The Gender(ed) Politics of Fascism: How Women Came to Lead the Contemporary Far-Right


The Gender(ed) Politics of Fascism: How Women Came to Lead the Contemporary Far-Right


Cover photo: February 2024: During an anti-fascist protest in Rome, a handmade doll representing Giorgia Meloni is set on fire, symbolising resistance against fascism and patriarchy. ©Daniele Napolitano

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February 2024: During an anti-fascist protest in Rome, a handmade doll representing Giorgia Meloni is set on fire, symbolising resistance against fascism and patriarchy. ©Daniele Napolitano

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During the last decade, far-right women leaders have played an essential role in contributing to the growing acceptance of fascism. Although the globally thriving far-right is anti-feminist and male-dominated, it is increasingly led by women. Marine Le Pen (National Rally), Riikka Purra (Finns Party), Alice Weidel (Alternative for Germany), Giorgia Meloni (Brothers of Italy), Pia Kjærsgaard (Danish People’s Party), Siv Jensen (Progress Party), Beata Szydło (Law and Justice) are only a few of the latest examples of influential far-right women leaders. They hold a powerful position within their parties and in various political institutions, such as national parliaments and the European Union. The most prominent examples are Giorgia Meloni, the first female prime minister of Italy and Marine Le Pen coming close to winning the French presidential elections in 2022.

Claiming to be the defenders of Europe and the heteronormative nuclear family, the far-right advances white nationalism, patriarchy and authoritarianism. Yet, despite apparent misogyny, gender is a nuanced and complicated issue in the politics of far-right women leaders. By drawing on certain aspects of (fascist) femininity these women have played a central role in the normalisation and legitimatisation of racism and misogyny in Europe.  

The Mothers of the Nation

Despite the patriarchal underpinnings of seeing women as merely caretakers, they have historically played important and informed roles in fascist politics. Indeed, feminism and femininity are quite different things. Even though far-right women activists’ and politicians’ roles are often underestimated and overlooked, these women actively advance fascism in their roles as organisers, caretakers and recruiters. 

Even though far-right women activists’ and politicians’ roles are often underestimated and overlooked, these women actively advance fascism in their roles as organisers, caretakers and recruiters.

Researcher Isabel Heinemann argues that in Germany, the AfD has entered the mainstream by bringing into the political discussion themes such as the heteronormative patriarchal family and firm gender roles.1 Heinemann views family issues and the advocation of family protection as safe terrain for contemporary fascist parties and groups to practice racism and bring racist reasoning (concealed in a seemingly harmless exterior) into the political mainstream. 

Far-right women leaders have softened the parties’ images by centering reproduction and family issues in the centre of their politics and by equating the protection of the nuclear family with the protection of white nationalism. Through changes in legislation, like abortion rights, the far-right across Europe attempts to erode women’s sexual reproductive health rights and coerce women to give birth to white babies, thus, “to fight for the white nation.”

The question of the family bears a special meaning for the European right in a time of anxieties about the decreasing birth rate of white babies, concerns about “overpopulation” in the Global South and conspiracy theories about the “Great Replacement.” The Great Replacement theory is a conspiracy theory that puts forward the idea that there is a coordinated plan to reduce white people’s power, through the immigration of nonwhites and lowering the birth rates of the white population. During the last decades, the far-right has also increasingly blamed migrant families and racialised women for the climate crisis, for instance, by claiming in a highly racist manner that women of the Global South “breed too fast.” 

In their public campaigns, Beata Szydło, Marine Le Pen, Giorgia Meloni and Frauke Petry have called themselves “mothers of the nation.” This is a way of linking the advocation of traditional family values with the ideal of the racially defined nation-state. Marine Le Pen claimed to lead France “like the mother of a family, with common sense and consistency.”2 Frauke Petry, the former leader of AfD, defining herself as a mother and woman, posed in a campaign video with her baby, asking “And what is your reason to fight for Germany?”3 

No to Feminism

As the chairs of male-dominated parties that perceive women as inferior and unfit to lead, women leaders typically distance themselves from traditionally feminine traits or feminist issues. Despite the centrality of gender and family-related themes, the leadership of far-right women is based on a combination of these narrowly defined ideals of femininity and masculine authority. In this form of leadership, there is no space for emotions, empathy, sensitivity—or feminism. 

