Gender studies has come under attack in recent years. It is charged with subverting the natural order, undermining the family and traditional expressions of gender and sexuality. Populists have made it a central component of their ideological platform. At steak is the human rights agenda of liberal democracy itself.

  • Jennifer Evans

    Jennifer Evans is Professor of European History at Carleton University (Ottawa) where she teaches courses in the history of sexuality, photography, and social media memory formation. She is interested in the history of gender, populism and authoritarianism and currently co-curates the New Fascism Syllabus.

On the morning of December 18, 2018, a bag was left outside the National Secre­ta­riat for Gender Rese­arch in Gothen­burg Sweden. While the dyna­mite shaped device inside turned out to be a dummy, the inten­tion was clear. Even the Swedish Vice-Chancellor Eva Wiberg herself noted, some scho­lars are espe­ci­ally exposed to violence, based on the nature of their rese­arch. “Without specu­la­ting in this certain case, we all know that this expo­sure has become very appa­rent for gender rese­arch today.”

Why is this inci­dent so shocking? Perhaps because it was not reported widely in the inter­na­tional press, despite the fact that it followed on after the contro­ver­sial closing of the Swedish Gender Equa­lity Agency (Jämställ­dhe­ts­myn­di­gheten), a victim to the right­ward shift in parlia­ment once the popu­list Swedish Demo­crats (Sveri­ge­de­mo­kra­terna) earned third-party status. Perhaps too because it shows the poten­tial for violence that can emerge in the wake of incre­asingly coor­di­nated attacks on gender studies as conser­va­tive and popu­list parties exploit this issue to their own ends. It does not foment debate and deli­be­ra­tion; as we are seeing, the world over, it fosters extre­mist stances, desta­bi­lizes liberal demo­cracy, and chal­lenges critical inquiry itself, along with its practitioners.

Attacks on NGOs and Academics

Bettina Rheims, Valentin P. III, 2011; Quelle:

It is hard to imagine that the scien­tific study of gender inequa­lity in the labour force, govern­ment, and in personal and public life should garner such a response. And yet, while we have witnessed story after story in North America and Western Europe of govern­ment roll­backs on abor­tion provi­sion, LGBTQI rights, and NGOs aiding women’s support groups and the closure of entire programs devoted to women’s and gender studies, we somehow still think this is preserve of the popu­list, autho­ri­ta­rian play­book in embattled demo­cra­cies. To think of gender studies under attack is to think of the dire situa­tion facing acade­mics in Poland and Hungary, and on the horizon in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. For those scho­lars knee deep in the tren­ches, the world over, this is incre­asingly beco­ming busi­ness as usual.

As the socio­lo­gists Roman Kuhar and David Patern­otte have noted, the anti-gender move­ment –  the incre­asingly orga­nized assault on “gender ideo­logy” and “gender theory” used as a stand in by oppon­ents to marriage equa­lity, repro­duc­tive rights, sexual libe­ra­lism, and anti-discrimination policy –  has long moved beyond the borders of incre­asingly autho­ri­ta­rian count­ries. The chall­enge of sexual rights and gender iden­tity is part of a neo-traditionalist turn; hence it is a global concern in how we meet this chall­enge in the 21st century.

We see it in the extreme in the realm of ever­yday life in the spike in hate crimes against sexual mino­ri­ties, in brutal acid attacks, and in the count­less testi­mo­nies of #metoo. It has seeped into the poli­cies of the tradi­tional conser­va­tive parties the world over, who cozy up to right-wing popu­lists in an effort to salvage popular support. Even the over-hyped egali­ta­ria­nism of social media is not immune from the moral panic that drove Face­book, Tumblr, and Insta­gram to dispro­por­tio­nally limit online spaces of sex posi­ti­vity and consen­sual erotic exch­ange in the name of Commu­nity Standards.

