Underestimated Threat to Pluralist Democracy
Institute for Parliamentary Research
Dr. Benjamin Höhne is a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow from April through July 2022. He is Deputy Director of the Institute for Parliamentary Research in Berlin. He has worked as Research Associate or Associate Lecturer at various universities in Germany, most recently at the Free University of Berlin. His main teaching and research area is political parties. His current research focuses on populism and the representation of women in parliaments. His dissertation at the University of Trier on the recruitment of candidates for EU elections was awarded the German Bundestag’s Science Award. He is active in scientific and political consulting, especially as an expert for state parliaments, ministries as well as institutions for political education. He regularly gives interviews for international media.
At AICGS, Dr. Höhne will research anti-feminism in the rhetoric of populist radical right (PRR) female leaders in Germany and the United States. His comparative research project focuses on the ways female leaders of the radical right in Germany and the United States communicate anti-feminism. Its relevance stems from the assumption that this topic, particularly in combination with female protagonists, plays an essential role in mobilizing supporters and winning votes. Questions about the meaning and functions of anti-feminist rhetoric will be raised at several levels: 1. personal (impact on the protagonists themselves), 2. organizational (e.g., bridging party and collateral movements), and 3. societal/electoral (e.g., effects on public discourses and elections).
In the empirical analysis, the anti-feminist political communication of PRR female leaders in both countries will be compared and examined for possible similarities that appear to be systematic rather than coincidental. Primary empirical sources are in-depth interviews with MPs as well as their parliamentary and party congress speeches. Secondary sources include their social media content, media articles, and conversations with scholars working on the gender dimension of PRR parties. The findings on anti-feminism in right-wing parties will hopefully lead to a better understanding of a crucial phenomenon in contemporary politics.
Anti-Feminism in Parliamentary Speeches made by Female MPs of the Populist Radical Right in Germany and the United States
Voters in many European countries are turning away from mainstream parties, as is exemplified by the recent 2022 National Assembly election in France. For some years now, populist radical right (PRR) parties have been on the rise. This can be observed through the emergence of new parties and the shift of existing parties toward “radicalized conservatism,” as in the case of the U.S. Republican Party under Donald Trump.
PRR parties postulate an antagonism between “honorable people” and the allegedly corrupt political establishment. In Europe, this division is known as the “Brussels bubble,” in American politics as “inside the beltway.” This dichotomy relies on pseudo-moral categories rooted in regressive beliefs perpetuated by political actors in PRR parties. This is particularly evident in their open hostility toward feminism and gender equality—an attitude so prevalent that it can be considered a “defining characteristic” of PRR parties.
This anti-feminism position is aligned with Cas Mudde’s classification of PRR parties as Männerparteien (men’s parties), which has several contingent dimensions. One is misogyny, especially among right-wing extremists. Another is voting behavior—PRR parties have little appeal for women, not least because female voters tend to take more moderate political positions in general. It is therefore even more surprising that women are playing an increasingly important role in PRR parties.
This development has meant that significant advances in research on gender and populism have been made, and the subject has ceased to be “one of the least studied subfields of the populist radical right.” In spite of this progress, scholars have not yet sufficiently “determined what aspects of the far right are the most affected by gendered ideas and relationships […].”
To this end, this study examines anti-feminist rhetoric in speeches made by the members of the German Bundestag Beatrix von Storch and Alice Weidel, who both hold prominent positions in the Alternative for Germany (AfD), as well as the Republican Congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert in the United States. Von Storch has served as the AfD’s deputy chairwoman since 2019, and Weidel has acted as parliamentary party group leader since 2017 and chairwoman since 2019. Taylor Greene and Boebert both belong to the populist radical right wing of the Republican Party, whose ideas and positions increasingly seem to represent the party as a whole. By studying how these politicians employ anti-feminist rhetoric and connect it to populist narratives about other issues (e.g., migration), we can gain valuable insight into how PRR parties are attempting to influence contemporary public discourses.
The transcribed parliamentary speeches were analyzed for the German MPs from September 2017 to August 2021 (nineteenth legislative term) based on the Open Discourse Dataset of Richter et al. and for the U.S. Congresswomen from January 2021 to April 2022 (beginning with their first entry into the House) based on a Harvard University dataset of Judge-Lord. Subsequently, identified passages were coded alongside several types of anti-feminism and subsequently analyzed with MAXQDA, which is used for computer-assisted qualitative text analysis. Unfortunately, I could not interview these PRR politicians, despite multiple requests by email and phone. Instead, I spoke with journalists and colleagues who also work on gender and PRR parties such as Myra Marx Ferree, who takes a German-U.S. perspective in this field of research.
