Antagonism is mounting between today’s right-wing populists and a somewhat unexpected but formidable opponent: women. In the United States, much like in Poland, women’s rights have been among the first targets of attack by populist leaders. Women are not taking it lying down.
Traditional conservatism in the West has largely come to terms with the need to grant women broad reproductive freedom. Today’s right-wing populist administrations, by contrast, are downright pre-modern in this regard, attempting to reverse reforms championed not just by the left — and long accepted by the conventional right.
It is no secret that the mainstream consensus is a source of contempt — and success — for the modern populist, and not just on women’s rights. Donald Trump’s first acts as U.S. president show an eagerness to reject long-standing norms in many other areas as well, including foreign affairs and economic policy.
But it is the attack on women’s rights that is receiving the most powerful pushback. Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has retreated politically only once since his party’s return to power in 2015. Last October, when thousands of women of all ages took to the streets in the “black protest,” his government was forced to withdraw from its plan to introduce a total ban on abortion. (Under the current law, abortion is allowed in the event of rape, severe fetal defects, or a threat to the health of the mother.)
Similarly, of all the sources of opposition to Trump, only women have been able to organize quickly and efficiently. Last month’s Women’s March on Washington boasted a turnout some three times larger than Trump’s own inauguration the previous day. In other words, Trump began his term with a symbolic defeat at the hands of American women.
Trump’s subsequent reinstatement of the “global gag rule,” which undermines women’s health in developing countries by defunding organizations that provide abortion counseling, could not obscure that loss, nor could his pledges to defund Planned Parenthood, which offers reproductive-health services in the United States. Instead, women continued to resist — for example, by creating the #DressLikeAWoman hashtag on Twitter, to shine a spotlight on Trump’s sexist demand of female staffers.
As women have stood in the path of the populists, mainstream political leaders and parties have practically cowered; unsurprisingly, they continue to lose ground.
The composition of the resistance actually makes considerable sense. Right-wing populism is, at its core, an attack on liberalism, not necessarily on democracy. Separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, and free trade are liberal ideals; they are not democratic. Women have stood above the rest in the opposition, because they are, in many ways, the antithesis of right-wing populism, support for which comes primarily from poorly educated white men — the demographic cohort with the least comprehension of feminism.
The question now is whether women can win the battle against the populists. While the answer is not yet clear, they do have a few powerful weapons in their arsenal.
For starters, women are more numerous than any other single social group, including blacks, Latinos, the left, the right, liberals, conservatives, Catholics, and Protestants. There are more women than there are white men in the United States — or in Poland, for that matter. And, most important, women far outnumber populists. (Women must fight for their rights as if they were a minority, though they are a majority, and as if they lacked human capital, though, in the West, they tend to be better educated than men.)
Moreover, women are everywhere, and discrimination, to varying degrees, is part of all women’s experiences. This makes women something of a revolutionary class, in the Marxist sense. It also makes it relatively easy for women to build solidarity.
During Poland’s black protest, thousands more people protested in solidarity, from Berlin (where several thousand took to the streets) to Kenya (where about 100 people demonstrated). During the Women’s March on Washington, up to 2 million people marched in solidarity around the world. Clearly, women are a global force. Who better, then, to resist the likes of Trump, Kaczyński, and other right-wing populists, as they launch an assault on globalism?
Perhaps the most important weapon in women’s arsenal is that they are unashamed. While the 20th century was characterized by discipline through fear, the 21st century has been characterized by repression through shame. Unlike fear, shame can be hidden — and that’s the point.
Whereas one can feel fear without losing one’s dignity, shame arises from feelings of inferiority. That is what women are rejecting in their anti-populist protests. Defending the rights of women to choose whether to have an abortion — particularly in places where abortion is still relatively accessible — amounts to defending women’s dignity and autonomy.
Mainstream political parties, however, still experience shame, as do other traditional organizations like trade unions. They have scruples, and are concerned about how they are perceived. That makes them poorly equipped to stand up to the most shameless group of all: the populists.
The likes of Kaczyński and Trump have benefited massively from their lack of shame, saying and doing whatever wins them the support of their political base. But women aren’t having it. They are throwing off the shackles of the shame that has long been used to repress them, and fighting fire with fire. Can the populists take the heat?
Sławomir Sierakowski is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. He wrote this for Project Syndicate.