Political “genderwashing”—hiding repressive and even authoritarian agendas behind a front of women’s empowerment—is a tale as old as time. At least, it’s a tale as old as 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected as the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister. Sure, she was a woman, but she was also one of the most conservative and politically regressive leaders the United Kingdom has ever had. She weakened unions, privatized government entities, and neoliberalized the country. But even though we now know how disastrous her policies were for the U.K., Thatcher’s gender still gets brought up as a point of big-picture progress. As the classics professor Mary Beard told The Guardian in 2012, “Well, she wasn’t a feminist, nor will she ever be a ‘feminist icon’ in my sense of the word. But we can’t deny that having our first woman prime minister was a major symbolic leap forward.”
Conservatives around the world have since caught on. In Italy, the far-right Brothers of Italy party proved last month that you can elect the most right-wing government since Mussolini if you find a pretty blond mom to lead it. If installed, that pretty blonde, Giorgia Meloni, will also have the distinction of being the first female prime minister of Italy. And she’s part of a women-led far-right movement that’s gaining momentum across Europe.