Written By Leila Koohi
Prior to writing this piece, I had produced an article on the disparity of women world leaders for UN Women at UofT where I looked into the underlying social, political, and economic challenges facing women on their way positions of leadership and, by extension, political office. While doing my researching for that particular assignment, I stumbled upon an interesting phenomenon that defied my preconceptions of the barriers facing women, secondary to those circumstantial factors that affect the societal view of working women ascending the ladder of leadership: populism.
Granted, the rise of populism has not been covert by any stretch of the imagination and has reached absurd levels of subversion as exemplified by the recent storming of Congress in Washington D.C. or political gains by Alternative for Deutschland, an anti-immigrant far-right party, in the recent State elections in Germany. Leading the rise of flagrant and extreme nationalism are some familiar faces — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, and Jair Bolsonaro — who are brand ambassadors for “strongmen” populism. These politicians epitomize the aggressive masculine qualities of right-wing populist leadership, getting along with those that are “tougher and meaner than they are.” This contestation of right-wing populism is heavily misogynistic and sexist, opposing feminism and gender-equality and, through their traditional roles, have encouraged the association of gender roles in daily life.
The clear role between gender and populism highlights the prevalence that masculinity seemed to play a race on the candidacy of those vying for political office, particularly as populists. However, despite the heavy division of gender roles and sexism, research focusing on the rise of populist leaders reveals that there is — somewhat paradoxically — a large number of woman voters comprising the constituent base of these strongmen populists. Given this phenomenon, I sought to explore the foundational reasonings of the women’s votes a little further, to examine the roles feminism and populism play in tandem.
“Populism,” as its name suggests, is meant to be a form of politics of “the people” against “elites,” establishing that it is those who are the “civilian” or “ordinary” serve as the sovereign, ruling as one across cultural, political, and regional context. Influences of this foundational idea of populism are clearly evidenced in “strongmen” populism seen in today’s society who champion their political position as one that is the true representative of the population, and it asserts this position through its rhetoric in two ways. First, the right-wing populist establishes the foundation of its country’s bureaucratic issues to be an us vs. them problem. The populist claims that its population — or at the very least its voting base — is of a distinctly “virtuous, pure, and uncorrupted population,” drawing a line between its followers and the rest of the voting population who are defined as the “corrupt” or “elite.” Strongmen populist then secondly antagonizes the bureaucracy of government, arguing it imposes unnecessary challenges to addressing the needs of the people, implying at its core that the current establishment has failed to represent its constituent base. These two factors fixate right-wing populism’s positionality on its rhetoric being the “true representative” of the people’s will and will seek to address the “true” needs of the constituent base should they be elected through their aggressive demeanor.
While the archetypal right-wing populist voter is largely envisioned to be a heterosexual white male, women are no less likely to vote for them, and this is clearly exemplified in the 2016 Presidential election in the United States where 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump or in the Brexit referendum where 49 percent of women voted in favour of leaving the European Union. There are several theories presented by researchers that have worked to contextualize the data. The first and most important acknowledgement is that women do not necessarily vote in alignment with their gender identity. It would be regressive to assume women’s votes as one monolithic bloc as women vary in background, circumstance, race, and socioeconomic status which shape their political ideology and this diversity aligns with Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University Kelly Dittmar theory as she stated, “There has long been a misconception that women voters vote by their gender identity instead of their party.” Professor Dittmar articulates that many women do not vote in accordance to their gender identity, but rather with their racial and socio-economic identity influenced by education and family status. Populist leaders are capable of capitalizing on this pattern by employing women to represent the populist administration’s political agenda, strategically utilizing their “femininity” to address the concerns of women, essentially placing a “feminist” façade as a front for attracting women’s vote.
It is important to recognize that women are diverse and varying in their political perspectives, with no particular pressure or necessity to vote or align themselves with any particular party due to their identity. And, rather than convince, this article seeks to introduce a spotlight on an observed trend in politics to the general public as a source of discussion on the diversity amongst voting demographics. A closer look at the gender gap in voting for populist leaders reveals the manipulation of the feminist agenda by populist parties to construct the image of an empowered woman to attract more voters. It reveals the unprecedented covert collaboration between feminism and populism, making the two ideologies peculiar bedfellows.