Femi­nism – on the right and left

Gender studies has, since its incep­tion in the 1970s as women’s studies, been a target of oppo­si­tion both from within and without. A product of the social move­ments of the New Left and the search for radical demo­cratic solu­tions to ongoing social cleavages, gender and sexual equa­lity nevert­heless remained hard won issues even among progres­sives. Disagree­ments among acti­vists forced femi­nists, gays, and lesbians to forge their own coali­tions, their contri­bu­tions to the spirit of 1968, as the histo­rian Chris­tina von Hoden­berg has recently shown, often mini­mized in contem­po­rary and histo­rical accounts. Still women’s studies gained a toehold in the march through the insti­tu­tions where in univer­si­ties like the Tech­nical Univer­sity of Berlin, rese­ar­chers like Karin Hausen oversaw much-needed studies of women’s history, sexual violence, harass­ment, labour inequa­lity, citi­zen­ship, corpo­rate war and mili­ta­riza­tion. Not without its own blind spots as the well-known Professor of women’s and gender Studies Chandra Mohanty famously pointed out, it has nevert­heless weathered various storms to hold univer­si­ties, govern­ment, and corpo­ra­tions accoun­table for failing to uphold mino­rity rights around access, repre­sen­ta­tion, and equality.

If 1968 helped spawn new forms of agita­tion and advo­cacy, coale­scing in the crea­tion of women’s and gender studies depart­ments in univer­si­ties in the Global North, it also became a touch­stone for the New Right, which like­wise saw debates around gender as foun­da­tional to the move­ment. Looking back at the spirit of 1968, Alain de Benoist, French academic, philo­so­pher, and founder of the Nouvelle Droit, proclaimed that those tumul­tuous months and their emphasis on libe­ra­lism, femi­nism, moder­nity, indi­vi­dua­lism, Marxism, and globa­lism masked “the sheer size of a crisis that demands a radical renewal of modes of thought, decision, and action.” Looking back in his Mani­festo of the French Right in the Year 2000, he argued that femi­nists, landing on the idea of gender as a social cons­truc­tion, fell into the trap of vying for equa­lity tout court, which in the end simply revi­vi­fies the male subject as universal. On the contrary, the New Right promotes a diffe­ren­tia­list femi­nism, one that seeks to safe­guard a place for sexual diffe­rence in the public realm, uphol­ding speci­fi­cally femi­nine rights like the right to virginity, mate­r­nity, and – in de Benoist’s thin­king at least – abor­tion. Instead of agita­ting for equality-come-patriarchy, diffe­ren­tia­list femi­nist acknow­ledges “the equal value of their distinct and unique natures.”

The Conser­va­tive Backlash

Bettina Rheims: Andy B., Paris, 2011; Quelle:

It is not diffi­cult to see the echo effect of aspects of this line of argu­men­ta­tion in the wildly popular writing of Canada’s Jordan Peterson, whose Twelve Rules for Life has become a main­stay of book­s­tore best seller lists the world over. Peterson and others like him see academic femi­nism as a full-frontal assault on balanced thin­king, a corro­sive “cultural Marxism” in need of contain­ment. Whereas de Benoist’s “femi­nism” appeals to the more radical consti­tu­ents of the avowed right, Peterson’s Univer­sity of Toronto creden­tials allow his not uncon­tro­ver­sial thin­king to gain a toehold with tradi­tional conser­va­tives, a coali­tion cemented most recently with his quasi-advisory role with the right-leaning Ontario provin­cial govern­ment that rolled back progres­sive sex education.

While the austerity measures of the mid 2000s economic down­turn put added pres­sure on gender studies depart­ments to prove their mettle, the latest war on “gender theory” emanates out of middle 1990s discus­sions in the inter­na­tional arena which forma­lized gender and sexual inequa­lity as part of the language of human rights. While the assault on gender studies in Hungary is the most glaring example, for years scho­lars in South East Asia, in Australia, Europe, and North and South America have been put in the posi­tion of defen­ding long-established rese­arch that sex, gender, and sexua­lity have varied over time and space, and in diffe­rent histo­rical moments.

