Right-wing populism and feminist politics: The case of Law and Justice in Poland

Publication Date01 November 2021
AuthorAnna Gwiazda
DOI10.1177/0192512120948917
Date01 November 2021
SubjectSymposium: Populism and feminist politics
https://doi.org/10.1177/0192512120948917
International Political Science Review
2021, Vol. 42(5) 580 –595
© The Author(s) 2020
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DOI: 10.1177/0192512120948917
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Right-wing populism and
feminist politics: The case
of Law and Justice in Poland
Anna Gwiazda
King’s College London, UK
Abstract
This article disentangles the complexity of right-wing populism and feminist politics using an original
framework based on inputs (representative claims) and outputs (policies) to examine a Polish case. In 2015,
the right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) formed a single-party majority government led by a
female prime minister after winning the elections. PiS is ideologically conservative, promotes traditional
and national values and is supported by the Catholic Church. Additionally, it is hostile towards what it calls
‘gender-ideology’ and is reluctant to implement feminist policies. This article also reveals that PiS represents
conservative women’s interests and advocates an aspect of conservative feminism, therefore possessing
a duality in its claims and policies. Overall, this article draws inferences about the nexus between social
conservatism, populism and feminism, and thus seeks to contribute to the scholarly literature by examining
a timely issue against the backdrop of rising populism, illiberalism and anti-gender campaigns.
Keywords
Right-wing populist parties, conservatism, representative claims, feminist policies, Law and Justice, Poland
Introduction
The relationship between right-wing populism and feminist politics has not been adequately
explored in theory and practice despite it being a timely issue in the context of increasing authori-
tarian populism, illiberalism and anti-gender campaigns. To gain a better understanding of the
nature of right-wing populism, this article analyses the intersection of conservatism and populism
before examining feminist politics in terms of representative claims and feminist policies.
Consequently, it raises two main questions: What are right-wing populist party’s claims relating to
women, gender, and feminism? Does a right-wing populist party support feminist policies?
Traditionally, left-wing parties have been more known to be open to feminist demands (Lovenduski
Corresponding author:
Anna Gwiazda, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London, Strand Campus, Bush House, 40 Aldwych,
London, WC2B 4BG, UK.
Email: anna.gwiazda@kcl.ac.uk.
948917IPS0010.1177/0192512120948917International Political Science ReviewGwiazda
research-article2020
Symposium: Populism and feminist politics
Gwiazda 581
and Norris, 1993). In fact, previous studies have confirmed that conservatism can be detrimental to
women because of weak equality policies (Celis and Childs, 2018; Outshoorn and Kantola, 2007).
Moreover, right-wing parties fall short with respect to women’s political representation and tend to
make more anti-feminist gendered claims (Celis and Childs, 2014). However, scholars are now
highlighting the advances made by right-wing parties in Western Europe towards including women
(Kittilson, 2013; O’Brien, 2018) and even claim that laissez-faire conservatism can comfortably
coexist with liberal feminism (Erzeel et al., 2014; Celis and Childs, 2014, 2018). This article seeks
to address the current research deficit regarding this issue in Central and Eastern Europe.
Poland is a particularly interesting country for this study due to its cultural and political back-
ground. Culturally, both Catholicism and the communist heritage have had an impact on women.
The Catholic Church strongly leans towards traditional gender roles, whereas communism advo-
cated women’s education, employment and abortion rights. Politically, a right-wing populist party
has been in power since 2015, winning re-election in 2019. Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość,
PiS) is a social and national conservative party that has gradually developed a more populist dis-
course as well as closer ties with the Catholic Church. The party was in power from 2005 to 2007,
and then became part of the opposition for eight years. In 2015, it won the parliamentary elections
and subsequently formed a single-party majority government led by a female prime minister. Soon
afterwards, it was accused of authoritarian tendencies because of its disregard for the constitution,
the rule of law, parliamentary procedures and citizens’ rights (Markowski, 2018). It limited the
scope of feminist policies, through the withdrawal of funding for in-vitro fertilisation, the restric-
tion of access to emergency contraception and the reduction of funding for combating domestic
abuse (Korolczuk, 2017; Wierzcholska, 2018). PiS views women as mothers and provides the
Family 500+ programme which offers generous child benefits; however, its manifesto also
includes a pledge regarding gender equality in the workplace. By examining the case of Law and
Justice, this article sheds more light on the attitude of right-wing populists towards women’s
empowerment and gender equality.
This article uses case study research which provides an in-depth country-specific analysis (see
Gerring, 2004). A political party is the unit of analysis here. By focusing on a single right-wing
populist party, broader phenomena can be identified and inferences proposed, which can subse-
quently be investigated in other settings. This in-depth study is based on primary and secondary
data. Primary sources include transcripts of parliamentary debates, party manifestos and semi-
structured interviews with Law and Justice representatives, and political analysts, conducted in
Warsaw from June to July 2017 and April 2019. Secondary sources include published reports and
scholarly literature. This article examines the period until the October 2019 parliamentary
elections.
This article contributes to the scholarly literature on populism, women and gender politics in
different ways. First, it identifies links between conservatism and populism in order to elucidate the
essence of right-wing populism. A thick definition of populism often appears attached to other
ideologies (Mudde, 2004), but the focus on conservatism has been neglected. On the other hand,
populism on the fringes of the political spectrum has been widely discussed, although it is less
well-known and studied as an element of mainstream parties in Central and Eastern Europe (Caiani
and Graziano, 2019). Moreover, there is little understanding of the impact of populism on the dif-
ferent strands of conservatism, particularly socially conservative parties, and, in turn, on feminist
politics. Further clarification is needed here. Far-right populism differs from right-wing populism:
the latter is linked to conservatism, while the former is linked to far-right ideology and/or nativism
and authoritarianism,1 and is based on anti-immigrant, nationalistic and xenophobic claims (for
definitions of the extreme right see Ignazi, 1992; Mudde, 2007). Second, this research contributes
to the latest debates on conservatism and gender (Celis and Childs, 2014, 2018). Celis and Childs

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