Although women only more recently began to play a leading role in alt-right politics in the United States, there is a historical precedent for American women’s involvement in conservative political movements. Alice Moore (also known as Sweet Alice), for example, instigated the Kanawha County textbook controversy of 1974, which ultimately catalyzed many conservative American women to engage in politics. Outraged by the proposed introduction of a multiethnic curriculum in West Virginia schools, Moore rallied thousands of supporters around her. She urged women (especially those who were religious) to abandon their passive role in society and act as a driving force in the transition from the “Old Right” to the “New Right.” This selective empowerment of women went hand in hand with a broader regressive agenda that sought to undermine modernization by opposing abortion and characterizing the weakening of the gender binary in mainstream society as a threat to a more traditional (and patriarchal) family system.
Another more recent mobilization of conservative American women (particularly in the South) has its roots in the emergence of the Tea Party. This political movement was driven largely by women, and Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska (2006-2009) and Vice Presidential candidate (2008), famously served as one of its figureheads.
The political potency of anti-feminist rhetoric, especially when employed by women, is striking.
Germany has not had a long history of women’s involvement in right-wing organizations and parties. Interestingly enough, female politicians began to take on important positions in the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) soon after its emergence. Most notably, Frauke Petry served as party co-chair from 2013 to 2017. In alt-right parties such as the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU), and Die Republikaner (REP), women mostly worked in secondary or supporting positions. This is aligned with right-wing stereotypes of women as apolitical.
This pattern also appears in the far-right terrorist cell Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU). The two male NSU members who carried out racist assassinations between 2000 and 2006 were supported by a woman. The fact that she was later imprisoned for this suggests that her role in the matter should not be understated.
What is anti-feminism?
Anti-feminism is an ideology that opposes female emancipation and seeks to affix women’s value to their reproductive abilities and function as mothers. From this stems a general resistance toward policies that promote gender equality (e.g., gender quotas, parity laws) and emancipatory trends in society (e.g., integration of women into the labor market, demands for sexual self-determination). Moreover, anti-feminists seek to protect heteronormativity by maintaining traditional gender roles and male supremacy in society. Five main types of anti-feminism are distinguished: conservative, conspiracy theory, masculine, neo-liberal, and right-wing national anti-feminism (Table 1).
Table 1: Types of anti-feminism
Source: Höcker/Pickel/Decker 2020: 256, own translation, modifications, and extensions
Anti-feminism in parliamentary speeches
There is hardly any evidence of masculine anti-feminism—rhetoric characterized by misogyny, as well as projections of machismo and a fear of women—in the speeches of female PRR politicians studied here. Unsurprisingly, these women refrain from using derogatory language to speak about their own gender. The absence of this form of anti-feminism can also be partially attributed to the social changes brought about by the #MeToo movement—nowadays, “overt expressions of sexism are increasingly uncommon in mainstream media.”
By far the most common form of anti-feminist rhetoric found in the selected speeches was conservative anti-feminism. This type of anti-feminism is rooted in traditional (and often religious) values and reflects a profound desire to maintain the “natural order” (e.g., the nuclear family, dichotomous gender roles) in society.
Conservative anti-feminism stokes general fears of change and therefore enables politicians to reach both right-wing extremists and more moderate conservatives. Right-wing politicians sometimes use seemingly neutral terms such as “family” and “values” as a way to position themselves against the weakening of gender norms and subtly point to their own PRR ideology. This gives conservative anti-feminism a broad appeal, as it can ingratiate non-radicalized conservatives who might be otherwise be repelled by a radical anti-feminism.
Conservative anti-feminism, therefore, has the ability to connect many different groups, organizations, and populations. For example, the PRR commitment to “traditional family” values, which from their point of view is threatened by “anti-family” “radical feminism,” links the AfD with the “conservative, Eurosceptical, and Islam-critical German Jews” (as expressed frankly by von Storch). Interestingly, conservative anti-feminism also serves an important dissociative function for PRR parties. Both the AfD and U.S. Republican Party employ anti-feminism to distance themselves from progressive or leftist parties. In Germany, this would be the Greens, who are accused of destroying the christlich-abendländische Kultur (Christian-occidental culture) by advocating for a Multikultirepublik (multicultural republic).
Especially in the United States, conservative anti-feminism is sometimes used to draw connections between different hot-button political issues. The strong association between the anti-abortion movement and the issue of gun rights in Boebert and Taylor Greene’s speeches is striking. When they call for women to protect themselves with guns in order to avoid needing an abortion, they emphasize conservative anti-feminism and instrumentalize feminism. This means that they try to advocate for women but, in contrast, pursue a regressive agenda.
