Evidence from Sweden, says Gefjon Off, shows that feminist mobilisations like #MeToo can trigger a conservative backlash against gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights. This then fuels support for the radical right
Most of us are familiar with the #MeToo campaign that has made global headlines since 2017. We also remember the Women’s Marches across the world. Many countries have experienced distinctive events and stories associated with these high-profile movements. In Sweden, for example, a sexual assault scandal in the renowned Swedish Academy (responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature) dominated national headlines during summer 2018.
Consequently, in the 2018 Swedish national elections, gender equality became one of the top three political issues determining voter choice. But voters did not just adopt more progressive stances on gender issues, and rate their importance more highly. Part of the radical right-wing electorate reacted against these feminist mobilisations, taking even more conservative stances on gender issues. In short, feminist mobilisations triggered a conservative backlash.
Swedish national election data from 2018 shows that conservatives counter-reacted to feminist mobilisations. This translated into votes for the radical-right party, the Sweden Democrats.
There is no doubt that anti-immigration and populist attitudes were still the main drivers of radical-right voting. But the data shows that, as society debated feminist issues, conservatives reacted against feminism, developing more conservative gender attitudes.
The radical right Sweden Democrats represent distinctly conservative positions on gender issues
The radical right Sweden Democrats represent distinctly conservative positions on gender issues relative to Swedish norms and the political consensus on gender equality. Thus, they were an attractive party for those who wanted to take a stand against feminism.
This phenomenon, that conservative attitudes towards gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights influence vote choice and become politically represented, is not unique to Sweden. For instance, sexism influenced votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 US elections. It is clear that European populist radical right parties hold conservative positions on many gender issues. But evidence of the role of gender attitudes in radical-right voting from European contexts has so far proved inconclusive.
In fact, Western European populist radical right parties often advocate in favour of women’s or LGBTQI+ rights. As with comparable parties in other West European democracies, the Sweden Democrats argue that gender equality is a national trait of Sweden. Therefore, they say, it needs to be protected from the alleged threat of (mostly Muslim) immigration. In this discourse, the protection of women’s rights becomes an argument to oppose immigration, which is associated with, for instance, honour crimes.
This argument constitutes the party’s most prominent discourse on gender equality. It covers up the Sweden Democrats’ silence on feminist issues and its relatively conservative stances on, for example, family policy. Like other West European radical-right parties, the Sweden Democrats generally hold conservative positions on gender issues. The exception is when they can use progressive positions to construct a gender-equal national identity and oppose immigration.
How, then, are these partly contradictory party positions reflected in radical right voters’ gender attitudes? There is evidence of radical-right voters holding progressive gender attitudes, which may reflect the 'saving our women' discourse.
Conservative voters react against feminist mobilisations when they are prominent in public debate, becoming less supportive of gender equality
However, my research shows that, when feminist mobilisations are strongly visible in public debate, as they were in 2017 and 2018, conservative voters may counter-react. More precisely, they become less supportive of gender equality measures and proposals to strengthen LGBTQI+ rights. These attitudes inform their vote for a party that represents such positions; in this case, a party of the radical right.
The rise of radical-right parties gives increasing political representation to this socially conservative section of the electorate. And this, in turn, has consequences for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights across various European democracies. A transnational anti-gender movement has been gaining influence across European countries and beyond. Religious organisations, to a large extent, drive this movement, while populist radical right parties represent it politically. My study shows that the anti-gender movement finds electoral support among social conservatives who react against feminist mobilisations.
A transnational anti-gender movement has gained influence across European countries and beyond, driven by religious organisations and represented by populist radical right parties
These findings, of course, apply only to the Swedish context. Sweden has a long history of gender-equal socialisation and political consensus for gender equality across all political camps, except for the radical right. However, given that Swedes are socialised to support feminism and gender equality, less gender-equal contexts may experience even stronger counter-reactions to feminist mobilisations. In other contexts, more mainstream conservative parties may politically represent and attract voters opposed to feminist mobilisations. Whether mainstream conservative or radical right, these parties contribute to a political environment in which powerful actors are contesting the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people.
It is important to note that my study captures only short-term counter-reactions to feminist mobilisations. Possibly, and perhaps very likely, social conservatives feel less strongly about gender issues during periods when there is less public debate about feminist matters, or when other issues take precedence.
However, when times of prominent feminist public debate coincide with elections, these voters make a choice for the longer term, electing a party for at least one legislative term that represents a conservative counter-reaction. This is a phenomenon with important implications for gender equality and LGBTQI+ policy- and law-making.