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These new anti-gender campaigns tran­s­cend borders. They unite Catho­lics with Evan­ge­li­cals, secu­la­rists and the devout. They chall­enge academic inte­grity while shoring up govern­ment policy, limi­ting repro­duc­tive rights, prop­ping up a parti­cular image of the family. Although they take on the appearance of a popular move­ment, they have been stage-managed and supported by popu­list poli­ti­cians. The Vatican’s role is long-standing, with Pope Francis going on record at World Youth Day in 2016 that gender is a form of “ideo­lo­gical colo­niza­tion.” Although chiefly the preserve of right-leaning parties, even Ecuador’s former leftist presi­dent Rafael Correa trumpeted the claim in 2013 that femi­nists, LGBTQI acti­vists, and other gender warriors were actively mobi­li­zing against tradi­tional values.

This move­ment has not been without violence. Gender studies scho­lars have received hate mail. They’ve been stalked and received threats. In November 2017, promi­nent queer theo­rist Judith Butler was atta­cked by a hete­ro­ge­neous mob in Brazil that mobi­lized via social media to protest her visit as “a threat to the natural order of gender, sexua­lity and the family”. Anti-Butler demons­tra­tors took to the streets of Sao Paulo. They burned her likeness in effigy, a prac­tice that conjured the inqui­si­to­rial history of targe­ting witches, Jews, heretic and sodo­mites. Far right groups followed her and her poli­tical scien­tist partner Wendy Brown to the airport where they were targeted with more slurs. Against Butler, oppon­ents rehe­arsed the well-worn charge that leftists, Jews, and sodo­mites, were behind the threat to tradi­tional values.

The New Culture Wars

This new war on gender studies is not solely targeted at univer­si­ties and rese­arch insti­tutes in fled­gling demo­cra­cies. Its reach is more compre­hen­sive and broader still. It is part of a new kind of culture war targe­ting all areas where critical rese­arch in gender and sexua­lity has brought about visi­bi­lity to vulnerable popu­la­tions, along­side important legal protec­tions and gains. It is flexible enough to appeal to the educated and the disen­fran­chised. It unites the popu­list with the conser­va­tive right. The natu­ra­lized vision of gender diffe­rence appeases tradi­tio­na­lists while simul­ta­neous appe­aling to those who feel select strands of academic inquiry and exper­tise has gone “gone too far.” It also explains how these move­ments can attract adher­ents from among women and queers, who buy into the language of diffe­ren­tiated forms of empower­ment that respect natural and inherent diffe­rences. In the era of iden­tity poli­tics, the language of biology as destiny has wide appeal.

It is a neo-traditionalist back­lash against sexual libe­ra­lism in all its forms. It might seem most palpable in mobi­liza­tions against sex educa­tion and universal bath­rooms and in threats against teachers and scho­lars in “other parts of the world.” But it is no less nefa­rious and active in how it targets the main­stream too. Most recently, we have seen it in the hypo­crisy of social media conglo­me­rates that claim algo­rithms are unable to diffe­ren­tiate between sex posi­ti­vity and porno­graphy. At precisely the moment of increased visi­bi­lity for femi­nist, sex posi­tive, and LGBTQI-desiring people in using the digital field as a space for acti­vism, art, conver­sa­tion, commerce and desire, even the staun­chly egali­ta­rian jargon of the social media­scape has fallen prey to fear monge­ring and moral panic.

We believe, to our own peril, that this is the stuff of autho­ri­ta­rian govern­ments in fled­gling demo­cra­cies. It is a vestige of a long-standing critique of gendered power in liberal demo­cracy and in late capi­ta­lism, which has gained new currency and new viru­lence in the current moment. That discord over how best to secure human rights and repre­sen­ta­tion so easily bubbles over into acts of real or intended violence should be a lesson to us all about the fragi­lity of our demo­cra­cies and the respon­si­bi­lity of every indi­vi­dual in uphol­ding their basic tenets in spee­ches, in parlia­ment, at the voting box and in print.

The pessi­mist in me sees these dark times ahead. The histo­rian in me knows that back­lash and oppo­si­tion breeds resi­li­ence. Here’s hoping the histo­rian wins out.