Female supporters of right-parties are often overlooked. They're not who you think, a new European study shows.

Last modified January 16, 2021. Published January 8, 2021.

Female far-right supporters in Europe, like France's Marine Le Pen, tend to come from different backgrounds than their male counterparts. (AP Photo/Michael Spingler)

Women who support European far-right parties typically don’t come from socially conservative or blue-collar backgrounds, unlike their male counterparts, according to new research, a finding that complicates prevailing narratives about how such parties appeal to the voting public.

In an article published in the European Political Science Review on Dec. 22, researchers found surprising evidence that among women, culturally progressive attitudes at the personal and party levels correlate with far-right support. This is in contrast to men, for whom socially conservative positions are strongly predictive of their support for far-right parties.

Co-authors Trevor Allen of Central Connecticut State University and Sara Wallace Goodman of the University of California, Irvine noted that female support of Europe’s far right isn’t captured in the “received scholarship,” which tends to focus on the ways that feelings of disenfranchisement among conservative male blue-collar workers drive them disproportionately to back extreme-right parties. 

That male-centered focus may have obscured what draws women to such parties, Allen told The Academic Times — and hindered our understanding of far-right parties’ complex social structures and their ultimate policy goals. While men typically make up the majority of far-right voters, female support for such parties is rooted in starkly different attitudes.

“Perhaps part of the reason why the economic preferences of far-right voters are ambiguous, or part of the reason why the social structure is a little ambiguous, is because gender has not been completely accounted for,” Allen said. “The men who vote for these parties might look different from the women who voted [for them].”

The authors used European Social Survey data from between 2002 and 2016, along with information from far-right party manifestos, to take a closer look at the ways women’s work backgrounds and positions on economic and cultural issues — and the positions far-right parties take on these issues — predict support for those parties.

The researchers focused on support for 12 European far-right parties mainly from across Western Europe and Scandinavia, a group they said “has converged on a mixture of populism, authoritarianism and nativism.”

Using attitudes measured by the European Social Survey on gay equality as a proxy for stances on the broader “noneconomic, moral dimension of politics,” the authors found in their regression models that conservatism on the issue predicted far-right support among men, while liberal positions correlated with far-right support among women.

“Strikingly,” the researchers found, “tolerance toward gays and lesbians predicts greater far-right support among women” with more liberal views as compared to women who held conventionally conservative views on the morality of same-sex attraction.

“Men tend to be conservative on this host of other cultural issues, whereas women mostly seem to be driven by the immigration question ... but [are] less conservative in other areas,” Allen said, noting that far-right rhetoric about the incompatibility between Islam and secular Western values may be particularly appealing to some liberal-leaning women.

Far-right parties may be gaining popularity by “framing xenophobia as a type of progressive chauvinism: rights for me, not for thee,” according to Allen and Wallace Goodman.

Female supporters of far-right parties are also likelier to work in “routine nonmanual labor,” such as service, sales and clerical positions, than in blue-collar jobs, whereas their male counterparts are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of manual labor.

Although male and female “sociocultural and technical professionals” are less likely to back the far right than blue-collar and service-sector workers, the researchers found that among women service, clerical and sales work predicts support for far-right parties more than technical, professional and blue-collar work.

There is “a clear difference in occupational profile among women who support the far right, altogether different than the blue-collar occupations from which far-right parties derive their male support,” Allen and Wallace Goodman said.

The findings suggest that women in blue-collar jobs aren’t as susceptible to feelings of “status decline” that seem to drive many male blue-collar workers to far-right parties.

Taken together, the research paints a complex picture of the social, economic and attitudinal structure of far-right support — one that should prompt reflection by mainstream European parties on how to more productively address certain grievances expressed on the political fringe, according to Allen.

He said that the political mainstream could do more to speak to, and disarm, far-right party supporters’ ultimately “misplaced” objections to immigration, for instance. If it doesn’t, he added, Europe’s civic fabric could continue to fray.

“It does seem like there is a large population of voters who feel as though they’re not being represented by the political mainstream,” Allen said. “And that can’t be good for democracy.”

The article “Individual- and party-level determinants of far-right support among women in Western Europe,” published Dec. 22 in the European Political Science Review, was co-authored by Trevor J. Allen, an assistant professor at Central Connecticut State University and Sara Wallace Goodman, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine.