Eastern Europe’s Anti-Gender Movement and What It Means for America

Under the umbrella of the anti-gender movement, right-wing actors are uniting in opposition to women’s rights, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive freedoms, immigrant’s rights and democracy.

Eastern Europe’s Anti-gender Movement and What It Means for America
Learning from the experiences of activists in Eastern Europe, Americans can build a more inclusive movement. (Eric Kilby / Flickr)

The term “gender” has never been more popular around the world. Outside the Western context, “gender” has historically been used within small groups of feminist activists and academics. It is a term that does not have an indigenous meaning in most languages. In many cultures, the term “gender,” a social construction, is deemed an impossibility—one only has a sex. 

Yet, in the past eight years, “gender” has been utilized not only by feminists and academics throughout the world but has increasingly been uttered by religious leaders, far-right politicians and men’s rights activists. Why the sudden interest? How did this relatively unknown term ascend to the forefront of political debate over the last decade?

The short answer is that the term “gender” has become what scholars have referred to as “symbolic glue”—a term that binds various, and sometimes unrelated, ideas together for the political right, including women’s rights, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive freedoms, immigrant’s rights, democracy and liberal values more generally. In fact, right-wing actors have come together to form a movement that broadly resists these various ideas under one umbrella—the anti-gender movement. 

Between the summer of 2018 and 2019, I lived in Eastern Europe for a year, researching feminist activism in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. I became well-acquainted with the conservative anti-gender movement, which colors the political, economic and social environments in which feminist activists work. Activists in this region have been working in these hostile environments for the better part of seven years and have developed fascinating strategies of resistance that could prove beneficial as American feminists resist the rise of the right in our own country. 

The Anti-Gender Movement

“Gender” is defined in Article 3(c) of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, as “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” This convention, which opened for signatures in 2011, marks the first time gender has been defined as a social construction in international law.         

In 2011, when the convention first opened for signatures, there was (seemingly) nothing controversial about expanding international law to protect women and girls from violence. Shortly thereafter, women’s rights activists throughout Europe began to experience a backlash from conservatives over the Convention. The term “gender” became a rallying point for conservatives and the movement was born.

According to the prominent Polish academic and activist Agnieszka Graff, before 2013, “feminism” in Poland was “an obscure foreign concept known only to specialists.” However, discussion of the Istanbul Convention changed this. The movement brought feminism, and the concept of gender, into the mainstream media. A pastoral letter from the Bishops’ Conference of Poland in 2013 marks the beginning of the anti-gender movement in the country. It states, gender ideology is the product of many decades of ideological and cultural changes that are deeply rooted in Marxism and neo-Marxism, endorsed by some feminist movements and the sexual revolution.

Anti-gender activists litter Polish cities with posters warning against “genderism” and the “sexualization of children,” hold anti-gender lectures and workshops for parents, circulate petitions demanding a ban on sexual education, stage protests and maintain anti-gender websites where people can get up-to-date information about anti-gender mobilizations and the current strategies of the “genderists” (feminists and LGBTQ+ rights activists and organizations).

In Slovakia, conservative organizations make public lists of organizations and individuals they claim to represent the “homosexual lobby.” These organizations are said to support gender equality, feminist issues, LGBTQ+ rights, and sex education. A joint statement issued by Christian Churches in Slovakia in February of 2018 stated:

The Istanbul Convention sees the root of domestic violence as the ‘stereotypical roles’ of men and women, and demands that specific, biological features of men and women should be given up in favor of gender equality as a solution to this problem.

According to the Slovak scholar Zuzana Maďarová, the anti-gender movement has successfully constructed a discourse that connects feminism with Marxism, fascism, and with what conservatives are terming “queer theory,” arguing that this is a new variety of totalitarianism.

The movement has proved successful at accomplishing some of its goals. In March of 2019, Slovak Parliament requested that the government halt the ratification process of the Istanbul Convention. In 2018, Russia’s parliament decriminalized domestic violence. In Hungary and Romania, the teaching of “gender ideology” has been outlawed. This has resulted in the closure of universities’ gender studies departments in these countries.

Due to the strength of the anti-gender movement in the region, activists and organizations have been forced to shift their attention away from activism and service provision for women and girls and instead use their time and resources to refute the myths put forth by the anti-gender movement. Myths such as the convention legally requires countries to introduce a third gender. When I interviewed a Czech activist in 2018 about her efforts in this environment, she said, “Now it is just defensive work rather than proactive work when it comes to preventing violence against women.”

Resisting the Anti-Gender Movement

The anti-gender movement overlaps with appeals to nationalism and national sovereignty. It is often presented as a movement against international organizations and foreign elites seeking to undermine the family, the nation, the church, and/or Western civilization. This is not unlike discourses utilized by the right in the U.S. context in which “communists” and feminists are framed as threats to “traditional” American values, and fears of “the other” lead to the scapegoating of immigrants, people of color, and workers in the American context. This is made manifest not only in overt attempts to undermine democracy and sow the seeds of public distrust in governmental institutions but also in more subtle policy changes, such as attacks on women’s reproductive rights occurring in many states across the U.S.          

One way that eastern European feminist activists have resisted this conservative movement is by being more inclusive in their activism. Organizations that were once primarily anti-violence organizations or focused on women’s reproductive rights have joined forces with pro-democracy movements, LGBTQ+ rights organizations and immigrant’s rights organizations to present a unified countermovement against the anti-gender movement and the far-right.   

In places where the movement is gaining strength, activists have still resisted the far-right and even made positive changes. In Slovakia and Poland in 2016 and 2021, activists took to the streets and successfully resisted restrictions to women’s reproductive rights.

A sign from a march in New York City in 2011 reads, “Feminazi: because wanting to be treated like a human being is just like invading Poland.” (Terence McCormack / Flickr)

Paradoxically, the rise of the anti-gender movement has incentivized many feminist organizations to expand their feminist message. The movement has created an opportunity for liberal organizations to position themselves as supporters of democracy, human rights, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights and gender equality in opposition to the conservative movement. Feminist activists have resisted this conservative movement through inclusivity—when such a concerted and robust movement exists against feminism, organizations cannot be single-issue.

Eastern European activists have some important lessons for American activists when it comes to resisting the rise of the right. The most important of which is the maintenance of broad-based organizations. Organizations must not advocate only for women’s reproductive rights or equal pay; they must also advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, immigrant’s rights and demonstrate a pro-democracy stance. Learning from the experiences of activists in eastern Europe, Americans can build a more inclusive movement. Indeed, it is the only way forward. 

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Alexandria Wilson-McDonald, Ph.D., is a professorial lecturer in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. She earned her Ph.D. in political science with an emphasis in gender studies and European studies from the University of Florida. Her research focuses on feminist movements in Eastern Europe.