: “A hug to this woman. I will do everything I can to restore security in our cities.” Meloni was rightly criticized for revictimizing the woman, but her xenophobic approach was much less discussed.
Italian philosopher Giorgia Serughetti notes that the Far Right points to misogynist violence when the aggressor isn’t Italian, although most aggressors in the country are. She also explains that being a woman who protests violations of women’s rights by mobilizing traditional right-wing rhetoric works because it speaks to a public opinion that is potentially hostile to migration.
The Women of the Klan
This is not the first time that the Right has used gender washing or combined its reactionary reasoning with the appearance of feminism. The January 6 uprising on the U.S. Capitol is often presented as an expression of “toxic masculinity” linked to Donald Trump; the former president, however, has many women supporters, and the ranks of the QAnon movement are filled with women.
In general, women’s participation in white supremacy is underemphasized. Perhaps it’s reassuring to think that such reactionary phenomena can be explained by a masculine essence on which rests a system of inequality and oppression. But as UC Berkeley historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers points out, women’s involvement in white supremacy dates back to slavery, and despite evidence to the contrary, there has been a tendency, dating back to the colonial period, of positioning white women as a homogenous bloc of perpetual victims.
That involvement continued after the abolition of slavery, as the Ku Klux Klan grew to 1.5 million members. Much of its work was focused on social activities in white, Protestant suburbs. Journalist Emily Cataneo notes the absence of anti-racist criticism in various wings of suffragism and that, after the right to vote was won, a scenario opened up which enabled a cocktail of so-called feminism and racism. Propagandists like Elizabeth Tyler helped revitalize the Klan and founded the group Women of the Klu Klux Klan (WKKK), which brought a new dynamic to the organization. As Cataneo explains, the group “position[ed] itself as a safeguard” for the rights won during the suffrage movement.
Jones-Rogers explains that once white women earned the right to vote, they also began to be seen as allies in politicizing white supremacy and as an electoral bloc in their own right. The use of sexual violence also played an important role in upholding white supremacy — accusations of rape to legitimize lynchings of Black men were not uncommon. Later on, women were also, as authoritative voices for child welfare, key in the backlash against anti-segregation laws in schools.
The QAnon movement likewise exploited the image of women as caregivers. Members and supporters of this group — mostly women — drove the #SaveTheChildren anti-child-trafficking campaign, and they amplified the “Pizzagate” conspiracy accusing Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and others of pedophilia. In these campaigns, moreover, there is a curious crossover with discourse around welfare and caregiving. As noted Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, the “idea that you can cleanse yourself and your life and your family’s life of pollutants” is very common among the appeals to women made by groups like QAnon.
Do Women Govern Better?
Returning to Hillary Clinton, is it inherently a good thing for a woman to take power? Italian sociologist Elia Arfini proposes another way of thinking about the crossover between the Right and feminism. She chooses an earlier starting point, when Beyoncé, Ivanka Trump, and brands like Dove incorporated feminism into their marketing discourse (does “progressive neoliberalism” ring a bell?). Arfini points out that the “global expansion of feminist messaging is fraught with contradictions and paradoxes when pursuing the feminist goal of systemic social justice in areas that foster exclusion, oppression and inequality.”
Do very few powerful women sit at the tables where important decisions are made? Yes, but criticizing sexism doesn’t mean that having more female prime ministers and presidents improves or disrupts the pillars of the democracies we live in.
Originally published in Spanish on October 23 in Ideas de Izquierda.
Translation by Otto Fors