A curious feminist gaze into the right-wing shift

The progessive camp must not ignore the nuanced complexities within the seemingly ostensibly unified masculinizing project of the Right - there is a need for femisnist curiosity and a fresh gaze.

The war on gender strikes again in Poland. During a recent PiS convention, Jarosław Kaczyński targeted the LGBT+ Anti-Discrimination Declaration signed by the liberal party’s Mayor of Warsaw. He portrayed the document as ‘social engineering’ aimed at ‘sexualizing children’, and an urgent threat to families the party wishes to protect. This was not just an ad hoc fear-mongering tactic to mobilize voters for European Parliament elections that routinely suffer from a low turnout in the countryside. It is, rather, another reveal of the ongoing global campaign against ‘gender ideology’ that began unfolding in Poland in 2013, erupting around different issues related to women’s and minority rights, and creating a counter-hegemonic discourse opposing liberal modernization.

Beyond culture wars

Feminist scholars have spent decades convincing the public that gender matters in right-wing politics, operating as a political cleavage and a programmatic pillar, and shaping organizational culture. The transnational anti-gender campaign that turned ‘gender’ into word of the year 2013 in Poland grants these claims new legitimacy. However, when the ruling PiS party enjoys steady support among women, and research done by the party for internal purposes shows its voters as much more liberal on many issues than their political representatives, the framework of feminist analyses has to also change. As argued by scholar of far-right, Kathleen Blee, the pressing task ahead is no longer applying gender as a primary lens to confirm it matters, but rather, shining the spotlight on the more troubling gendered complexities and cracks in the ostensibly unified masculinizing project of the Right. In other words, we know that gender matters in the right-wing shift in Poland. It is time we are more curious about how exactly it matters.

In the current political climate, this task is harder than ever. For some time now, ‘gender’ has served as ‘symbolic glue’ among both sides of the political polarization in Poland. It invokes either an enemy figure embodying the hidden underbelly of neoliberal Europeanization or, on the contrary, a symbol of liberal progress. In the process, both sides lump together different issues and actors under one gripping umbrella term. The cost is obliterating from view serious divergences between different strands of the seemingly united progressive front. It also overlooks the less obvious ways in which gender matters in the right-wing project that go beyond—or even against—its symbolic function as a building block of a powerful anti-modernist rhetoric.

When we do turn our lens away from the captivating anti-gender rhetoric of PiS and direct it to what is happening on the ground, a more surprising and complex picture develops. Three entry points can help reveal what otherwise goes unnoticed in the mainstream framework of a civilizational clash between the defendants and the assailants of women’s rights.

Feminizing the Right

In the same month Kaczyński embarked on another battle against ‘gender ideology’, female PiS politicians announced the formation of the first regional Women’s Forum, an organization “improving women’s position in politics and social life”, and a future country-wide platform for mainstreaming a domestic version of right-wing feminism. This initiative comes as little surprise, given the fact that the party enjoys a relatively high membership of women. For years, the party served as a springboard for a number of hardline female leaders and intellectuals, among them Prime Minister Beata Szydło, or anti-gender historian and Vice-Minister of Culture Magdalena Gawin. In the various social movements of religious, parental or paramilitary nature that sustain ties to PiS, women also have a visible presence. Are these women simply double agents of misogyny, capitalizing on ‘patriarchal bargain’, as mainstream feminism often sees them? Some may well be. On the other hand, one female politician I interviewed—who served on the leadership of different right-wing organizations—explained her lifelong career as “feminizing the nationalist circles”. Rather than being a purely individualistic strategy for gaining power, these women’s engagement creates a space for more women to become politically active, develop public identities, have their voices heard, and lobby for reforms they hold important. 

Gender voting gap revisited

For some time, there has been relative consensus among political scientists that men tend to dominate the electorates of populist and radical right-wing parties. PiS remains an outlier. Since the party’s inception in 2001, the gender voting gap never existed. When PiS came to power in 2015, there was a slightly higher percentage of women than men (39,7% to 38,5%) among its constituents. What do we make of that? As we argued with Eszter Kováts, among both PiS voters in Poland and FIDESZ voters in Hungary, gender alone matters less than in the case of far-right or liberal and progressive parties, necessitating a more intersectional analysis. In fact, women often vote for these parties for reasons they share with men from their social class, age group or region. As PiS’ rising spin-doctor, Waldemar Paruch, recently stated in an interview, formulating a message to broad groups of voters, like all Polish women, is a tactic of the past. Instead, right-wing parties construct new voter blocs around cross-cutting issues. One such cleavage was built around the Family 500 plus program which connected religious traditionalists and more pro-European, lower-income women in reproductive age. While they did not necessarily buy the party’s anti-liberal, nationalist rhetoric, they nevertheless saw their practical gender interests being met by these benefits.

The siren call of progressive neoliberalism

So, then, what do defendants of women’s rights offer women? In a recent interview later mocked in a PiS campaign spot, liberal MP Katrzyna Lubnauer announced plans to vote against the extension of the 500+ program on budgetary grounds. Her former party colleague, Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus (now with the Spring party) also criticized the program as populist, and argued that rather than being universal, family benefits should instead be directed primarily towards those in dire need. In Poland, both MPs have become the political faces of the Black Protests for reproductive rights, and have been outspoken advocates for women’s issues. Yet the feminism these politicians stand for discloses itself as one closely aligned with what Nancy Fraser called progressive neoliberalism. It is one “grafting neoliberal economics onto mainstream liberal currents of apparently egalitarian social movements” rather than one that “ties an inclusive social vision to a people-centered political economy”. The fact remains that the majority of Polish women support universal child benefits, and we should do better at understanding why. Despite what liberal politicians profess, there are grounds to believe that the program’s political salience lies not in purely monetary terms, but rather, in its ability to generate a new social contract between the citizens and the state: one that recognizes the social importance of care work, and does not define people’s worth purely through paid employment.

True test for the progressive camp

Polish feminist intellectuals speak in unison that the main test for the progressive camp is to resist the anti-gender campaign. To a certain extent, they are correct, but what often gets overshadowed in recurring calls for resistance is that the true political stake lies not in the act itself, but rather, in the form of resistance. As Andrea Pető, among others, argues, resistance alone is not enough. If the cost of forming a unified front is ignoring the complex gendered dynamics of the current opposition to the (neo)liberal project in favor of the comfortable conceptual framework of misogyny, then we are fighting a losing battle. As Cynthia Enloe reminds us, the critical power of feminist curiosity has always rested on its ability to make an “explanatory effort in spirit of willingness to let go, willingness to think afresh”. It is the readiness to be surprised about the gendered complexities of the right-wing project, and draw salient political conclusions from this cognitively uncomfortable position. That is the true test for progressives today.