The Pandemic as a Prism: Patterns of En-Gendering and Contestations to Women’s and Gender Rights in Times of Corona
By Julia Roth
When the pandemic “broke out”, I was focusing my work on Right-Wing Populism and Gender, a volume on the topic which I edited with Gabriele Dietze had just come out. I had come back from New York City, just in time before Donald Trump closed the US borders to Europeans, where I had joined the Women’s Strike on March 8 and was enthusiastic about the powerful counter-discourse to right-wing trends. Since the pandemic had overshadowed everything and right-wing actors seemed to lose momentum because of it, we first thought that our findings would no longer be relevant. All the book presentations we had been looking forward to were cancelled (and only one shifted to an online format). As we all could soon observe, however, the pandemic started to work as a sort of prism or burning glass though which manifold systemic and structural pitfalls, inequalities and injustices became visible in new dimensions. Suddenly, topics that had heretofore often been reduced to feminist niches, such as care work, global care chains, sexual violence, and gendered and racialized divisions of labor, were discussed everywhere, ranging from blogs and newspaper articles to mainstream talk shows. The pandemic made the close entanglements between neoliberal capitalist structures, colonial persistencies and gender asymmetries visible in exponential and unprecedented ways. Bini Adamczak put it very pointedly in her blog post “One world, one virus, a thousand shades of harm”: “The hierarchies that prevail within nations are repeated on a global scale. It is precisely in the face of the virus that appears – mutatis mutandis – as always the same in every corner of the planet that the inequality of the one world emerges.” (my translation)
Right-Wing Patterns of Gendering in Light of Covid-19
For my analysis of right-wing populist strategies of gendering (see Roth 2020a, 2020b), I have developed a schema of five patterns that I will try to relate to the particular circumstances of the pandemic to see in which ways and to what extent they can enforce the prism function of the current crises: Pattern I: Gender as an “Affective Bridge” in (Mass) Media; Pattern II: Appropriating Women’s Politics for Femonationalist Arrangements; Pattern III: Against “Gender Ideology” and Affirmative Action; Pattern IV: Reverse Anti-Colonialism in Radical Religious and Femoglobal Alliances; Pattern IV: Gendering of Social Inequalities, Gendering of Fear.
Pattern I: Gender as “Affective Bridge” in (Mass) Media
Mass media – and, increasingly, social media – play a crucial role in current right-wing populist creations of echo chambers or “bubbles” which are crucial for their racist and anti-immigrant mobilizations. Right-wing populists offer an exclusionary narrative, pretending to be saying ‘what everyone was thinking’, and ‘shunning the politically correct’. Even though they depend on media and take advantage of the shared logics of populism and media regarding attention economies and emotionality (see Diehl 2017), they condemn ‘the media’ as the enemy. ‘Gender’ is increasingly interpolated by numerous right-wing populist actors in order to affectively bridge these contradictions. Gender already relies on a naturalized binary hierarchy and evokes affective responses. Respective topics range from sexist and misogynistic remarks to cause scandals, to an opposition against the “gender ideology” of feminists and gender studies (as a threat to children and traditional family models) and “sexual exceptionalism” against immigrants. Increasingly, demographic arguments such as the protection of (White/‘right’) women as reproducers of the nation and ‘the (traditional/heteronormative) family’ are evoked through such right-wing discourses. The formation of discourse about the pandemic is highly dependent on social media and other kinds of media platforms. Right-wing actors had already prepared the frameworks to unite diverse actors in light of Covid-19, and gender provides a useful tool, meta-language and “affective bridge” (Dietze 2020) for numerous actors with manifold missions to voice their concerns. Paradoxically, they sometimes serve to unite right-wing actors with “worried” (besorgte) citizens and other protestors against pandemic measures, e.g. the opposition to vaccines as a presumed threat to (the health and well-being of) children or to face masks as exaggerated measures, which are often also considered as harming children in their own ways. This is also expressed in the desire for a strong (presumably male) leader – and in the German case against what many protesters perceive as the “Merkel regime” (perceived as “soft” and “female”).
