NEW YORK – Western feminism has made some memorable theoretical mistakes; a major one is the frequent assumption that, if women held the decision-making power in society, they would be “kinder and gentler” (a phrase devised for George H.W. Bush in 1988 to appeal to the female vote). Indeed, so-called “second-wave” feminist theory abounds in assertions that war, racism, love of hierarchy, and general repressiveness belong to “patriarchy”; women’s leadership, by contrast, would naturally create a more inclusive, collaborative world.
The problem is that it has never worked out that way, as the rise of women to leadership positions in Western Europe’s far-right parties should remind us. Leaders such as Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Pia Kjaersgaard of Denmark’s People’s Party, and Siv Jensen of Norway’s Progress Party reflect the enduring appeal of neofascist movements to many modern women in egalitarian, inclusive liberal democracies.
The past is prologue: Wendy Lower’s recent book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields adds more data to the long record of women embracing violent right-wing movements. And the rise of far-right movements in Europe – often with women in charge – confronts us with the fact that the heirs to the fascism of the 1930’s have their own gender-based appeal.
One obvious reason for the success of women like Le Pen, Kjaersgaard, and Jensen is their value for packaging and marketing their parties. Just as Bush sought to revamp the Republican Party’s “brand’ of cold-hearted elitism and hostility to women, so Europe’s far-right parties today must appeal to citizens by not seeming dangerously extreme and marginal. How dangerous can the movement be, after all, if women are speaking for it? Such parties come to be seen as more mainstream, and their appeal to traditionally harder-to-win women supporters receives a boost.