By Federico Stefanutto Rosa
In less than a decade, the radical right populist party (RRPP) Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia – FdI) went from being a small and little-known movement to becoming one of Italy’s major political forces. While conceived as a post-fascist party, FdI has always played with the ambiguity of its historical roots. This is strongly exemplified by the intentional selection of Italy’s tricolor flame as the party electoral symbol, formerly used by the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI). However, compared to their right-wing predecessors, FdI has differentiated itself through a young female leader who has played a key role in rendering mainstream and electorally viable the party platform.
Giorgia Meloni, the founder of Brothers of Italy, is an increasingly undisputed protagonist in the Italian political scene. Under her leadership, FdI carved out a prominent role for itself as the primary opposition party to the broad national unity government led by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. Meloni’s political rise has thus prompted many respected newspapers to wonder if, in the near future, she could really become Italy’s first female prime minister.
The woman who is now closest to breaking Italy’s longstanding glass ceiling for female leaders is therefore the founder of an RRPP that promotes anti-gender equality policies and discourses. Indeed, FdI has close ties with the most conservative Italian associations and in several occasions has actively opposed the implementation of abortion rights. But how is it possible that the most important woman in Italian politics came out of the male chauvinist RRPP family rather than from a leftist movement? To understand this apparent paradox, it is necessary to partially reframe the relationship between women and right-wing populism.
For starters, right-wing populism has been predominantly perceived and widely studied as a male phenomenon. As such, the rise of RRPPs has often been portrayed as an affirmation of masculine identity politics aimed at preserving the traditional gender order against liberal progressiveness. The typical profile of RRPP’s supporters has thus been framed according to the concept of “Angry White Men” coined by the American sociologist Michael Kimmel. Kimmel interprets the surge of right-wing populism as a form of male-centric activism fueled by feelings of rage and humiliation. In Kimmel’s American case studies, there are two factors that are thought to be the triggering elements of this sort of countermobilization. First, the gradual entry of women into the job market; and secondly, the increasing participation of ethnic minorities in the labor force. This combination calls into question the societal role of white men who perceive their social status as threatened.
This seemingly solid relationship between right-wing populism and traditional masculinity is also supported by the widespread academic definition of RRPPs as Männerparteien, meaning parties which are mainly led and represented by men. I argue however that considering right-wing populism as a strictly male phenomenon is very limiting, particularly in recent years as women are increasingly assuming leadership positions in RRPPs. To name but a few relevant women in addition to Meloni: Marine Le Pen of French National Rally, Pernille Vermund of Danish New Right and Alice Weidel of the Alternative for Germany.
However, the intersection of women and right-wing populism remains under-researched. The vast majority of studies concentrate on RRPPs’ backlash against gender equality and on the gender gap in voting behavior, but very few discuss the role of women within these parties. Likewise, several studies examine female activism in far-right extremism, but barely any cover mainstream party politics. Susi Meret, Birte Siim, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Donatella Campus and Dorit Geva are among the small number of scholars that have effectively addressed this topic, focusing on the image that these leaders construct around themselves.
Despite its deficit of investigation, the subject is anything but marginal. To address this gap in the scholarship, I mapped leaders of Western European RRPPs that since 2000 had gained parliamentary representation in at least one national general election (lower chamber) or one EU Election. I thus identified a total of 90 RRPPs leaders, 14 of which are female. This significant presence of female leaders (15.5%) in the most relevant RRPPs ultimately questions the assumption that being male is a precondition for an effective populist leadership.
I then examined which factors have favored the emergence of these women through the speeches and the visual communication materials of several leaders, with a particular attention to their politicization of gender identity. This analysis revealed three primaries emotion narratives through which women in RRPPs mobilize their followers and delineate adversarial boundaries between “us” and “them”. By evoking a variety of positive and negative emotions female leaders indeed cultivate a sense of belonging among their supporters in a political project framed as collective mission.