Pattern II: Appropriating Women’s Politics Femonationalist Alliances
Numerous right-wing populist actors transfer political hierarchy to gender hierarchy through the defense of a particular, hegemonic masculinity. Simultaneously, however, right-wing populist parties present themselves as defenders of women’s rights (particularly White women) while they also advocate anti-emancipatory positions (Gutsche 2018). Religiously motivated conservative women in many places justify their support with an interest in the well-being and protection of children, family, and the nation, as well as, often, “Pro-life” (anti-abortion) politics. Claiming to be in the possession of a more advanced gender regime enables the participant women to see themselves as fully emancipated and unaffected by structural discrimination. In the face of the pandemic, gender could serve as useful platform to contest conservative backlash: In unforeseen ways, we currently observe how the division of labor remains deeply gendered and disadvantages women within families and, as low-paid care workers, on national and international levels to a much greater extent than men. While conservative actors play down such inequalities by trying to re-naturalize care work as feminine and the traditional family as a bulwark against neoliberal economization and other crises, we are also facing an unprecedented opportunity to use the presence of critical discourses on gender inequalities (and anti-racist discourses) for interventions in the current struggle over hegemony that the pandemic has accelerated.
Pattern III: Against “Gender Ideology” and Affirmative Action
Through the opposition to gender politics and left-wing agendas, right-wing populists unite and create alliances among a number of actors, including religious groups from Christian churches, fundamentalist Muslims and Jews to far-right political parties and conservatives (Grzebalska, Covets & Petö 2018, 34). Through this discursive pattern, actors of the right-wing populist complex push through restrictions such as the exclusion of LGBTQI persons from public offices and the army, and restrict resources for these groups and their access to health care. They oppose women’s access to free and safe abortion, reverse the recognition of same-sex couples, or campaign against inclusionary educational materials. More recently, this paradigm has also been projected onto the global scale as a globally-spread menace. The pandemic might serve such actors as a welcome chance to re-enforce arguments in favor of traditional family structures and the gendered division of labor (and care) as a “rightful”, “holy” and “natural” order. Feminists and the “gender ideology”, in turn, are to blame for having contributed to a non-functional and harmful “ideology”, the effects of which the pandemic renders particularly visible.
Pattern IV: Reverse Anti-Colonialism: “Gender Ideology” as “Ideological Colonization” (in Radical Religious and Femoglobal Alliances)
While the term “gender ideology” was coined by the Vatican in the 1990s (see Case 2019, 640), Pope Francis recently termed “gender ideology” as “ideological colonization” by multinational or supranational institutions that grant the education of the poor with educational materials on sexual diversity, as well as by gender studies programs and gender equality measures present in national scales. This constructed narrative of a common enemy presents conservative and religious groups as a minority under attack. Gender thus provides a crucial arena in populist logics as an “enemy within” and simultaneously as an “outside” global threat to the community and its (supposedly shared) moral values. Gender can constantly be re-signified and create different enemies through the “moral panic” (Rubin 1984) caused by sexual politics. The pandemic might serve conservative, religious and extremist actors as a platform to further push in this direction.
Pattern V: “Ethno-Sexism” and “Exclusive Intersectionality”
Right-wing groups use gender equality to justify their racist rhetoric and policies by characterizing Muslim or non-White/non-“belonging” males as dangerous to Western societies and as threatening the community’s alleged homogeneity. Through the “ethno-sexist” (Dietze 2016) narrative of the immigrant or Muslim sexual perpetrator, purportedly oppressed and silenced masculinities can imagine themselves once again as “protectors” (of White women). Such narratives tie in with a long tradition of analogies of “gender” and “nation” and respective colonizations of “non-national”, racialized and differently gendered bodies (see Yuval-Davis 1997, McClintock 1995, Lugones 2007 and 2008). On the one hand, the nationalist rollback resulting from the reactions to the pandemic points to the continuities of narrativessuch as the heteronormative family and the respective role models, demographic arguments, and – most importantly during the pandemic – the feminization and racialization of care work and its outsourcing to global care chains. Aspects of structural violence such as femicide and sexualised violence (domestic violence) are related to such continuities. On the other hand, the pandemic as a prism highlights exactly such persistent inequalities. It is exactly here that current feminist movements also tie in by addressing gender hierarchies and gendered violence as embedded in a long legacy of colonial and capitalist-patriarchal power structures.
