Okategoriserade Conflicts and alliances in a polarized world Women, gender and

In this issue (2020:1), there are several examples of scholars investigating contemporary feminist mass-struggles from this point of view, asking whether these are examples of or have the potential for forming a feminist populist movement that can effectively counteract neoliberal and authoritarian regimes.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:1 pp 3-5
Published on balticworlds.com on May 24, 2020

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Cover of Baltic Worlds 2020:1.

Cover of Baltic Worlds 2020:1.

In their recently published manifesto Feminism for the 99%, Cinzia Arruzza,Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser describe contemporary feminist and queer liberation movements as a being “caught between a rock and a hard place” between conservative religious and patriarchal pressure, and those “who would hand us over on a platter for direct predation by capital”. In this issue, we take a closer look at this tripart transnational constellation of conservative, often illiberal and sometimes even authoritarian anti-gender mobilization, the still powerful yet increasingly contested neoliberal hegemony, and the recent rise of feminist mass-movements. How does the drama between them play out in different national, regional and transnational contexts? Even though the articles can be read separately as reports on these developments in Argentina, Hungary, Sweden, Poland, Russia and Turkey, a main contribution of this issue is how these cases, when read together, tell us something broader about the current transnational polarization around “gender” and the role that it plays for different political projects that claim to speak in the name of “the people”.

Gender and right-wing populism

As David Paternotte and Roman Kuhar have pointed out, the recent success of anti-gender mobilization must be understood in relation to the co-existence of and intersections between conservative Christian mobilization against “gender ideology” and the present surge of right-wing populism in Europe. Although one cannot and should not be reduced to the other, it is clear that the rise of right-wing populism and the development towards illiberalism and authoritarianism and anti-gender mobilization exist in a “happy marriage”, where the former reinforces the latter and the latter provides further substance to their idea of “a national people”. In nationalist and conservative articulations of “the people”, women are often included foremost in their reproductive and sexual capacities, as child bearers, mothers and wives in heterosexual nuclear families where gender roles are based on presumed essential biological characteristics, often seen to be overlapping with Biblical Law. Through this hegemonic operation the “national people” is constructed as not only consisting of “true nationals” but also along strictly gendered lines as part of “traditional families”. In this construction of “the people”, women’s and men’s roles in society are complementary rather than equal — and the female half of “the people” are predominantly destined to be mothers, thereby literally reproducing “the nation” through childbirth and reproductive labor.

This often (but not always) Christian idea of “traditional family values” has come to serve as what Ernesto Laclau has called an “empty signifier” that unites religious and more secular, populist and non-populist conservative and authoritarian regimes, groups and movements against a the common enemy of “gender ideology” (or sometimes merely “gender”), thereby creating opportunities for the creation of new transnational political alliances. As Anna-Maria Sörberg’s article in this issue shows, in practice this is often materialized in the form of large international meetings and conferences, such as the World Congress of Families and the Transatlantic Summits organized by the Political Network for Values. This type of articulation of “the people” is also central for the political strategies of authoritarian leaders that cannot simply be defined as populist, such as, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and, as Yulia Gradskova discusses in this issue, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia — and it is gaining an increasing momentum across the globe. The enemy picture of gender ideology has also mobilized conservative forces in Latin American countries such as Argentina and Chile against abortion and sexual education in schools.

Interestingly, also in the Muslim context of Turkey, as Alev Özkacanc describes, anti-gender rhetoric describing gender as a Trojan horse — a very common trope in anti-gender discourse both in Europe and Latin America — has started to emerge in pro-government newspapers. This is but one example of how adaptable to context the anti-gender narrative is. Another example of this adaptability is discussed by Angelika Sjöstedt and Katarina Giritli-Nygren who show that in the highly secularized context of Sweden anti-gender rhetoric manages to quite peacefully coexist with both femonationalist and homonationalist political discourse. “Gender” (or “gender ideology”) has thus come to serve as what drawing on Laclau’s theoretical framework could be called “a negative empty signifier” that — as Erzebet Barat shows in her article — represents a plurality of “the enemy’s” political demands (including e.g. gender equality, sexual education, abortion and a secular state). What these demands have in common from this point of view is that they are said to threaten the existence of “traditional values” and thereby the very way of life of common and “normal” people.

