by David Paternotte (Université libre de Bruxelles)
On 13 February 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “on experiencing a backlash in women’s rights and gender equality in the EU”. Following a report by the FEMM committee on the situation in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, this text defines backlash as “a resistance to progressive social change, regression on acquired rights or maintenance of a non-egalitarian status quo”. Similarly, in 2017, the online media OpenDemocracy started a series of investigative pieces on attacks on the rights of women and LGBT people around the world, which are gathered under the title “Tracking the backlash”.
In both cases, the term “backlash” offers a framework to examine the recent conservative offensive in Europe and elsewhere. It has become one of the most common narratives to understand what is currently at stake in extremely diverse settings. Despite its success and the obvious appeal of this perspective, I want to warn scholars, observers and practitioners of its risks and limits. Although the current offensive is undoubtedly a response to the achievements of the 1990s and 2000s, it cannot be reduced to this reactive dimension for it is also intrinsically productive, as argued by Fernando Serrano in the case of Colombia. In this article, I argue that backlash offers a misleading narrative because it is conceptually flawed, empirically weak and politically problematic.
The backlash narrative usually relates conservative attacks to progressive progress and rests on the idea that “the empire always strikes back”. As noted by Susan Faludi in her 1991 book, “a backlash against women’s rights is […] a recurring phenomenon: it returns every time women begin to make some headway towards equality, a seemingly inevitable early frost to the brief flowerings of feminism” (p. 68). Regarded as intrinsically reactionary, backlash would be moved by a sense of revenge and a willingness either to maintain the status quo or to turn the clock backwards.
Over the years, several authors have built on Faludi’s seminal book to offer a more complex understanding of backlash. For instance, in a 2008 article, Jane Mansbridge and Shauna L. Shames anchor their definition in power differentials between actors: for them, backlash designates the reaction of powerful actors to protect or regain power. Jennifer M. Piscopo and Denise M. Walsh have more recently edited a symposium on “backlash and the future of feminism”, in which they claim that “however conceived, backlash represents an existential threat to the rights and well-being of women, gender justice advocates, and the oppressed” (p. 276). Although this definition comes as a surprise given the diversity of perspectives and positions included in the special issue, it illustrates several theoretical limits of the backlash narrative. Three are discussed in the following paragraphs.
First, the notion of backlash relies on a rather mechanical understanding of history according to which certain actions would – almost automatically – unleash a counter-offensive. This phenomenon would repeat itself over history and happen every time women or sexual minorities try to improve their situation in society. Yet, historians have long demonstrated that history should not be read as a repetition of the past and avoid drawing replicable causal mechanisms from the mess of history. Furthermore, this account implies a rather simplistic and homogeneous understanding of feminist and LGBT activism, which would necessarily threaten privileges and therefore be met with opposition. However, recent research on the co-optation of feminism and its adaptation to neoliberalism or on homonormativity and homonationalism has highlighted the various ways in which power can accommodate struggles for gender and sexual equality.
Second, the backlash narrative recalls the notion of progress, which has long been criticised for its linear and teleological understanding of history. This perspective generally regards sexual politics as a long march towards a bright future and imagines the latter as necessarily more progressive. Opponents would therefore come from the darkness of the past, and backlash is understood as a resistance to change. Erasing the complexity of politics, it assumes that history has a direction. Such account echoes Timothy Snyders’ “politics of inevitability”, according to which contemporary societies were on their inescapable way towards more democracy. This narrative is not without consequence. As Snyders has argued, it has ill-equipped democrats to notice and to react to the current rise of authoritarianism.
Third, the backlash narrative tends to gather extremely different actors under the same umbrella. For this reason, it can lead to hasty and binary categorisations, which do not allow us to see the diversity and the tensions in a complex array of forces and actors. Several of them — like Catholics and Evangelicals, or Catholic and Russian Orthodox communities — are not known for their good relations and have historically opposed each other. Similarly, the Right is a complex constellation of actors of whom not all support anti-gender politics, while some individuals generally classified on the Left have openly endorsed them. Therefore, we need to understand how these complex assemblages are sustained and what is the “glue” sticking them together. Furthermore, such binaries often rely on normative perspectives which tend to gather actors in two groups: us vs. them, or those we like vs. those we dislike. Such accounts do not only overlook the tensions and rivalries that animate each camp. Against the critiques raised by intersectionality scholars, they also tend to reinforce the fictional unity of feminism or LGBTI activism. We all know, for instance, that issues like prostitution, surrogacy or trans rights profoundly divide progressive gender and sexuality communities. There is no reason to assume that conservatives are less divided, as divisions may ensue from competing normative or religious commitments, rivalries about leadership and agenda-setting, competition for funding or divergences on desirable outcomes and strategies. Finally, avoiding a binary division of actors and ideas allows us to build more creative alliances that may help overcome the current deadlock.
The backlash narrative is not only theoretically problematic, but it also runs against crucial empirical findings. Comparative research has indeed shown that anti-gender campaigns, which share common claims, arguments, modes of action and strategies across borders, are sparked by extremely different issues. Concretely, five sets of targets have been identified in Europe: sexual and reproductive rights, LGBTQI rights, children’s rights (including sex education), ‘gender’ (violence, studies, mainstreaming, etc), protection against discrimination and hate speech. It is therefore hazardous to deduce any causal relationship between specific claims or reforms and forms of opposition, as illustrated by the cases of Bulgaria and Romania. In both countries, anti-gender mobilisations are latecomers, for they did not reach their full speed until 2018. However, if both campaigns happened simultaneously and looked alike, they targeted different issues: the Istanbul Convention on violence against women in Bulgaria and the constitutional definition of marriage in Romania. This observation suggests that the reaction was ready long before any action, with complex interactions between local factors and elements of international diffusion.
This observation should invite us to reconsider the idea that progressive action would precede conservative reaction, an idea that often underpins the notion of backlash. Actually, in several countries, anti-gender campaigns are launched as a prophylaxis to prevent the future development of specific claims and reforms. These campaigns may also use the symbolic power of gender and sexuality to achieve other goals like electoral victory or the consolidation of the state, as happened in Poland with LGBT-free zones or in Colombia during the peace referendum. Such findings are not new but build on the results of a vast literature. For instance, in their work on political homophobia, Michael Bosia and Meredith Weiss have emphasised how the promotion of homophobia by the state may serve a strategy to consolidate statecraft. Ashley Currier and Joelle M. Cruz have equally used the notion of “politics of pre-emption” to highlight how actors promoting homophobia in Africa mobilise to avoid the future development of another social movement. In brief, “gender ideology” should be regarded as a Frankenstein ideology. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it did not emerge out of ignorance and has now largely emancipated from its creator to live a life on its own.
Finally, the backlash narrative is politically problematic for at least three reasons. First, using the notion of backlash to understand anti-gender campaigns excessively isolates gender and sexuality from the rest of society, with a crucial impact on counter-strategies. Indeed, several authors have argued that anti-gender campaigns can often not be dissociated from racial and cultural anxieties about the reproduction of the nation, the purity of the national body and the future of “European civilisation”. Similarly, attacks on gender studies do not only belong to anti-gender campaigns, but also take part in wider attacks on academic freedom and knowledge production (see also here).
Second, a narrow focus on gender and sexuality may prevent progressive actors from building long-needed solidarities and coalitions across issues, both within and beyond the gender and sexuality sector. A few feminists have suggested to substitute the term ‘gender’ by ‘women’ in an attempt to override anti-gender opposition. Such an idea shows that these actors have not understood what is at stake and reveals strong prejudice against specific groups such as trans people. The debate about trans rights has indeed been carefully selected by opponents to divide progressive communities and should be primarily read as the local episode of anti-gender campaigns, as happened elsewhere with surrogacy. The backlash narrative may also thwart broader inter-sectorial coalitions. For instance, research indicates that anti-gender campaigners and climate-change deniers share similar funders, a finding that should inspire wider coalitions among progressive actors. Third, if applied to its extreme, the backlash narrative could lead to self-censorship. If we consider that conservative reaction ensues from progressive action, one of the most reasonable strategies could imply to abandon some of our most controversial claims, that is to censor ourselves, in the hope this will decrease the likeliness of backlash.
In conclusion, the backlash narrative excessively drives scholars, observers and practitioners into the study of what is under attack and does not allow them to see that the assaults on women’s or LGBTI rights take part in a wider project, which strives to establish a new political – less liberal and less democratic – order. This project is not first and foremost an attempt to put women back into the kitchen or gays and lesbians into the closet but has turned gender and sexuality both in crucial battlefields and powerful symbols of what it aims to achieve. For this reason, anti-gender campaigns should be urgently read in the light of current de-democratisation processes and our perspective should not be bewildered by a narrow focus on the scope of destruction. Contemporary research on academic freedom shows that far right and populist actors do not only aim to dismantle existing institutions of knowledge production but also promote new criteria of what makes valid knowledge and, ultimately, of what counts as true. Likewise, backlash in the field of women’s and LGBTI rights should not be understood as the goal or the foundation of current attacks, but as one of its most spectacular consequences.
David Paternotte is Associate Professor in Sociology at the Université libre de Bruxelles. His fields of expertise are gender, sexuality, and social movements. After years of research on feminist and LGBT activism, he investigates anti-gender campaigns in Europe and globally. He is the coeditor, with Roman Kuhar (University of Ljubljana), of the book Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against Equality (Rowman & Littlefield 2017). On this topic, he has also coedited the Special Issues “The Feminist Project under Threat in Europe”, Politics & Governance 6(3) (2018) with Mieke Verloo (Radboud University), “Habemus Gender! The Catholic Church and ‘Gender Ideology’”, Religion & Gender, 6 (2016) with Sarah Bracke (Universiteit van Amsterdam) and “Habemus Gender: Déconstruction d’une riposte religieuse”, Sextant, 31 (2015) with Sophie van der Dussen and Valérie Piette (Université libre de Bruxelles).
 I thank Alex Cosials, Sonia Corrêa, Neil Datta, Koen Slootmaeckers, and Mieke Verloo for their comments on earlier drafts.