“Gender ideology” as mobilization: social movement or protest?

“Gender ideology” as mobilization: social movement or protest?

Priscila Freire  and Virgínia Ferreira 

In the last twenty years, the religious and political attack carried out by conservative Christian groups against so-called “gender ideology” (Latin-American context) or “gender theory” (European context) has developed distinctively in different regions of the globe, but always with the same foundation – the defense of the doctrinal principle that establishes sex differences as an irrefutable truth. Gender conceptualization is seen as a danger for humanity, since it breaks with the “sacralization” of sex differences, undermines “women’s mission within the family” and normalizes homosexuality.

Analyzed as anti-gender campaigns, war on “gender ideology” (Kováts and Põim 2015) or as a social movement (Paternotte and Kuhar 2017; Pleyers 2018), the protests against ideas manipulatively linked to gender studies challenge definitions about their nature – social movement, organized group mobilized around political goals, or protests that are episodic and scattered from an organizational point of view. Following a second line of inquiry, we strive to understand if these protests are a reaction to the ongoing success of the sociopolitical projects of gender equality and secularization (Neitz, 2014). A third line points out the role of gender as symbolic glue in the resistance against globalization and neoliberalism, by calling on nationalism (Elomäki and Kantola, 2018).

If transnational mobilizations around “gender ideology” point to a new way of conceiving social movements, we can investigate if the force that arises from secularization in the face of changes to social gender relations gives rise to a counter movement. In order to do that, we need to develop a solid discussion of these protests that goes beyond describing how they manifest in different parts of the Western world.

Analytical strategies
Following in the footsteps of Alain Touraine, Gohn (1997, 246) states that not every mode of structuring collective action constitutes a social movement per se, e.g. a protest (violent or non-violent). Pleyers (2018), however, states the need to see reactionary activisms as social movements. In this sense the inquiries into the theories of social movements provide important categories and concepts for analyzing anti-feminism as a type of action, a type of resource, a type of mobilization, and a type of language/discourse that, in general terms, resists the changes to social gender relations within a particular society. The mobilization around “gender ideology” has revealed a reactionary activism, in which the relationship between religious discourse and protests against social, sexual and reproductive rights demands that we look differently at the ways in which a conservative and exclusionary agenda is claimed.

The self-designation of “Catholic activist” or “pro-family activist” used by actors who disseminate the “gender ideology” discourse makes us wonder what foundations of this activism contribute to its high visibility today.

We can state that one of the effects operated by activists who manipulate the “gender ideology” discourse approaches a counter-movement that gives rise to reactionary forces. These appropriate the word “family” as a way of going against all families and all cultural manifestations of Christianity that do not espouse hermetic patriarchal dogmas, targeting individuals who do not fit into hegemonic Christian ethics. The real question, however, is to try to clarify how that ethical dimension affects the collective sphere, engendering a counter-movement. On this issue, it is possible to find in the foundations of social movement theories an important path for broadening our understanding of anti-feminist activism in its discursive manipulation of “gender ideology”. The discussion around the actors in social movements is useful if we want to further the debate on the activisms that exist within social movements and those that exist outside. Moreover, it is important to explain how the religious discourses around gender issues have transformed into massive street demonstrations and transnational campaigns and protests (Paternotte and Kuhar, 2017).

According to Tarrow’s political opportunity structure concept, the opportunities that surround a group allow that group to expand its actions  and this is useful, despite its limitations. In fact, the desired changes in structure and power cannot be confused with the collective processes that interpret and frame them (McAdam, 2008). From that perspective, changes in structure and power, and collective processes are social spheres that should be considered separately, since only then is it possible to discern between the cases where favorable political changes do not result in interpretations that enable collective actions and the cases where these develop in the absence of significant changes in positions of power.

Gohn (1997) stresses the historical character of the repertoire of movements, since these are forged in the integration of the movements’ protagonists and their opponents. Jeffrey Alexander (1996) resorts to a perspective of secularization and language as discourse to consider how social movements can be translations between civil society discourses and institutional processes. Therefore, he defends the idea that “collective action can be understood as a struggle for position vis-a-vis the categorical antipathies of civil life, as a struggle to represent others in negative and polluted categories and to represent oneself in terms of the sacred.” (Alexander, 1996, 21). His analysis highlights the way in which cultural creativity and political competence expect an efficient organization to be able to translate individual experiences into the collective, from the institutional to the civil and vice-versa.

