Gender and the Radical Right
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses the claim that radical right parties are typically led and supported by men, and explores various aspects of gender bias as they relate to radical right parties and support for these parties. The first section considers the so-called gender gap in radical right voting, with women being significantly underrepresented among the radical right electorate compared with men. The second section examines how explanations for radical right voting behavior may differ between women and men. Whereas the majority of the research on radical right voting has taken for granted that women and men behave similarly, it shows that the limited available research does indicate some gender differences in the explanations for supporting a radical right party. The final section outlines some ideas for further research and the challenges that lie ahead for scholarship on gender and the radical right.
Radical right parties are often introduced as Männerparteien, parties typically led and supported by men. The aim of this chapter is to discuss this claim and to explore various aspects of gender bias as they relate to radical right parties and support for these parties. The first section considers the so-called gender gap in radical right voting, with women being significantly underrepresented among the radical right electorate compared with men. The section provides an overview of suggested explanations for this gap and discusses how some of these explanations have been challenged and how a significant part of the gender gap remains unexplained in most research. In the second section, I explore how explanations for radical right voting behavior may differ between women and men. Whereas the majority of the research on radical right voting has taken for granted that women and men behave similarly, the section shows that the limited available research does indicate some gender differences in the explanations for supporting a radical right party. This is important, as it suggests that there is no single explanatory pattern that holds equally well for both women and men. While most available research points to a gender gap in radical right voting, cross-national differences in the size of the gap have been found. These cross-national differences, and possible explanations for these differences, are described in the third section. In the fourth section, I move away from the topic of radical right voting behavior and describe the role of women in radical right party organizations as leaders and members. The final section outlines some ideas for further research and challenges that lie ahead for scholarship on gender and the radical right.
The Gender Gap in Radical Right Voting
One of the most consistent findings in the research on radical right voting has been the gender-specific profile of the radical right electorate. While cross-national (p. 201) differences do exist in the size of the gender gap (Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe, 2015), women tend to be significantly underrepresented among radical right voters compared with men (Coffé Forthcoming; Givens 2004; Gidengil et al. 2005; Fontana, Sidler, and Hardmeier 2006; Harteveld et al. 2015; Rippeyoung 2007; Spierings and Zaslove 2015).
Various (related) explanations have been suggested for this gender difference in radical right voting. One involves gender differences in occupational status and related attitudes toward immigrants. The argument goes that in Western societies men are overrepresented in manual jobs in blue-collar sectors, the type of jobs that are most threatened by modernization and globalization, and are thus more likely to lose their jobs or to be forced into lower-paying jobs in the new global economy (Givens 2004). As what Betz calls “losers of modernisation” (1994), they develop a sense of insecurity and resentment that leads to positive attitudes toward nativist policies (Studlar, McAllister, and Hayes 1998). Furthermore, it has been suggested that manual workers in blue-collar sectors face the most “competition” from immigrants over not just jobs but also other scarce resources such as housing, and that this triggers exclusionary reactions because workers experience feelings of threat (Fennema 2005). Since radical right parties want to reduce competition from immigrants by rejecting equal access to resources for immigrants (Olzak 1992), feelings of threat may result in support for radical right parties. In comparison to men, women tend to be more likely to work in the social service and health sector, which is expanding and which tends to employ fewer immigrants (Givens 2004). If women, even those in lower classes, do not feel that they are in direct competition with immigrants over a limited (or decreasing) number of jobs, not only might women have a more positive attitude toward immigrants, but immigration might also be less of a salient issue for them (Givens 2004).
Second, gender differences in authoritarian attitudes have been introduced as a possible explanation for the gender difference in radical right voting. Gilligan maintains that men emphasize the strictness of law and focus on individual responsibility. Women, by contrast, are more likely to consider collective solutions in a world where people care for each other, and they tend to hold less strict law-and-order attitudes than men (Gilligan 1982). Women are, for example, known to be more strongly opposed to the use of force and more supportive of compassionate policies compared with men (Gilens 1988). Investigating the gender gap in voting for the Canadian Alliance Party, Gidengil and colleagues (2005) confirm that men have stricter attitudes toward law-and-order issues compared with women, and show that these gender differences help to close the gender gap in voting for the Canadian radical right party.
A third explanation that has been suggested for the gender gap in radical right voting is women’s greater involvement in the church (Mayer 2002). Churches in Europe have traditionally condemned the anti-immigrant discourse of the radical right (Mayer 2015), and research has indicated that regular churchgoers are significantly more positive toward immigrants and less likely to support radical right parties compared with those who do not regularly attend church (Billiet 1995; Immerzeel, Jaspers, and Lubbers 2013). Since women are more likely to be religiously involved, they are—so (p. 202) the argument goes—less likely to vote for radical right parties. This lower likelihood of voting for the radical right among religiously active citizens also relates to the fact that these citizens tend to vote for religious (Christian) parties (Immerzeel, Jaspers, and Lubbers 2013).
A fourth explanation for the gender difference in radical right voting has been radical right parties’ ideology related to gender roles and women’s position in society, mainly reducing their role to being a spouse and mother (Mayer 2015). Mudde (2007) concludes that radical right parties tend to defend the “natural differences” between women and men, and since women are the only sex that can give birth and since offspring are vital to the survival of the nation, women should be “protected.” Over the last few decades, together with their rising levels of education and participation in the labor market and the emancipating influence of feminist movements, women have become more liberal and more supportive of feminist ideas (Inglehart and Norris 2003). These attitudes and ideas contradict radical right parties’ traditional views toward women’s role in society and may thus reduce women’s support for radical right parties.
Finally, some have linked women’s lower levels of political interest and participation to the gender difference in radical right voting. Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe (2015; see also Mudde 2007) argue that less politically interested and active people are likely to become aware of new political developments later than are politically interested and active citizens. This makes citizens who are less politically interested and active less likely to vote for new “extreme” parties and more likely to follow the widespread norm to vote for a mainstream, established party. Given that women are generally less politically interested and active, they are expected to be more likely to vote for established parties rather than political outsiders with an “extremist” image such as radical right parties (Kitschelt 1995; Mayer 2002).
Despite this variety of suggested socioeconomic and attitudinal explanations for the gender gap in radical right voting, most empirical research to date has not been able to fully explain the gender gap using these factors. Some have also argued that women do not necessarily maintain more positive attitudes toward immigrants and that women are not less favorably inclined toward law and order than men (Mayer 2013; Mudde 2007), thus eliminating these attitudes as possible explanations for the gender gap. Mayer (2013) points out that the economic situation has changed considerably since the earlier writings on the radical right gender gap: nowadays, service sector jobs can be as uncertain and insecure as the jobs of manual blue-collar workers, making women as vulnerable to being “losers” in globalization as men are. In addition, Mayer (2013) shows that the negative link between religiosity and attitudes toward immigrants—supposedly explaining part of the gender difference in radical right voting—is changing, as Catholics, at least in France, have become more ethnocentric than non-Catholics, and the most observant Catholics are the most ethnocentric. Moreover, while radical right parties are mainly secular movements, they have started to emphasize the religious divide and present themselves as the safeguards of the “Judeo-Christian societies” against the Islamic threat (Immerzeel, Jaspers, and Lubbers (p. 203) 2013). As such, the negative link between a Christian denomination and engagement and radical right voting may not be as straightforward as once suggested, which also challenges the suggestion of religiosity being an explanation for gender differences in radical right voting. Finally, the idea that women’s liberal and feminist attitudes account for the gender difference in radical right voting has been questioned, in particular because there is wide variation in radical right parties’ gender ideologies, with some parties adhering to a modern-traditional view (de Lange and Mügge 2015; Mudde and Kaltwasser 2015). In France, for example, Marine Le Pen supports women’s economic independence and their right to a professional career (Mayer 2015). Similarly, the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party of Freedom) defends women’s equality and same-sex partnerships (Akkerman 2015). Some radical right parties, including the PVV, the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party), and the Norwegian Fremskritsspartiet (Progress Party), have also started to link gender and family to their anti-Islam position, presenting women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights as core values of the West and contrasting those with Islamic practices that discriminate against women and include risks to the security of women, such as forced marriages and honor killings (Akkerman 2015; de Lange and Mügge 2015; Mayer 2013; Mudde and Kaltwasser 2015). Mudde and Kaltwasser (2015, 28) conclude that both the PVV and the Dansk Folkeparti have embraced gender equality as “a weapon against the alleged ‘Islamization’ of Europe.” As a consequence of this support for gender equality, women may not be as reluctant to vote for radical right parties because of the parties’ conservative ideologies as has been suggested. Moreover, the gender issue is of only secondary importance to radical right parties, and thus it is not an issue that is likely to strongly influence voters’ likelihood of supporting such parties (de Lange and Mügge 2015; Mayer 2015; Mudde 2015).
Yet despite these counterarguments for suggested explanations for the gender differences in radical right voting, women still tend to be underrepresented among the radical right electorate in most countries. Thus even if, for example, women do not have significantly more positive attitudes toward immigrants than men do, they seem to be less likely to translate these attitudes into electoral support for radical right parties than men are. This has been explained by Mudde (2007) as resulting from different levels of political efficacy among men and women. In particular, lower levels of internally perceived political competence and feelings of political powerlessness among women have been said to discourage them from voting for nontraditional, more radical parties and lead them to prefer long-established mainstream parties (Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe 2015; Mudde 2007).
Furthermore, it is possible that while women and men may have similar attitudes toward immigrants, women may still be less likely than men to be supportive of the strict immigration policies typically presented by radical right parties. As a result of their roles as mothers and their socialization into nurturing and caring tasks, women may have a stronger aversion to policies excluding certain groups, may be more supportive of compassionate policies (Gilens 1988; Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe (p. 204) 2015; Rippeyoung 2007), and consequently may be less likely to agree with the restrictive immigration policies typical of the radical right parties. However, the majority of the empirical studies explaining radical right voting in general, and gender and radical right voting in particular, typically include only a general measure of attitudes related to immigration and the presence of immigrants (e.g., “[country]’s cultural life is undermined by immigrants”; “[country] should admit fewer immigrants”), leaving aside actual support for particular policies as presented by radical right parties as a possible explanation for radical right voting. This is surprising, as the most basic of voting behavior truisms is that policy preferences have a major influence on party choice and on differences in party preference between women and men (e.g., Manza and Brooks 1998). It is the basic assumption of the traditional proximity voting theory (Downs 1957) that voters will choose the party that endorses the policies they prefer. Therefore, it would be interesting if future research would pay greater attention to support for actual radical right policies and investigate how possible gender gaps therein may explain the gender gap in radical right voting.
Finally, research by Harteveld et al. (2015) has shown that while women and men hold similar attitudes towards immigrants, women do tend to find issues such as immigration less salient than men. As a consequence, women are less likely to translate negative attitudes towards immigrants in support for the radical right than men.
Gender-Specific Explanations for Radical Right Voting
Most of the existing research on radical right voting has taken for granted that men and women support the radical right for the same reasons, and little is known about how socioeconomic and attitudinal characteristics may lead to differences in women’s and men’s radical right preference. Yet the limited available research does reveal some gender-specific patterns for radical right voting. Gidengil and colleagues (2005), for example, show not only that men tend to take a more hard-nosed approach to law and order than women, but also that strict attitudes toward law and order influence men’s support for the Canadian Alliance party more than it does women’s. Similarly, Canadian men were found to have higher levels of frustration about the treatment of their province than Canadian women, and these feelings had a significant positive effect on men’s likelihood to vote for the Canadian Alliance, whereas it did not affect women’s support. While Harteveld and colleagues (2015) did not find any gender differences in political attitudes such as nativism, authoritarianism, and discontent with democracy, these attitudes tended to have a stronger effect on radical right voting among men compared with women.
Focusing on gender, class, and radical right voting, Coffé (2012) looked into the influence class has on women’s and men’s likelihood to support the radical right. Her (p. 205) argument started from the idea that although women have made great progress during the last decades in their participation in the labor market, they are often assumed to have less strong ideas about class and to have looser attachments to the labor market given their relatively recent arrival in the workforce and the tradition of basing a woman’s class position on her husband’s position. As a consequence, class was expected to play a more important role for radical right support among men than among women. The empirical study did reveal some indication of gender-specific explanatory pattern for radical right voting, with class indeed being a more salient driving force among men compared with women.
Overall, these gender differences in explanations for radical right voting emphasize the need for scholars to recognize differences between women’s and men’s radical right voting patterns. So far, the limited research does seem to show that the commonly suggested determinants for radical right voting predicted men’s behavior better than women’s (Fontana, Sidler, and Hardmeier 2006; Harteveld et al. 2015).
In sum, the research indicates that we should not take it for granted that characteristics and attitudes explaining the radical right voting behavior of one gender group automatically hold for the other gender group.
Cross-National Differences in the Gender Gap in Radical Right Voting
As previously noted, the gender gap has been recognized in most studies. Yet the limited number of studies taking a cross-national perspective have revealed that differences in the size of the gender gap do exist. For example, studying the gender gap in radical right voting in France, Denmark, and Austria, Givens (2004) finds that the effect of being a woman is not significant in Denmark but is substantial and similar in France and Austria. In their study using the 2010 European Values Survey, Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe (2015) confirm a significant gender gap in radical right voting in Austria and only a minor one in Denmark. In contrast to Givens’s study, they did not find a significant gender gap in France.
While the divergent results regarding the gender gap in radical right voting in France will be discussed in greater detail below, the available research does indicate significant cross-national differences in the size of the gender gap. In an effort to explain some of those cross-national differences, Givens (2004, 50) suggests that “social development in Denmark and egalitarian gender roles are having an impact on women’s political behaviour as compared to France and Austria.” Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe (2015) do, however, find a significant gender gap in radical right voting in Norway, a Scandinavian country known for its high level of social development and egalitarian gender roles. Their study also revealed large gender gaps in Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and no significant gaps in Germany, (p. 206) Italy, Luxembourg, Finland, and France. Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe (2015) assess these cross-national gender differences in greater detail and examine the extent to which these differences arise from differences between radical right parties in terms of their image as political outsiders and the degree to which they use a populist discourse. In particular, the researchers suggest that because women are more hesitant to embrace new political developments than men are, the gender gap would be larger in countries where the radical right party is a newcomer with an outspoken outsider image and has not yet gained a stable position in the political arena. As parties become more electorally successful, possibly supporting a minority government or being part of a government, and as general perceptions about voting for the radical right change and a radical right party choice becomes more “normal,” the gender gap is expected to become smaller. Furthermore, Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe (2015) argue that since mainly men are attracted by masculine-style verbal violence and since the sort of polarizing and simplifying discourse that is typical of radical right parties stands in opposition to the more compromise-oriented feminine discourse style, the gender gap in radical right voting will be smaller in countries where radical right parties have a less populist and polarizing style of discourse. However, the researchers’ empirical analysis did not confirm any link between a gender gap in the electoral success of a radical right party and the extent of that party’s populist outsider image and populist style of discourse (measured using expert data). Nevertheless, conducting additional empirical research on how various party characteristics may account for the gender gap in radical right voting behavior seems important if we want to extend our knowledge about the gap and cross-national differences therein.
One party characteristic that seems particularly worthwhile exploring as an explanation for cross-national differences in the gender gap is party leadership. In particular, while radical right parties are traditionally seen as Männerparteien, led by charismatic male leaders, various radical right parties, including the French Front National, the Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet, and the Danish Folkeparti, have or have recently had female leaders. This may potentially decrease the gender gap in radical right voting over time. Indeed, Mayer shows how the gender difference in support for the Front National narrowed as Marine Le Pen took a leading role within the party. According to Mayer (2013), Le Pen has given the party a softer, more modern image and the party’s platform a more social tone, including demands for a more protective state and more public services, than it had during her father’s era. These changes in the party’s policy ideas are more in line with women’s attitudes and so may make it easier for women to support the party. This change over time also explains the divergent results of various studies of the gender gap in radical right voting in France. Whereas earlier studies (e.g., Givens 2004; Mayer 2002) revealed a significant gender gap in voting for the Front National, more recent studies (e.g., Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe 2015; Mayer 2013, 2015) do not find a significant gender gap in radical right voting in France. (p. 207)
Women’s Role in Radical Right Party Organizations
I have already briefly mentioned that while radical right parties are often presented as typically led by men, a few successful radical right parties have recently been led by women. For example, Pia Kjærsgaard launched the Danish Dansk Folkeparti in 1995 and was the first woman in Western Europe to lead a populist party from its foundation (Meret 2015). She led the party, which gained more than 10 percent of the Danish votes from its second participation in the Danish parliamentary elections onward and provided parliamentary support to various governments, until 2012, when she stepped down and was replaced by a man from the younger generation of party members, Kristian Thulesen Dahl (Meret 2015). Another example is Siv Jensen, who smoothly succeeded longtime chairman Carl I. Hagen of the Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet in 2006. In coalition with the Conservative Party, she led the party, despite its having lost seats, to its first governmental experience after the 2013 parliamentary Norwegian elections. Yet another example of a female leader of a radical right party is Marine Le Pen, who succeeded her father, the founder and long-term leader of the Front National, in 2011. Marine Len Pen’s “normalization strategy,” including condemning anti-Semitism and referring to the Holocaust as “the summit of human barbarism,” has offered the party a less extreme image. It also resulted in a nearly 18 percent share of the vote in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, slightly higher than her father’s greatest presidential election success (nearly 17 percent in the first round of 2002). The Front National also took 25 percent of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections and the first round of the 2015 local elections (Mayer 2015). Her leadership has, as suggested above, been proposed as an explanation for the decrease of the size of the gender gap in radical right voting in France (Mayer 2013, 2015).
Women have thus played a major leading role in various radical right parties, despite these parties’ reputation as Männerparteien and the overall underrepresentation of women at all levels within radical right parties (Mudde 2007). Both in their national parliaments and in the European Parliament, women have been a minority among the radical right parties’ representatives (Mudde 2007). For example, Europe of Nations and Freedom, a political group in the European Parliament that was launched on June 15, 2015, by Marine Le Pen and includes various radical right parties with the Front National being the largest, has thirteen female representatives out of thirty-eight, or 34 percent, as of February 2016. While this is far below 50 percent, women’s political underrepresentation is a common pattern in most parties, and the percentage of female representatives in the Europe of Nations and Freedom’s European Parliament group is close to the overall 37 percent of women in the European Parliament. Mudde (2007) also concludes that the gender bias in leadership within radical right parties does not seem to differ significantly from other right-wing parties, in particular conservative parties. What is striking, (p. 208) however, according to Mudde (2007), is the number of leading female politicians within radical right parties who are directly related to their parties’ male leaders; Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine being his successor is a well-known example. In the 1999 European Parliament elections, Le Pen was replaced by his second wife. Filling up party lists with the names of partners and siblings of male candidates has also been a common practice within radical right parties (Mudde 2007). Similar family affiliations have been confirmed in research on radical right party membership. In their cross-national comparative research on members of radical right parties, Klandermans and Mayer (2006) indeed confirmed that women tend to join radical right parties because of their male partners. Overall, however, relatively little is known about gender and membership in radical right parties. Looking at membership in the British National Party (BNP), Goodwin (2010) concludes that the vast majority of activists are working-class men. Yet Goodwin also suggests that some women occupy senior positions within the BNP. Most of the radical right parties have specific sub-organizations for women, though some of these organizations are weak and not particularly dynamic (Félix 2015; Mudde 2007). Yet, looking at the Hungarian Jobbik and Greek Golden Dawn, Félix (2015) suggests that the activities of the women’s sub-organizations may bring new female supporters to the parties.
While relatively little is known about gender and membership in radical right parties, even less is known about the gender composition of radical right movements. Research on Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Pegida, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) demonstrators at the Berlin Social Science Center (Daphi et al. 2015) confirms the gender pattern found among radical right parties. It concluded that women were significantly underrepresented among the demonstrators, who were about 20 percent female. Yet some women have come to the front within the organization, including Kathrin Oertel, who was treasurer and later spokesperson of the organization until she resigned at the beginning of 2015.
Reviewing the literature and empirical studies on women’s roles and involvement in radical right parties, and the link between gender and radical right voting behavior, it is fair to conclude that women are underrepresented within radical right party organizations. But this is not a phenomenon unique to the radical right. Women are politically underrepresented in most parties, and in particular those on the right side of the political spectrum. Similarly, the gender gap in radical right voting is not exclusively a radical right phenomenon, nor is it new to politics. As early as the mid-1960s, Lipset and Rokkan (1967) viewed gender differences as one of the factors influencing party choice, and the emergent gender gap has only grown since then (Knutsen 2001). In Western industrialized democracies today, men are more likely to support mainstream (p. 209) right-wing parties, whereas women offer disproportionate support for mainstream left-wing parties (Giger 2009; Inglehart and Norris 2000; Manza and Brooks 1998). Women are in turn known to be overrepresented among the electorate of Green parties, parties that are positioned at the other end of the libertarian-authoritarian political dimension from the radical right parties (Knutsen 2001). Yet while this specific gender profile of voters is not unique to radical right parties, scholars have generally had a harder time explaining the gender gap in radical right voting than in voting for any other party. Whereas most research has been able to understand these gender patterns in voting by looking at gender differences in various socioeconomic characteristics, including labor force participation and sector of employment (e.g., Knutsen 2001; Manza and Brooks 1998), many empirical studies looking into the gender gap in radical right voting were not able to fully explain that gap, even when various socioeconomic characteristics and attitudes were controlled for (see, e.g., Coffé Forthcoming; Givens 2004; Fontana, Sidler, and Hardmeier 2006; Harteveld et al. 2015; Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe 2015; Rippeyoung 2007; Spierings and Zaslove 2015). Hence, despite the available empirical studies focusing on gender and radical right voting, an encompassing theory for the radical right gender gap is still missing. One issue that seems worth further exploration is support for actual radical right policies, and how gender differences therein (rather than in more general attitudes) may potentially explain the gender gap in radical right voting.
Future research could also usefully explore in greater detail why certain women vote for radical right parties. In the end, although women are underrepresented in the electorate of most radical right parties, a significant number of women do support radical right parties. A better understanding of who female radical right voters are seems an interesting avenue for future research. This is particularly relevant since the (limited) available literature indicates that female radical right supporters’ motivations to support such parties tend to differ from the motivations of their male counterparts.
Future research could also usefully explore the cross-national differences in the size of the radical right voting gender gap in greater detail. Recent work on the radical right gender gap in France (Mayer 2013, 2015) suggests that female leadership and, related to that, a softer party image and less extreme ideology may explain differences in the size of the gap. Yet a significant gender gap is still found within the Norwegian Progress Party (Immerzeel, Coffé, and vander Lippe 2015), a party led by a woman since 2006. Hence, more systematic cross-national studies are needed to investigate how and to what extent a female leader may influence the gender composition of the party’s electorate. The mere fact of having a female party leader is unlikely to fully explain cross-national differences in the size of the gender gap; her leadership style and the extent to which female voters can relate to the female leader and her ideas are likely to be crucial. Further research could usefully try to disentangle these different mechanisms and assess which aspects of radical right female leadership relate to a possible increase in women’s vote for a radical right party.
As radical right parties have grown and have become electorally successful during the last few decades in various European countries, radical right party organizations and (p. 210) their electorates have received considerable scholarly attention, including the issue of gender biases within these parties and their electorates. While this has led to many valuable insights, numerous questions still remain. These parties now play an important role in many countries—in some countries they are even in office or support a minority government—so understanding gender differences in radical right parties, their electorate, and their supporters is of great social and scientific importance and deserves continuous scholarly attention.
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