Conservative anti-feminism also has a close relationship to Christian religious beliefs; particularly in the United States, Christian nationalism is on the rise. American PRR legislators frequently reference God and the “God-given order.” In a speech referencing the Equality Act, Congresswoman Taylor Greene weaponizes Christianity in order to drive home anti-feminist sentiments by declaring that the Act is “atrocious and evil” and that it “completely erases gender. God created us male and female in His image.” Both Taylor Greene and Boebert consistently emphasize their anti-abortion stance and the rights of an unborn child over a woman’s right to choose or the negative effects that might result from anti-abortion legislation.
This is less so the case in Germany, where both major Christian denominations share a critical view of right-wing populism and therefore have a strained relationship with the AfD. In a rare instance, von Storch argues against abortion by presenting it as an “assault on life” and breach of “God-given dignity.”
Conspiracy theory anti-feminism
In both countries, anti-feminist rhetoric is associated with conspiracy theories. Feminism and gender mainstreaming have come to symbolize a “takeover by women” or large-scale societal transformation (“Umvolkung” or “Great Replacement”) carried out by a political class dominated by “progressives” and “leftists” who are hell-bent on destroying tradition. These narratives go hand in hand with other populist conspiracy theories that play on right-wing conservatives’ unease about a so-called “surveillance state” and their hostility toward the mainstream media. This type of anti-feminism addresses those people who are willing to see conspiracies everywhere as they are supposed to see them at work in the dismantling of traditional role models.
Conspiracy theories play a much stronger role in the American Congresswomen’s speeches. There are several reasons for this. One is a racial one, that the Great Replacement conspiracy mostly draws on people’s fear of the United States becoming a majority-minority country. Another reason is the flourishing of conspiracy theories such as QAnon, which is not as widespread in Germany. QAnon has “radicalized millions of women to believe in a network of conspiracy theories,” and that includes female Republicans like Taylor Greene. Additionally, a recent comparative study showed a positive correlation between religiosity and belief in conspiracy theories.
Anti-feminism has great potential for right-wing populists, especially for female ones, who are stereotypically seen as softer representatives of their party.
To give a few examples: Taylor Greene argues in her speech on the “Violence Against Women Act” that “Democrats want to create an authoritarian woke state where neighbors, partners, citizens, and employers are afraid to do anything in order to avoid the draconian policies imposed under the guise of protecting women.” Boebert has similarly argued that “the left will lay down the rights and security of millions of Americans, particularly young women, at the altar of gender ideology.” She goes even further when depicting scenarios such as this: “They will find you. They will imprison you. Or as we have seen, they will even take your children.”
In Germany, von Storch has made completely far-fetched accusations toward the Altparteien, which are also known in populist rhetoric as “cartel parties,” declaring that the federal government’s global human rights initiatives are being misapplied to grant job opportunities to Gender Studies graduates.
Neo-liberal anti-feminism applies neo-liberal ideology to social issues and addresses the question of what the state should—and more importantly, should not—finance. Right-wing populists tend to demand a “lean state” focused on austerity rather than social spending. On both sides of the Atlantic, conservative anti-feminists resist using taxes to finance anything that could improve women’s lives in an emancipatory way. This anti-feminism addresses an audience which shares neo-liberal attitudes in economics.
Neo-liberal “lean state” ideology shows up frequently in female PRR politicians’ speeches. Von Storch, for one, supports reducing taxes so that only one parent needs to work and children could be raised at home. Although she says that “whether this is the father or the mother does not matter at all,” it is clear to her audience that the mother would be the one to stay at home. A woman’s freedom of choice would therefore be restricted. Other policies, such as increasing state funding for childcare options, would likely have a more emancipatory effect on women’s lives. Furthermore, neo-liberal anti-feminism is directed against affirmative action policies. Gender quotas are attacked because they would ostensibly hinder people’s ability to choose their profession.
Among U.S. Republicans, connections are drawn between the “lean state” and the issue of abortion. Boebert states that “no taxpayer should ever be forced to pay for abortion.” Similarly, Taylor Greene says that “the government should not be paying for abortion.”
Right-wing national anti-feminism
Right-wing populists depict feminists’ efforts to diminish conservative family values and the gender binary as a threat to national security. This tactic is known as “securitization.” In order to appeal to people with authoritarian attitudes and a preference for “law and order,” PRR politicians underline changing demographics (e.g., growing populations of non-white people) and migration issues in their home countries. Weidel, for example, portrays migrants as members of frauenverachtende Stammeskulturen (tribal cultures that despise women).
