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Strategies of progressive actors against anti-gender movements 

Andrea Pető highlights which strategies can be taken by progressive actors against anti-gender movements.

  • Written by
  • Andrea Pető
  • Published
  • 9 January 2024
Andrea Pető looking into the camera, wearing black rounded glasses, red lipstick and a white shirt, with short grey hair, standing in front of a neutral background GATE logo
© Andrea Pető

Strategies of progressive actors against anti-gender movements 

The German writer and antifascist Bertolt Brecht wrote in his 1935 piece, Writing the Truth. Five Difficulties about the Nazi takeover of Germany: “It takes courage to say that the good were defeated not because they were good, but because they were weak.” In this paper, I am exploring and analyzing why we are so weak in resisting movements and policies that operate with hate and exclusion. Changing of times, or Zeitenwende, historical times, these concepts describe a new reality. The change did not come from anywhere, and scholars working on the dark legacies of European modernity have been warning that the illusion that the dark times and dark forces have gone after 1945 is short-sighted. This is the first time after the 1945 consensus regarding values, confirmed in 1989, that values are questioned, and progressive politics is forced to think of counter strategies. The recent rise of illiberalism and neo-fascism is not a natural catastrophe; it has its reasons and causes. Even earthquakes can be forecasted if one is attentive enough. During earthquakes, some well-built houses withstand the tremor, while others collapse, so the question is how to think ahead and build houses that resist future earthquakes.

Nothing was more profound and surprising than from the early 2010s when global anti-gender movements opened up new political, cultural, and social territories and challenged established political cleavages. Changes following the polycrisis were an earthquake that fundamentally shook our world. Tens of thousands of people were demonstrating in the streets from Warsaw to Paris against same-sex marriage, collecting enough signatures for a referendum on controlling the rights of a group of citizens to marry and to adopt children and petitioning for a change in the curriculum that would ban sexual education, require new explanations. 

The representatives of anti-gender movements may seem to be arguing purely about issues of gender policy, but they wish to foster profound change in European political and value systems, leaving liberal democracy behind. The anti-gender movement is not merely another offshoot of centuries-old anti-feminism but is a fundamentally new phenomenon that was launched for the sake of establishing a nationalist neoconservative response. 

The fact these anti-gender movements are connected globally but acting nationally or even locally causes surprise. These anti-gender movements are opening up new territory in the political, cultural, and social landscape and challenging established political cleavages as they attack liberalism and, therefore, indirectly, democracy, as liberalism and democracy have been intertwined since the Enlightenment. 

The good side of this earthquake is that gender studies scholars cannot complain about the lack of broader social interest in their work. The opposite is true, as in Poland, “gender” was chosen as the word of the year in 2013. Gender studies faculty members’ mailboxes have been filled with emails with inquiries about their research and invitations to public debates in different media. How can this increased interest in gender be used to strengthen our house against earthquakes? 

What is new?

These recent attacks against gender equality fundamentally differ from when they were in Brecht`s time; therefore, in cooperation with Weronika Grzebalska, we coined the term ‘polypore state’ based on our work analyzing developments in Hungary and Poland. This newly created polypore-like formation resides where the structure of the tree — or, in our case, the state — is injured, and from there, it starts constructing its parallel structure. It is of utmost political importance to understand how this new form of state operates and start thinking about new forms of resistance, as old routines and tools of resistance do not work in this new context. 

This parallel illiberal state structure functions in three ways: by mirroring the function of the state, feeding a discourse (through the use of other’s resources and ideas), and changing the values that govern society. These three modus operandi of the illiberal state are essential to understanding how to build resilient structures to overcome orthodoxies when an earthquake hits.

The first is to rethink the role of NGOs. The simple identification of NGOs with progress and the fight for human rights is dangerous. A parallel NGO system with GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations) that follow the same agendas as progressive human rights-based organizations has been created. However, these organizations are not fighting for change but with human rights organizations appropriating their agendas. An example of this modus Operandi is the fight against violence against women. The ratification of the Istanbul Convention will bring in new funds to Hungary, and the government plans to channel this money into the GONGO system, mainly to a religious organization, where loyalty to the state is of utmost importance, leaving women’s organizations working on this field for decades underfunded.

The second function of the polypore state is most visible in the current security discourse: all the talk about ‘George Soros,’ recently Alexander Soros, the “migrants,” and “gender” is about increasing the feeling of insecurity so that the state can step in and position itself as the savior of the people. Activists, academics, and policymakers experience globally how delegitimization of their professional knowledge happened parallel with personal threats. The policy-related questions are presented as security questions. According to its rhetoric, a vigilant government will defeat the threats posed by the EU, the UN, migrants, gender studies professionals, George Soros, etc. The security discourse also affects narratives concerning science policies, including gender professionals. It has become routine to call scientists and academics “enemies of the nation” and to personally intimidate scientists who disagree with government policies.

The third function is the so-called “familiarism” – in this system, women do not exist anymore; they become part of the family, and even the state is seen as a family; it functions like a big family. Historical revisionism plays a similarly prominent role in terms of global transformation, as does the transposition of emphasis from women to families – e.g., in some countries, such as Hungary and Poland, the CEDAW reports of the United Nations mention families instead of women; and women only appear as parts of the family. This, again, is an example of how the polypore state supersedes the existing institutional mechanisms and uses them to achieve its own goals. In this context, when women are not considered citizens in their own right but only in the familial discourse, there are still places to resist. 

As the illiberal forces capture institutions, our strength is in these invisible networks, thanks to which resistance can come from unexpected places. 

Strategies against the attacks on gender

The new challenge is never after 1945 have anti-modernist alternatives received so many votes as viable alternatives in democratic elections. I argued in this paper that the anti-gender movement is a new phenomenon in European politics, so new methods and thinking frameworks are required if progressive forces can offer meaningful responses. 

The reactions could have been more effective in the earthquake’s first years. The first reactions to anti-gender movements tended to be enlightened and offended, questioning the ability of the other to understand what gender is. Gender activists then commenced the first educational campaigns. The second reaction was defensive and sought to use the language of gender equality policy to reinforce the fortress of already existing policy provisions to prevent “backlash” from happening. The third reaction, parallel to entrenchment, involves blogging and using new social media to monitor developments in anti-gender movements. I am arguing for new reactions like re-enchantment, abandoning NGOs as a prioritized form of protest, rethinking the sites of emancipation, and narrowing the focus of action to local.


“Disenchanted” progressive politics should be “re-enchanted” and to move politics back to the ground to people using a different language than the language of policy. The most successful mobilizational force of these anti-gender movements is their new language for political mobilization. Using the concept of gender as a technical category can, in the long run, be more self-destructive than helpful in the encounter with this new political challenge, which is questioning the very framework of neoliberal democracy. The uncritical use of gender mainstreaming, gender budgeting, and other policies embedded in the neoliberal system can only hinder finding new alternatives and languages for defining the problems. 

NGOs redefined

The new political programs emerging from re-articulating the relationship between the state and citizens are constructing new spaces. These new spaces place democratic actors in an opposing binary position to the establishment, significantly impacting their performance. Any alternative or resistance is challenging to maintain as the polypore state questions this binary, constructing its own NGO sphere, namely the GONGOs, representing the appropriated agenda of the secular, human rights-based organizations on national and international levels. The polypore states have started to establish a pseudo-NGO movement that enjoys mass support using state funding, with livelihoods provided by opaque interest groups and with populism-based party communication. The NGO sector, which had previously acted as a watchdog and a voice for human rights values by the principles of liberal democracy, has been transformed and now struggles to respond effectively to the government’s fundamental structural positions, which have broad social support. The donor-dependent NGO sphere, which is also stigmatized by the security discourse as a foreign agent even though most of its issues are now represented by GONGOs, is an unlikely space from where resistance will emerge. Therefore, localized, grassroots movements have a chance against well-funded and well-organized illiberal movements. 

Emancipation outside employment. 

Gender equality started with work: once women stepped out of their role as unpaid caretakers, they started demanding payment for their work equal to that of men. Now, by focusing on the tendencies, it will be seen that robots take on the same jobs that women do. At the same time, there is also a trend for romanticizing the care work done by women through the ideology of female difference. These two together will deter women from entering the labor market, resulting in women losing the material basis of the emancipatory ideology.

In the meantime, a fundamentalist ideology supports the polypore state, according to which the task of women – who are considered unequal to men – is to stay at home and care for the family. Only afterward might she be allowed to work part-time. A critical political fight evolves around whether it is possible to quantify care. Possible questions concerning the so-called care crisis, fundamental to our future, include who will give birth, raise children, and care for the sick and elderly. The “women’s policies” of the national right-wing political parties all focus on the normative cult of motherhood and familialism. In their political language, these parties refer to “family policy” rather than “women’s politics,” whereby the social role of women is normative motherhood. The liberal-leftist critique of the normative cult of motherhood emphasizes women’s human rights and the right to choose motherhood. This option includes the right to reject maternity – which in conservative discourse is regarded as “national” sabotage.

