Gendering the populist moment

Gendered critiques of neo-liberalism have become a hallmark of right-wing populist actors around the globe as they collaborate with anti-gender organizations and networks. Feminist and left-wing movements and parties need to address the grievances that fuel these mobilizations in order to re-gain public support and political initiative in the current populist moment.


Since around 2010 a new wave of mobilization against gender equality and sexual democracy emerged as an important actor in the political sphere around the globe. Organizations such as World Congress of Families, Political Network for Values, Citizen Go, or Agenda Europe, and their local branches, and partners entered into coalitions with populist parties in countries as distant as Brazil, Italy and Poland. In the German context this trend is exemplified by the cooperation between Demo fur alle and AfD. In order to better understand the appeal of this trend we need to examine the role played by “gender” in populist critiques of neoliberalism. The strategies employed by anti-genderists are heavily reliant on the use of emotions and sometimes involve the circulation of lies, misconceptions and false rumors, but they also reflect a coherent worldview and express deeply held convictions and attachments. Even as we disagree with the ideological claims and condemn the violence that sometimes results from them, we should recognize the sincerity of the people who are attracted by such arguments. The core narrative of anti-genderism is effective because it responds to real anxieties and tensions which accompany the current populist moment as described by Chantal Mouffe. The anti-gender movement effectively harnesses unmet demands for voice, inclusion and agency, while pointing to liberal elites as those who should be held responsible for the current crisis. These elites, including feminists, gays and “promoters of gender ideology,” are portrayed as guilty of having shamed ordinary people who live ordinary lives. Anti-genderism presents itself as a response to this shaming, a way to regain collective dignity, a sense of pride and solidarity. It also offers a forum for collective action and a vague promise of a brighter future which this action will bring about: you can save the world by being a good parent, by loving your wife or husband and by opposing the forces of corruption.


Harnessing emotions

Despite its American connections, the global anti-gender movement is not an expanded version of U.S. neoconservatism or a simple continuation of culture wars which originated in the rise of the American religious right. As we demonstrate in our book Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment the European anti-gender actors often avoid explicitly religious language and mobilize supporters by promoting “family values” through redistributive state policies. Rather than accepting the function of promoters of family values in a neoliberal state, many position themselves as experts on social policy in what is to become an ultraconservative chauvinist-welfare state. In countries such as Poland and Hungary right-wing populists gain public resonance by introducing social policies targeted at traditional families, and by critiquing the ethos of individualism which is central to neoliberalism, identifying the latter with modern-era feminism.


Are progressive actors helpless vis-à-vis this framing? The logic of the populist moment offers an opportunity to reclaim the initiative. Feminism is for the elites and has nothing to do with the concerns of ordinary women – this old backlash myth has taken on a new life in the era of anti-gender campaigns, which have successfully equated feminism with capitalism. The recipe for success in countering this attack is to claim the role of “the people” for women and other minority groups, and to harness the emotional power of solidarity and hope. The problem is not merely that Western feminism has allied too closely to neoliberalism, as some socialist feminists have convincingly shown. What is perhaps an even greater challenge is that the right has at the same time successfully framed feminism as a form of capitalism. As feminists we need to acknowledge that we have lost the monopoly on a gendered critique of neoliberalism. Not only has the right successfully appealed to many economically and culturally marginalized groups, but it has harnessed the grievances against late capitalism that are specific to women: the crisis of care, the devaluation of reproductive work and motherhood. If feminism is to respond to these developments effectively, it will have to do more than to denounce its alliance with neoliberalism and reclaim its socialist face. The feminism of the future should be a feminism for the 99 percent, but one that avoids economic reductionism and embraces affective solidarity as the basis for collective action. The struggle over values is real, and not a mere smokescreen for economic conflicts. Our analysis suggests that this new feminism, able to respond adequately to the challenge of the populist moment, has already emerged at the grassroots level in various locations, including Non Una di Meno in Italy, Ni Una Menos in Argentina or Polish Women’s Strike. These movements demand not only reproductive justice and measures against gendered violence but also policy changes such as the introduction or extension of maternal leave and restructuring of the labor market with care rather than profit at the center.


Feminism as a left populist force

With gender becoming a key battleground for the redefinition of the political scene, feminism has stepped in as a major political actor. Contrary to liberal thinkers and commentators who want to blame feminism and so-called identity politics for the onslaught of right-wing populism, we believe that it is the blindness of liberalism and liberal feminism to the problems of care and social politics that has facilitated their opponents’ successes in channeling opposition to neoliberalism. Right-wing populism presents itself as a legitimate alterative to the neoliberal paradigm, offering welfare chauvinism and re- traditionalization as the only feasible solution to the crisis of care. The women’s movements that have emerged in response to this movement are also a challenge to neoliberalism. What all the recent feminist mobilizations have in common is that they position women as “the people,” they tend to have a left orientation and are often developed in cooperation with other marginalized groups. Feminism’s allies include labor unions in Spain, leftist organizations working with migrants and refugees in Italy, movements for racial justice in the United States, whereas in Poland the new feminism has joined forces with people with disabilities, nurses and care workers. These movements position themselves as opponents of the neoliberal elite which sustains the patriarchy. Feminist activists denounce these elites employing a language that privileges emotion and affects over appeals to common sense and individual rights. They speak of dignity, truth and solidarity; they valorize ordinary women’s embodied knowledge and experience, using social media for sharing personal narratives and building affective communities. We claim that the new feminisms share many core features with populism, and thus they can be interpreted as a left populist force, poised to challenge right-wing hegemony in the populist moment. Simultaneously, left movements and parties, in order to be an effective counter-force opposing right-wing populism and extremism, must take the gender dimension of the current crisis more seriously than they have done in the past. It is not enough to “add” a feminist perspective to the left-wing agenda. It is about the realization that, as Nancy Fraser puts it: “today struggles over social reproduction are at the cutting edge of left- wing, anti-systemic, anticapitalist struggle, and women are at the forefront”.


The present note is adapted from the conclusions to the book Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment, Routledge 2021, which is available in Open Access.



Agnieszka Graff is Associate Professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw. She is a feminist activist and public intellectual. She has authored five books of feminist essays in Polish and her articles on gender in Polish and U.S. culture have appeared in Public Culture, Signs, European Journal of Women’s Studies, Feminist Studies and East European Politics and Societies. She coedited the Spring 2019 theme issue of Signs “Gender and the rise of the global right.”


Elżbieta Korolczuk is Associate Professor at Södertörn University in Stockholm and at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw. She is a sociologist, commentator and women’s and human rights activist. Her research interests involve gender, social movements, civil society and politics of reproduction. She is co-editor of numerous books including Civil Society Revisited: Lessons from Poland (2017) and Bunt kobiet. Czarne Protesty i Strajki Kobiet (Women’s Rebellion. Black Protests and Women’s Strikes, 2019).