In this construction of the people the very idea that gender roles are constructed and therefore changeable becomes a threat to the national way of life (even though this national “traditional” way of life looks surprisingly similar across the globe). Often they are construed as a foreign idea coming from the outside, in countries such as Hungary and Poland as “Western imports” imposed by the “liberal global elites” in the European Union, the United Nations and rich and powerful corporations and business magnates. Anna Sedysheva’s essay on the campaign #IAmNotScaredToSpeak — a kind of Russian and Ukrainian #MeToo before #MeToo — discusses how the idea of feminism as a Western import has seriously negative implications for women who speak up against sexism and sexual abuse, but also about the important role of social media for contemporary feminist mobilization, nationally and transnationally.

The rise of feminist mass-movements

Readers mainly acquainted with the European context, where populism is often associated either with nationalist rightwing populism or simply used as a derogatory term to express dislike with a specific political party or leader, might be surprised that some texts in this issue discuss the possibilities of a populist feminism. To be sure, this makes more sense if we take into account that from this perspective, populism does not refer to a specific ideology, political regime or simply a “political style” but rather to a discursive strategy or political logic. What characterizes a populist logic, then, is that it constructs an antagonistic frontier by “dividing society into two camps and calling for the mobilization of the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power’” — of “the people” against an elite or oppressive regime. This, in turn, is done by articulating a number of disparate political demands into a chain of equivalence that unites these demands under a common “name”, again an empty signifier in Laclau’s vocabulary.

In this issue (2020:1), there are several examples of scholars investigating contemporary feminist mass-struggles from this point of view, asking whether these are examples of or have the potential for forming a feminist populist movement that can effectively counteract neoliberal and authoritarian regimes. Graciela Di Marco’s, Paula Biglieri’s, and Mercedes Barros and Natalia Martinez’s contributions all discuss Argentinian feminist mass-mobilization from this perspective. Di Marco develops her earlier work on “a feminist people” and argues that for the contemporary movement, the demand to legalize abortion has become an empty signifier standing for full citizenship, including sexual citizenship but also economic and cultural citizenship. Barros and Martinez’s contribution enters into dialogue with Di Marco’s perspective and extends it by, among other things, contextualizing the Argentinian movement within the country’s broader political history, asking whether it is really “possible to understand the emergence of the ‘feminist people’ without referring to the political tradition that historically claimed for itself the representation of the people in Argentina”. Biglieri points out that a crucial challenge for the movement now concerns the possibilities of generating an activist institutionalization that manages to keep its radicality. Taken together, and in combination with Jenny Ingridsdotter’s story based on an interview with a feminist from Argentina, these texts offer a nuanced and complex picture of the massive impact that feminist mobilization has had on political subjectivities in Argentina since the first Ni Una Menos demonstrations in 2015. Gunnarsson Payne’s text on the Black Protests discusses how these movements since the mid-2010s have grown into a transnational popular feminist collectivity — a feminism of the people — and how they might be one of the most potent forces in countering the rise of illiberal populism and authoritarianism as well as neoliberalism that we are seeing today.

Different versions of “the people”

It is important to note that while the construction of “a people” is indeed central to populism of any political inclination (right-wing or left-wing, feminist or gender-conservative), it does not follow from this that all claims to represent “the people” are construed through a populist logic (also non-populist authoritarianism often claims to represent the people, for example). Neither do references to “the people” say anything about whether a political project is democratic or not. Indeed, as Renata Salecl has argued: “Democratic as well as totalitarian power claims to govern in the name of the people”.

