Radical right parties have been long considered male-dominated but women are now reaching their highest echelons, as the case of Giorgia Meloni in Italy shows. This change, however, does not translate into a modernization of the social vision of these parties, whose policies remain conservative and traditionalist.
Manuela Caiani and Federico Stefanutto Rosa
February 8, 2024
Raised in the cult of masculinity with an emphasis on the masculine body of the leader, and seduced by twenty years of Silvio Berlusconi’s machismo, today the Italian right wing owes its electoral fortunes to the media strength of Giorgia Meloni’s female leadership. Thus, this political field, long branded as misogynistic and sexist, ironically finds itself on the brink of shattering the glass ceiling that has prevented women from reaching the top of political institutions.
However, the rise of female leadership on the right is not just an Italian phenomenon. In recent decades, far-right parties in the West have increasingly turned to women.
There are numerous examples beyond the best-known case of Marine Le Pen in France. There is the charismatic figure of Pia Kjaersgaard, who led the Danish People’s Party from 1995 to 2012 and steered Denmark’s policies, particularly on welfare and immigration, toward the right. In 2015, Pernille Vermund founded Denmark’s right-wing radical-populist New Right party. In Norway, the far right adopted a female face with Siv Jensen, who led the Progress Party into government and served as minister of finance from 2013 to 2020. In Germany, two female leaders— Frauke Petry until 2017 and subsequently Alice Weidel (the latter openly homosexual)—contributed to the rise of Alternative for Germany.
These are significant examples of women in leadership positions that have shed a different light on the policies and rhetoric of the far right. Emblematic in this regard is the case of Austria, where Jörg Haider resigned as president of the far-right Freedom Party in favor of Susanne Riess in 2000 to facilitate its attempt to gain institutional legitimacy.
Table 1. Right-wing female leaders in Europe
Particularly, the presence and duration of women in leadership roles in far-right parties in Europe appear significantly relevant (see Table 1 above). These parties, traditionally considered a predominantly “male” phenomenon (Männerparteien), are rapidly changing in various dimensions: their voters are no longer predominantly men, and women are increasingly taking on party roles and representing them in local and national parliaments.
In Italy, for example, the gender gap in the electoral base of the right-wing party Brothers of Italy has decreased. In the last national elections in 2022, 50% of the party’s voters were women. The same is true for the European elections of 2019.
The new female face of the far-right raises several research questions, foremost among them:
- What gender, family, and social policies can we expect from these parties as a result? As women take on leadership roles within far-right parties, it is important to examine how their influence might shape policies related to gender issues, family, and social welfare.
- How do these female leaders politicize their gender identity? Understanding how these leaders navigate and utilize their gender identity within the context of their political ideologies and strategies is essential to grasp the dynamics at play in far-right parties.
These questions reflect the evolving landscape of far-right politics in Europe and the impact of female leadership within these parties on policy directions and political discourse. They should lead us to dispel a misconception: female leadership does not necessarily lead to policies that promote women’s interests.
This phenomenon is demonstrated by the United States, where the right to abortion was effectively challenged by the decisive vote in 2023 of Amy Coney Barrett, appointed by President Donald Trump to the Supreme Court. Her choice shattered years of feminist achievements and battles, highlighting that the presence of a woman leader does not always correlate with policies that advance women’s rights.
And it is especially evident in the case of Giorgia Meloni in Italy and her political agenda, in which the defense of the “natural” (heteronormative) family is one of the fundamental principles. One need only to look at the ideas about the “Orbán model” family promoted by Brothers of Italy or listen to Meloni’s speech at the World Congress of Families in 2019 to see how her leadership aligns with socially conservative and traditionalist views of family and gender roles.
On the issue of gender, the analysis of Brothers of Italy’s official positions in the national elections in 2013 and 2018, and in the European Parliament elections in 2019 reveals a program focused on nativism with conservative stances, especially on reproductive rights. Equally revealing are the strategic national and international alliances that Meloni has forged with actors and associations from the Catholic conservative spectrum. In the party manifesto of 2018, the list of threats to the “natural” family was expanded to include “gender ideology”, which should be opposed to preserve Italian identity.
As research shows, in most European cases, the presence of a female leader does not result in a modernization of the social vision of far-right parties, whose programs largely remain centered on highly conservative anti-abortion, anti-feminist, and anti-LGBT policies.
Regarding the politicization of gender identity, four representations appear to play a fundamental role in the political communication of Meloni and other female leaders of the far right in Europe, within institutions and in the media-driven public sphere, especially in social media, which has the power to engage and influence citizens beyond electoral programs.
- Women as outsiders: the fact of leadership by women strengthens the image of the far right as a political movement that breaks away from the establishment. As historically excluded from the corridors of power, female leaders of the far right present themselves as agents of change against a predominantly male political elite. As highlighted by the political philosopher Giorgia Serughetti, one of the fundamental reasons for Meloni’s success is her ability to embody the characteristic of an outsider by definition, being a woman in a male-dominated world.
- Women as mothers: The presence of a front woman allows far-right parties to leverage an analogy with deep historical roots: that between women and the motherland. This association, argues the sociologist Sara Farris, enables them to evoke the metaphor of the myth of common origins that characterizes nationalism. However, today, far-right female leaders interpret this image in a modern way, increasingly cultivating their image as working mothers, representing the authentic people to whom far-right parties promise to give a voice.
- Women as the gentle face: Female leadership is traditionally, and at times superficially, defined in contrast to male leadership. According to common perception, predominant characteristics associated with women include nurturing, compassion, diligence, and empathy. These qualities are all related to the historical caregiving role attributed to women within the family sphere, and female leaders are expected to transfer them into the political sphere. The rise of female figures thus promotes the normalization of the far right, making it appear more reassuring and distancing it from the violent and belligerent masculinity typically associated with the most extreme fringes of this political field.
- Women as symbols of freedom to defend: Through a political strategy referred to as “femonationalism”, populist right-wing parties formally appropriate feminist themes and demands, bending them to serve their nativist campaigns. Female leadership allows them to play on the terrain of conflict between Western women, depicted as emancipated, and Muslim women, portrayed as submissive and confined within domestic walls. At the same time, women involved in right-wing projects as active political actors selectively embrace far-right versions of feminism and LGBT rights, openly challenging left-wing parties.
To conclude, the current historical period of critical junctures is potentially ushering in a new phase of polarization in which far-right parties are not only normalizing and integrating further into the party system, but are also becoming the most relevant and influential actors, in Europe and beyond. In this context, and with the personalization of politics being increasingly unrestrained, the presence of a female leader becomes a complex symbol, to refer back to the four representations, that the right wing has managed to wrest from progressives. The phenomenon of Meloni is part of this broader transformation of right-wing politics in the West, making Italy a political laboratory to observe how the far right is changing.
Manuela Caiani is associate professor in political science at the Scuola Normale Superiore and co-director of the International Observatory on Social Cohesion and Inclusion-OCIS.
Federico Stefanutto Rosa is a political communication and public affairs consultant.
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