Gender Studies and the Dismantling of Critical Knowledge in Europe

Assaults on gender studies are part of an attack on democracy.
By David Paternotte

In October 2018, despite a massive international outcry, the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán revoked the accreditation of the country’s two master’s degree programs in gender studies. According to state officials, these programs are ideological, violate Christian values, waste public money, do not interest students, and do not guarantee the successful integration of graduates into the labor market. As a result, both the Central European University and Eötvös Loránd University had to cease enrolling students in their Hungarian gender studies programs for the next academic year.

Although spectacular, this decision is not an isolated case in Europe, where several attacks on gender studies have been reported in recent years. Before discussing these, however, it must be stated that, despite the existence of vibrant professional organizations such as Atgender (the European Association for Gender Research, Education, and Documentation), gender studies is poorly consolidated as a field of study in Europe. In many countries, such as Italy or Poland, there are no specific masters or other academic programs in gender studies, and where these do exist, most are fairly recent, as in Belgium or France. Moreover, few independent gender studies departments exist in the region, and almost no institution awards PhD degrees in the field. Therefore, the situation differs significantly from that in the United States: while European gender scholars have been carrying out gender research for decades, they are still struggling to institutionalize their field of study. Attacks on gender studies in Europe target a precarious field of research.

The Hungarian attacks echo events in other countries such as Poland and Russia. A common pattern can be identified across Europe: In most countries, gender scholars have been harassed online, threatened by email, and exposed on various kinds of websites. Major media outlets have denounced their scholarship and blacklisted supposedly dangerous scholars. Protest is no longer a rare occurrence at academic events, and various groups regularly pressure university authorities to cancel scholarly gatherings. A bomb threat against the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research was even reported in 2018. Politicians have also at times challenged the content of research (for instance, by blocking a questionnaire) and banned projects deemed too sensitive.

Self-censorship has been reported as well: academic institutions or gender scholars themselves may revise the content of a program, course, syllabus, seminar series, or publication to prevent (further) attacks. In extreme cases, scholars are redirecting their research toward less controversial topics. Proposed projects have been rejected on ideological grounds in spite of excellent reviews, and gender studies programs have also been defunded in their entirety. Finally, some groups create dubious academic institutions, journals, or publishing houses and engage in the production of alternative “knowledge” designed to undermine the legitimacy of genuine gender research.

To understand the multiplication of attacks against gender studies, we need to take into account the development of anti-gender campaigns across the region as well as a broader assault on universities and academic freedom in Europe. In both cases, attacks cannot be dissociated from a wider process of democratic backsliding in which the space for critical inquiry is shrinking.

Anti-Gender Campaigns

As gender scholars Eszter Kováts and Andrea Pető have shown, for a long time, Viktor Orbán was not particularly interested in gender issues, and dismantling gender studies was not among his priorities. He gave more prominence to the war on migrants, whom he turned into ideal scapegoats, and opposition to the alleged Islamization of Europe, as demonstrated by his attacks on refugees from Syria and the Middle East. His views started to change, however, in 2017. Today, the fight against “gender ideology” sits at the core of his party’s agenda, both nationally and internationally.

To understand this strategic shift, we need to situate Orbán’s policy within the context of anti-gender campaigns in Europe, as essays in the 2017 collection Anti-gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against Equality, which I coedited with Roman Kuhar, illustrate well. These efforts mark a renewal of conservative activism in the region and should not be regarded as a mere continuation of previous forms of opposition to the rights of women and LGBTQ people. Despite the diversity of their targets, these campaigns all identify gender, often labeled as “gender ideology,” “gender theory,” or “genderism,” as the ideological matrix of the various reforms they oppose, including abortion and sexual and reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and adoption, gender recognition, new reproductive technologies, sex education, gender mainstreaming, and the Istanbul Convention combatting violence against women. In both Europe and Latin America, these campaigns became widely visible beginning in 2013, with massive mobilizations against same-sex marriage in France and a successful constitutional referendum on marriage in Croatia. Today, they are present in most European and Latin American countries as well as in Australia, the United States, the Philippines, and parts of Africa and Central Asia.

“Gender ideology” should not be confused with gender studies or gender-equality policies; rather, the term refers to a construct elaborated by the Vatican in the aftermath of the United Nations conferences on development and population and on women in Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995), respectively. It was coined as part of a strategy to oppose women’s and LGBTQ rights activism as well as scholarship deconstructing essentialist and naturalistic assumptions about gender and sexuality—in brief, what most scholars today understand as gender studies. These campaigns, which target scholars such as Judith Butler, aim to dismantle poststructural research in the social sciences and humanities in particular.

Erasing fierce academic and political controversies and the complex interplay between activism and the academy, “gender ideology” is also the name of an alleged conspiracy aimed at seizing power and imposing deviant and minority values on average people. The term is often used to portray “gender” as a totalitarian and neocolonial ideology, which is imposed both from abroad and from above with decisive help from international institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union. Austin Ruse, who is known for his activism against gender at the international level, connects the dots in his 2017 book Fake Science, in which he wants to expose “the Left’s skewed statistics, fuzzy facts, and dodgy data.” Ruse, the president of the conservative Catholic lobby C-Fam, denounces “the fake ‘science’” pushed by the Left because it would establish “fraud, propaganda, and even (see ‘transgenderism’) literal insanity as the basis of our public policy, with disastrous results.” He concludes, “We can’t concede science to the Left. It’s too important. We have to fight to take the mantle of science back from the leftists who have appropriated it for their very unscientific agenda.”