The leader of the Finns Party Riikka Purra has claimed that structural problems hardly impact women.4 In her view, it is instead men and boys who experience structural inequality in today’s Finland. In Italy, in turn, Meloni wanted to be called il presidente with the masculine article whilst, Susanna Ceccardi, serving as a major in the Northern League, insisted on being called sindaco, the masculine word for mayor, as opposed to sindaca.5 6

Researcher Dorit Geva notes that Marine Le Pen’s supporters applaud her especially due to her masculine features, such as her authority.7 Other highlighted features were her “exceptionally” caring and feminine traits. Distancing themselves from “weak” femininity, these women are framed, by themselves and the media, as extraordinary survivors and thus fit to lead. 

Marine Le Pen is depicted as an extraordinary woman: a twice-divorced single mother who had three babies in one year—a daughter, immediately followed by twins. Riikka Purra, in turn, has gained public sympathy by talking about her difficult childhood that the media has framed as the “story of an exceptionally strong woman and survivor.”

These representations do not only distance these leaders from traditionally feminine traits, but also fade out their fascist backgrounds by directing attention to their (exceptional) womanhood instead of discussing critically how their inhumane politics impacts—as one instance—the single mothers they praise.

Using Feminist Issues for Their Agenda

Far-right anti-feminism does not mean, however, that “feminist” issues are not apparent in the far-right’s narratives. Researcher Sara R. Farris writes that far-right women instrumentalise certain feminist issues in their fascist politics by justifying anti-immigration in the name of women’s rights.8 Far-right leaders speak about gender equality in the context of their anti-Islampohobic claims that stigmatise racialised people. 

The instrumentalisation of feminist issues occurs especially in regards to clothing and sexual violence. For instance, Riikka Purra has made incredibly offensive statements regarding women wearing hijabs, framing her racist message as a concern over “patriarchy.”

Using feminist issues is particularly strong among the Nordic far-right, as Nordic countries are praised for their higher gender equality. Far-right actors claim that “invaders” bring rape culture to “equal” and “civilised” Western and Nordic countries. 

Meanwhile, in their defence of the white nation, the far-right stigmatises feminism and feminists as “irrational” and “unpatriotic.” For instance, Riikka Purra has in a populist and simplifying manner claimed that feminists “defend the subjugation of other women” and are “against the acceptance of gender equality.”9

By exploiting feminist issues, far-righters aim to veil their politics in a “family-friendly” acceptable form. Although they argue that they attempt to “protect” women (for instance, from Muslim men and irrational feminists) their politics are built on patriarchal values.

Although some women, like Marine Le Pen, have softened up their already tight attitudes toward abortion or have proposed policies directed at families, far-right women have generally shown no signs of advancing women’s rights. For instance, Le Pen, in her capacity as a deputy in the European Parliament, has voted against laws to improve women’s health and safety. Beata Szydło, in turn, attempted to enact a complete abortion ban.10

Far-right neoliberal authoritarianism and austerity politics especially affect working-class women and families. Meloni has, for instance, proposed different cuts and restrictions in social benefits and opposes wage and pension-related reforms that would benefit women. 

Riikka Purra is the Minister of Finance in a government that has implemented various cuts, targeting especially social security benefits, and at the same time relaxing the tax burden of high-income earners. The Orpo-Purra government has launched Thatcherite austerity measures, social welfare reductions and attacks on workers’ rights.11 They have cut unemployment benefits and housing allowance, weakened job security, and are attempting to restrict the right to strike.

The planned reforms and cuts negatively affect women, sexual minorities, migrants, and racialised people. Many of these cuts impact female-dominated industries, such as the service and care sector. Importantly, an overwhelming segment of care workers are migrant women, whose labour is essential for the reproduction of “the white nation.” At the same time, violent border politics and the tightening of already restrictive immigration laws deeply affect the family life of migrant women by separating them from their children.  

