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School of Transnational Governance

Women leaders are always (from the) right

Our Costanza Hermanin wrote an opinion for Euronews about Roberta Metsola's election as EP President and the political background of women leaders.

24 January 2022 | Publication

Now that three out of five key European leadership positions are held by women, the EU can finally claim that gender equality in its decision-making positions is improving. However, one question arises after Metsola’s nomination: why is it that most women leaders in Europe come from conservative parties?

Women and the European Right

Roberta Metsola, who has gathered large support to become the President of the European Parliament, comes from a rightwing Maltese party and is known to gender equality advocates for her anti-abortion declarations. The European Central Bank’s Christine Lagarde is the past finance minister of a right-wing government in France. Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman to become President of the Commission, was a CDU defense minister for Angela Merkel (yet another conservative woman leader) in Germany. In other words, at the European level, all woman leaders belong to the same group: the European Peoples’ Party. A “moderate” right which, however, used to include parties with thorough reactionary positions on gender equalities such as Orban’s own Fidesz.

Besides Merkel’s fifteen-year rule, and except for a handful Scandinavian or Baltic socialist prime ministers, the vast majority of European women who have who had true executive power - party or government leaders – come from the right, starting with Margaret Thatcher. Looking at the past and present, the list goes on, for the conservatives, with Theresa May and one of three past female Polish Prime ministers. The other two have come from the reactionary Law and Justice Party. They belong to Europe’s extreme right wing, just as Marine Le Pen (France), Giorgia Meloni (Italy), as well as Frauke Petry and Alice Weidel, respectively Alternative für Deutschland’s founder and leader in the Bundestag.

Why all these women on the right, then? And, most importantly, why the part of the political spectrum which is allegedly more attentive to gender equality – the left - has so many difficulties to express a woman leader?

Maternal figures?

Political scientists are still struggling to find an explanation. On the one hand, some note that the conservative women who make it, portray the traditional feminine figure championed by the right. Accepting their leadership would then be a strategy that conservative party leaders find useful to restate their – traditionalist – family policies and propose role models who can claim back some of the women’s votes that shifted to the left since the 1970’s. This claim is true for some women leaders, notably for Thatcher who famously kept cooking dinner at Downing Street during her time as PM, or Von der Leyen with her seven children. However, this explanation is flawed when it comes to figures like Weidel, openly lesbian, Le Pen, who is twice divorced, and Meloni, a single mother.

Both in the case of the conservatives and the extreme right, nonetheless, female role models have been able to win back women’s votes. In the case of Italy, for instance, more than half of Meloni’s party supporters in the 2018 election were women, up from 37,5 percent in 2013. According to a 2018 study, Le Pen had at least as may women voters as men in the 2017 Presidential election.

Or … women in men’s shoes

Curiously, on the other hand, a majority of conservative and far-right female leaders of our times – even the more “maternal” figures – often showcase characteristics that are can be either referred to masculine professions or typical of masculine leaderships. Many have a background in the STEM or “hard sciences”: Merkel is a physicist, Thatcher was a chemist, while Von der Leyen used to be a defense minister and Lagarde has long been in charge of financial matters. In the far-right, traditionally masculine traits emerge in aggressive attitudes, loud tone of voices, an overplayed assertiveness, sometimes even in the dress code.

Time for European progressives to act

While researchers struggle to find an explanation for the success of women in the European right, two points should be fixed. First, it is high time that the European progressives act to close their resounding gendered leadership gap. The French presidential election might have been a test for that, if only the divided French left had any chance to reach the second tour. Instead, the presence of female presidential candidates on that end of the spectrum confirms that women are put forward especially in moments of crisis. Second, European women should convince moderate female leaders to become stronger equality advocates and represent the interests of all women. Roberta Metsola’s acceptance speech in the European Parliament, in which she ensured she will champion the positions of the majority of the Assembly, and not her personal ones, when it comes to reproductive rights, was a first step. Let us hope that many others will follow.

This article was first published on euronews.

Photo credit: European Union, 2022; source: EC audiovisual service

Last update: 26 January 2022

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