Decade of Hate is a series that covers the dangerous rise of far-right movements across Europe over the past 10 years.
Even by the standards of Italy’s volatile, headline-grabbing politics, the victory of Meloni de Giorgia’s Brothers of Italy in the country’s general election has caused even more controversy than usual.
For onlookers, it was baffling that Italy’s first female prime minister could also be the one leading her most right-wing government since World War II.
But Meloni, who has railed against “the LGBT lobby”, wants to limit abortions and immigration, and has been accused of hissing the Mussolini-era slogan “God, fatherland and family”, is not not as aberrant as she was the first. appears.
While the far right is – and always has been – a male-dominated, often overtly misogynistic space, a wave of reactionary women are assuming prominent roles in populist and radical right-wing politics across the Western world.
Whether they are leading far-right parties that have achieved electoral success in Europe or acting as powerful influencers pushing radical ideology on social media, women are playing an increasingly important role in the far-right politics.
Part of the reason for this, experts say, is that women can be assets to the far right, helping to “detoxify” them and gain wider acceptance of radical politics.
“I think women play a huge and important role in mainstreaming more radical ideas,” said Seyward Darby, editor-in-chief of The atavist magazine and book author sisters in hatetold VICE World News.
“They’re…crucial to spreading the ideology with a smile and making it palatable…It’s about putting a certain veneer, a certain shine to it.”
Since the horrors of fascism that unfolded during World War II, far-right ideology has faced a major hurdle in gaining a foothold in mainstream politics, with voters tending to push back against overtly racist, hateful policies or sectarian.
But while figures like American alt-right leader Richard Spencer — white men with angry rhetoric and fashy hairstyles — were easily identified and dismissed by mainstream voters as hateful neo-Nazis, women were often able to convey a similar ideology in a more palatable way, in the face of less knee-jerk public reaction.
“Women took over or were brought in to lead [far-right] parties because that detox is seen as a strategy to gain electoral power,” said Kathleen M. Blee, professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.
One of the starkest examples of this is France, where Marine Le Pen has presided over the transformation of the far-right National Rally over the past decade.
In 2011, Le Pen took over the leadership of France’s main far-right party, then known as the National Front, from his father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
While the party’s fortunes had fluctuated since its founding by the elder Le Pen in 1972, it had remained a constant presence on the far right of French politics, but had never really established itself as a constant threat to France. political establishment.
Since taking the reins, however, Le Pen has strategically sought to soften the party’s image, changing her name and trying to distance herself from her father’s history of racism and Holocaust-minimizing statements, in the aim of positioning it as a potential governing force, rather than a protest movement.
The makeover, aided in large part by the presence of a woman at the helm, proved to be a success. The National Rally is now the largest parliamentary opposition group in France’s National Assembly, while Le Pen herself has made it to the second round in the last two consecutive presidential elections, losing both times to Emmanuel Macron. . Although the party is not in power, it has a large block of seats in the French parliament and it has gained greater traction for its ideology, helping to move its ideas from the margins into the mainstream.
Le Pen’s strategic approach to trying to win mainstream acceptance has sometimes been to try to frame her party’s politics as feminist – for example, in a 2016 op-ed in which she argued that immigrant men are a potential threat to the safety of French women.
“Le Pen uses women’s rights in some areas and doesn’t use women’s rights in other areas,” said Blee, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s an approach that contrasts with that of Meloni, who does not describe herself as a feminist and has spoken of her opposition to “pink quotas” to ensure women’s representation on corporate boards.
Beyond formal party leadership positions, women have also taken on prominent roles as far-right influencers, particularly in the United States and Canada, where figures such as Lana Lokteff, Lauren Southern and Tara McCarthy have all cultivated large followings online for their radical ideology.
Lokteff, who pushes white nationalism and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories through the media company she runs with her husband, is well aware of the critical role women play in detoxifying and spreading extreme ideology. right, and to attract other women to the movement.
In a 2017 interview with an American white supremacist news outlet, she said, “It makes it sweeter for people to listen to. It’s easier for people to hear a harsh message when it’s a…beautiful woman saying it. And in a speech at an identity conference in Stockholm, Sweden, the same year, she credited the prominent role of influencers like her as one of the main reasons why women were “flowing to our side.”
Yet the explicitly anti-feminist outlook of Lokteff – who has denounced third-wave feminism as a “war on whites” – and others like her means she has a very circumscribed view of the role women should play. in far-right politics.
“I think women are too emotional for leading roles in politics,” she said in the same speech in Stockholm, insisting that far-right women should instead use their “power and special influence on men – to give them a reason to fight”.
The atavist Darby said anti-feminist rhetoric was common among far-right influencers. “Women in this movement hate feminism… They think it has made women’s lives worse,” she said. “They have this stance, ‘as a woman, I can talk about what feminism really is.'”
But while it might seem disconcerting that some women could dedicate their lives to attacking a movement that won over women in politics, Blee said it was important to recognize that women were “not politically a monolith now or in history”.
“If we view women as a monolith, we tend to fall into the gender stereotype that women are more peaceful, more social welfare-oriented and more progressive, and that the far right is not in reality than a movement of men. We are creating our own peril by not understanding how central women can be to the far right.