Blaming the system is a common expedient used by populist leaders to frame themselves and their supporters as victims of the establishment. This discursive strategy is particularly fruitful when applied to female right-wing populist leaders that leverage their gender identity in a David vs. Goliath dichotomy. Women’s historical exclusion and marginalization from political life ultimately makes them more credible when speaking on behalf of the common people. Moreover, female RRPP leaders present themselves as being outcast by mainstream media and cultural elites as compared to leftist female politicians. This narrative of victimization makes them appear as perfect outsiders in the eyes of their supporters.
“This is what happens every day in left-wing groups, without anyone being scandalized or Facebook intervening. Right-wing women covered with insults, including sexual ones, are met with absolute silence from feminists, politics and the media. Can you imagine what would have happened if the roles were reversed?”
Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy (FdI), 10th October 2019.
As political scientist Benjamin Moffit argues, the performance of crisis is one of the core features of populism and populist leaders consequently assume center stage in these dramas. The issue of migration is certainly the most strongly exaggerated and inflated crisis by RRPPs. Immigration, especially from Muslim-majority countries, is framed as a threat to national identities and sometimes even to the Western ideas of freedom.
Women once again play a pivotal role in this strategic game of “building the enemy”. Through their visual communications and their discourses, female RRPP leaders portray themselves as emancipated and empowered women, in an implied opposition to “oppressed” Muslim women. In doing so, they set themselves up as “defenders” of democratic liberties from the alleged menace of the Islamization of society.
“Catastrophic immigration policies have destroyed our society’s sense of security. Women are raped, Jews are persecuted, the lives of artists and politicians are threatened, men are stabbed in the street, homosexuals are being discriminated against”.
Pernille Vermund, leader of the Danish New Right (NB), 12th September 2016.
Some studies have shown that female-led parties are perceived as more moderate by the electorate, no matter how extreme the organization platform actually is. This is precisely the function that women play inside RRPPs. The presence of a female leader boosts the party’s normalization strategy causing it to appear more presentable and straying it away from the image of a movement made up only of violent and belligerent men.
It is not accidental that women have played prominent roles in the few instances in which European RRPPs have assumed government control. For example, in 2000 the right-wing populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) appointed the female parliamentary member Susanne Riess Passer as vice chancellor and new party chair when forming a coalition government with the center-right Austrian People Party (OVP). Indeed, the long-term charismatic leader George Haider stepped down in favor of Riess Passer to facilitate the organization’s attempt to gain institutional legitimacy.
This normalization scheme emerges clearly in the discourses of RRPP leaders that often use motherhood and sisterhood narratives to soften their party image.
“I have five children, Merkel has none. Children help you to look beyond your own backyard.”
Frauke Petry, Leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD) between 2015-2017, 14th September 2016.
“Upon reflection, the electorate liked me for having overturned the caricature of the Front National. A normal woman in a movement described as a gathering of sexist and violent individuals.”
Marine Le Pen. Leader of the French National Rally (RN), 2011.
In essence, these three emotion narratives have contributed significantly to the creation of a more open structure of political opportunity for women in RRPPs. Victimization and dramatization are mainly fueled by negative feelings like anger, bitterness and fear. Their function is therefore to reinforce the opposition between in-group (“the pure people”) and out-group (the political elite and immigrants). The normalization narrative instead leverages positive emotions such as altruism, kindness and benevolence.
Today, as a result of the interplay between these narratives, female politicians, like Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, have greater traction in right-wing populist organizations. These women in fact represent the ideal “new face” of RRPPs for their unique positionality as political outsiders that can at once strengthen the populist divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ while also lending institutional legitimacy to right-wing populist extremism.
Federico Stefanutto Rosa – Political communication consultant and researcher. Earned his Master’s degree from the Political Science and Sociology department of Scuola Normale di Pisa He holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from La Sapienza University of Rome and a Master’s degree in Politics, Institutions and Markets from the University of Florence. His topics of research interest include the right-wing populism in Europe and in the US, the transnationalization of the far right and electoral campaigns.