Anti-feminism – the hinge connecting the right-wing periphery and the centre

Migrant policy aside, gender and family policy is a popular target of right-wing populist attacks. The impact is penetrating deep into the heart of society – the response must therefore be comprehensive. 

STOP in stencil on the floor

Stormy times? Yes – and, in the thick of it, a form of anti-feminism that has become socially ac-ceptable as the binding link between (national) conservative, right-wing populist and far right attitudes and policies both in Germany and in the rest of Europe. “Gender ideology”, and, linked to this, “early sexualisation” are destroying the bedrock of values in our society, so it is claimed. There is talk of “gender madness” and of omnipotent feminists seeking to re-educate society. Gender research is discredited as “gender terror” and being “pseudoscientific”. The EU’s Gender Mainstreaming strategy should be repealed, it is said. And, at all events – the “de-masculinisation of society” and “state feminism” must be put to an end.
This is just a small cross-section of the roorbacks on the gender equality policy and emancipative achievements realised in the last few decades.

What makes anti-feminism so attractive?

Gender relations and sexuality have long since been the battleground for heated debates. They are not restricted to Germany: in other European countries, such as France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary, right-wing parties and anti-emancipative groupings have celebrated considerable successes. They are well networked with each other and provide each other with mutual support, e.g. during campaigns against liberal abortion policies or endeavours to promote equal opportunities for LGBTI people [1] in the European Parliament.

However, the rejection of emancipative accomplishments is also a global phenomenon and illus-trates yet again the vast extent to which the body, sexuality and gender roles have become arenas for patriarchal dominance, social scaling and, once again – more than ever – right-wing and volkisch ideologies and religious fundamentalism.

Right-wing populists like the AfD, groupings such as the ‘Family Protection Initiative’ (Initiative Familienschutz), ‘Concerned Parents’ (Die Besorgten Eltern) or the ‘Demo for Everyone’ (Demo für alle), with personal ties reaching all the way into the CDU, are mobilising at every level to rescue the ‘natural order’. In Germany, we are experiencing a new form of aggressiveness, and so-called “anti-genderism” is being linked to volkisch, populist arguments designed to specifically appeal to the masses. The AfD party avows the “traditional” – in other words, heterosexual – father-mother-child family as the role model and seeks to raise the birth rate “among women of German origin” and re-focus attention on “inherently natural differences between the genders”. In keeping with the traditional image of a family, abortion is rejected, because the right to sexual self-determination cannot possibly go so far. “Our children” should be protected against the “early sexualisation” promoted in schools, they claim, as this is where “sexual diversity” and “homo-sexuality” have been propagated. [2]

In the process, right-wing populists and far-right actors skilfully seize on prejudices and unease for their propaganda, such as those that can be found in the conservative circles of society’s mainstream (see, for example, the campaign against early sex education in Baden-Wuerttemberg and elsewhere). The rejection of plural forms of family and ways of life is packaged with relatable but reframed terms such as the demand that “equality [must] once again mean equal opportunities”. [3] They campaign against allegedly Muslim men, who threaten “our women” sexually and should therefore be deported, whilst, at the same time, sexualised violence committed by men in German society is ignored.

There is an argument to say that anti-feminism is nothing new and that too much attention elevates these groupings. That may have been a tenable position when it concerned a mere handful of so-called masculinists and fathers’ rights activists who disseminated their crude theories of male discrimination and state feminism primarily on the Internet, yet still had little influence on the political mainstream. But things look very different today.

The fear of so-called ‘gender ideology’ acts as a ‘hinge’ and/or ‘glue’ holding society’s centre, various (party) political spectrums and the right-wing periphery together.

The new Leipzig study “The Unleashed Centre” (Die enthemmte Mitte) [4] published in June in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Stiftung among others illustrates in no uncertain terms that far-right thinking has ceased to be a marginal issue but has instead become one at the very core of society. Whilst the approval ratings for far-right statements have remained virtually unchanged compared to 2014, the degradation of certain groups, namely Muslims, Sinti, Roma, asylum seekers and homosexuals, has seen an increase. At the same time, the number of those touting anti-democratic, authoritarian policies and willing to engage in violence is on the rise. [5] Even more shocking is the fact that around half of those surveyed repudiate or do not acknowledge that discrimination exists against women in society or at the workplace (“modern sexism”), and no less than 20% of those surveyed would like to see women return to the home and kitchen (tradi-tional sexism). [6] It is important to note that such attitudes are not exclusive to far-right groupings and political parties but – to differing degrees – to all political parties, age groups, levels of education and employment status groups. This shows that, in addition to xenophobic stances, the fear of so-called “gender ideology” acts as a “hinge” [7] and/or “glue” [8] holding society’s centre, various (party) political spectrums and the right-wing periphery together.

As susceptible as parts of the centre are to anti-feminist resentments and far-right thinking, the centre also plays a vital role in the struggle against attacks on emancipative accomplishments. On a positive note, the study revealed that the democratic milieus have grown considerably and rep-resent some 60% of the population. [9]

“Male-centric anti-feminism” has thus shifted since around 2010 to become “family-centric anti-feminism, or, to be more specific: to a father-mother-child-centric anti-feminism.” [10] At its core, the middle-class heteronormative small family as the “germ cell of the nation” [11], which must de-fend itself from being suppressed by minorities. “The fear scenario of a ‘gender war’ is being replaced with the fear scenario of re-education & sexualisation.” [12] And, all the while, the victim being offered up – in an emotive and appealable manner to other political milieus – is the child. Behind this is a specifically charged racist, nationalistic, class-based, sexist and homophobic fam-ily norm that advocates want to see re-established.