A number of the patterns promoted and prepared by the right-wing complex are re-invoked and utilized as a strategy to regain discursive strength in the context of the pandemic. We already hear the first voices claiming that the model of the nuclear family and male breadwinner are favorable. If feminists, LGBTQI activists and gender studies programs have supposedly “threatened” if not “destroyed” the “family” and the “nation”, the pandemic has forced families to move closer together and to rely on predominantly women’s care responsibilities. Right-wing actors provide easy answers to such complex problems that avoid addressing the structural dimension of underlying inequities by transferring them to the individual level. Covid-19 also seemingly “forced” (or: allowed?) nations to close their borders (or, rather, politicians decided to do so and the virus was a good excuse and consider their national interest first in unprecedented ways. The virus serves many as a justification for pushing through politics of austerity, enforced border regimes, blatant injustices, and the revival of deeply conservative gender roles and related gender and sexual regimes. Not coincidentally, however, feminist protests have from the outset provided one of the most influential and visible platforms of contestation to right-wing arguments – ranging from the #NiUnaMenos and ‘EleNao’ movements in Latin America, the Women’s March (and Black Lives Matter) in the USA, to the protests in Poland and currently in Belarus. The discourses established by right-wing extremists and conservatives provide a framework for re-enforcing traditional gender arrangements and denouncing “gender ideology” in the course of pandemic. In the same way, however, the recently increasing number of feminist struggles – which address structural and systemic inequalities and oppression related to capitalism, colonialism, racism and patriarchal structures – have established the tools to confront such anti-emancipatory claims.
This article is part of the #DossierCorona thread #TransnationalFeminisms, which emerges from the online series “Transnational Feminist Dialogues in Times of Corona Crisis” organized by the Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the MA Program Gender, Intersectionality and Politics at FU Berlin, Academy in Exile and Academics for Peace Germany.
Case, M. A. (2019). Trans Formations in the Vatican’s War on ‘Gender Ideology’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 44(3), 639–664.
Diehl, P. (2017). Why Do Right-Wing Populists Find So Much Appeal in Mass Media? The Dahrendorf Forum. https://www.dahrendorf-forum.eu/why-do-right-wing-populists-find-so-much-appeal-in-mass-media/
Dietze, G. (2016). Ethnosexismus: Sex-Mob-Narrative um die Kölner Sylvesternacht. Movements. Journal for Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies, 2(1), 177–185.
Dietze, G., & Roth, J. (2020a). Right-Wing Populism and Gender: A Preliminary Cartography of an Emergent Field of Research. In Dietze, G. & Roth, J. Right-Wing Populism and Gender. European Perspectives and Beyond. Bielefeld: Transcript, 7–21.
Dietze, G., & Roth, J. (Eds.). (2020b). Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Grzebalska, W., Kováts, E., & Petö, A. (2018). Gender as Symbolic Glue: How ‘Gender’ Became an Umbrella Term for the Rejection of the (Neo)Liberal Order. Luxemburg Magazine, 32–37. https://www.zeitschrift-luxemburg.de/lux/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/LUX_Breaking_Feminism_E-Paper.pdf
Gutsche, E. (Ed.). (2018). Triumph of the Women? The Female Face of the Populist & Far Right in Europe. Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
McClintock, Anne. (1995). Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge.
Korolczuk, E., & Graff, A. (2018). Gender as ‘Ebola from Brussels’: The Anticolonial Frame and the Rise of Illiberal Populism. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 43(4), 797–821.
