How do you measure anti-feminism?


The magnitude of this movement has been underestimated in Germany, making it all the more imperative to gather robust data.

Illustration: Author of "How do you measure antifeminism?"


Anti-feminism is not only a central element in neo-right-wing thinking, but also plays a crucial role in right-wing struggles for social hegemony (see Haas 2020). German researchers have produced a large body of qualitative and theoretical work that addresses contemporary anti-feminism, anti-feminist groups and actors (Lang & Peters 2018a; among others), and anti-feminist campaigns (Fritzsche & Lang 2020; among others), as well as the significance of anti-feminism in extreme-right discourse (Sauer 2019; among others), the relationship between anti-feminism and antisemitism (Hessel & Misiewicz 2020; among others) and that between anti-feminism and racism (Rahner 2020; among others). Nevertheless, anti-feminism as a topic often remains underexposed in established research on right-wing extremism and in media coverage of right-wing populism and the extreme right (see Henninger 2020, 26).

So it is to be welcomed that the two prominent series of studies aimed at shedding light on the spread of (extreme) right-wing attitudes in German society – the “Mitte” Studies (Studies of the Political Centre) of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Leipzig Authoritarianism Studies (LAS) of the Otto Brenner Foundation and the Heinrich Böll Foundation – are now also looking at anti-feminism. Both series of studies have been well received by the media and widely discussed in the public arena. They also serve as a source of information for civil society actors and policy makers by providing details on the prevalence of (extreme) right-wing attitudes in Germany as a whole, including that of such attitudes in specific social groups. The examination of anti-feminism as part of these quantitative studies thus makes an important contribution to the social and political treatment of anti-feminism.

Yet at the same time, this kind of research carries the risk of incorrectly judging and positioning the significance of anti-feminism and its potential to endanger democracy – with far-reaching consequences for the level of awareness in society and among political decision-makers.

In the following, I will address this risk and outline how we can counter such misinterpretations and how quantitative anti-feminism research might be improved. First, however, I will briefly explain why the study of anti-feminism is necessary and what role it plays in anti-democratic struggles.

What role does anti-feminism play?

In my work, I am guided by Ursula Birsl’s democratic-theoretical understanding of anti-feminism as “an ideological counter-movement immanent to the respective historical process of emancipation, universalisation, socio-political liberalisation, and denormalisation of gender relations [...]. It is thus at the same time an ideological counter-movement to the democratisation of (androcentric) power and domination relations in the social and political spheres” (Birsl 2020, 47).1

Anti-feminism expresses and manifests itself in many different forms.2 Anti-feminist currents with a particularly high degree of organisation include neoliberal anti-feminism, conservative-to-reactionary journalists, masculinism (including fathers’ rights groups, pick-up artists and incel communities),3 Christian fundamentalist anti-feminism, and actors of the (extreme) right (Blum 2019, 61 ff.). Despite the different world views of the various currents, there are always personnel overlaps and political alliances between the various currents (see Billmann 2015). Christian fundamentalist and extreme right-wing varieties, for example, describe feminism as a threat, but invoke different value concepts in doing so. Proponents of the Christian fundamentalist current cite religious notions of naturalness and divine order that would come under attack from feminism (see Lang and Peters 2018b). Extreme right-wing groups, on the other hand, argue in a decidedly völkisch (ethnonationalist) way, describing the imminent danger of a ‘Volkstod’ (death of the nation) (see Botsch & Kopke 2018) or a ‘great replacement’ (see Haas 2020) occurring.4 However, in anti-feminist campaigns against gender and sexual diversity or reproductive rights, such as the Demo für Alle or the March for Life protests5 coalitions are formed between groups and actors of these politically very different currents (see Birsl 2020, 49).

Anti-feminism is a core element of right-wing thought

A central role is played by agitation against so-called ‘gender ideology’. ‘Gender’ is employed as a fighting term against gender research, gender and sexual diversity, and the liberalisation of gender roles (see Henninger 2020; Mayer et al. 2018), and it functions as an “empty signifier” (Sauer 2019) that is filled with varying meanings. But at the same time, it serves as a “symbolic glue” (Kováts & Poim 2015) that facilitates cooperation between different actors and groups, especially those from the Christian fundamentalist and (extreme) right spectrum, while also contributing further anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic components to political discourse (see Kováts & Poim 2015; Mayer et al. 2018; Sauer 2019; Lang 2017 [2015]). Moreover, as anti-feminism is more socially accepted than many other anti-egalitarian or anti-democratic beliefs and can draw on everyday knowledge about gender and gender roles, anti-feminist campaigns are suitable for positioning extreme-right narratives and actors in broader societal debates (see Beyer et al. 2020; Sauer 2019; Lang 2017; Schmincke 2018).