On both sides of the Atlantic, female PRR actors exhibit “femonationalism” and, for example, blame the state for focusing on gender equality issues in other regions around the world. In Germany, von Storch laments that the federal government spends 600 million euros on so-called “gendergaga” but refuses to dish out a similar amount to improve pensions for police officers. She also creates a vague connection between global gender initiatives and border security, remarking that the government does not know “who crosses the German border.”
Even more abstruse are Taylor Greene’s comments on the “Islamophobia Act,” which directs the State Department to monitor islamophobia abroad. She first creates an artificial scenario in which a woman is being raped by Muslims in a “no-go zone” and then declares that the “State Department is going to be monitoring those trials and then combatting these women’s defense.”
Right-wing national anti-feminism also relies on the construction of individual threats, which is closely connected to securitization. One can see this at play when politicians pit the rights of heterosexual cisgender women against those of LGBTQIA+ people. In one of her speeches, Congresswoman Boebert mentions an imaginary girl who is getting changed in a school locker room and worries about being observed by a “confused man.” Another common image used by Boebert is of a woman who was sexually assaulted getting support from a transgender crisis manager. Von Storch stirs up fears in the same way—that is, by describing imaginary and extraordinary situations such as a “brutal, convicted rapist serving his sentence in a women’s prison.”
It should be noted that female PRR politicians’ demonization of LBGTQIA+ people is not always consistent, and these legislators sporadically demonstrate acceptance of homosexuals.
These empirical findings have revealed an important aspect of the nature of female right-wing populists’ rhetoric. By examining parliamentary speeches made by Boebert, Taylor Greene, von Storch, and Weidel, we can see that these politicians especially rely on conservative anti-feminism. Their political messaging also contained elements of neo-liberal, right-wing national, and conspiracy theory anti-feminism. Unsurprisingly, masculine anti-feminism, which is mostly used by men, was absent in these women’s speeches.
In looking at political rhetoric in Germany and the United States, it is clear that anti-feminism has a transnational character. There are significant similarities between the two countries. For example, legislators express the securitization of feminist issues in a comparable manner. However, there were also some notable differences between German and American politicians due to the role of individuals and the contexts around specific parties and countries. For example, conservative anti-feminism was more strongly linked to anti-abortion attitudes and Christian beliefs in the United States than in Germany.
The political potency of anti-feminist rhetoric, especially when employed by women, is striking. Women are typically seen as “softer” representatives of their party, increasing the impact of their antagonistic rhetoric. As discussed earlier, anti-feminism can take many different forms, and each type has the potential to address a specific audience. The widespread appeal of anti-feminist ideology makes it a powerful mobilization tool for PRR parties. As shown, anti-feminism can be linked to other populist narratives to further them.
PRR women use anti-feminism to connect to many other populist narratives in order to draw hostile images, create a sense of belonging, and increase the mobilization potential of their party, especially to gain new female sympathizers and followers. Due to its connectivity to the middle of society, anti-feminism has great potential for right-wing populists, especially for female ones, who are stereotypically seen as softer representatives of their party.
Having a deeper understanding of the thought mechanisms that foster anti-feminist sentiments and push both men and women to the populist radical right can help us discover appropriate counterstrategies to these developments driven by underestimated female PRR actors. This issue is more urgent than ever, as anti-feminism “seems to become more common and acceptable in the democracies of the West today—despite or just because of the success of the women’s movement.” Future research should examine the impact of anti-feminism communicated by female representatives of the populist radical right on their female activists, followers, and sympathizers. They can likely be described as devalued groups that share feelings of social deprivation and are therefore easily influenced by rhetoric that opposes the de-discrimination of (formally) marginalized groups, be they women, LGBTQIA+ people, or migrants.
 Natascha Strobl, Radikalisierter Konservatismus: Eine Analyse (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2021).
 Nicholas Valentino, Carly Wayne, and Marzia Oceno, (2018): “Mobilizing Sexism: The Interaction of Emotion and Gender Attitudes in the 2016 US Presidential Election,” Public Opinion Quarterly 82, no. 3 (Fall 2018): pp. 799-821.
 Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
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 Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
 Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “The Developmental Theory of the Gender Gap: Women’s and Men’s Voting Behavior in Global Perspective,” International Political Science Review 21 no. 4 (2000): pp. 441-463. Niels Spierings and Andrej Zaslove, “Gender, populist attitudes, and voting: explaining the gender gap in voting for populist radical right and populist radical left parties,” West European Politics 40, no. 4 (2017): pp. 821-847.
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 For an overview see: Sarah C. Dingler, Zoe Lefkofridi, and Vanessa Marent, “The gender dimension of populism,” in Political Populism: A Handbook, ed. Reinhard C. Heinisch, Christina Holtz-Bacha, and Oscar Mazzoleni, (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 2017), pp. 345-360.
