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Where Gender Meets Nationalism


In remembrance of Sylke Tempel, our sister magazine INTERNATIONALE POLITIK and Women in International Security (WIIS) this year launched The Sylke Tempel Essay Prize for Young Women. The inaugural winner is Warsaw-based journalist (and BERLIN POLICY JOURNAL contributor) Annabelle Chapman. We are documenting the original English version of her essay.


Nationalism is back, from the United States to Russia, and in many countries in the European Union. This resurgent nationalism has been analyzed from a variety of angles, but one key thread remains underexamined: the gender dimension. Largely created by men for men, today’s populist nationalism offers simple solutions to complex problems, from economic changes to migration. Its implicit message is: men must defend their country against threats, real or imagined. Meanwhile, women must produce the next generation of children to ensure the nation’s survival. Supposed outsiders are unwelcome.

In the academic literature, there has been a growing interest in the subject of gender and nationalism in recent years. Gendering Nationalism, a 2018 book edited by Jon Mulholland, Nicola Montagna, and Erin Sanders-McDonagh, examines the intersections of nation, gender, and sexuality with case studies from around the world. Other academics have studied the historical connection between manhood and nationhood, with men as the defenders of the fatherland and women as exalted mothers serving the nation.

Yet this gender dimension is overlooked in coverage of the new populist nationalism in Europe and the United States. Of all the articles on contemporary nationalism in the international press, few pause to consider its distinct appeal to men. Even fewer compare the attitude of nationalists in different countries toward women’s rights and motherhood. This essay argues that, although it is certainly not the only one, the gender dimension is vital to studying, understanding, and responding to the resurgence of nationalism in our societies.

For the purposes of this essay, “nationalism” encompasses both extreme-right nationalist movements and mainstream populist parties with nationalist elements, such Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz. No longer on the fringes of European or American politics, nationalism has been mainstreamed and normalized.

Men and Nationalism

On November 11, 2018, Poland celebrated the 100th anniversary of the restoration of its independence. Nationalist groups with anti-immigration slogans marched through the capital, Warsaw, in a centenary rally supported by the Polish government. Red flares blazed above the crowd. Although there were women at the march, its tone and imagery were aggressively male. Poland’s centenary celebrations were a nationalist show of force, rather than a celebration of the country’s achievements in areas such as education and science. In contrast, Finland had marked the centenary of its independence in 2017 with a new public library in Helsinki.

In an article published in The Guardian in 2018, Cas Mudde, a Dutch specialist on political extremism in Europe and the United States, asked the simple question “Why is the far right dominated by men?” This domination is visible at nationalist events—from the march in Warsaw to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. In Poland, most of the far right’s support comes from men—specifically, young men. A recent poll found that almost 30 percent of Polish men aged 18-30 supports the nationalist far right. This differs markedly from the political attitudes of women in the same age group, the majority of whom support the left or center. In the European elections in May 2019, the polls revealed similar support patterns for the Konfederacja nationalist alliance. This is no accident: as the head of a Polish polling firm put it, Konfederacja’s politicians target men who are “skeptics of women.”

Nationalism’s allure to men, rather than women, seems to come less from economic problems than from shifting cultural norms. It offers them a sense of belonging in a rapidly-changing, globalized world in which they are unsure of their place—as inhabitants of a small town in South Carolina or Saxony, but also as men. In many countries, traditional male roles have declined. Economically empowered and often better educated, women no longer need a man to live comfortably or even to have a child. This has led to a backlash in which nationalism and masculinity are intertwined. Russia, where traditional male roles crumbled after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has seen the emergence of what writer Natalia Antonova calls the “New Russian Masculinity” in recent years under President Vladimir Putin, fuelled by the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Meanwhile, in the United States, Germany, and Sweden, white nationalist groups have wielded masculinity to recruit members, as American sociologist Michael Kimmel shows in his book Healing from Hate.

Protecting the Nation

Today’s nationalists claim to protect their countries against threats, real or imagined. Some leaders, like Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán in Hungary, present themselves as the defenders of “Western” or “European civilization.” They mobilize supporters using fear of “outsiders,” who include (depending on the country): refugees, economic migrants, people of color, Jews, Muslims, feminists, gay people, and EU bureaucrats.

Nationalist leaders are adept at stirring up anti-refugee or anti-migrant sentiment, while presenting themselves as the only ones capable of halting the uncontrollable wave of foreigners. Trump has done so with Executive Order 13769, his ban on travelers to the US from several Muslim-majority countries, and with his pledge to build a wall along the border with Mexico. In the United Kingdom, it was partly anger at migrants from other EU countries that led people to vote for Brexit. In Hungary and Poland, politicians have spread fear of refugees from the Middle East, with Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, warning that migrants carry “parasites and protozoa.”

These general messages carry a gender subtext, implicitly appealing to men’s traditional role as protectors and providers. The subconscious message is: if a foreigner takes your job, you will be unable to feed your family. Or worse: if the refugees come in and take our women, you will be unable to find a wife at all (note the dubious reference to “our” women, which implies ownership). This imagery was very present in right-wing coverage of migration in Europe, especially after the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne at the end 2015. A few weeks later, wSieci, a Polish pro-government weekly, ran a cover on the “Islamic rape of Europe” showing a white woman being grabbed from different directions by dark, manly arms. Yet rather than expressing concern about women’s safety, this type of imagery was addressed to men, asserting their entitlement to the women in their country. A Polish journalist who covered the refugee story says that she received threats from men on social media along the lines of “you should be raped by a refugee.” Sadly, this combination of anti-immigration nationalism and verbal violence against women is not uncommon.

Having created a sense of threat, nationalist leaders appeal to men to protect their nation. This involves what feminist scholars call “militarized masculinity,” the idea that real men are those who defend the fatherland. The examples from different countries vary, but they share a fixation on military heroism and national virility. In Russia, militarism has been rekindled under Putin. In Finland, a far-right group called the “Soldiers of Odin” founded in 2015 has been caught intimidating immigrants. Meanwhile, investigative journalists in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary have drawn attention to the “militarization of patriotism” in their societies through nationalist paramilitary groups and historical reconstructions. In Poland, “militarized masculinity” is supported by the government’s official historical policy. This includes the cult of anti-communist resistance fighters from the 1940s known as the “cursed soldiers” (mostly male), who have been presented as a model for young Poles to emulate.

Perpetuating the Nation

Earlier this year, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orbán, announced a low-interest loan of 10 million forints (around €30,000) to women under the age of 40 who are marrying for the first time. Mothers of at least four children would be exempt from income tax. The aim of these measures, Orbán explained, was to “ensure the survival of the Hungarian nation.”

If, from nationalists’ perspective, men’s role is to protect the nation, then women’s role is to perpetuate it. With Europe experiencing low birth rates, some governments have been encouraging people to have children. In countries like Hungary, which has an aging population and a fertility rate below the EU average of 1.59 births per woman, policies that help people have children (if they so wish) might make sense. In Poland, which also has a low fertility rate, the PiS government has combined natalism with generous welfare policies since coming to power in 2015. Its flagship policy is a monthly payment of 500 złoty (around €120) per child. “Children and the family are the foundation of Poland,” said Beata Szydło, the country’s deputy prime minister, announcing further policies to encourage women to have children last year. “We must ensure … that more and more children are born in Poland.”

The problem with this rhetoric is that it frames the decision to have children in terms of national survival, rather than women’s rights, choices, and aspirations. At worst, it reduces women to vessels for producing the next generation. Women who have at least four children are “rewarded” for their heroic efforts—with the tax exemption in Hungary and a state pension in Poland. Meanwhile, there is a lack of serious discussion about men’s responsibilities as fathers or, indeed, how the government could help citizens combine fruitful careers with their roles as parents.

This natalism is underpinned by social conservatism on a range of issues, from women’s right to a safe abortion to gender roles. In May, Alabama became the latest US state to move to restrict abortions, including in cases of rape or incest. Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Poland’s ruling party mulled a similar tightening of the country’s restrictions on abortion, but backed down temporarily following widespread protests by women. At the same time, the party has terminated public funding for in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment. It has championed families, but only of the traditional sort. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has opposed what it calls “gender mainstreaming”— policies that it sees as undermining “traditional gender roles.” Similarly, the Polish religious right has long viewed the English word “gender” with suspicion, using it as a catch-all term for everything from feminism to gay rights. Ahead of the European Parliament elections this year, the ruling Law and Justice party sought to mobilize voters by presenting gay people as a threat to the family.

The underlying theme in nationalist populists’ attitude to women is the control of their bodies, which is not limited to childbirth. Despite the outcry against them, Trump’s comments about women (“Grab them by the pussy”) have validated misogynist and predatory attitudes in some circles. Verbal violence against women can easily lead to physical violence. Yet violence against women, especially in the privacy of their homes, is often met with silence. In 2017, Russia decriminalized domestic violence, scrapping prison sentences for beatings that cause “minor harm.” In Poland, PiS politicians have criticized the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which the country’s previous president ratified in 2015.

How We Can Respond

Male-driven nationalist populism has resulted in a backlash. Over the past year, the #MeToo campaign has spread beyond the US. In Poland, widespread protests by women halted plans on the conservative right to tighten the restrictions on abortion. Slowly, a new generation of progressive women leaders is emerging, from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in the US to Zuzanna Caputova, who was elected president of Slovakia this year.

For all these successes, nationalism requires a broader response that addresses its allure to certain groups, especially young men. The nationalists’ simple solutions to global economic, social, and demographic challenges cannot be fought off with clever one-liners on Twitter. Nor can citizens’ fears be brushed aside. Although they are exploited by nationalist leaders, some of them nevertheless reflect genuine concerns. Instead, the challenges themselves must be addressed at the local, national, and, where applicable, the European level.

As this essay has shown, there is a complex relationship between nationalism and gender is an important topic that warrants further research by sociologists, psychologists, and economists, with data-driven studies on specific countries. For now, there are three general ways in which governmental and, where necessary, non-governmental actors should respond:

Firstly, women’s rights should be protected where they are threatened by nationalist-minded leaders and policies. Childbearing should always be a choice, rather than a national duty expected of women.

Secondly, democratic participation should be encouraged among all members of society, with a special focus on young people, including young men in disadvantaged areas. This will help their voices be heard through public channels and democratic elections, making them less likely to turn to aggressive or underground nationalist organizations. Children should be taught that there are many ways to be a good citizen, from helping others to picking up rubbish in the park, which do not involve dressing up as soldiers or shouting nationalist slogans.

Thirdly, the root causes of nationalism must be addressed calmly but seriously. There are few easy solutions, but they should include addressing the economic and demographic changes in Europe and the US, with special attention given to vulnerable groups such as young men who might seek solace in nationalism.

Ultimately, this is not a battle between nationalists and their opponents, or between men and women, but about creating societies in which all people feel safe and welcome, and where nationalism is no longer appealing.

N.B. The German version of this essay can be found here.