Andrea Pető describes anti-feminist, “anti-gender” campaigns based on these factors as “hegemonic fights in the Gramscian sense for control as they redefine human rights and the progressive European tradition of equality” (Pető 2015, 128). The relationship to anti-feminism ranges from a purely instrumental use as a populist mobilisation strategy to an “ideological stance on social relations and their changes” (Birsl 2020, 48).6

Overall, it can be said that anti-feminism is a core element of right-wing thought, while at the same time enabling alliances to be established between different actors. Anti-feminism also plays a central role in struggles for hegemony, especially since it is conducive to forging links with broader society.

The academic study of anti-feminism is therefore of enormous importance, and it is to be welcomed that quantitative social research now also considers anti-feminism as an element of (extreme) right-wing beliefs. Currently, however, such research falls short of its potential. In the following, I will focus on the methodological problems of gathering and interpreting data on anti-feminism.7

Measuring anti-feminist attitudes

The “Mitte” Studies (Zick & Küpper) and the Leipzig Authoritarianism Studies (Decker, Kiess, Heller, & Brähler) are prominent series of studies that aim to inform political and civil society actors of the prevalence of (extreme) right-wing and anti-democratic attitudes in the German population. To this end, they conduct representative surveys every two years. They also target the public as a whole and thus have the potential to provide information about the meaning and function of these beliefs, in addition to giving descriptive insights into their prevalence.

The two studies take different approaches, but share a common problem: they strive to make statements about the prevalence of anti-feminism in the population, but the measurement tools used are not suitable for this purpose.

The Leipzig Authoritarianism Studies (LAS)

The LAS developed its own measures and uses both established items for measuring sexist attitudes as well as new innovations in its investigations. The authors present different anti-feminist currents (neoliberal, conservative, fraternal, right-wing nationalist, and conspiracy theorist) and assign different anti-feminist argumentations to them (Höcker et al. 2020). Unfortunately, however, they do not retain this typology throughout the study. The authors instead introduce three scales – anti-feminism, sexism, and pro-feminism – with which to measure the different attitudes.

Pro-feminism consists of items originally used to measure denial of sexist discrimination and thus represents a classic way of measuring modern sexism. Sexism is measured using conservative gender role attitudes, an outdated approach that was revised in the 1990s (see e.g. Tougas et al. 1995; Swim et al. 1995).

The new anti-feminism scale consists of four items that are assigned to the conservative, fraternal, and right-wing nationalist currents of anti-feminism (Höcker et al. 2020).8 However, it remains unclear why the items are assigned to the respective currents. Moreover, by subsequently combining the three currents that were found to be distinct – conservative, fraternal, and right-wing nationalism – the authors missed an opportunity to generate deeper insights into the prevalence of specific kinds of anti-feminist argumentations or into the influence of the individual currents on public opinion. This combination of different currents may also be one reason why the authors find that one-third of respondents agree with at least one anti-feminist statement, but respondents’ agreement with the entire scale is significantly lower. In the authors’ understanding, if respondents agree with all four anti-feminist items, they have a closed anti-feminist world view. In light of the small number of items, the grouping together of currents with different world views, and the lack of qualitative analyses, this must be considered a massive over-interpretation of the data collected.

The “Mitte” Studies

The “Mitte” Studies surveyed anti-feminism for the first time in 2019 (Zick et al. 2019). They include only two items on this topic, each of which can be assigned to an anti-feminist current. The item “Nowadays there is a war on traditional marriage and family” can be assigned to the Christian fundamentalist current, and the item “Feminism systematically disadvantages men in our society” to the masculinist current. The problem with this approach is already apparent in the study’s own analysis, which finds only a slight correlation between the two items, but nevertheless combines them into a scale and then concludes that only 6 percent of the population hold anti-feminist beliefs.

The low correlation between the two items can be explained by the different currents from which the arguments originate. The masculinist and Christian fundamentalist varieties of anti-feminism share anti-feminist beliefs, but the world views and arguments behind them are different. A person who believes in the Christian fundamentalist idea of there being a ‘war on the family’ is not necessarily convinced of the systematic oppression of men, and vice versa. Yet both statements are clearly anti-feminist.


So, in both studies, there is a blending of the various anti-feminist currents, but this decision and its possible consequences are not reflected upon. Rather, both studies claim to be able to make statements about the prevalence of anti-feminism as a whole. It also remains unclear how exactly the items were developed and why the authors selected these particular operationalisations. In addition, both studies lack statistical validation of their scales systematically testing the quality of the developed measures.

