The importance of depoliticising the female body image and its role in modern right-wing extremism
In May 2022, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz characterised those who supported the Roe v Wade court decision on abortion rights as looking like ‘thumbs’, and stressed that they shouldn’t care about access to abortions by implying that women who are fat and conventionally considered ugly would be the least likely to find themselves raped or unwantingly impregnated, and therefore those least in need of access to abortions (Papenfuss 2022). These incendiary remarks highlighted an age-old reality of right wing politics: With political and social conservatism comes an unjustified expectation of adherence to traditional female body images, such as being slender and styling one’s hair and clothes to be ‘conventionally attractive’. With this view comes several dangers, not only for women themselves, but for ethnic and sexual minority groups, immigrants, and those who are branded as the opposition by the right wing.
In recent years, the fourth wave of feminism has made strides in empowering women in all aspects of life and creating a more equal playing field in many areas of society such as the workspace, medical institutions and in political representation. By the same token, the concept of the white female body in particular has seen a renewed harnessing as a political tool by the right wing. A staple of conservative politics in the gender sphere has been the separation of men and
women by virtue of gender roles, where western societies have traditionally stipulated that a man’s role is that of the provider and worker, and the woman’s role is that of the mother and housekeeper (Solyom 2017). In spite of this, however, an increase in mass migration and multiethnic mixing has driven many women to join right wing political movements in defence of ‘feminism’ – but in reality a perverted version of first-wave feminism.
Bearing in mind that first wave feminism, while indeed paving the path for the feminist movement of subsequent decades and beginning the gradual proces of achieving women’s equality at a societal level was a feminist movement, the historic context of it’s birth in early 20th century western cultures meant thast the inherent notion of femininity and female equality derived from and catered to white, middle and upper class Christian women, and did not account for poor women or women from religious or ethnic minorities. By internalising the anti-immigrant rhetoric many male-dominated conservative spaces espouse, white conservative women have made their cause one of defending a flawed notion of the fragile, upstanding white female mother. By taking the responsibility of defending this conceptual woman from the men of the right wing, many right wing political groups characterise this phenomenon as true gender equality as women are defending themselves rather than men, having historically been the defenders of women – thus villainising fourth wave feminism and hijacking the concept of femininity for primarily anti-immigrant, white supremacist purposes. (Solyom 2017).
The consequence of this political agenda is the forced conversion of all white women, willing or not, into pawns on the political chessboard by turning all white women, especially those who conform to conservative values and therefore can pass such values on to their children, into the
guardians of the white race by virtue of the female biological reproductive role. Such ideas are not merely political rhetoric, but already being realised in policies listed in the manifestos of several right-wing parties worldwide. In the case of Germany, the 2017 election manifesto of the right-wing populist party ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ included measures to pay German mothers who give birth a 25,000 Euro child allowance in an effort to fight the effects of a negative demographic, which they characterise as mass immigration, mainly from ‘Islamic states’ (Alternative für Deutschland 2017). Furthermore, the notion of increasing financial support for ‘native’ mothers in European countries is not limited to the right wing in Germany, but can be found in countries like Poland as well, where a programme known as ‘Rodzina 500+’ (Family 500+) guaranteed parents with two children a monthly payment of 120 Euros until the children turn 18 in an effort to increase ‘native’ birth rather than fill spaces in society with immigrants (Jain and Iyer 2021). The reason such policies have attracted noticeably more women than before to right-wing politics is not only because of those who idealistically promote the role of white women as the reproductive guardians of white supremacy, but because from a financial standpoint right-wing parties that previously despised any form of social welfare programmes run by the government are now supporting those social welfare programmes which support their racial or anti-immigrant agenda through maternity.
While the potential redefinition of femininity on the basis of a woman’s reproductive role in the context of white supremacy is in itself a major threat to female bodily autonomy, the negative impact on racial minorities is similarly significant. By turning the notion of the female body into a racial and political object, right-wing women who have absorbed anti-immigrant and white supremacist rhetoric can unconsciously, and in some cases consciously and maliciously, use their
bodies and supposed fragility to oppress and attack those of a racial minority. A notable case of this was the Central Park birder incident, in which a white woman was walking while allowing her dog to run without a leash, contrary to Central Park’s rules. A black man, Christian Cooper was birdwatching and noticed that the dog was running free and asked the white woman, Amy
Cooper (unrelated to the aforementioned Christian Cooper), to leash her dog in accordance with the park’s rules. Amy Cooper then called the police while being filmed by Christian Cooper, stating in hysteria that ‘I’m in the Ramble, there is a man, African-American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog… I am being threatened by a man in the Ramble, please send the cops immediately!’ (Ransom 2020) It further emerged that when Amy Cooper was called back by a 911 dispatcher after the incident was over that she had baselessly accused Mr Cooper of assault. This in itself reinforces the sheer malicious intent of Ms. Cooper’s actions – playing the card of being the fragile white woman, being threatened or ogled by a big, physically threatening black man – thereby invoking racist and sexist stereotypes which find their roots in and were heavily reinforced in the American psyche during the Jim Crow era in the Southern United States.
By weaponizing the false notion of white female fragility that has existed for centuries in western Christian cultures, society paves the way for right-wing women to weaponise their own bodies as a tool of racial oppression, and in a reproductive sense, a necessary cog in the machine that is white supremacy. This phenomenon not only serves as a tool of racial oppression in multiethnic western societies, but serves as a means of reasserting male control over women’s bodies in the form of reinforcing the maternal role of the woman and placing an unfair weight on reproduction, pressuring women into having children – and in more extreme cases potentially
removing the choice from women altogether. In this sense, the necessity of depoliticising women’s bodies and ensuring that the principles of fourth wave feminism continue to provide women with equal opportunities, bodily self determination and adequate access to medical care is unparalleled.
Alternative für Deutschland. 2017. “MANIFESTO FOR GERMANY.” AfD.de. https://www.afd.de/wp-content/uploads/sites/111/2017/04/2017-04-12_afd-grundsatzprog ramm-englisch_web.pdf.
Jain, Shruti, and Prithvi Iyer. 2021. “An unlikely match: Women and the far-right.” ORF. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/unlikely-match-women-far-right/. Papenfuss, Mary. 2022. “Matt Gaetz: Women Who ‘Look Like A Thumb’ Shouldn’t Gripe About Abortion Rights.” HuffPost UK, July 24, 2022.
Ransom, Jan. 2020. “Amy Cooper Faces Charges After Calling Police on Black Bird-Watcher (Published 2020).” The New York Times, October 14, 2020.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html. Solyom, Catherine. 2017. “Women of Quebec’s far right come out of the shadows.” Montreal Gazette, September 30, 2017.