Are ambitious women a threat to patriarchy?

Politics as a gender issue : Why the relapse into authoritarianism is masculine

- Susanne Kaiser is a journalist and book author. The text is based on her new book "Political Masculinity - How Incels, Fundamentalists and Authoritarians Mobilize for Patriarchy" (Suhrkamp Verlag, in stores from November 16).

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, a photo montage went around the world. It showed the faces of the seven heads of state and government who best maneuvered their countries through the crisis and demonstrated the most sovereign leadership. The countries were called Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany - and the faces were all female.

This new strength of female leadership was received very positively in the media - and thus very different from the government style of “strong men” like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Vladimir Putin. The authoritarian heads of state reacted to the pandemic with defiant denial, put the blame and responsibility on others, instrumentalized justice and security authorities, denounced critical reporting and restricted freedom of the press.

In the global corona discourse, male rule came under more and more criticism. Even the management consultancy McKinsey stated that the old management style was in crisis. In order to cope with global challenges such as a pandemic, qualities such as the ability to work in a team, thoughtfulness and empathy are required.

The fact that the leading media praised female leaders was not without consequences. In the semi-public sphere of social media, comment columns and internet forums, frustration broke out, as it does every time women prove themselves in areas that are still seen by many as male domains.

If you deal systematically with the comment columns on contributions by women, it becomes clear that the same thing always follows after terms such as “feminism” or “patriarchy” in the headline, in the opening credits or in the introductory sentences: The comment column is flooded with polemical to inflammatory statements . They are deleted page by page by the moderators, and the comments that remain relate primarily to what happened in the discussion, for example by commenting on the many hateful comments. The troll actions choke off discussions about female power or achievements, about criticism of patriarchal structures - and serve their purpose.

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Misogyny is both a means of politicized masculinity and a feature of authoritarian attitudes. And that's not a coincidence. Because the anti-feminist counter-discourse arises from the tension between real social conditions and structures, which are still patriarchal, and a public, progressive discourse, the media response - after all, there is a broad social consensus that equality is a goal worth striving for.

This tension is a major reason for the flood of degrading and often downright hateful rhetoric against women that has persisted for several years. The polemics on social media or the comment columns are only a small part of it. Opinion against women and women's rights can be observed in many areas of society and politics, worldwide. Degrading rhetoric can be found in the statements of Catholic clergy, radical opponents of abortion, authoritarian politicians.

They believe they are entitled to their privileges

It can be understood as a reaction to the deep shaking of male self-image in recent decades and as a bitter defense of masculine privileges and male rule, which in fact still exist but are increasingly being questioned. Against the background of this tension, the problematic hegemonic masculinity has become politicized. Demands for a restoration of “real masculinity” and patriarchy fall on fertile ground. The recurring motif is the thought that a natural order, a hierarchy, prevails in the relationships between the sexes and that the modern notion of equality and gender breaks with this natural order.

The American sociologist and masculinity researcher Michael Kimmel brought the term “offended claim” into play in this context. According to Kimmel, men with a misogynous view of the world believe they are entitled to a woman and to a male, that is, a dominant role in the family and society. They derive this claim from “tradition”. If it is not fulfilled, they will feel humiliated.

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Misogynist agitation runs like a red thread through the verbal bullying and programs of populist and authoritarian parties and politicians. There is hardly anything that unites the authoritarian endeavors of more recent times as much as the fight against the “gender madness”, against the relativization of male power, which is perceived as a degradation. Politicians like Trump, Bolsonaro or Björn Höcke have shaped a political program of male sovereignty from this injured claim. They take advantage of the frustration, disappointment and anger of those who are convinced that they have been abandoned and lure with the promise to restore the privileges to which they are entitled.

The example of Poland shows that elections can also be won in Europe in this way. In polls before the presidential election in summer 2020, the re-election of Andrzej Duda was looking bad. With his national-conservative party PiS (Law and Justice) he had ruled for five years with almost no resistance and the democratic constitutional state was increasingly undermined. For the first time this practice has now been seriously questioned. Duda's challenger could be seen as its opposite in almost every respect: Rafal Trzaskowski, Warsaw's mayor, stands for open-minded, liberal and European-friendly politics.

With anti-LGBTQ slogans he won the election

Because forecasts and polls had predicted a close election result, Duda used at the last moment a means that had already helped in elections in Poland and other parts of the world: he mobilized against the LGBTQ movement. Two weeks before the vote, Duda described it in a campaign appearance as "ideology" which is "more destructive than communism" and "sexualises children". In the end, his calculation worked, albeit a little. He was re-elected, showing that politicizing masculinity can win votes.

The first official act with which the government made international headlines after the election was the announcement that it would withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. The reason given was that the international treaty was “pure gender ideology” that would ultimately harm Polish women and families. In mid-October, the Constitutional Court paved the way for stricter abortion law, which only allows abortion if the woman's life is in danger or if she became pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

Both projects are intended to defend patriarchy and male privilege.

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Where does this popular appetite for such backward-looking, restorative politics come from? In the past few decades, political scientists and sociologists have come up with a number of explanations for the “authoritarian backlash”, for the upheavals, the turmoil and the upheavals in the democratic systems around the world. An economic explanation is particularly prominent: forms of work are changing radically, the importance of trade unions is declining, and employment relationships are becoming increasingly precarious. These unsecured living conditions under the conditions of a globalized economy would be perceived as a loss of control and a new desire for authoritarian politics grew out of it.

The sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer calls the first two decades of the 21st century "unlocked decades" because "our social and economic system has once again proven to be structurally prone to crises". Heitmeyer attributes the reawakened longing for authority and order to the strong uncertainty as a result of the crises caused by “authoritarian capitalism”.

The radical economic change primarily affects men

Others see the cause of the new global turn to authoritarianism in the fact that ever broader sections of society are poisoned by a fatal mixture of envy, humiliation and powerlessness as a result of globalization and reacted with anger to the political use of demagogues like Trump or Bolsonaro and always know how to whip up for their own popularity.

These interpretations, however, overlook the gender dimension of the causes they name. On the one hand, this consists in the fact that the radical economic change primarily affects men. The “normal employment”, as it existed until the mid-1990s, predominantly applied to men. They were the victims of the restructuring towards a service economy, which resulted in a precariousness of the accustomed living conditions. In addition, the new authoritarian politics aims to regain control over the insecure living conditions ("Take back control", "Make America great again").

It's about a habit that has faltered

It also propagates certain ideas about gender relations. It's not just about national borders, but also about borders in the hierarchy of the sexes. The authoritarian backlash therefore aims to restore traditional gender roles and to declare war on feminism and the concept of gender. In addition, according to the statistics of the sociologist Heitmeyer, right-wing populist people are four times more likely to be sexist than those who are not right-wing populist.

The feeling of being out of control in the modern world is itself a gendered feeling. Of course women are also affected by insecure employment, but the feeling is not new to them. It's not about men losing their jobs, but about men being used to having secure jobs and believing they are entitled to them. For these men, the neoliberal change means a descent to the positions women are used to. They want to prevent that. And that is one of the major motivations behind the authoritarian backlash of men.

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