It would be easy, with all the hullabaloo over her sterling Fascist credentials, to forget that Giorgia Meloni is the first female prime minister ever elected in Italy. This should be a big deal. There is perhaps no sturdier glass ceiling in Europe than that which rests over Italian politics, where love of the mamma has not equated to gender equality. Indeed, this triumph of the feminine in a country renowned for its chauvinism should, in a less contentious reality, be celebrated as an international triumph, not least because Meloni did it as the head of a political organization called Brothers of Italy.
And yet cheering for Meloni’s success in the traditionally male-dominated arena of Italian politics feels like cheering for Lizzie Borden’s success in the traditionally male-dominated arena of domestic murder. Much as one wants to admire Meloni’s rise to the top, it’s hard to ignore her screeds against political correctness, her conspiracy theories about immigration, and her perpetual use of anti-Semitic dog whistles. After a decade in which there has been a much-needed re-assertion of female rights in Western societies, it seems that there are some limits to sisters doing it for themselves.
Meloni is the most spectacular example of a recent trend in European politics in which charismatic women have taken the reins of far-right political parties and led them to increasing legitimacy. Just look at Marine Le Pen in France, Alice Weidel in Germany, Pia Kjaersgaard in Denmark, or Siv Jensen in Norway. Along with Meloni, they have become the faces for successful political organizations that merge a hatred of immigration and a fear of “Islamification” with a rigid support for traditional family values and a rather worrying obsession with what Weidel calls “genetic unity.”
Meloni’s party descends directly from the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (M.S.I.), created in 1946 out of the dregs of Benito Mussolini’s defeated followers. The M.S.I. was racist, violent, and predominantly male. It was this organization that Meloni originally joined, in 1992. Even when the M.S.I. morphed into the slightly more respectable Brothers of Italy they remained a fringe concern, winning only 2 percent of the vote in 2013. Yet under Meloni’s leadership, they have broadened their reach, softened their words, and become a surprising political force.
The same is true for Marine Le Pen’s National Front party, which was an ultra-nationalist, ultra-Catholic, ultra-xenophobic political machine under Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie. When Marine Le Pen seized control in 2011, she too set out to “de-demonize it.” This has been done partly through the felicitous symbolism of gender. Nothing announces a break from a gruesome past like a female leader. And both Meloni and Le Pen have diffused the sexist rhetoric of their predecessors by asserting their roles as both professional women and mothers. But they have not got rid of the old ways completely.
Cheering for Meloni’s success in the traditionally male-dominated arena of Italian politics feels like cheering for Lizzie Borden’s success in the traditionally male-dominated arena of domestic murder.
The old far right insisted a woman’s place was in the home; the new female leaders talk of strengthening the welfare system to encourage family values and stay-at-home mothers. Both Meloni and Weidel have talked seriously about increasing the birth rate of the native population through monetary incentives to help counter the “great replacement,” a conspiracy theory that believes immigration is the work of shady, stateless “financial speculators.”
In these new narratives women are not being treated as subservient bystanders but rather as the main characters in an ethno-nationalist drama. Such careful shading has allowed Meloni to attract women—27 percent of female votes, more than that of any other party—who had traditionally shunned the far right, while maintaining her base.
Of equal significance is how the new leaders have co-opted feminism in the pursuit of their Fascistic goals. Amid the refugee crisis in 2016, Le Pen wrote, “I am scared that the migrant crisis signals the beginning of the end of women’s rights.” Without using the word “feminism,” which is still considered a leftist term, she painted a picture of immigrants from Muslim countries bringing their misogynistic cultures to France and threatening the fundamental rights of women. In one fell swoop she displayed her pro-woman credentials without alienating her base. Le Pen is now the head of the largest opposition party in France, with as many female supporters as male ones.
Such blending of old scare tactics with new concerns demonstrates the political strength and agility of this new generation of far-right women leaders. They have exploited the comparatively non-hierarchical nature of fringe groups to rise more quickly than they would have within more established, and more cautious, political parties, just as tech start-ups allow for a greater chance of swift advancement than blue-chip corporations. This is the case in Italy, especially, where polls show that only 37 percent of men think a woman should be prime minister.
There are contradictions. Meloni speaks of traditional family values but has a child with her boyfriend. In 2018, Siv Jensen was named “faghag of the year” during Norway’s GayGalla, but she is also a climate denier and staunch immigration opponent. Alice Weidel is a lesbian, though most of her party is opposed to gay marriage.
But as the populist far-right and traditional conservative movements slowly bleed together across the world, such contradictions are seen as the price of a majority. Just look at that other sinister blond, Donald Trump, the living embodiment of the seven deadly sins, who managed to attract so many evangelical Christians to his cause.
In some ways Meloni has triumphed because of the peculiarities of the Italian political system. The Brothers of Italy was the only significant political party that wasn’t part of the previous coalition government. This freed it to campaign on a welcome message of change. But even if Meloni lasts for the blink of an eye, like so many Italian prime ministers before her, she has built a bridge between the fringe right and mainstream conservatism, not only through her political skill but also by virtue of her being a woman.
George Pendle is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL. His book Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons became a television series for CBS All Access. He is also the author of Death: A Life and Happy Failure, among other books