Whether a right-wing woman is truly a woman and can be considered a feminist is an old debate. This is especially the case when we are talking about a right-wing woman who becomes head of government, as Italy’s new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has just done. The ascension of a right-wing woman to power always prompts the question of whether a woman on the right can really represent positive change in society, especially in regard to the role of women in public life.
There is a striking lack of common sense in such ideological debates. History has made it crystal clear that having a woman as head of government, such as Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, always brings about positive change. Such figures prompt admiration and emulation. They open minds and change mores, often for good.
More than anything else, the rise of female leaders forces us to reconsider the traditional definition of the role of women in society. Meloni herself defined her role during the campaign, causing a minor and bizarre scandal: “I am a woman. I am a mother.” This is her free choice, of course, which is what women’s liberation is supposed to be all about. But often, it hasn’t worked that way.
For over a century, the left has tried to define itself, and only itself, as the force for women’s liberation. As early as Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and, after the rise of the Soviet Union, figures like Inessa Armand, the capitalist economic system was identified with the oppression of women, along with the very idea of motherhood.
Armand spent prodigious efforts organizing the communist regime that was supposed to “liberate” the female masses of Russia, but there is little indication that they were any more “liberated” than other Soviet citizens—which is to say, not all. Nonetheless, the myth persisted that communism, softened to “socialism” after Stalin’s death, was synonymous with women’s liberation.
As communism began to come apart at the seams, this way of thinking began to change, but it has not gone away. It has morphed into new forms of the old idea that the left is the only rightful owner of women’s liberation—forms like “intersectionality,” gender, sexual preference and so on. All of these identities, often ludicrously narrow and circumscribed, see themselves as unified only by their opposition to “oppression.”
As a result, Meloni, who is not on the left, has been automatically designated an “oppressor” rather than “oppressed.” That she is an energetic young woman with her own freely chosen conservative opinions and lifestyle has only made her more controversial. In fact, to the left, and thus many traditional feminists, she has become unbearable.
This attitude has long been on display at the great leftist international conferences, born over a hundred years ago and still going, if not strong, at least going. These leftists portray themselves as warriors for women’s liberation, but say nothing about women in the Muslim world, the Middle East, Africa and South America who are genuine victims of misogynist oppression. Their suffering is treated as if it does not exist. Instead, it is blamed on the capitalist countries and their “imperialism” and “colonialism,” rather than the indigenous misogyny that causes it. Any woman who dissents from this hegemonic ideology is driven out, usually by other women.
This is the prejudice and, indeed, misogyny that has allowed many to deny Meloni’s identity as a “real” woman because she is right-wing. The left claims that there can be no liberal or conservative feminism, as if it were a contradiction in terms. But this is untrue. For liberals, diversity and free choice are essential, whether in religion, lifestyle or morality. Conservatives simply choose the traditional family and traditional motherhood, both of which the left has rejected for its own reasons.
For women, all ways of living should be legitimate. Let’s leave the punishment of personal behavior to Iran’s ayatollahs. For liberals and conservatives, freedom is the first choice.
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.