There is no doubt that, in historical terms, one of the left’s most important and beloved causes has been women’s emancipation, and rightly so. The fight for the rights of the working class always went hand-in-hand with the struggle over women’s roles in the family and society.
In the late 20th century, feminists began to ask whether a revolutionary movement led by men could truly serve their interests. As a result, feminism transformed into a movement that sought to revolutionize women’s lives by putting their bodies and spirits at the center of the fight for equality.
The slogan of this new feminism was “the personal is political.” And how true that is: There is no single political belief that can encompass the entirety of the movement for women’s liberation. The choice must always be a personal one.
Nonetheless, the left’s determination to perpetually drape the feminist movement in the red flag remains astounding.
We saw this firsthand during the latest Italian elections, in which Giorgia Meloni’s victory was long expected. She did win, which ought to have been seen as a great triumph for women. Yet the feminist movement—or at least the most vocal part of it—remained skeptical of her throughout the campaign. Many said that the victory of this woman and mother could not and must not be seen as a victory for women. The reason, put simply, was that Meloni is on the political right.
This claim was repeated ad nauseum. Meloni was portrayed as a kind of “fake” woman who used her femininity in a manipulative and dishonest manner. These attacks didn’t work. The reason is that everyone can see right-wing and conservative women rising to power all over the world, and particularly in Europe. They cannot all be “fake” women.
For example, Ursula von der Leyen of Germany’s conservative Christian Democrats, whose mentor was the long-serving former chancellor Angela Merkel, served as minister of defense and is now president of the European Commission. Malta’s Roberta Metsola, also a conservative, became president of the European Union in January 2022. Her Nationalist Party has been accused, like Meloni’s Brothers of Italy Party, of being part of the neo-fascist right, but since 2011 it has proven surprisingly liberal on issues such as divorce and same-sex marriage.
Metsola is definitely a conservative, but it seems that conservative politicians and their parties have now been forced by history to make concessions to liberal policies on civil rights issues. This in turn has led to the rise of powerful female politicians on the right, who are not only adept at the use of power, but have risen to top leadership positions.
Besides Meloni’s victory, we saw Liz Truss became prime minister of Britain on Sept. 6, the day after she handily won the leadership of the Conservative Party. Indeed, the last official engagement of one of the world’s most beloved female leaders, the late Queen Elizabeth II, was to confirm Truss as prime minister. Commentators emphasized Truss’s attachment to the memory of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female head of government, who changed forever the relations between women and power on the world stage. Without Thatcher, it is difficult to see how leaders like Merkel, Meloni and Truss herself could have risen to power. And Thatcher, it should be remembered, was a confirmed conservative.
Giorgia Meloni is about to become prime minister of a remarkable country. But in Italy, she will have no immediate historical models to guide her. She had no female mentors like those enjoyed by von der Leyen and Truss. Therefore, she will have the difficult task of blazing her own trail. Luckily for her, she lives in a historical moment when the process of women’s liberation has become universal, and the feminist movement—whether the left likes it or not—has become too big and successful not to encompass women from across the political spectrum.
Conservatives may be naturally skeptical of change and have a strong attachment to the morals and institutions of the past. But all of Europe’s newly powerful women know that things like family, motherhood, sex, social mores and indeed the idea of the meaning of a woman’s life have all changed. As a result, these conservative women are there for all women, right or left, and all the men as well. They are the product of feminism and feminists themselves; but they have also gone beyond feminism. They are the feminists of today, of this particular moment in history.
This makes sense, because conservatism is about knowing how to honor one’s identity and connect it to the present, rather than whining about the depredations of the past. It is a difficult job. There is no doubt that Giorgia Meloni has a tough struggle ahead of her, but women have a knack for overcoming difficulties. Like those who have come before her, I am sure that Meloni will succeed in doing so.
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is the author of ‘Jewish Lives Matter.’