Woman holding a banner "Frocie sempre, fasciste mai!" in feminist protest against fascism, in Bologna, Italy.
Amidst the celebration of diversity at “Rivolta​​​​​​​ Pride” in Bologna, in July 2021, feminists take a strong stance against fascism. ©Michele Lapini

The Fight Against Fascism

Researcher Eviane Leidig thinks that the feminine message of far-right women is directed at all genders.12 Leidig researches far-right women and sees how big of a role they play in making far-right ideologies approachable for the mainstream. She argues that far-right women’s propaganda plays a key role in normalising and legitimating fascist ideologies for public appeal. It is not only to appeal to women voters that the far-right appoints women to lead, in other words.

As we have seen across Europe, after entering parliaments, the far-right allied with other right-wing parties to change laws, close borders, and redistribute wealth and power. These far-right leaders are increasingly taking powerful positions in national parliaments but also in the European Union, further legitimising their politics. Meloni leads the European Conservatives and Reformists Party which could be highly influential in a more right-leaning EU.

The rise and normalisation of far-right ideologies present various challenges for anti-fascist and feminist movements. It is important to acknowledge how through certain themes, such as family issues, the radical right attempts to normalise racism in the mainstream. Importantly, the fascist idea of the white family not only legitimises violence against women, migrants and the racialised but also the LGBTQ+ people.

Even though the far-right has tried to distance themselves from fascist organisations and attempted to soften their public image through women leaders, we should not downplay their threat. Instead, their politics and overall creeping fascism should be fiercely opposed despite their seemingly less harmful exterior.

In a situation where the far-right is getting mainstream at the same time as they are implementing big financial cuts and restrictions in reproductive health and on immigration, a big challenge and possibility is in building alliances between trade unions, anti-fascists, anti-racist, and feminist mobilisations, as well as different migrant communities and indigenous peoples.


  1. Heinemann, I. (2022). Volk and Family: National Socialist Legacies and Gender Concepts in the Rhetoric of the Alternative for Germany. Journal of Modern European History, 20(3), 371-388. ↩︎
  2. L’Express, April 16, 2022, Marine Le Pen se veut une “mère de famille”, parmi les siens à Saint-Rémy-sur-Avre ↩︎
  3. Frauke Petry’s facebook account, a public cost on July 31, 2017. ↩︎
  4. Suomen Uutiset, a Finns Party newspaper, July 1, 2020, Ministeri ylisti intersektionaalista feminismiä Ylellä – perussuomalaisten Purra torjui ideologisen holhoamisen: ”Ei mitään tekemistä tasa-arvon kanssa” ↩︎
  5. Le Monde, December 2, 2022, Giorgia Meloni, ‘il presidente’ of Italy’s Council of Ministers ↩︎
  6. The Guardian, January 29, 2019, From Le Pen to Alice Weidel: how the European far-right set its sights on women ↩︎
  7. Geva, D. (2020) Daughter, Mother, Captain: Marine Le Pen, Gender, and Populism in the French National Front. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, Volume 27, Issue 1, pages 1-26. ↩︎
  8. Farris, S.R. (2017). In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Duke University Press. ↩︎
  9. Suomen Uutiset, a Finns Party newspaper, May 27, 2021, Purra: Mikä saa feministit puolustelemaan naisten alistamista? ↩︎
  10. The Guardian, March 31, 2016, Polish prime minister favours total ban on abortion ↩︎
  11. Jacobin, October 24, 2023, Finland’s Right-Wing Government Wants to Rip Up Its Welfare State ↩︎
  12. Leidig, E. (2023). The Women of the Far Right: Social Media Influencers and Online Radicalization. Columbia University Press. ↩︎
Sonja Pietiläinen author portrait.

Sonja Pietiläinen

Sonja Pietiläinen is a political geographer, writer, activist and researcher. She is currently working as a doctoral researcher at the University of Oulu, Finland.  

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