Gender, Identity, and the Radical Right

© Spiegel DE

In Germany, campaign advertisements for Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a radical right populist party that, among other things, is opposed to migration, included an image of a pregnant women, whose face is not shown apart from her smile. It carried a slogan that translates as ‘New Germans? We’ll make our own.’ Other campaign posters feature women in bathing suits, facing away from the camera with the slogan ‘Burkas? We prefer bikinis’.

These images speak to multiple narratives advanced by radical right movements in Europe and North America: nativist anti-migration sentiments; Islamophobia; and anti-feminist undertones, where faceless women are presented as objects of desire and reproduction. In the United States, tensions have erupted on social media platforms between women and men of the “alt-right” regarding expectations of domestic femininity that shore up reactionary understandings of masculinity. Women in the alt-right movement were initially welcomed as necessary allies to soften its image, but the misogyny at the movement’s roots was publicly turned against them. Despite this, in Britain there is a notable trend of millennial women, previously apolitical but wary or weary of feminism, joining radical right groups.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and American watchdog group, has recently published a report on the intersection of misogyny and white supremacy. The study is detailed, and traces a line of continuity between women in alt-right and radical right movements through incels and rape culture. The ADL argues that, while the radical right is quickly condemned by mainstream outlets, condemnations of virulent misogyny are slower, and that the latter is a ‘dangerous and underestimated component of extremism’. It is, and the co-morbidity of racism and misogyny has been picked up consistently in media reporting and academic scholarship. It’s an issue that the Southern Poverty Law Centre has also addressed, terming it to as ‘male supremacy’,and called it the “gateway drug” to the alt-right. This trend has been picked up not only by organisations such as the SPLC and ADL but by reporters as well; namely, that gender plays multiple and important roles for the radical right. Women, and women’s bodies, are used by the radical right in a variety of ways. Women figure centrally in the fears of the radical right in two ways, for example, both as potential victims of an (often immigrant) other, as well as reproducers of the nation.

Of course, gender is a vital area in analyses of nations and nationalism, and the radical right largely seems interested in creating specific kinds of nationalisms and national identity that are deeply connected to nostalgic yearnings for a near-mythic past. Nostalgia features consistently in discussions of the radical right: it’s a foundational desire of these movements, and therefore impossible to ignore. This nostalgia is also informed by racism and sexism, as it frequently looks back to a time when social roles that were racialised and gendered reigned supreme, and decries the decades of social progression that have, to their eyes, destabilised them. This is something that Michael Kimmel highlights in his recent book, Angry White Men. There, he discusses a concept of aggrieved entitlement, which stems from a belief that certain groups are losing their grip on things to which they believe themselves entitled.

This is also evident in much of the rhetoric emerging from radical right groups – a sense of loss, and a fear of that loss. As much as nostalgia, this fear is a cornerstone of the radical right, as is this generalised fear of loss – loss of territory, identity, work, and so on. Importantly, this echoed across a range of radical right, alt-right, and white supremacist organisations in statements particularly levelled at migrants. This includes persistent claims that migrants are influencing European cultures – to the extent that those cultures are vanishing – to claims of migrants receiving preferential treatment for housing benefits.

Several effects emerging from this nostalgia and fear have explicitly gendered messaging and aims, which is quite starkly illustrated by the aforementioned AfD advert. It is not only nativist and anti-migrant, but explicitly recruits women to this nativist agenda by illustrating that it is through the bodies of these women that new Germans will be made. This is scarcely limited to the AfD, and there are calls to action surrounding an alleged drop in birth-rates by many radical right groups, alongside a call by some white supremacist bloggers for nationalist women to have more children. Lauren Southern memorably ran afoul of this alt-right emphasis upon marriage and children as the natural place for women at the end of 2017, when she released a video defending both herself and other women who are not married with children. Her assertion that women should be able to make decisions as to when or if they married and had children (which has been criticised as hypocritical given her virulent anti-feminism) runs counter to the traditionalist bent of the North American alt-right, especially considering its intersection with the incel movement. The “traditionalism”, or reactionary nature, of these groups relies on women to be assigned certain roles.

The attacks Southern and other prominent women in the alt-right received from members of their own groups illustrated, among other things, the tenuous position that women occupy in the radical right. This is not surprising from a feminist standpoint, and there has been much work undertaken regarding women as the biological producers of the nation. Perhaps most notable is that by Nira Yuval-Davis, in her 1997 Gender and Nation, which emphasises the growth of the nation as contingent upon the size of the population, and therefore calls for more and more births. According to Yuval-Davis, women are also seen as the ‘carriers of tradition’, not only through bearing children but through a mythologised notion of both men and women operating within the boundaries of defined social norms.

In light of the rise of the radical right in recent years, and the mainstreaming of at least some of its ideology, the way in which women’s roles are portrayed will continue to be a pivotal factor. The nostalgia and fear that play out directly in the ways women’s bodies are structural features of the radical right, and it remains to be seen how much of this rhetoric can be absorbed into the mainstream of various national body-politics.

Dr Megan Armstrong is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham. See her profile here:

© Megan A. Armstrong. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).