As has been observed in previous state election campaigns, in particular family and gender policy issues – alongside migration policy standpoints – will have tempers boiling in the coming election campaigns. However, instead of taking an active stance in defending an open and liberal society, elements of the mainstream political parties are reacting to this by converging with (neo-)right-wing and anti-liberal positions. Even some Green voters are receptive to the idea . [13]

What can be done?

Answers to this question are more easily found, on the one hand, by analysing the factors that have contributed to the development of this family-centric anti-feminism and, on the other hand, the politicisation and argumentation strategies presented by anti-feminist actors.

The politicisation comes by scandalising, dramatising, personalising and emotionalising. The mo-bilisation comes through affects (fear, threats, loss). The key argumentation patterns relate to jus-tifying the descent community (naturalisation of social issues), stigmatising sexual diversity as an external threat, and stylising children as victims in need of protection. [14]

Online journalism is very conducive to promoting these patterns of argumentation. Provocation and inciting issues bring a large number of clicks. Anti-feminist articles and agitation have climbed their way to the top of the attention scale as a consequence.

Gender relations are being turned into the last symbolic place of retreat for conservatism, because they are touching identities and emotions in a very particular way, act as a counter-pole to the prevailing “lack of alternatives” in politics and are appealing at various levels, including to racist logic. [15] Moreover, the federal government of that time condoned attacks on the gender main-streaming  strategy without contradiction and handed anti-feminists on a plate the opportunity to discredit this strategy as “genderism” and use it as an imaginative fear.

Democratic parties must reassert an emancipatory and feminist equality and anti-discrimination policy.

Promising strategies opposing anti-feminism must therefore be applied at various levels. Anyone not wishing to leave the field clear for right-wing populists must e.g. educate and inform. Multi-pliers need arguments that rely on comprehensibility and differentiation and that create a broader context. Technical terms and concepts such as gender and gender mainstreaming will continue to be misunderstood if they remain unconnected to the living environments and experiences of the target groups. The emancipative and feminist accomplishments of an open and liberal society should be portrayed more vigorously, the terminology under discussion filled again with its in-herent content and, in the process, a balance struck between complexity and the ability to convey information.

A further area relates to the promotion of media literacy. Those impacted by attacks should not be the only ones to learn the technical, legal and rhetorical means for dealing with hate speeches and (sexualised) threats of violence on the Internet. Attacks must be treated seriously and should not be allowed to be stealthily normalised.

Political counter-movements and groups often work in parallel within their focal issues and ideo-logical divides. New and existing alliances should be used to focus on anti-liberal and anti-democratic threats. Doing so could demonstrate e.g. an open cross-disciplinary solidarity be-tween affected and unaffected scientists or encourage dialogue between politicians and scien-tists.
Democratic parties in particular must reassert a broad emancipatory and feminist equality and anti-discrimination policy and defend it vigorously, because anti-feminism is anything but child’s play. It is vital to combat anti-feminism now and not to sideline it in the struggle against right-wing populism and right-wing extremism, because, as already mentioned, it has the potential – over and above any ideological boundaries – to link the “centre” to the right-wing periphery.

[1] Cf. among others Andreas Kemper (2014):  Keimzelle der Nation – Teil 2. Wie sich in Europa Parteien und Bewegungen für konservative Familienwerte, gegen Toleranz und Vielfalt und gegen eine progressive Geschlechterpolitik radikalisieren. Hrsg. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Berlin,
Lunacek-Bericht zur Bekämpfung von Homophobie und Diskriminierung, 2013.…
Carsten Hübner 2008: Rechtsextreme Netzwerke und Parteien in Europa – eine Bestandsaufnahme vor der Europawahl 2009,…

[2] Quoted from the election manifesto of the AfD:…

[3] ibid.

[4] Oliver Decker among others (Hg) (2016): Die enthemmte Mitte. Autoritäre und rechtsextreme Einstellung in Deutschland; Psy-chosozial Verlag, Gießen.

[5] Ibid. p. 49 ff.

[6] Ibid. p. 58.

[7] Alice Blum 13.06.2016: Antifeminismus als verbindendes Element zwischen extrem rechten, rechtspopulistischen und konservativen Parteien in Deutschland sowie dem reaktionären Mob. (Abfrage vom 24.6.2016).

[8] Juliane Lang: Familienpopulismus und Antifeminismus als Kitt zwischen extremer Rechter und ‚Mitte der Gesellschaft‘, Vortrag auf dem Kongress "Respekt statt Ressentiment" von LSVD und Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, 10. Juni 2015, Berlin,…

[9] Oliver Decker among others (Hg), Die enthemmte Mitte, p. 104.

[10] Sebastian Scheele (2016): Von Antifeminismus zu ‘Anti-Genderismus’? Eine diskursive Verschiebung und ihre Hintergründe, Vortrag auf der Tagung “Gegner*innenaufklärung” on 31.5.2016 at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin, p. 7 f.

[11] Andreas Kemper (2014): Keimzelle der Nation? Familien- und geschlechterpolitische Positionen der AfD – eine Expertise, Hrsg. durch Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Berlin.

[12] Sebastian Scheele (2016), ibid, p.8.

[13] Oliver Decker among others (Hg), Die enthemmte Mitte, p. 121 ff.

[14] Extensive details on this topic from Imke Schmincke (2016): ‘Besorgte Eltern’ and ‘Demo für alle’ – das Kind als Chiffre politischer Auseinandersetzungen, lecture held on 31.5.2016 during the conference on “Educating the Opposition” (Geg-ner*innenaufklärung).

[15] Extensive details on this topic from Scheele (2016) ibid., p.15 ff.