The populist challenge to gender equality

Birte Siim and Christina Fiig

There is an increasing scholarly interest in populism in contemporary Europe. The rise of right-wing populism (RWP) parties in several European nation states and within the European Parliament is usually interpreted as a challenge to liberal values, such as democracy, freedom and equality, that hints at fundamental problems for European societies and the European Union (Loch and Norocel 2015; Muller 2016;Verloo 2018a). This chapter discusses the relations between populism and gender in EU member states and EU institutions. While mainstream literature on populism, with few exceptions, has neglected gender issues, there is a new body of work on gender and right-wing populism and neo-nationalism. Gender scholars usually agree that nationalist (and populist) discourses have a gender bias, which constructs men and women differently in their public and private lives.Yet, no agreement exists on the implications of populism for gender equality and feminist politics in contemporary Europe (cf. Knijn and Naldim 2018)

The chapter first presents the concept of populism and key issues in scholarly debates on populism in mainstream and gender research. What populism means for democracy, gender equality and the future of the EU is a contested issue. We discuss Cas Mudde’s influential approach to populism as a ‘thin ideology’ combining authoritarianism and nativism (cf. Mudde 2007; Mudde and Kaltwasser 2015) and show that there is a ‘gender gap’ in the literature on populism, since it lacks systematic studies of gender and populism. Next, we provide an overview of research reframing populism, gender equality and feminist politics in contemporary Europe. Comparative studies of European RWP parties have identified a shift in their discourses on gender and family away from the patriarchal, conservative family model (Farris 2017; Krizsan and Siim 2018; Norocel 2017). As a result, most RWP parties have adopted a version of gender equality and sexual rights, abandoning the male-breadwinner model of the family (Farris 2017; Krizsan and Siim 2018). At the same time, a number of such parties call for a dismantling of anti-discrimination legislation in the EU (Falkner and Plattner 2019).These studies emphasize that European populism is contextual and may express a variety of positions opposing gender equality (Verloo 2018a). Finally, we review the scholarly debates featuring the challenges that recent right-wing populism pose to liberal democracy, EU gender equality norms and feminist politics and point to future challenges in both national and transnational arenas. One urgent issue is how to address the growing opposition to gender equality and anti-discrimination policies from RWP parties in the EU member states and within the European Parliament. In the conclusions we point to empirical and theoretical gaps in the literature and propose two areas for future gender research: first, the implications of populist opposition to gender equality and anti-discrimination with a focus on the interactions of the national and transnational EU-arena; second, the effects of national dynamics of populist anti-gender civil society mobilizations for feminist politics as well as for the future of the EU.

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