Lugones, M. (2007). “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System.” Hypatia 22(1), 186–209.
Lugones, M. (2008). “The Coloniality of Gender.” In Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise 2(2), 1-17.
Roth, J. (2020a). Can Feminism Trump Populism? Right-Wing Trends and Intersectional Contestations in the Americas. Trier: WVT/Bilingual Press.
Roth, J. (2020b). Intersectionality Strikes Back: Right-Wing Patterns of En-Gendering and Feminist Contestations in the Americas. In G. Dietze & J. Roth (Eds.) (2020), Right-Wing Populism and Gender. European Perspectives and Beyond. Bielefeld: Transcript, 257–273.
Sauer, B. (2017). Gesellschaftstheoretische Überlegungen zum europäischen Rechtspopulismus. Zum Erklärungspotenzial der Kategorie Geschlecht. Politische Vierteljahresschrift, 58(1), 3–22.
Sauer, B. (2020). Authoritarian Right-Wing Populism as Masculinist Identity Politics. The Role of Affects. In G. Dietze & J. Roth (Eds.) (2020), Right-Wing Populism and Gender. European Perspectives and Beyond. Bielefeld: Transcript, 25–43.
Yuval-Davis, N. (1997). Gender and Nation. Thousand Oaks, USA: Sage.
Julia Roth is Professor of American Studies with a focus on Gender Studies and InterAmerican Studies at Bielefeld University, Germany. Prior to this position, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the research project “The Americas as Space of Entanglements” in Bielefeld and at the interdisciplinary network “desiguALdades.net – Interdependent Inequalities in Latin America” at Freie Universität Berlin as well as a lecturer at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Universität Potsdam and the Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico. Her research focuses on postcolonial, decolonial and gender approaches, intersectionality and global inequalities, right-wing populism and gender, gender and citizenship, anti-racist feminist knowledge from the Caribbean and the Americas. Alongside her academic work, she organizes and curates cultural-political events, including the theater-festival “Women/Images of the Americas in Movement” in Berlin in 2010, and in 2014 and 2016, BE.BOP – Black Europe Body Politics with Alanna Lockward and “De-Heimatize Belonging” at Gorki Theatre Berlin.
Further articles in the thread #transnationalfeminisms of the series #DossierCorona on TRAFO:
Sabina García Peter, Nina Lawrenz and Tanja Wälty, Introducing #DossierCorona #TransnationalFeminisms, 1 July 2020.
Eliska Bujokova, Rewriting Histories of Care in the Times of Corona, 9 July 2020.
Vidisha Mishra, COVID-19, Technology, and the Future of Care Work, 15 July 2020.
Éva Fodor, Anikó Gregor, Júlia Koltai and Eszter Kováts, Household Divisions of Labor and Care Work in Times of COVID-19: Empirical Lessons from Hungary, 29 July 2020.
Ailynn Torres Santana, COVID-19 and Security Risks for Women: Indoors and Outdoors, 6 August 2020.
Chia Longman, Covid-19 and Radical Self-Care, 20 August 2020.
Margreth Lünenborg, Wolfgang Reißmann, Miriam Siemon and Moe Kinoshita, “#systemrelevance in one word? women” – The Need for Analyzing Gender(ed) Media Discourse, 26 August 2020.
Patricia Ruiz Bravo and Aranxa Pizarro, Sexualized Violence in Peru amid Covid-19, 2 September 2020.
Joshua Muyiwa, Hello? How Can I Help You Today? : Mental Health concerns for LGBTQIA+ people during Covid-19, 9 September 2020.
Felicia Riethmüller and Hanna-Maria Paul, Gender in the EU’s Corona Response – Transformation Beyond Clapping?, 17 September 2020.
Citation: Julia Roth, The Pandemic as a Prism: Patterns of En-Gendering and Contestations to Women’s and Gender Rights in Times of Corona, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 1.10.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25082.