In a world where gender tends to be one of the key categories through which societies are organized, it should come as no surprise that different constructions of “the People” build on different understandings of gender. In our contemporary polarized transnational political landscape, we can clearly see that these different constructions are not neutral when it comes to their democratic or un-democratic nature and potential. While the proponents of “traditional values” often use a rhetoric of democracy and citizenship, their anti-gender version of “the people” actually restricts both of them. In Salecl’s words, “the people” they construct is a “People-as-One”, imagined as a harmonious “organic whole” from which antagonism is erased and outsiders are expelled on moral grounds. The substance of this “people” is formulated by authorities as Law (religious law, natural law, state law), and hence gives little room for democratic contestation that enables “the people” to be expanded to include more “actual people”. As such, it has clear totalitarian tendencies.

In contrast, “the feminist people” as constructed by today’s feminist mass-movements tend to strive in the opposite direction, by expanding the political demands from below rather than establishing them with reference to an external moral Law. Rather, what these movements all have in common is that they refuse to acknowledge such Laws: the Black Protests begun as a refusal to accept an abortion ban, and the Ni Una Menos refused to accept femicide, and both movements went on to extend their demands far beyond this albeit crucial but yet limited political issues to counteract oppressive regimes on both national and transnational levels. Also in the Turkish case, we can see how the feminist struggle is articulated with broader issues of democracy, education, human rights and social rights, not least through the work of solidarity academies (see Derya Keskin’s article in this issue). All of these examples (and others across the globe) demonstrate how contemporary feminist mobilization plays a crucial role of providing a democratic and progressive alternative to both neoliberalism and illiberal-authoritarian articulation of “the people” — and that it as such, is crucial in formulating a radically different vision of the future.

This issue is the result of two workshops, one in Stockholm and one in Buenos Aires, organized within the international collaboration project “Women and ‘the People’: Women’s and feminist mobilization in the age of populism and illiberal democracy”, funded by The Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education. 
This issue is guest edited by Jenny Gunnarsson Payne, in collaboration with Graciela Di Marco and Ana Fiol from Argentina, and Jenny Ingridsdotter from Sweden.


  1. Cinczia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya & Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99% (London & New York: Verso, 2019).
  2. Roman Kuhar & David Patternotte, ”’Gender ideology’ in movement: Introduction”, in: Anti-gender campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against equality (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017), 13.
  3. There are several good texts introducing the background and development of anti-gender movements including their relationship to right-wing populism, see e.g. Kuhar & Paternotte (2017); Elzbieta Korolczuk & Agnieszka Graff “Gender as “Ebola from Brussels”: The Anticolonial Frame and the Rise of Illiberal Populism,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43, no. 4 (Summer 2018): 797-821; and Weronika Grzebalska, Eszter Kováts, and Andrea Pető, “Gender as symbolic glue: How ’Gender’ became an umbrella term for the rejection of the (neo)liberal order”, Political Critique, January 13, 2017. Available: http://politicalcritique. org/long-read/2017/gender-as-symbolic-glue-how-gender-became-an-umbrellaterm-for-the-rejection-of-the-neoliberal-order/
  4. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London & New York: Verso, 2005).
  5. See e.g. Giselles Vargas, “Chile y Argentina se movilizarán contra la ideología de género y aborto”, Aciprensa, October 28, 2018. Available: https://www.aciprensa.com/noticias/chile-y-argentina-se-movilizan-contra-la-ideologia-de-genero-y-aborto-94305
  6. For more detail on this, see e.g. Graff & Korolczuk 2018; Jenny Gunnarsson Payne, “Challenging gender ideology: (Anti)gender politics in Europe’s populist moment”, The New Pretender, February 10, 2019. Available: http://new-pretender.com/2019/02/10/challenging-gender-ideology-anti-gender-politics-in-europes-populist-moment-jenny-gunnarsson-payne/, Jenny Gunnarsson Payne & Sofie Tornhill, ¿Atrapadxs entre el neoliberalismo y el populismo autoritario? : Movilización iliberal, feminismo corporativo y crítica anticapitalista. In: Feminismos y populismos del siglo XXI : Frente al patriarcado y al orden neoliberal. (Teseo editore, 2019).
  7. Chantal Mouffe, The Populist Moment (London & New York: Verso, 2018), 11.
  8. Laclau 2005.
  9. Renata Salecl, The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis and Feminism after the Fall of Socialism (London & New York: Routledge, 1994), 96—97.  Emphasis added.