Recently, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Italy’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, sent out a memo cautioning party members not to make the Roman salute, a political gesture reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. Meloni, who refers to Benito Mussolini as ‘a complex personality’, and who routinely stays in the building formerly frequented by Mussolini’s fascist followers, is doing a delicate dance as the female leader of a far-right party.
Meloni, like other right-wing politicians in Europe, wants to lead the Brothers of Italy into the cultural and political mainstream. Unlike many nationalist-populist leaders, she promotes a pro-NATO, anti-Russian foreign policy while scapegoating migrants for Italy’s problems. Yet she is socially conservative in recognizable ways. She often puts motherhood at the centre of her concerns, and she began her memoir with an ominous warning to her opponents: ‘If this is to end in fire,’ she warned, ‘then we should all burn together.’
This fascist ‘fire’ that Meloni references and kindles is burning throughout Europe, and she is not alone in tending to its flames. Indeed, many women are rising to power across Europe as the face of far-right rhetoric and policy: fascism has a female face. What does that mean in practice – and what does the opposition look like?
The Meloni model
Meloni illustrates the delicate balance such women must maintain. Her supporters claim that ‘she has guts’, but is also ‘charismatic and sincere’. Teetering between populism and fascism, she presents as a moderating influence on her party, but can’t moderate its positions too much lest it loses its appeal.
Meloni’s balancing act has been successful. She is on track to be Italy’s first female prime minister, joining the ranks of other far-right women leaders across Europe: Marine Le Pen in France, Siv Jensen in Norway, and Beata Szydło in Poland, to name a few. Their leadership comes as more women have voted with far-right parties, despite these parties often advancing policies that erode women’s rights, such as access to reproductive care.
So, how is the far right attracting more women than ever? It seems that the answer is all in the packaging, but, of course, it’s not that simple. Different strategies suit different candidates, depending on the appetites of the populace, and the political culture of the nation. Conservative countries like a traditional woman, but more progressive countries like a selectively progressive woman – one who might also, in many of her policies, be conservative.
Some right-wing women position themselves as traditional, family-centric candidates who humbly accept power. This stance allows them to lead without creating the perception that they are unfeminine. Meloni falls into this camp; she upholds and praises traditional family values, and disingenuously claims that being elevated as Italy’s first female prime minister would be ‘a great honour’. At the same time, Meloni has avidly sought party leadership, and does not support all families: her extreme views on immigration, for example, exclude caring for families that are not culturally Italian.
From her position as a mother of a ‘traditional’, heteronormative family, Meloni criticizes LGBTQ+ rights and opposes abortion. Like others on the extreme right across the globe, she also imagines that Italy’s national culture is under attack, not just from immigration, but from modern life itself.
In her autobiography, Meloni also expresses fear about Italy’s vulnerability to ‘political correctness’ that gestures to antisemitic conspiracy theories. As she puts it, ‘political correctness – the Gospel that a stateless and rootless elite wants to impose – is the greatest threat to the founding value of identities.’ She advocates for a strong state, one that might restore ‘a time when Italians believed in a state that guarantees security, order, and legality.’
The ‘mother of Poland’
This ‘Meloni Model’ of traditionalist, far-right female leadership parallels beliefs expressed by Beata Szydło, a leader of Poland’s ultra-conservative majority. But Szydło’s beliefs are even more extreme. As the former prime minister of Poland, who has since been elected to the European Parliament (MEP), Szydło lent her support to a total ban on abortion in Poland, including in cases of rape or incest. She also reportedly supported a municipality’s choice to not establish an agency to combat domestic violence. According to her successor as prime minister – Mateusz Morawiecki – Szydło established a precedent: the restoration of traditional families would make such resources obsolete. Morawiecki has stated that domestic violence ‘does not occur where there is concern for family ties, in a normal home where love prevails.’
Maintaining that ‘normal home’ as a state interest justifies other forms of repression in the name of public order and the protection of women. As a consequence, Szydło’s Law and Justice (PiS) party’s support of the ‘family mainstreaming’ policy promotes traditional and religious values, anti-LGBTQ policies, and the subordination of women’s rights as a means to promote that ‘tradition’. Not surprisingly, under Szydło’s leadership, the Polish Ministry of Justice also cut funding to multiple women’s rights NGOs.
Maternity plays an important political role in maintaining Szydło’s political authority. Supporting extreme policies while highlighting her role as a traditional, religious mother, she was often called the ‘mother of Poland’ by supporters and was successful in attracting more women voters to the party. Lovingly referred to as ‘our Beata’, like Meloni, Szydło presented a charismatic, softened image of a party that seeks to exert intensified control over women’s lives. Szydło’s policies rarely perceive women as autonomous individuals: opposed to abortion, she proposed social welfare policies as an alternative, redesigning the system more generally to steer women back to traditional family units.
The results have been good for Meloni and Szydło’s political careers, but bad for women. Currently, neither Italy or Poland rank high on the EU’s gender equality index, with Poland ranking especially low. But what about countries that do better on gender equality metrics, such as France? Marine Le Pen presents a radically different model than Meloni and Szydło – a fascist model better suited to garnering votes in more progressive countries.
