According to EIGE’s Gender Equality Index report, women in Europe are currently only halfway towards to the goal of reaching equality with men, and their overall situation has not improved during the last decade. The picture is even grimmer in Visegrad countries which are lagging significantly behind older member states in terms of women’s position, ranking around 10% below the EU average of 52.9%. But as recent conservative mobilisations across Europe alarm us, the progress that has been made in the field of gender equality has not only been rather stagnant and uneven, but also much shakier and easier to reverse than we had imagined.

In countries such as Croatia, Germany, Italy, France, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia, the post-war consensus on human rights is currently being threatened as issues such as gender mainstreaming, sexual education, LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive rights have come under coordinated attacks carried out by the Church, religious and lay conservative NGOs, right wing politicians, and even grassroots mobilisations.

Since the transnational anti-gender campaign began unfolding around  2012, the aforementioned actors have already achieved a great deal: they managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people for demonstrations and civil initiatives across Europe, to hinder the passing of progressive laws or the ratification of international treaties advancing human rights, cut state funds for gender quality, and in some countries – even change the constitution.

In France, the La Manif pour tous movement took off in 2012 as a campaign against same-sex marriage (with 150 thousand people marching in Paris alone in May 2013), but it soon turned into a protest against the more general threat of “gender theory” being taught in schools.

Likewise, in Italy and Germany, demonstrations against school curricula were carried out under the aegis of “protecting the children” from a depravation allegedly imposed on them by “gender ideology”.

In Croatia and Slovakia, the pressure from conservative civil movements resulted in the introduction of constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile in Russia, a bill aiming to protect minors from “homosexual propaganda” was signed into law in 2013, and was soon followed by similar attempts in other post-Soviet countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.

In Poland, the campaign initially focused on opposing the Istanbul Convention as a carrier of “gender ideology”, delaying its ratification by three years. However, it soon spread to other issues, and gained significant momentum after the populist right wing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość came to power. During just the last few months, the newly elected Polish president vetoed a major transgender rights bill, a coalition of pro-life organizations submitted a petition calling for Parliament to withdraw the morning after pill from pharmacies and hospitals, the government cancelled the publicly funded IVF scheme and cut the funds from the Ombudsman due to accusations that the office promotes “gender ideology”, as well as announcing plans to eradicate any elements of sex and equality education from schools.

The aforementioned national campaigns have a lot in common. They share a common enemy figure – “gender ideology” or “gender theory”, draw from the same philosophical foundations – the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, invoke identical, hyperbolic and fear-arousing discursive figures and operate through similar means of action (i.e., civil initiatives and grassroots organizing). But while the concept of “gender” is present in all these campaigns, we would be very wrong to assume they are simply about opposing gender equality and minority rights.

Anti-genderism – as we argued in our book – is rather a “symbolic glue” which connects various progressive issues under one umbrella term, and unites different conservative actors in a much bigger quest to change the values underlying the European liberal democracy. As such, anti-genderism is not “just” a feminist issue, but rather one threatening liberal democracy – a Trojan horse for making much broader and deeper changes to our political system.

At the same time, both progressive European political leaders and Members of the European Parliament have been rather hesitant to react to these mobilizations, and when they did, they often found it sufficient to simply target these conservative campaigns as a problem in and of itself. And so they came up with ways to expose their financial and ideological connections with the Catholic Church, discredit their leaders by ridicule or defamation, educate their supporters in gender studies, or simply defend certain policies from conservative attacks.

And while some of these tactics might have been effective in the short term, I am growing more and more convinced that they will ultimately prove insufficient. It is because waging a war against the rise of political extremism and religious fundamentalism can only bring us so far as mitigating the symptoms of a disease instead of curing its root causes.

So what are these root causes and why do masses of people become radicalized against liberal democracy in its current form? It is of course a complex, multi-dimensional issue. But thanks to a growing literature dealing with the social consequences of the current economic system we know for sure that a large part of the answer to this question is that the neoliberal, market-driven democracy that we currently see in Europe, structurally excludes a huge number of people from social participation, pushing them into insecurity if not outright poverty.

It is in this context that conservative protest movements create a space for these people to vent their fears and insecurities, voice their anger and dissatisfaction with politics and claim a sense of agency and empowerment that European liberals and social democrats once promised – but failed to deliver.

Interestingly enough, the city where European policies are made and where I have originally given this statement, can serve as a mini-laboratory for the examination of these issues. Brussels has been one of the main migrant destinations for Polish unskilled workers from rural areas.