For this reason, we need to consider the concrete collective action that the discursive manipulation of “gender ideology” represents. In this sense, the translations between the discourses and the processes do not just pertain to the fights for position and representation, but to the exercise of power. If we understand that social movements made it possible to explain displacements in the correlation of forces in society, we realize why it is important to deepen our understanding of the counter-movement (maintenance of the system’s limits), which shows similar analytical dimensions and claims legitimacy for its actions. The dimensions of the political opportunities that explain this counter-movement consist in understanding them in different social spheres (besides the religious one), as well as in the political economy that spreads out around “gender ideology” as a phenomenon that is not limited to collective action at a political level. In this regard, understanding “gender ideology” as a social movement or protest leads us to reflect on something more complex than a protest, and points to a new analytical perspective on the current counter-movements around gender, reproduction and sexuality issues.

Final notes
The reflections that derive from social movement theories and secularization create the need to better understand the counter-movement process around “gender ideology” by considering a few questions: a) what social identity and subjectivity mobilizes these activists?; b) what strategies (material and symbolic resources) are mobilized by these groups, besides the institutional (secular and religious)?; c) what is the role of the media as an institution and structure of political opportunity in its relationship with activisms?; d) in what way does the discursive repertoire of these groups encourage activist actions by other social groups?; e) in this repertoire, what paradoxical configurations arise from the idea that gender discourse is “anti-feminist” and “an evil for humankind/civilization”?

Alexander, Jeffrey C. 1996. “Collective Action, Culture and Civil Society: Secularizing, Updating, Inverting, Revising, and Displacing the Classical Model of Social  Movements”. In Alain Touraine, ed. Jon Clark and Marco Diani, 205-234. London and  Washington, D.C.: Falmer Press.
Elomäki, Anna and Johanna Kantola. 2018. “Theorizing Feminist Struggles in the  Triangle of Neoliberalism, Conservatism, and Nationalism”. Social Politics, 25(3): 337-360.
Gohn, Maria da Glória. 1997. Teorias dos Movimentos Sociais: Paradigmas Clássicos e  Contemporâneos. São Paulo: Edições Loyola.
Kováts, Eszter, and Maari Põim (eds.). 2015. “Gender as symbolic glue. The position of  and role of conservative far-right parties in anti-gender mobilizations in Europe.” FEPS  and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
McAdam, Doug, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald. 2008. Comparative Perspective  on Social Movements. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Neitz, Mary Jo. 2014. “Becoming Visible: Religion and Gender in Sociology”. Sociology  of Religion, 75(4): 511-523.
Paternotte, David, and Roman Kuhar. 2017. “Disentangling and Locating the ‘Global  Right’: Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe”. Politics and Governance, 6(3): 3-19.
Pleyers, Geoffrey. 2018. Movimientos sociales en el siglo XXI. Colección Democracias  en movimiento. Buenos Aires: CLACSO.


Virgínia Ferreira is a Sociologist with research interests in labour market disadvantage, social exclusion, work/family life balance and gender equality policies. Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Economics and researcher at the Center for Social Sciences of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. Founding member of the Portuguese Association of Women’s Studies. Acts as Editor in Chief of the gender studies journal ex æquo since 2014. Priscila Freire is a Lecturer at the Normal Superior School of the Amazonas State University (UEA), Manaus, Brazil. PhD student in the Sociology Program of the University of Coimbra, Portugal. Last publication: “’Ideologia de gênero’ e a política de educação no Brasil: exclusão e manipulação de um discurso heteronormativo” (‘Gender Ideology’ and education policy in Brazil: Exclusion and manipulation of a heteronormative speech), ex æquo, 37, 33-46. DOI: https://doi.org/10.22355/exaequo.2018.37.03. The translation of this article was supported by Portuguese na­tional funds through FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, under project UID/SOC/4304/2019.