What is women’s role in society? That's a provocative question. Quite rightly, it probably makes you feel slightly defensive. It might make you think about women in the workplace, the glass ceiling, the gender pay gap, #MeToo or a litany of other barriers to equality. But it’s a very serious question today.
There is a reason that Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale centres around a society where women’s fertility has been weaponised by a political dictatorship. In her setting of Gilead, the freedoms that women have spent the last century slowly winning are reversed and turned inside out. Women are stripped of their rights and forced to live out their lives in service of a patriarchal society where their productivity is measured by their ability to bear children. It’s frightening not because it feels removed from reality but because it feels as though it could happen.
Across the world right now, this question – about the role of women in society – is being posed by populist right-wing politicians.
Natalism (or pronatalism) is a political ideology which promotes the reproduction of human life or, perhaps more aptly, sees women’s primary role as giving birth in order to boost a country’s native population. In Europe, the average number of children that women are having has fallen, meaning some countries are struggling to maintain their population without immigration. The issue has been placed on the European Council’s strategic agenda for the next five years; in some countries, there has been a rebirth of policies designed to reward fertility and encourage child-bearing.
In 2018, the population fell in 10 of the 28 EU member countries including Croatia, Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency. Croatia's prime minister, Andrej Plenković said that this decline poses an "existential" risk.
Last year, the prime minister of Hungary, Victor Orbán introduced several pronatalist policies. They included housing subsidies for single mothers, 21,000 new nursery places and state funding for families who need to buy people carriers. He has also made it so that women with more than four children will be exempt from income tax for life.
Now, on the face of it, these policies almost sound feminist. There can be no doubt that single mothers are particularly hard hit by the cost of housing, just as it’s not up for debate that we need free universal childcare, but policies which appear women-friendly can be disguises for something far more sinister.
Birth rates are declining in Europe, perhaps because wider access to contraception has given women reproductive autonomy in a way we’ve never seen before but genuine concerns about declining population can quickly become conversations about curbing women’s rights.
Hungary may be rewarding women for having children but, at the same time, the country has restricted access to abortion and made it harder for women to access them legally. Last year Orbán hosted a conference to look into population decline and gave anti-abortion activists space to speak.
More than this, Orbán has made explicitly anti-immigration comments, saying that he doesn’t want just any children; he wants Hungarian children. In a state of the nation address he said:
"There are fewer and fewer children born in Europe. For the West, the answer (to that challenge) is immigration. For every missing child there should be one coming in and then the numbers will be fine… Hungarian people think differently. We do not need numbers. We need Hungarian children… Migration for us is surrender."
It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare this rhetoric and anti-immigration mentality to another prominent nationalist populist politician: Donald Trump.
Hungarian academic, Anikó Gregor is currently a research fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. Before that, she was at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest where she researched populism, publishing papers on its appeal to younger people in particular.
Anikó thinks it’s too easy to look at the resurgence of pronatalism as a backlash against progress. Instead, she says we need to look at why progressive, left-wing arguments are losing.
"Orbán successfully realised that the problems of the neoliberal restructuring of the first two decades of democracy left hundreds of thousands alone with their frustration and anger, many of them women," she explained to me. As a result, she says his family-oriented policies are "providing them with something".
"Orbán puts family and policies around it because then he can utilise the fragmentedness of the society, family is the only safety net that people feel around themselves, the welfare state is completely damaged now, and people are open to vote for someone who says, 'We are strengthening the only safety net you have'," she adds.
From the victories of Donald Trump in America to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the nationalist Alternative for Germany party to Brexit here in Britain, we are certainly seeing a lurch to the right across the West. Meanwhile, support for progressive, socially democratic parties is declining and populist movements are gaining traction.
Anikó puts this partly down to the austerity that many countries saw after the 2008 financial crash.
In Hungary, she points out that "the coalition government of liberals and socialists (between 2006-2010) were in power when the last wave of the economic crisis hit the country. As a response, the government introduced quite harsh austerity policies instead of securing the different welfare state provisions. Austerity policies decreased public spending on education, healthcare, social services and the public sector. Several types of allowances and benefits were frozen, including family allowance and maternity allowance. Since women work in a much higher proportion in the public sector than men, and they are more likely to benefit from these services as clients or recipients, these policies, introduced by partially a socialist government (at least in name), affected the lives of Hungarian women in a negative way. A very similar austerity package was introduced in 1995, soon after the change of regime, also by the governing socialist party, again in coalition with the liberals. These two occasions were more than enough for them to lose their credibility, which [has not been] restored since."
Far from seeing Hungary as an exception, Anikó thinks this is a "global phenomenon" and feels that the left is failing to provide people with an alternative vision of what the world might look like.
"Inequalities are problematised more in the frame of cultural oppositions and oppression," she explains, "while material aspects of social inequalities are more hidden. Voters hear a lot from politicians about the importance of human dignity of different minorities in society, but they hear less about the human dignity of those constantly on zero-hour contracts or standing next to the assembly line for minimum wage in three shifts, many of them women, many of them single mothers."
With the Labour party having recently suffered their worst election defeat in Britain since 1935, this strikes a nerve. An OECD report from last year found that it’s not only those on low incomes but people we consider to be "middle class" who are suffering from stagnant wages and feeling "left behind".
Anikó says: "Politicians like Orbán, Putin, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Trump, parties like the German AfD and cases like Brexit are all symptoms of the same crisis." That crisis, she believes, is the last 50 years of free markets and globalisation, which have "caused damage while the political representation of these problems declined significantly."
If the left is failing to win arguments with socially democratic ideas, it’s clear that a complete rethink is needed. Until we have a political force that can counter these arguments, anti-abortion protestors and pronatalism aren’t going anywhere. Those who feel left behind are taking shelter in nationalism and protectionism and the sad truth is that women find themselves on the sharp end either way.