By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
One notable aspect of the turn to populism in Central and Eastern Europe is a call for a return to “traditional values.” Putin has repeatedly made appeals to the Orthodox Church, often formally including Patriarch Kyrill in significant political events. Even in relatively secular Hungary, Orban has described himself, the Hungarian nation and Europe as a whole, as a Christian society and has integrated this definition into Hungary’s new constitution. This supposed return to religion in famously atheistic post-Soviet sphere is troubling in several aspects .
In some places this implies a rejection of LGBT rights in the name of tradition, and has led to violence against members of the LGBT community. The turn towards “tradition” also leads to the allocation of resources to churches at the expense of the more egalitarian state welfare system. One understudied aspect of the traditional trend is the role assigned to women in these societies. In some respects, the role of women in Soviet society was relatively egalitarian. Women were a part of the workforce in large numbers and were an active participant of social and political life. On the other hand, Soviet women were encouraged to embrace their sacred role as mothers above all else and never rose to high ranks of leadership.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the promise of liberalism entailed gender equality. Though this is rarely the case in Western society, the ideal for women is equal participation in public life, equal pay and family friendly policies. This never materialized for women in the post-Soviet sphere. The rates of women in parliament in post-Soviet countries is amongst the lowest in the world. Many these countries have generous policies aimed at women, but the outcomes of these policies are often suboptimal. Hungary has three-year paid maternity leave, but a consequence of this policy is that women leave the workforce and find it difficult if not impossible to return.
The surge of populism in the region retards women’s rights even further. Leaders who wish to contrast their societies with Western liberal regimes appeal to “traditional” roles of women as part of a general view of masculinity. They are strong leaders whose countries are strong in the face of liberal weakness. In contrast, women are the tender soul of the nation. In an unbelievable speech marking International Women’s Day, Putin addressed the women of Russia (the whole thing is a great read, but here is a particularly nice excerpt).
“Dear women, you possess a mysterious power: you keep up with everything, juggle a myriad of tasks, and yet remain tender, unforgettable and full of charm. You bring goodness and beauty, hope and light into this world…I want to say particular words of gratitude today to the women of the wartime generation. Your strength of spirit and your feats taught us to be real men and reach victory in spite of all the obstacles.”
In Hungary, Laszio Kover, speaker of parliament, said in Congress “we would like it if our daughters considered it the highest degree of self-fulfillment to give birth to grandchildren.” Worse, these appeals are not just lip service: they are being translated into actual legislation. A recent amendment to Hungary’s Fundamental Law of 2011 was condemned by the United Nations as disguising “gender discrimination under an ideology of conservative family values.” Among one of the more extreme amendments was the protection of the life of a fetus from the moment of conception.
Populists use tradition as a mobilizing discourse: part of the discourse assigns women to traditional roles. As evidenced by Hungary, this discourse can have a profound affect on the lives on the lives of women. As this is an integral part of the populist program, Western European and American women are not immune. Donald Trump’s misogynistic outbursts should not be written off as idiosyncratic. Instead, they are a part of his broader strategy that appeals to a traditional type of masculinity not unlike Putin, Orban or other nationalist populist leaders. Women should carefully consider how their vote might affect their lives, their job prospects, and control over their bodies. Men should consider this too.