In eastern parts of the country, there are towns that now count 25% of their total population as citizens who have emigrated from other areas of Europe, and most of those were women who have been especially vulnerable to the rolling back of the state, the privatization of health care and the growing precarity of work in general. And while these brave women made the hard decision to leave their children in order to be able to provide for them, back at home their departure resulted in a massive moral panic aroused around the emotive figure of a “Euro-orphan”, as Polish sociologist Sylwia Urbańska observed. In the media, female migrants were accused of being deviant and egoistic, and their families were ostracized as broken and pathological. It was not long until right wing politicians started calling for the return of the nuclear family and traditional family values as a solution to these emergent problems of transnational families.

The case of the patriarchal moral panic around migrant women is just one of the many examples of the link between current right-wing, anti-gender mobilisations and the challenges created by the globalised, neoliberal economy. Another one is the recent social campaign “Don’t Put Off Motherhood Until It’s Too Late”, carried out by the conservative Mom and Dad Foundation (Fundacja Mamy i Taty), one of the key civil society actors of the war against “gender ideology” in Poland. The video shows a wealthy, middle-aged woman expressing regret over not having children. “I managed to have a specialisation and a career; I managed to see Tokyo and Paris; I managed to buy a flat and renovate a house. But I didn’t become a mum. I regret this” – she concludes, as a tear rolls down her face.

While the demographic crisis is undoubtedly unfolding not just in Poland, but around the continent, what raises eyebrows is the Foundation’s decision to blame it solely on women’s alleged egoism, and the subsequent efforts to discuss the issue in an anti-choice and anti-gender framework. In fact, most Polish women would probably not recognize their own motivations to postpone parenthood in this portrayal, as the former have more to do with financial instability, insufficient provision of state-funded childcare and a lack of gender-equal parental leave policies than with individual love of comfort and consumptionism. But just like in the case of the moral panic around “Euro-orphans”, here the right has also managed to aptly identify very genuine social challenges and insecurities, and then provided deeply harmful solutions to them.

By all means, members of the European feminist and LGBT+ movements as well as progressive politicians have been right in opposing anti-gender mobilizations, and criticizing the solutions offered by them as threatening human rights and destructive to democratic society. But as they were calling for the need to protect women’s and minority rights and other liberal values from right-wing attacks, what they so often ignored is the fact that the liberal democratic system in its current form has become an empty slogan to the vast masses of people to whom it has very little to offer, among them rural mothers forced to migrate to support their families or middle class women struggling to afford a child.

While this does not mean that these people will automatically become radicalised, what is certain is that those who have been failed by the liberal democratic system will not readily join the struggle to oppose right-wing mobilisations, not recognizing the European democratic values as something worth fighting for. The evidence is already there – while the demonstrations against “gender theory” or sexual education have taken hundreds of thousands of Europeans to the streets, counter-reactions have been considerably smaller in numbers and mostly restricted to the academic and NGO level.

Therefore, the task that stands before European political leaders and decision makers is to acknowledge the connection between anti-genderism and other forms of right-wing radicalisation on the one hand, and the broader crisis of democracy stemming from the failure of the current globalised, capitalist order on the other.

This does not mean that the fight for gender equality should be abandoned as a legitimate social goal or substituted with a plan that focuses on redistribution instead. Rather, the challenge is to reconnect these two dimensions of social justice in new ways.

One way to do so is to start our politics with the very material experiences of ordinary people’s lives, identify the challenges faced by them, and articulate them in progressive terms. It is precisely here that young grassroots feminist and socialist movements offer a unique perspective which could help progressive political parties break out of the current deadlock.

Working grassroots with women who have been disproportionately affected by the rolling back of the state, severe austerity measures, growing precarity of employment and privatization of care work, feminist activists across the globe remind us that women experience intersecting oppressions and that the promise of gender equality cannot be fulfilled without reforming the current socioeconomic system, and that only by solving the latter can we renew people’s faith in the democratic project.

The author is a sociologist and a feminist currently pursuing a PhD at the Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. Her research focuses on Polish nationalism, militarism and the far-right seen from a gender perspective. She is the author of “Płeć powstania warszawskiego” [Gender of the Warsaw Uprising, IBL PAN 2013] and contributor to “Gender as symbolic glue. The position and role of conservative and far right parties in the anti-gender mobilisations in Europe” (FEPS and FES 2015). She is also a member of FEPS Young Academics Network and a Gender Research Team affiliated with the Polish Academy of Sciences. 

This article is an extended version of the author’s statement delivered at the event Passing on the Torch. The legacy of the Beijing Platform for Action and new, grassroots feminist movements organized by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in the European Parliament in Brussels on 20 October 2015.

Weronika Grzebalska

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Download the report in PDF