Europe is swinging towards the right - What are the effects on women?

Sieglinde Katharina Rosenberger

Voting results over the past few years reveal a general movement to the right in Europe. With the exception of Great Britain national state elections are creating a right-wing majority which started in Austria and was then followed by France, Portugal, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands.
There are neo-liberal developments and accompanying social phenomena, which are mainly responsible for the significant swing to the right: on the one hand deregulation of society and the economy, total flexibility, rejection of naming inequality - in other words removal of political control; however at the same time there is the enforcement of authoritarian structures, a movement away from democratisation and renewing of family ties (even without families) - in other words control and political understanding that is interventionist. These neo-liberal politics - whereby many stand to lose a lot and only a few stand to gain - are capable of earning majority support, by being equivocally transformed into national conservatism and populism.

What does a leaning to the right mean with regard to gender justness?
It is obviously the withdrawing of traditional gender images, which due to historical experiences are linked to conservatism. At the same time we must acknowledge that "right-wing" politics are currently no longer smooth and unequivocal, but are far more contradictory and ambivalent, modern and traditional at the same time. Threatening scenes such as "Back to the kitchen" are no longer valid, as they only present half-truths.
Right wing politics is neo-liberal from an economic point of view, conservative from the point of view of society, family and equality of rights and populist with regard to marketing. On the one hand differences and inequalities are denied, on the other hand differences and inequalities are propagated. Different gender - men and women as social groups - play an important role in this regard, so that a market-related economic and social model can function.

What is meant by neo-liberal?
All over Europe - but significantly before the parliamentary swing to the right - negative social adjustments, erosion of social rights and political participation are prevalent. In this regard the spirit of individualism takes on a key role: Individualism with its basic assumption "People are the same". And with the full consequences of the conclusion: that social and equality politics would therefore be superfluous. Images, which illustrate and legitimise these political leanings, are for example the dynamic, high-performing woman, who has a career and who does not want to share her success with the feminist movement, but who wants credit for herself. The career becomes a question of life-style; glass ceilings are explained as a spectre of feminism.
Gainful employment in itself is not disputed. The economic side has a need for it, in particular for flexible, reduced, atypical woman's work. It is the economic side that introduces childcare facilities on the agenda. With regard to the question of flexible woman's work she gets adequate support from the government. Neo-liberal politics practises a breaking away from institutions. With the help of appeals to "individual freedom", but also the argument that "if the economy does not have favourable conditions, there are no jobs" war is being waged against the policy of interest and state welfare rights, against public infrastructure and social services. These attacks are being adapted in a populist manner in the name of the general public against the Others, in the name of those who are "capable" and "hardworking" against those who are "lazy social parasites". Neo-liberalists and populists are turning against political and democratic negotiation, against involvement.
The breaking away from institutions and the withdrawal of rights follow an anti-state attitude. It attacks exactly where in the past there was intervention for gender equality.
The identification of a "state slimming down" is however only half the truth. Economic neo-liberalism is accompanied far more by national conservative orientation, which in specific areas intensifies state intervention and subsidy: with regard to the family more "politics" is being demanded, more financial support and a policy of tax relief.

What does conservative mean?
Neo-liberalism spreads freedom through the market; (national) conservatism praises the family as a home and a centre of identity, solidarity and emotion. The Family is becoming the epitome of an Institution in a time where in general the breaking up of institutions is being practised; and it is becoming the reception centre for social problems, which at the same time are being caused by the degeneration of the social state. Conservatism idealises gender relations, which neo-liberal economic ways are just implementing. This is because conservative politics promotes the ideology of the "mother" and the "additional earner" - thus images of women, which neo-liberalism needs so badly as putty of the society. In right-wing politics this type of woman experiences special ideological and material support - at least with the background of falling birth rates and bottlenecks in the financing of the social state.
The subject relevant to women's politics "Women's employment" as personal independence and equality therefore totally disappears from the political agenda. In Government politics it only exist in the scenario of interruption, opting out to meet with family and child requirements

What does populist mean?
Populism makes neo-liberalism and conservatism capable of securing a majority. It manages to marry neo-liberal announcements with conservative objectives and manages not to name the contradictions at all.
Without any seriousness, it is expected of a woman to be employed whilst playing the role of mother and managing her home. With so-called free choice the conflicting message is simultaneously and unequivocally communicated- freedom of choice in the sense of either staying at home or working.
Right-wing populism, which has always been more than just a political style, but which has also always had political content, stands for violation of rules and taboos.
- Feminism may be joked about again in a big way.
- Financial support for feminist projects is continually being withdrawn.
- Equality requirements are now being placed in the de facto privileged gender, to the point of institutional conversion. Thus in Austria the establishment of the Women's Ministry was sacrificed in the creation of the government, but a men's section was set up. The same applies to changes in the law.

What does this development mean for women and women's politics?
The development in Austria shows that gender politics is in no way marginalized, but is becoming more than ever the centre of political debates - indeed with massive shifts in meaning with regard to contents.
As opposed to the propagated Gender Mainstreaming we have to deal with the massive reduction of women's politics to one political field, namely the field of family politics. Gender politics have now moved into a political sphere, which women's movements and women's politics have made responsible again and again for being one of the main causes for women's discrimination and the gender specific working division. Politics for equality are disappearing. Requirements for a working environment with gender equality are being sacrificed on the altar of economic individualism.
Discrimination and inequality are being marginalized as social results. Neo-liberalism has no doubt an interest in inequality, however not in its elimination. This is in general condensed to disinterest in the face of distribution politics and is linked with a conservative interest in non-equivalence of gender and the division in work that it brings with it.
Reconciliation of profession and family is an important subject, though in the sense of state-funded possibility of non-employment, or rather reduced, socially secured employment.
Women's gainful employment is being de-categorised as "Additional wage earners" and is being sidelined with family and childcare. The concept for equality of opportunity is being absorbed by the concept of the freedom of choice.
The fundamentals of women's and equality politics are also being withdrawn on the ideological level. "Women" are no longer considered as a group, emphasis is made on the individual scope of actions and decision and therefore the differing aspects as expression of personal freedom.
As a challenge to gender-democratic women's politics I would in conclusion like to name two aspects:
Firstly: The difference between individualisation and individualism must be determined in a far clearer manner than it has been until now. Individualisation opens up opportunities for women because it facilitates a movement away from traditional dependencies. In contrast there is individualism, which dissolves, destroys groups and takes away the basis of women's politics and re-distribution politics. In clarifying this difference there should be a formulation of women's politics, which begins with individual freedom and practises political structuring in order to become reality.
Secondly: Gender-democratic women's politics should not try to attach itself directly to the logic of the family. The conservatives can do this better, because they carry more credibility. Naturally the field should not be left open to the right wing in the formulation of politics in the context of privacy and emotion, empathy and warmth. However at the same time left wing, critical powers should not support the Conservatives/Populists in the preparation of this field, the family, which in Catholic Conservative societies is always structured in terms of gender hierarchy.

Sieglinde Katharina Rosenberger ( is a lecturer in politics at the University of Vienna (Austria) The article is a summary of a lecture, which she gave in June 2002 at a meeting of German female members of the Green Party.

Translated by Heathor Beachalor

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