This required both rethinking and rebranding. Le Pen has transformed the National Front from the traditionalist, male-centric and anti-abortion party it was under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and renamed it National Rally. Supportive of abortion rights and gay rights, Le Pen has approached the modernization of her party by decoupling its nationalism from her father’s sexist rhetoric. As a result, the party has found mainstream success under her leadership: it is not only more reflective of social changes in France, but also of her own life as a divorced, single mother and so-called ‘modern woman’.
Yet Le Pen has also used feminist rhetoric to support her far-right policies, even invoking feminist philosophers to support her nationalist and xenophobic beliefs. Dubbed ‘femonationalism‘ by feminist scholar Sara Farris, female leaders of the far-right like Le Pen employ the language of women’s rights to advocate for extreme policies, particularly against immigrant and Muslim communities, by labeling them as ‘not modern’, and thus, inherently not French.
In practice, this rhetoric cultivates white women voters as saviours of the nation. A byproduct of colonialism and ‘white savior’ narratives, femonationalism argues that non-western cultures, particularly Muslim ones, are hostile to women’s rights. ‘Saving’ French culture from Muslim influence, according to Le Pen, requires banning veils and the ritual slaughter that produces halal meat.
Not surprisingly, one way of protecting France from these ‘dangers’ is to close the border to certain immigrants and deport as many as possible. Le Pen supports hardline immigration policies, deporting undocumented immigrants, eliminating birthright citizenship, and giving French nationals preference for social benefits.
In reaction to the attacks on women committed in Cologne by Muslim migrants on New Year’s Eve in 2015, Le Pen scapegoated all Muslims and renewed her advocacy for limiting immigration. In an op-ed, she cited French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir to argue that the current immigration policy was harmful to women. Utilizing xenophobic and Islamophobic language, Le Pen argued that only the values and institutions of ‘western civilization’ could defend women’s rights.
It’s working. Though French President Emmanuel Macron argued that ‘voting for Marine Le Pen is not an option for women,’ his narrower-than-expected victory over her in the April 2022 election proved that Le Pen’s approach has appeal. More women than men support her, and that support helped boost her over another far-right candidate, Éric Zemmour, whose messaging is masculinist, and explicitly channels male fears of female empowerment. Zemmour has also been accused of sexual assault.
Le Pen’s model of garnering women’s votes by co-opting feminist rhetoric has been replicated in Norway by Siv Jensen, who also calls herself a feminist. Jensen set herself apart as a far-right candidate by decrying the double standards for female politicians and speaking about the sexism she has experienced. At the same time, Jensen also believes that ‘competent’ women do not need gender quotas, and will ‘rise to the top’ on their own.
Like Le Pen, Jensen also espouses Islamophobic beliefs and supports a ban on wearing the veil in public. Explicitly linking Islam with misogyny, Jensen has found support in Norway, a country that ranks highly on gender equality metrics, by advocating for stricter immigration policies and anti-Islam policies as ‘feminist’ policies. Her platform advocates for only temporary residence for asylum seekers, restricting social benefits to immigrants, and limiting migrant family reunification.
Building a united front
Although anti-immigration policies are a common theme, fascism’s female face takes many forms, depending on the nation. Nations with more progressive cultures are more receptive to selectively progressive rhetoric coming from a (white) woman of the far right. Others want no progressive policies at all, or any nod to feminism, from far-right female candidates. But resisting fascism requires opponents to point out that these supposedly pro-woman policies are a sham, a form of false empowerment that, at best, gives women their greatest influence in a private sphere forcibly reshaped around culturally nationalist, heteronormative families.
As women vote for far-right parties in increasing numbers, and female leaders of far-right parties ride those votes to greater political power, it is easy to become demoralized about the state of global feminism. But the ruthless exploitation of feminist rhetoric in pursuit of oppressive policies, whether the country follows the Meloni or Le Pen model of far-right leadership, has generated a healthy opposition. In France, women have stood outside of Le Pen rallies, holding signs that read ‘Marine: fake feminist!’ These rejections of far-right women need to continue and become more widespread.
Why? Because far-right women embolden not just other far-right women, but men as well. To fight the fascist fire spreading across Europe, a truly feminist opposition must coordinate across borders and emphasize the ties between all women, regardless of religion, national origin, or immigration status. Feminist interest groups and women’s wings of left and center political parties could build coalitions to oppose femonationalism, especially within the European Parliament and the United Nations.
Finally, feminism’s emphasis must not only be on getting more women into leadership roles but on having non-fascist women at all levels of governance. For example, currently, women are severely underrepresented in foreign policy and diplomacy, a crucial gap when it comes to international refugee and migration policy.
But the appeal of femonationalism reveals something else: European women want a stake in politics. By increasing women’s representation and building progressive coalitions, progressive policies (family planning, equal opportunity, paid parental leave) offer women that stake and forge plausible solutions to everyday problems that challenge all families and all citizens.
Women are fundamentally important to democratic movements, and their increased representation in government has historically led to more comprehensive policies against sexual assault, harassment, and domestic violence, more liberal policies on divorce, and an enhanced welfare state. Not surprisingly, women are the voting group autocrats fear the most.
Femonationalists offer a dangerous answer to the problem of female representation in politics. And the feminization of the far right may summon fascists back into power, as women become the autocrats.