For the Roman Catholic Church, “gender ideology” can be understood as an analytical frame used to explain the disappointing results of the United Nations conferences in 1994 and 1995, as well as the name of a counterstrategy. Employing Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, the church aimed to subvert the supposed cultural and political hegemony of “postmodern gender” by transforming the meaning of key terms of the progressive vocabulary (like gender or feminism) and propagating this alternative interpretation back into society and politics. Science was therefore a crucial battlefield.

However, as the example of Orbán demonstrates, these campaigns are no longer only a Catholic project but have been embraced by authoritarian and populist leaders such as Matteo Salvini in Italy and Vladimir Putin in Russia and by political parties like Vox (Spain), AfD (Germany), PiS (Poland), and the FPÖ (Austria). In this context, as political scientists Stefanie Mayer and Birgit Sauer pointed out in 2017, the label “gender ideology” functions as an “empty signifier” that taps into different fears and anxieties and can be shaped in various ways to fit different political projects. Current populist leaders are often neither particularly religious nor known for their long-standing concern for issues related to gender and sexuality. But beyond common rhetorical tropes, they have understood the symbolic power of gender and its potential for their broader attempts to undermine liberal democracy, just as they are rediscovering their alleged Christian roots as a means to oppose Islam and feed racism. As Weronika Grzebalska, Eszter Kováts, and Andrea Pető argued in a 2017 article in Political Critique, gender has become a sort of “symbolic glue, . . . an umbrella term for the rejection of the (neo)liberal order.” In brief, the instrumentalization of anti-gender campaigns allows such political actors to fuel even further the antiliberal discourses and sentiments at the core of their project.

Academic Freedom under Threat

In many countries, the same leaders and political movements have initiated an offensive against academic freedom and autonomous universities. In Hungary, gender studies is not the only field under attack; scholars working on migration or the history of the Holocaust have been threatened as well. Several prominent academic institutions are also under assault. The Central European University has decided to relocate most of its teaching activities to Vienna after the failure of negotiations with Hungarian state officials following adoption in 2017 of the “Lex CEU,” the law allegedly reorganizing higher education that actually targeted this institution. More recently, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has been restructured, with significant losses in institutional and financial autonomy. State power and centralization in higher education have increased, and important academic institutions—the Academy of Sciences itself, as well as the post-1945 collections of the National Archives and the National Library—have been or will be forced to leave their premises without a clear relocation plan.

Attacks on universities are spreading across Europe, resulting in reduced institutional autonomy, a shrinking space for academic freedom, and a widespread devaluation of researchers’ interventions in public and political debates. In this context, attacks against gender studies appear as a first step toward wider campaigns against critical knowledge, and similar attacks have been observed on topics like migration, Islam, the Far Right, the history of the Holocaust, and climate change.

Worryingly, the Hungarian reforms are in line with developments elsewhere, indicating a diffusion of bad practices among increasingly illiberal states. This offensive should, however, not be seen as restricted to new authoritarian regimes but as taking place at a large scale across the continent. For instance, following his electoral victory in the Dutch provincial elections in March 2019, the far-right politician Thierry Baudet, himself the holder of a PhD in law awarded by the University of Leiden, declared that universities are one of the forces undermining the Netherlands and should therefore be further controlled.

Such statements are no longer confined to the political extremes. Today, several strategies to undermine academic freedom and the institutional autonomy of universities are circulating in the region, as Mieke Verloo and I argue in a forthcoming essay. Attacks in Europe rely in different ways on four main discursive frames that will be familiar to scholars in the United States: labeling academics as elitists, decrying the supposed absence of free speech for the Right, bemoaning “identity politics” on campus, and describing universities as hotbeds of “cultural Marxism.” These frames are not mutually exclusive and are often combined. All attempt to destroy the truth claims of scholarship by framing science and critical thought as ideological.

Attacks on critical inquiry (including gender studies) use a variety of tools and tactics. These can either take the appearance of business as usual and engage with science management and university bureaucracy or wage the fight from outside. Institutional and bureaucratic attacks fall into six categories: accreditation politics, (de)funding, censorship and self-censorship, department or institution closure, summary dismissal or promotion rejection for scholars, and the launch of alternative academic outlets. Extrainstitutional strategies include online harassment, stalking, ad hominem attacks, and physical and death threats; naming, blaming, and blacklisting scholars and disciplines, online or in the press; protesting against academic events or specific courses; recording controversial lecturers and publicly exposing them; constraining the freedom of circulation; and legal and police actions including blackmail, surveillance, prosecution, and incarceration. In all cases, the freedom of scholarship is at stake. By threatening critical inquiry, these attacks also target democracy more widely. They occur both as a deliberate strategy of specific political actors and as part of a steady process of democratic backsliding from which even established European democracies are not immune.

Attacks on gender studies should not be understood primarily as a form of backlash against gender equality and sexual freedom, the return of patriarchy, or the result of toxic masculinity. While they are undoubtedly gendered, these assaults are embedded in wider campaigns against democracy in Europe today. Gender studies serve therefore as a proxy, and these attacks should be seen as a key step in the dismantling of critical knowledge more broadly.   

David Paternotte is associate professor of sociology at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. His email address is [email protected]