"Racists can't be feminists"

 Stefanie Mayer

Stefanie Mayer: "Anti-feminism has become a point of agreement for the right and the far right to build coalitions"

Teresa Bau
Stefanie Mayer, a researcher on feminisms and far-right political movements


Stefanie Mayer, a researcher on feminisms and far-right political movements at the University of Applied Sciences of Vienna, recently participated in the Men in Movement conference organized by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), where she reflected on new models of masculinity. Mayer explained in this interview the reasons for the rise of far-right anti-feminist movements and the internal conflicts affecting feminism.

Far-right parties in Europe and around the world are trying to eliminate the rights of women and the LGBT community achieved in recent decades. How can this be explained?

There are a number of factors that have come together and may partly answer this question. One of them is the idea that Europe (or the West) has achieved gender equality and that, therefore, what feminists or queer activists demand is "going too far". We obviously know this isn't true, but it's a very influential idea. A second element is that anti-feminism became a point of agreement between right and far-right agents on which to build coalitions. And thirdly, the greater precariousness of all aspects of life in recent decades and the multiple crises we are facing, combined with a deep sense of loss of participation in the political and economic spheres, can lead people to want to play a strong role in a part of their lives over which they still feel they have control: the private sphere, which includes gender relations.

In this context, there is a merger of different anti-feminist discourses, from the development of the manosphere to right-wing extremists who use anti-feminism for their policies and conservatives who try to "save" the traditional family to prevent it from being questioned. It's therefore a complex situation that manifests itself differently depending on the context. 

Can a real feminist be racist? Isn't this a contradiction? There are some examples, such as the politician Marine Le Pen, who advocates white feminism that excludes equality for migrant women.

The short answer is no: racist people cannot be feminists, because a feminism that excludes most women on the planet does not deserve this name. And, when you see right-wing extremists and populists with their so-called "feminism," it's often an excuse for their racist agenda, which includes a very limited notion of white women's rights and has very little to do with a feminist project for social change. As a white feminist, I have a responsibility to commit to the fight against gender racism that discriminates against foreign men and can also be found within white feminism, not just on the far right.

As you said, far-right parties are using alleged feminism to attack migrant men in a clearly racist discourse. Is this kind of "feminism" new?

I don't think so. Looking back on history, you can see similar patterns, such as the anti-Semitic discourses of the beginning of the 20th century. I'm very reluctant to call these speeches that focus on "protecting our women" feminist. They may seem to be about women's safety and rights, but the price women have to pay for it is to accept traditional gender hierarchy. They thus serve to reinforce a type of aggressive masculinity that is opposed to gender equality.

What does white feminism consist of, and how does it clash with other types of feminism?

For my project "Politics of Differences", I studied how white feminists in Vienna have addressed issues such as immigration and racism since the 1980s, and how they failed in their attempt to include anti-racist practices. I used the term white feminism to refer to most feminist activists in Austrian society, but I didn't use it as a specifically racist type of feminism, which is what this term has come to mean today. 

What struck me most about the work of black feminists and feminists of colour was that their criticism fully targeted the foundations of feminist thought and activism. The classic feminist movement has based its analyses on the experiences of (white) female activists but ignored the experiences of marginalized women, racialized women and women of different ethnicities. The white experience has thus been the foundation of feminist thought. This cannot be corrected by merely introducing some superficial changes. Instead, a new reflection is needed, and the foundations of feminism must be reconstructed to include the experience of black women.

What are the main criticisms of white feminism? Do you think the internal struggles within the movement are healthy, or do they just weaken it?

I think the main point is the fact that white feminists often don't understand the meaning of racism and anti-Semitism. We must acknowledge that there is an openly racist current within white feminism that claims that migrant or Muslim men are the main culprits of sexism and violence against women. This only serves to legitimize racism, and it also denies the gender racism suffered by migrant women and women of colour. This criticism is absolutely necessary, because this racist feminism only weakens the feminist movement as a whole.

In recent times, there have been clashes between pro-transgender groups and classic feminists. How does queer feminist activism fit into the traditional feminist culture?

One of the things that have become clear during my research on feminism is that the feminist movement has never been united. Clashes about all kinds of issues -sexuality, lesbianism, motherhood and more- have always been there. So it's not easy to understand what "classic" feminism currently means. In my opinion, there's a significant continuity: old-school feminists claimed that traditional restrictions on what it means to be a woman should not prevent them from defining, expressing and experiencing this identity however they wanted. Similarly, today's queer activists demand the right to define, express and experience all the different gender identities. This does not mean it's easy to reconcile feminist and queer analyses. On the other hand, transphobia is clearly an important issue, also within feminism.

How can we and society fight the far right's anti-gender agenda?

We cannot desist from our efforts to deconstruct a system of toxic gender relations that affect people of all genders and restrict everyone's ability to be human. Another thing we need to do is strengthen intersectoral alliances, for example between the LGBTIQ+ community and anti-racist, anti-fascist and feminist groups. I know it's easier said than done, but anti-gender mobilizations are an attack on all of us, and we need to give a unified response.

To finish: any positive messages?

When you look at the history of feminist movements, you can see that these activists have always encountered strong resistance, a situation that is not so different from the attacks we are currently seeing. And, despite setbacks -such as Fascism and National Socialism- we've made good progress. History shows that positive advances are never easy and that social movements achieve change.