Gender, right-wing populism and family policy discourses in Hungary and Poland

Part of the Social Policy beyond the West Hilary 2019 seminar series.

After the fall of state-socialism, conservative attitudes towards gender roles dominated public debates in most of the East European countries. As aspiring to EU membership, Hungary and Poland reformed their legal systems adopting anti-discrimination law and the principles of gender mainstreaming. And yet, the legacy of this initial anti-feminist turn continued to influence social policies in the direction of re-familialization.

But a more profound backlash against gender equality took place quite recently, when right-wing populist parties formed governments in these two countries. In the context of demographic decline, women started to be predominantly perceived through their reproductive functions. In Hungary, pro-natalist policies favoring cash transfers were intensified under the slogans of ‘demographic revolution of the middle class’, with blaming women for falling fertility rates. In Poland, aligned with the Catholic Church, the new government has openly attacked the notion of gender, while limiting access to emergency contraception, IVF treatment, and allowing the repeated attempts to introduce a complete abortion ban, while at the same time investing heavily in child-related policies.

The goal of this paper is to analyze recent social policy reforms and discourses about gender roles as produced and activated by the right-wing populist governments in Hungary and Poland. My research strategy would be to analyze the main discourses around gender roles and other accompanying discourses employed by the right-wing populist governments in the new political contexts. My argument is that the recent developments in these policies and discourses can be interpreted as re-building and strengthening national identities. Specifically, I am using Yuval-Davis’s framework of gendered nationalism. As previous studies often focused on Hungarian-Polish comparison due to differences in their policy mixes, with Hungary being labelled ‘public maternalism’ or ‘comprehensive support’ and Poland – ‘private maternalism’ or ‘implicit familialism’, this paper demonstrates how the recent reforms contribute to transformation of Polish version of maternalism from ‘private’ to ‘public’.

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