 Mudde, p. 97.
 Kathleen Blee, “Similarities/Differences in Gender and Far-Right Politics in Europe and the USA,” in Gender and Far Right Politics in Europe, ed. Michaela Köttig, Renate Bitzan, and Andrea Petö (London: Palgrave Macmillan Cham, 2017), pp. 191-204, p. 202.
 Seyward Darby, Sisters in Hate. American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism (New York/Boston/London: Little, Brown & Company, 2020).
 Annika Brockschmidt, Amerikas Gotteskrieger. Wie die Religiöse Rechte die Demokratie gefährdet (Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 2021), p. 65.
 Juliane Lang, “Feindbild Feminismus: Familien- und Geschlechterpolitik in der AfD, ” in Autoritäre Dynamiken. Neue Radikalität – alte Ressentiments. Leipziger Autoritarismus Studie 2020, ed. Oliver Decker and Elmar Brähler (Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2020), pp. 341-352.
 Michaela Köttig, “Gender Stereotypes Constructed by the Media: The Case of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in Germany,” in Gender and Far Right Politics in Europe, ed. Michaela Köttig, Renate Bitzan, and Andrea Petö (London: Palgrave Macmillan Cham, 2017), pp. 221-234.
 Charlotte Höcker, Gert Pickel, Oliver Decker, (2020): “Antifeminismus – das Geschlecht im Autoritarismus? Die Messung von Antifeminismus und Sexismus in Deutschland auf der Einstellungsebene,” in Autoritäre Dynamiken. Neue Radikalität – alte Ressentiments. Leipziger Autoritarismus Studie 2020, ed. Oliver Decker and Elmar Brähler (Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2020), pp. 249-271, p. 255.
 Alexandra Snipes and Cas Mudde, “‘France’s (Kinder, Gentler) Extremist’: Marine Le Pen, Intersectionality, and Media Framing of Female Populist Radical Right Leaders,” Politics & Gender 16, no. 2 (2020): pp. 438-470.
 Heiko Beyer, Mona Lach, and Annette Schnabel, “The Cultural Code of Antifeminist Communication: Voicing Opposition to the ‘Feminist Zeitgeist,’” Acta Sociologica 63, no. 2 (2020): pp. 209-225.
 Boebert: “rape victims need abortions. Wrong. They need love. They need support. They need safety and healing. They needed a Glock 19 when it happened. It is time we start addressing killing the raper rather than the baby.” And in another speech: “I am 5 feet tall. I weigh barely 100 pounds. I need something against a stronger potential aggressor to defend myself with. Talk about women’s rights. Don’t take my right away to protect myself.” Taylor Greene: “gun rights are women’s rights.” They would help to protect from “rapists” or “stalking ex-boyfriends.”
 Wolfgang Thielmann ed., Alternative für Christen? Die AfD und ihr gespaltenes Verhältnis zur Religion (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 2017).
 Marius Frenken, Michał Bilewicz, and Roland Imhoff, “On the Relation Between Religiosity and the Endorsement of Conspiracy Theories: The Role of Political Orientation,” Political Psychology Early View (2022): https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12822.
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 There is one minor exception in Germany, where the AfD’s Eastern branches have publicly adopted social-populist demands in order to compete with the Left Party’s presence in the former GDR. However, there is still no hiding the fact that the AfD has been a neo-liberal party since its founding (see Manès Weisskircher, “Die AfD als neue Volkspartei des Ostens?,” in Mehr Fortschritt wagen? Parteien, Personen, Milieus und Modernisierung: Regieren in Zeiten der Ampelkoalition, ed. Knut Bergmann (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2022), pp. 317-334.).
 Michael C. Williams, “Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics,” International Studies Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2003): pp. 511-531.
 Beyer, Lach, and Schnabel.
 Sara R. Farris, In the Name of Women’s Rights, The Rise of Femonationalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).
 Alica Rétiová, “Anti-gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against Equality,” Social Movement Studies 18, no. 3 (2019): pp. 388-389.
 Lihi Ben-Shitrit, Julia Elad-Strenger, and Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler, “‘Pinkwashing’ the radical-right: Gender and the mainstreaming of radical-right policies and actions,” European Journal of Political Research 61, no. 1 (2022): pp. 86-110.
 Beyer, Lach, and Schnabel, p. 14
 Frank Kalter and Naika Foroutan, “Race for Second Place? Explaining East-West Differences in Anti-Muslim Sentiment in Germany,” Frontiers in Sociology (2021) doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2021.735421.