This doubtless contributes to the different results of the two studies. Whereas the LAS finds a closed anti-feminist world view among nearly 19 percent of the population, the “Mitte” Study finds only 6 percent agree with anti-feminism.

Overall, then, despite the centrality of anti-feminism to extreme right and anti-egalitarian campaigns, these data allow us to draw only limited conclusions about the magnitude of the various anti-feminist currents, their relationship to each other, and the prevalence of anti-feminist narratives in the population as a whole. To gain better insights into these issues, there is an urgent need to improve the implementation of attitude measures in population-representative studies.

The shortcomings of both studies with respect to surveying anti-feminist beliefs are, in my view, due to the following factors:

  1. Qualitative and theoretical findings are reported but not meaningfully intertwined in the item development process.

  2. There is no systematic, theory-driven scale validation.

  3. Efficiency takes priority over gaining knowledge. Due to the number of attitudes under investigation, the authors have decided to use as few items as possible. This has the effect of excessively reducing the complexity.

The Men’s Perspectives Study offers a positive example

The Men’s Perspectives Study (Wippermann 2017) provides a good road map on how surveys of anti-feminist attitudes (and of other anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic beliefs) can be better designed. It employed a mixed-methods methodology that started by conducting and analysing focus group interviews with men. The researchers then used these conversations to develop items that represent a wide range of attitudes about gender and equality, including a 16-item scale to capture several dimensions of masculinist attitudes. The analysis also took a closer look at the extent to which masculinist beliefs were held by respondents (agreement with all aspects or only some aspects of masculinism). The study came to the conclusion that 1 percent of the male population can be counted among the hard core and another 5 percent among the wider circle of convinced masculinists, while finding that just under 34 percent are receptive to certain narratives and arguments. The study also identified the social milieus in which masculinist attitudes are particularly widespread.

Such an approach to the study of anti-feminism as a whole, complemented by a systematic validation of the scale, would provide much more precise insights to political and civil society actors about the prevalence of these attitudes and the potential for anti-feminist mobilisation. This would enable them to better assess the threat to democracy and to develop interventions and educational programmes in a more targeted manner.

Conclusion and outlook

The academic study of anti-feminism is urgently needed, not least because of the potential threat it poses to democracy and because of the central role it plays in right-wing struggles for social hegemony. Quantitative attitudinal research can make an important contribution to this by shedding light on the prevalence of (a wide variety of) anti-feminist beliefs in the general population and in specific social milieus, thus laying vital groundwork for social and political action.

In order to meet this high standard, however, it is of urgent necessity to take anti-feminism in its diverse manifestations more seriously and to give greater priority to the systematic development and testing of quantitative measures. This will also require that theoretical and qualitative work has to be more closely intertwined with quantitative research. A start has been made with Wippermann’s masculinism scale, and Raphael Kohl and I have developed a proposal for surveying widespread features of anti-feminist narratives (Simon & Kohl 2023).

To ensure a comprehensive analysis of the spread of anti-feminist beliefs and of the mobilisation potential of anti-feminist movements and campaigns, these measures urgently need to be complemented by additional scales that assess the beliefs held by adherents to specific anti-feminist currents. Moreover, these scales should regularly take into account new (discursive) developments, such as the current campaigns against trans people and drag artists.


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1 The original quote was in German and translated to English for the purpose of this article.

2 In their anthology, Henninger and Birsl therefore speak of “anti-feminisms” in the plural.

3 Self-proclaimed “incels” (involuntary celibates) are an extremely misogynist online subculture that has inspired several terrorist attacks. For a discussion on masculinist (online) subcultures, see Ging 2019.

4 Racism, antisemitism, and anti-feminism are clearly intertwined in the extreme right’s Volkstod and “great replacement” narratives; see also Rahner 2020.

5 For a detailed discussion of these and other anti-feminist alliances in several European countries, see Kováts and Poim 2015.

6 The original quote was in German and translated to English for the purpose of this article.

7 For a critique of the theoretical classification of anti-feminism in the LAS, see Fritzsche 2021. For a critique of the theoretical foundations of the Mitte Studies, see Attia 2013 as well as Terkessidis 2004, 38 ff.

8 1. “Women often make fools of themselves in politics”; 2. “Women who go too far with their demands should not be surprised when they get put back in their place”; 3. “Women often exaggerate their accounts of sexual violence in order to take advantage of the situation”; 4. “Feminism disrupts social harmony and order.” (Höcker et al. 2020, 260). The original items were in German and translated to English for the purpose of this article.


Translated from German by Todd Brown

This article is part of the dossier Feminist Voices Connected.