Much research has established that radical right parties tend to act as anti-feminist actors, opposing feminist policy proposals, but also instrumentalise certain feminist policy goals for their own objectives. Research is more inconclusive about the gender values of radical right voters. Does feminism even matter to these voters? If so, what are their stances? In my recently published article, I use interviews with radical right voters to investigate these questions.
In recent years and across various democracies, the rise of the radical right and its implications for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights have become increasingly important. A growing group of people are voting for these often openly anti-feminist parties. While much research shows that these voters are most strongly motivated by anti-immigration attitudes, we know less about their stances on feminism. Are anti-feminist attitudes part of what motivates people to vote for the radical right?
Some recent articles have addressed this question. To give a few examples, Eva Anduiza and Guillem Rico (2022) found that, after a massive feminist mobilisation in 2018/2019, increases in a modern type of sexism predicted votes for the radical right in Spain. Similarly, Jane Green and Rosalind Shorrocks (2023) showed that the notion that men are discriminated against predicted voting for Brexit. Elizabeth Ralph-Morrow (2020) interviewed activists of the far-right English Defence League and showed that masculinity is central to their beliefs and practices. Similarly, Hilde Coffe and her co-authors (2023) found that the interplay of self-reported masculinity and sexism was associated with radical right voting in Spain.
In an earlier study of mine, I add to this literature by finding that people who oppose the transfer of power from men to women and the strengthening of LGBTQI+ rights are more likely to vote for the radical right in Sweden – but only during feminist mobilisations (Off, 2023). In contrast, Caroline Lancaster (2019) and Niels Spierings and his co-authors (2017) find that a growing group of radical right voters are so-called “sexually modern nativists” – people who favour lesbian and gay rights and/or gender equality, while opposing immigration.
These studies come to partly contradictory conclusions, and often focus on one or a few aspects that describe an individual’s gender attitudes – perhaps whether they perceive that discrimination against women is still a problem, or whether they support LGBTQI+ rights. Studies using survey data are generally limited to the use of few available indicators to assess people’s gender attitudes. Furthermore, when survey indicators use broad concepts, it is hard to know what the respondents are thinking about when they answer. Take, for example, the concept of “women’s rights” – will respondents think of the right to vote, the right to abortion, gender quotas, or other rights when reading this?
Aiming at a more comprehensive understanding of which kinds of feminist issues matter to radical right voters, which ones they oppose and which ones they (may) support, I conducted interviews with radical right voters. My colleague Luca Versteegen and I went to East Germany, where the radical right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is particularly strong. Interestingly, East Germany is also post-communist, which comes with a particular legacy of gender equality and secularism. Unlike Catholic-dominated West Germans, East Germans have long been socialised into gender equality in the labour market, early childcare and abortion rights, which is reflected in east-west differences in regional gender equality indicators and attitudes to this day (Hanschmidt, 2020). Yet, the AfD, with its largely conservative and anti-feminist positions, has strong support in this region. How do its East German voters, who have largely been socialised into certain gender equality norms, argue about different kinds of feminist policies?
My interviews reveal that these voters oppose certain feminist issues, but not others. The issues they oppose tend to be those that have been recently debated and politicised in German society and politics. For instance, respondents often oppose gender quotas in companies and politics, the #MeToo movement, gender-inclusive language, liberal sex education, same-sex adoption, and the visibility of queerness in society. In contrast, they are generally more likely to support equal rights by law, and many also favour equal opportunities in the labour market, equal pay, shared parenting, abortion rights, and the right to be gay. They also use different kinds of arguments to justify their positions.
First, their more conservative arguments reflect a heteronormative understanding of human beings and the nuclear family. Such arguments justify the opposition to, for instance, a third gender or gender quotas on the basis of what respondents see as human nature: Binary genders with a “natural” tendency to follow certain gender roles. Interviewees also cite their concern for the protection of children to justify, for instance, their opposition to liberal sex education or same-sex adoption. Using a nationalist argument, they express their concern for the reproduction of the national society by opposing LGBTQI+ genders, sexualities and family models.
Second, interviewees use populist arguments to oppose feminist issues. These arguments are not about the content of the issue itself but rather about where the issue is perceived to come from: It is perceived to be imposed by some distant elites or institutions. This is the case, for example, with gender-inclusive language, the #MeToo movement, and family models that differ from the heteronormative nuclear family. Some respondents perceive these issues as elite projects, imposed against the interests of the majority of the population. The populist framing of anti-feminism parallels other types of populist discourse often used by radical right actors. It can thus provide an “easy” entry point into anti-feminism for people who are primarily concerned with other issues but who hold populist attitudes.
Third, the interviewees reveal a less conservative way of arguing about anti-feminism, which is commonly referred to as postfeminist. Postfeminists generally support gender equality. However, they believe that it has already been achieved. Therefore, no further measures are needed to work towards gender equality, and consequently, any further action will discriminate against men. For instance, some interviewees will comment favourably on the fact that equal rights and equal pay are stipulated by law. Consequently, they will continue to argue that gender quotas are unnecessary and unfair to men. This line of argument allows the interviewees to support many of the AfD’s anti-feminist positions, while maintaining the general principle of gender equality.
As discussed earlier, in addition to the three types of arguments that justify opposition to feminist issues in more or less conservative ways, some respondents also voice their support for feminist issues. Such support for feminist issues can take on a strategic role in justifying other positions that they deem more important. For instance, many interviewees justify their anti-immigration stance by expressing concern for the protection of women from alleged violence by immigrants. Specifically in the East German context, some interviewees support women’s participation in the labour market and the provision of early childcare, while explaining that East Germany achieved these goals long before West Germany. In this context, their support for feminist issues serves to express their identification as East Germans against West Germans.
Overall, my interviews suggest that feminist issues do matter to radical right voters – in a variety of ways. They use different kinds of arguments to justify more or less conservative opposition, as well as limited or strategic support for feminist issues, without necessarily contradicting themselves. My findings suggest that radical right voters are opposed to many recently debated feminist issues and thus to any further progress towards an equal society for people of different genders and sexualities. These opposing attitudes need to be taken seriously by anyone seeking to promote policies to achieve such a society, given the potential backlash that such measures may provoke among this growing group in society. However, my findings also show that there may be some room for ambiguity: Respondents do support certain (albeit more limited) feminist issues and understandings of gender equality and gay rights. Moreover, some opposition to feminism is linked to a populist worldview rather than a conservative one. Possibly, this ambiguity can pave the way for future dialogue.
Note: This article reflects the views of the authors and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford.