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Conservatism gone populist: The discourse on 'gender-ideology‘ in Austria

Stefanie Mayer
FH Campus Wien - Dept. for Public Management
Stefanie Mayer
FH Campus Wien - Dept. for Public Management
Edma Ajanovic
University of Vienna
Birgit Sauer
University of Vienna

Right-wing populists across Europe have ‘discovered’ a new theme on their mobilizing agenda: In recent years the notion of ‘gender’ – long established in the international scientific community as an analytical concept – became politically contested in many European countries. In Austria protests emerged i.a. against the LGBT-pride parade, against the political strategy of gender mainstreaming and gender equality policies including gender-sensitive language as well as against the introduction of sexual education oriented towards diversity in schools. Although the movement has until now not been as successful in rallying supporters as the French ‘La Manif pour tous’, which gained massive support in 2013, it certainly succeeded in influencing political and public debates on ‘gender’. These new movements include different actors and are bridging ideological differences between Catholic and right-wing conservatism and right-wing extremism or populism. These groups construct ‘gender’ as a totalitarian ideology which aims at creating a new, ‘gender-less’ human and thereby attacking the institution of the family and European societies as a whole. This reading of ‘gender’, which has been developed by the Vatican from the 1990s onwards, is instrumental in forming coalitions across the right-wing political spectrum. The term ‘gender-ideology’ (sometimes also called ‘gender-theory’) constructs a discursive node that links issues of equality for LGBT, women’s emancipation, gender mainstreaming and academic gender studies to resistance against sexual education in schools and kindergartens or against gender-sensitive pedagogy more broadly. ‘Gender-ideology’ in this sense functions as an empty signifier as defined by Laclau and Mouffe as it enables the creation of chains of equivalences that link different concerns and rearticulate them in one (seemingly) coherent discourse. The populist character of the discourse on ‘gender-ideology’ can however not only be shown with regards to its ability to form equivalential chains, but also with regards to the world view – the ‘thin ideology’ in Cas Mudde’s terms – it subscribes to, i.e. in its attacks on elites as well as ‘others’ that are constructed as antagonists of ‘the people’. The success of the discourse on ‘gender-ideology’ in raising support for conservative movements among different parts of the population can at least partly be explained by its populist character.

Our paper will present results of empirical research undertaken in Austria, in which we analysed ‘gender ideology’ by means of a critical frame analysis. We will focus on how ‘gender ideology’ functions as a discursive node that bridges differences between actors and interlinks disparate strands of discourse and diverse political concerns. Through our analysis of the role ascribed to Islam in the ‘gender-ideology’ discourse we can show connections to broader right-wing populist and extremist discourses and to the existential threats to ‘the people’ they construct.
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