The illiberal gender politics, also based on the politics of care and placing the family at the center, seeks, in the long run, to absorb the political space for conservative women’s politics while uniting all these political forces under the rhetoric of hostility to communist oppression.

Return of the local 

Locality is usually not conceptualized as a significant space for rethinking politics, even though it is the basis of representational politics. However, the resistance to the polypore state can only come from localized contexts, namely localized issues by local actors framed globally. The issue of corruption (constitutive part of the polypore state) or gender equality, even though it is a structural and global phenomenon, can mobilize resistance only if combined with a locally relevant issue. The future will tell us whether reinventing locality in the age of identity politics and new movements outside the context of NGOs can change political parties into institutions of representation. 

Counter strategies

The past decade brought rich literature on anti-gender movements globally. Academics, activists, and institutions were spending their valuable time to understand this fundamentally new phenomenon. However, the first step in creating successful strategies is to stop being concerned about this polypore, as it uses and appropriates all positive energies and ideas for sustenance. 

The first step for formulating counter strategies is to create an independent strategy, not only reacting to the attack. It should be accepted that progressive politics results from the Enlightenment and, therefore, implies a clear-cut vision of normativity that always creates minorities that engage in “othering.” The European tradition of Enlightenment is working with normative subject positions. Therefore, this anti-gender campaign is just appropriating the old propaganda tools to mount a unified attack on LGBTQ groups to strengthen European Christian cohesion. 

When the state is captured, and the illiberal discourse becomes hegemonic, best practices from the past can come in handy. The work of David J. McQuoid-Mason in apartheid South Africa inspires me. He invented the concept of “street law” instead of human rights. He built up an educational network that contributed to the fall of the Apartheid regime and also became the foundation of new South Africa.  

Here are some suggestions:

  • Strengthening your guild: join a professional organization, pay the fee, and support your professional network. The professional network is not your family; you do not need to love and agree with all members but should share the basic principles of professional ethics. That firm value is already a blow to “illiberal pragmatism.”
  • Think carefully about when and how to engage in public discussion, as these debates are not about solving issues. Still, the debate as a genre is used to disseminate and normalize very problematic ideas. Engage in debates about gender studies but NOT in a framework of “for and against,” but rather about issues to be solved with the research coming from gender studies. 
  • Avoid technical language and terms in English. Illiberals win because they use populist methods: addressing a wider, nonprofessional audience in a popular, understandable language. Try to do the same to speak about very complex issues in understandable language. 
  • The illiberal takeover is a legal counterrevolution that uses legal methods to create an alternative legal framework. The best allies are the lawyers, who know that professional credibility is at stake, not only the concrete issue.
  • Line up with a few influencers to support you and support you on social media. 
  • Use existing organizations and their resources for your purpose.
  • Use existing laws and discourses of “country X is pioneered in human rights” for your purpose and as a threat of PR disasters.
  • Illiberal regimes work with conflicts partly because academics are not very combatant and partly because debates are about how to put forward and normalize their ideas. If you know how to use this political opportunity, conflict is good (debate, reporting, denunciations, etc.).
  • Accept that some of your colleagues are not your allies. They have other agendas, are short-sighted, and are just tired now. Do not offend them, but keep the door always open by keeping them in the loop.
  • Be ready to be listed as a traitor to the nation. Use social media for your purpose and tweet #theOtherHungary, showing an example and an alternative.
  • Be present on social media and make sure you stay safe. If you receive the first threat, you should immediately go to the police and demand that they should do their jobs. If not, post about it. 
  • Pick a fight you can win on your terms, and do not waste energy on reacting because that is how polypore states, having seemingly inexhaustible resources, operate. 
  • Silence and nonaction can be as powerful as going to the streets as these close communication opportunities, and the polypore has nothing to react to. 


Progressive actors should self-critically rethink the neoliberal emancipation model and try to re-enchant the doing of feminist politics to reach out to a broader public instead of blaming others for being misunderstood or, which is even worse, trying to explain “what gender is.” These are new times after and before recent earthquakes. The polypore state no longer considers diversity an asset but aims to delegitimize and exclude differences. Implementing innovative strategies to create natural, enchanted alternatives is high time.

Andrea Pető looking into the camera, wearing black rounded glasses, red lipstick and a white shirt, with short grey hair, standing in front of a neutral background
  • About the author

Andrea Petőshe/her

Academic Guest author

Andrea Pető is a historian and a Professor at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, Vienna, Austria, a Research Affiliate of the CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest, and a Doctor of Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.