Anti-feminism is making right-wing stances socially acceptable

Anti-feminism is making right-wing stances socially acceptable

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Anti-feminism as well as anti-gender rhetoric are playing a central role in the “centering” of right-wing ideologies. They are making right-wing mindsets acceptable in mainstream society and enabling parts of society to shift to the right without appearing right-wing. 

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in hostility towards gender, gender equality and feminism. As has been shown on many an occasion, this trend is very closely correlated to the global rise in far-right and right-wing populist forces. Both misogyny and the defence of highly traditional and hierarchical gender models and, not least of all, a rejection of homosexuality have, to this day, been core elements of völkisch and nationalist thinking. By way of example, nationalism as well as the idea of a homogenous population are inherently linked to notions of a traditional and “idyllic” family where a German father and a German mother reproduce the population. This is additionally accompanied by hierarchical gender norms, such as the image of the self-sacrificing mother and superior husband.

In the course of emergent, neo-reactionary policies, it comes as little surprise that feminist or queer perspectives aspiring to egalitarian ways of life seeking to enable a diverse range of gender and sexual lifestyles are rejected and broadsided. It is equally hardly surprising that scientific studies and theories are combated (gender studies) which also scientifically assert such diversity or analyse and criticise gender-related power structures. 

However, anti-feminism and anti-gender discourses are, by no stretch of the imagination, not only in vogue in unequivocally völkisch or right-wing settings. For some years now, they have resonated throughout every social and political setting. It is currently becoming increasingly clear that anti-feminism and anti-gender are acting like a hinge: they form a kind of common denominator for very broad-ranging walks of life – from extreme right, Christian-fundamentalist circles, and “concerned parents”, to conservatives, feature writers, liberals and also left-wingers. As the journalist, Lea Susemichel, recently pointedly phrased it in the Standard[1]: “That feminists cross the line is something that men from all walks of life and settings can still agree on.” As varied as their positions may be in terms of content, they evidently agree that feminism or gender are concepts that evoke feelings of fear or hatred.

Anti-gender policy as a hub for right-wing policy

Anti-feminism is therefore not only an integral part of völkisch ideology but also a hinge that creates crosslinks and commonalities with other actors, above all with society’s mainstream. My theory is that anti-feminism and anti-gender have thus become a central key which makes the centering of right-wing ideologies possible, through which right-wing stances thus become socially acceptable in various political settings: because the rejection of feminism or gender – unlike xenophobia or plump nationalism – does not, offhand, appear distinctly right-wing. To put it somewhat casually: anti-feminism and anti-gender enable, for example, democratic premises, such as equality, to be deligitimised without having to resort to “Foreigners Go Home” rallying cries.

Since the 1990s, both feminist challenges and gender concepts have been institutionalised internationally, politically and scientifically. Even if such institutionalisation de facto quietly falls by the wayside, gender exhibits characteristics that can be perfectly combined with right-wing and also liberal xenophobic constructs – for example with anti-statism, anti-EU, elite bashing and anti-science.

Admittedly, all of this does not mean that feminism or gender concepts are not open to criticism or dispute. These areas are, in and of themselves, controversial and inconsistent, and critical examinations are vital and necessary. However, the current attacks on gender or feminism engineer them as supposedly uniform ideologies and/or as a “totalitarian state doctrine” (see terms such as gender lobby or state feminism, etc.). Such distorted representations are not only directed merely against certain causes upheld by feminism, by LGBTIQ people, or against specific gender research concepts. Moreover, they are sweeping xenophobic constructs, which have sweeping effects, namely a delegitimisation of fundamental democratic premises, such as equality, inclusion, human rights, minority protection and anti-discrimination, as well as the questioning of parts of fundamental laws and constitutional mandates and, not least of all, the rejection of democratic institutions and science.

In particular, the delegitimisation and questioning of equality, basic laws and institutions are core activities of right-wing policy makers. As the right-wing intellectual, Klaus Kunze, wrote in his programmatic approach Wege aus der Systemkrise (Ways out of the Systemic Crisis) in 1995, the “system at the beck and call of constitutional norms” and the “basic law construct” must be infiltrated and destroyed because, as he criticises, it enables all groups and people to assert their needs and interests. Kunze further maintains that, in order to delegitimise the equality premises, these must be shown to be “totalitarian”.

This policy has also long been apparent at the European and international level; anti-gender networks are operating across national borders;[2] they are directed against the EU’s gender equality policies, against the European Parliament, international treaties or institutions such as the European Court of Justice. In anti-feminism rhetoric, EU policies and institutions are accused of introducing totalitarian feminism. The Christian-fundamentalist network, Agenda Europe, which regularly issues invitations to international meetings, is one case in point: it asserts that institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights should be perpetually denounced as “ideologically motivated”. It furthermore maintains that, wherever possible, the “excessive claims” of minorities should be opposed and grievances aired “about discrimination as well as the suppression of freedom of opinion by LGBTI activists, feminists” and so forth.[3]

Political correctness and breaking taboos

Anti-PC campaigns have also led to gender becoming a code for allegedly unhinged, excessive emancipation, for unnecessary, excessive gender equality policies or research. “Political correctness” had been a catchword adopted by the right-wing from the very beginning. The anti-political-correctness (anti-PC) agenda was drafted into German-speaking regions from the election campaigns pursued by Republicans in the USA in the 1980s where it was initially circulated by far-right and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. The first sentences found in the far-right anti-PC bible written by Klaus J. Groth, Die Diktatur der Guten: Political Correctness (1996), state: “The dictatorship has a new name: Political Correctness. It is the dominance of the minority over the majority. The Political Correctness minority is committing terrorism with its canon of virtue, and suffocating freedom of opinion.” However, conservatives, liberals and left-wingers soon jumped on this bandwagon which, prior to this banner[1] [HvB2] , tended to cast themselves as liberators and taboo-breakers.

At the very latest, this taboo was broken by Thilo Sarrazin («There is no law against saying this») and became one of the most successful discursive strategies for questioning minimum democratic standards, such as anti-discrimination, and equating hate with freedom of opinion.[4] In keeping with the general taboo narrative, the truth is allegedly tabooed because minorities are supposed to be protected and a politically correct «uniform doctrine» predominates. It furthermore asserts that this doctrine prevents us from saying everything we want to and must therefore be opposed.

Gender and feminism have, in the past, been consistently identified as the co-originators of these supposed taboos, as the embodiment of gags on thinking and opinions, and even of “totalitarianism”.[5] In Switzerland, for example, Markus Somm, the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Basler Zeitung, and liberal advocate of the detabooisation of an allegedly totalitarian cooptation through “gender research”, is playing to the gallery. Somm supports the right of men and women to be allowed to be different: “We like to differ”, he proclaimed in the Basler Zeitung (2014).[6] His plea for diversity comes across as a liberal salvation in the face of totalitarian gender power that supposedly seeks to bring everyone into line. On closer inspection, however, the alleged “gender dictatorship” is not only a bugbear (as at 2016, around 0.4 percent of all professors in Germany had a partial or full denomination for gender studies; the number was even lower in Switzerland), but Somm’s issue is, strictly speaking, dogmatic and only slightly geared towards freedom. Based on his observations of everyday life, it is a fact that girls rather than boys prefer to play with dolls, he writes – insisting that this is founded in biology. Based on his daily observations and naturalist fallacies of what is and what should be, Somm infers an ahistorical global truth: by seeing people doing something (playing with dolls), I automatically know what their role in society must be.

In short: the allegation that gender concepts are totalitarian enables Somm and others to portray themselves as liberators and taboo breakers and, at the same time, to represent normative perspectives themselves. He, and others, proclaim a distorted and questionable notion of liberalism that romanticises the adherence to stereotypes, norms and hierarchies as the embodiment of freedom.

The myth of achieved gender equality

Another widely disseminated argument opposing feminism and gender is the claim that we are all equal today. Here, too, the aforementioned text by Markus Somm is a good example of this: in it, he refers to a gender research study which cites the ongoing gender stereotype career choices available to young adults in Switzerland, in which he maintains that the study findings revolved around «a microcosm of the alleged gender inequalities». The elimination of truly «profound discrimination, such as a woman being unable to sign a contract without their husband’s permission», has been achieved and, from a liberal perspective, is a «self-evident concern». He maintains that gender equality in Switzerland has been realised and that further studies were therefore superfluous and overdone. Somm attributes the continuing differences to nature. The fact that there are «still very few female electricians and carpenters», proves, in his opinion, that there are natural and unalterable gender differences and thus «something totalitarian, such as gender studies, seeks to reshape people».

Arguments along these lines are clearly directed against a certain area of the constitution, i.e. the Basic Law in Germany, namely the mandate that gender equality should not only be formally enshrined but also actually implemented. Germany’s Basic Law (and Switzerland’s constitution) states: “The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist.” Democratic societies are thus responding to the fact that the ideal legal situation alone is not sufficient, because inequality and discrimination are not only reproduced through legal but also symbolic arrangements (culture).[7]

Accomplishing real gender equality and equal opportunities therefore requires a social framework in which women (and men) can implement their equal rights in the first place. The assertion that gender equality has been achieved reduces such equality to the formal level, whilst a policy geared towards the actual implementation of gender equality is depicted as being excessive and totalitarian. This consequently parries a fundamental principle of democratic societies, namely their commitment not only to declare but also to materially implement equality. 

It is important to understand the effects and objectives of anti-feminism and anti-gender mobilisations: here, they play a not-to-be-underestimated role in allowing the “Basic Law constructs” so hated by the Right to be questioned and reactionary ideologies to be normalised. This is precisely what needs to be repeatedly highlighted. We must be aware of the mechanisms and objectives underlying sweeping anti-feminist concepts that evoke feelings of hatred and fear. Taking this as the basis, it is also possible to engage in debates and critical reflections on the various feminist perspectives, approaches or gender concepts without drawing on reactionary propaganda in the process. 


[2] On the subject of how anti-feminism forces network for the purpose of discourse and also in terms of personnel and organisation, Diskursatlas Antifeminismus has gleaned a wealth of information and also outlines the connections:  http://www.diskursatlas.de/index.php?title=Hauptseite

[3]Cf. research report drafted by the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development on the Agenda Europe network (https://www.epfweb.org/sites/epfweb.org/files/rtno_epf_book_lores.pdf, accessed on: 16.11.2018).

[4] Leading with the headline “Das wird man ja wohl noch sagen dürfen” (”There is no law against saying this”), the daily newspaper BILD (04.09.2010) launched its campaign backing Thilo Sarrazin and his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany Is Abolishing Itself).

[5] For information on how anti-feminists and the New Right applies the term ‘totalitarianism’, see:  http://www.diskursatlas.de/index.php?title=Dritter_Totalitarismus

[7] On this subject, see Pierre Bourdieu Die männliche Herrschaft (1998).

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