‘Gender’ Is at the Core of Attacks on Democracy in the U.S. and Abroad

As a child, I lived in Florida. Later, my career brought me to Central Europe. The links between the far-right leaders in both these regions is undeniable.

A protest against legislation bill would severely restrict access to abortion in in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Oct. 18, 2021. (Vladimir Simicek/ AFP via Getty Images)

I was a researcher in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland from 2015-2022. I watched as far-right politicians in these countries and their neighbors staged aggressive disinformation campaigns about an international treaty that aimed to limit gender-based violence, and improve reproductive freedoms and LGBTQ+ rights. On the whole, these movements also opposed gender studies as an academic discipline.

Similar policies are now sweeping across the U.S. today.

Having spent years studying what can be called the ‘anti-gender movement’ in Central Eastern Europe, and having grown up and lived in Florida, the connections between attacks on gender equality and attacks on democracy in both contexts is unmistakable.

Feminists in Central Eastern Europe have employed various tactics to address this growing right-wing movement, as my recent research reveals—some of which have been quite successful and might prove helpful as American feminists resist this growing movement here in the U.S.

Attacks on ‘Gender’ and Democracy

In March of 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed what opponents have called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, banning Florida teachers from providing instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. In April of 2023, the bill was expanded to restrict Florida’s public school teachers from grades K-12 from teaching material on sexual orientation and gender identity.

DeSantis has also attacked academic freedom in higher education through Florida House Bill 999, which restricts the teaching of topics such as “radical gender theory,” “radical feminist theory” and intersectionality, among others.

A slate of anti-LGBTQ+ bills have also been proposed across the country—including regulating who can use which bathrooms, restricting gender-affirming care, and restricting people’s ability to update their gender on government records and IDs. They follow a myriad of book bans in the U.S.—including, notably, in Florida—where local school boards have disproportionately banned books with LGBTQ+ content and those that discuss the history of slavery and racism in the U.S.

While legislation of this kind is not new in the U.S., today it represents a new incarnation of conservative politics aimed at attacking the core of our democratic system. While much of this current movement draws on discourses specific to American conservative politics, it is not restricted to the U.S., nor did it begin here.

In Central Eastern Europe, the so-called anti-gender movement has been growing since 2011. While the goal of the anti-gender movement is to pass legislation that restricts the rights of women, gender and sexual minorities, anti-gender actors do so through their opposition to the concept of “gender” itself.

Anti-gender actors make a gender- and sex-essentialist argument by contending that gender is not a social construction but rather one’s gender is tied to their sex at birth. Right-wing politicians and religious leaders across Central and Eastern Europe have dubbed women’s rights, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights as “gender ideology.”

The centrality of the term “gender” to these movements is evident in the U.S. as well. Donald Trump cited “gender ideology” as dangerous to the nation and the “traditional family” in a recent speech for his 2024 campaign, and Ron DeSantis called “woke gender ideology” dangerous and a threat to the nation. Both Republican presidential frontrunners, these men have advocated and supported false electoral claims, voter suppression laws, and the amassing of power within the executive branch.

Anti-gender actors explicitly focus on the teaching of gender studies and thwarting academic freedom. In 2018 Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán banned the teaching of gender studies at Hungarian universities. After which, a representative of the Hungarian government stated, “People are born either male or female. … We do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially-constructed genders, rather than biological sexes.”

Orbán has subsequently become a celebrity in conservative circles, including his appearance at CPAC.

The Feminist Resistance

While interviewing activists and policymakers, I learned tactics that feminists have employed to address this growing right-wing movement in Central and Eastern Europe.

In Slovakia, rather than retreat into silos or silence, the feminist movement opted to build bridges of resistance with LGBTQ+ rights groups, pro-democracy activists and anti-fascist alliances, and crucially, intensified their feminist message. Rather than frame their messages of promoting access to reproductive healthcare and resisting domestic violence in gender-neutral ways—which could be beneficial to continue to work behind the scenes in this hostile environment—they have instead opted for an explicitly gendered message using feminist language, drawing attention to gender inequality, the role of patriarchy in reproducing gendered norms, reproductive rights, and the rights of sexual and gender minorities.

One prominent Slovak feminist organization even used the opportunity to rebrand Trump’s message on the banner on their website, with the slogan “Make Feminism Great Again.” Actors answered the call, rallying to form a broad pro-feminist coalition.

This overt feminist messaging and broad coalition of feminist, LGBTQ+ rights and pro-democracy activists has successfully curtailed a number of bills, including one referendum to ban same sex marriage in 2015 and two bills to restrict access to abortion proposed by the far-right coalition in Parliament in 2018 and again in 2020.

Operating in an environment that is hostile to gender equality is very difficult for activists and those suffering from the restrictions imposed by new legislation. Activists and everyday people must decide how to use precious resources and must consider the safety of individuals involved in activism. However, if we can take anything from our Slovak counterparts, it is that a hostile environment can be used as an opportunity to build a broadly inclusive movement that recognizes the interconnected nature of patriarchy, heteronormativity and authoritarianism.

We can also take away the necessity to revamp our messaging to one that is not only inclusive but also incorporates the concept of “gender” as a social construction as crucial to promoting gender equality policies and a functioning democracy.

Up next:

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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.