Even by the headline-grabbing standards of Italy’s volatile politics, the victory of Giorgia’s Meloni’s Brothers of Italy in the country’s general election caused even more controversy than usual.
For onlookers, it was confounding that Italy’s first female prime minister could also be the one to lead its most far-right government since World War II.
But Meloni, who has railed against “the LGBT lobby,” wants to limit abortions and immigration, and has been accused of dogwhistling the Mussolini-era slogan of “God, homeland and family,” is not as much of an outlier as she first appears.
While the far-right is – and has always been – a male-dominated, frequently openly misogynistic space, a wave of reactionary women are taking leading roles in populist and radical-right politics across the Western world.
Whether leading far-right parties that have broken through to mainstream electoral success in Europe, or acting as powerful influencers pushing radical ideology on social media, women are taking an increasingly prominent role in far-right politics.
Part of the reason for this, experts say, is how women can be assets to the far-right, helping to “detoxify” them and gain wider acceptance of radical politics.
“I think that women do play a huge, important role in mainstreaming more radical ideas,” Seyward Darby, editor-in-chief of The Atavist magazine and author of the book Sisters in Hate, told VICE World News.
“They are… crucial to spreading the ideology with a smile and making it seem palatable... It's about putting a certain veneer on it, a certain gloss on it.”
Since the horrors of fascism played out in World War II, far-right ideology has faced a major hurdle in gaining a foothold in mainstream politics, with voters tending to push back against politics that was identifiably racist, hateful or bigoted.
But while figures like the US alt-right leader Richard Spencer – white men with angry rhetoric and fashy hairstyles – were readily identified and rejected by mainstream voters as hateful neo-Nazis, women were often able to convey similar ideology in a more palatable way, facing less instinctive pushback from the public.
“Women have taken over or been brought into leadership in [far-right] parties because this detoxification is seen as a strategy of gaining electoral power,” said Kathleen M. Blee, a professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.
One of the most vivid examples of this has been in France, where Marine Le Pen has presided over the transformation of the far-right National Rally over the past decade.
In 2011, Le Pen took over the leadership of France’s leading far-right party, then known as the National Front, from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.
While the party’s fortunes had fluctuated since it was founded by the elder Le Pen in 1972, it had remained a consistent presence on the far-right of French politics, but had never truly established itself as a consistent threat to the political establishment.
Since taking the reins, though, Le Pen has strategically sought to soften the image of the party, changing its name and attempting to distance itself from her father’s track record of racism and statements minimising the Holocaust, in a bid to position it as a potential governing force, rather than a protest movement.
The makeover, helped in no small part by having a woman at the helm, has proven successful. National Rally is now the largest parliamentary opposition group in France’s National Assembly, while Le Pen herself has made it to the run-off stage in the past two consecutive presidential elections, losing both times to Emmanuel Macron. While the party isn’t in power, it does have a large block of seats in the French parliament and it has gained much greater traction for its ideology, helping to shift its ideas from the margins to the mainstream.
Le Pen’s strategic approach to trying to win mainstream acceptance has sometimes involved trying to frame her party’s politics as feminist – for example, in a 2016 op-ed in which she argued that immigrant men pose a potential threat to the security of French women.
“Le Pen uses women's rights in some arenas and doesn't use women's rights in other arenas,” said Blee, the University of Pittsburgh professor. It’s an approach that contrasts with Meloni’s, who does not describe herself as a feminist and has spoken of her opposition to “pink quotas” to ensure women representation on corporate boards.
Beyond formal party leadership positions, women have also taken on leading roles as far-right influencers, particularly in the US and Canada, where figures such as Lana Lokteff, Lauren Southern and Tara McCarthy have all cultivated large online followings for their radical ideology.
Lokteff, who pushes white nationalist and antisemitic conspiracist theories through the media company she runs with her husband, is well aware of the critical role that women play in detoxifying and spreading far-right ideology, and in attracting other women to the movement.
In a 2017 interview with a US white-supremacist media outlet, she said: “It makes it softer for people to hear. It’s easier for people to hear a hard message when it’s a … good looking woman saying it.” And in a speech at an identitarian conference in Stockholm, Sweden, the same year, she credited the high-profile role of female influencers like herself as one of the main reasons women were “flocking to our side.”
Yet the explicitly anti-feminist outlook of Lokteff – who has denounced third-wave feminism as being about “warring on white people” – and others like her mean she holds a very circumscribed view of the role women should play in far-right politics.
“I think women are too emotional for leading roles in politics,” she claimed in the same speech in Stockholm, insisting that far-right women should instead use their “special power and influence over men – to give them a reason to fight.”
The Atavist’s Darby said that anti-feminist rhetoric was common among far-right female influencers. “Women in this movement hate feminism… They think that it has made women's lives worse,” she said. “They have this posture of, ‘as a woman, I can speak to what feminism really is.’”
But while it might seem baffling that some women could devote their lives to attacking a movement that won women political agency in the first place, Blee said it was important to recognise that women were “not politically a monolith now or or in history.”
“If we think about women as a monolith, we tend to slip into the gender stereotype that women are more peaceable, more social welfare-oriented and more progressive, and that the far-right is really just a man’s movement. We create our own peril by failing to understand how central women can be in the far-right.”