Last Thursday, February 16, former Trump administration United Nations Ambassador Nikki Hayley announced her first Presidential bid. The former South Carolina Governor is likely to run on a platform intended to separate herself from the “MAGA” mentality that has recently defined The Republican Party despite her involvement in the aforementioned administration.
Though Hayley is facing an uphill battle with opponents such as former President Donald Trump and the likely opponent of current Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the curious success of women in right-wing politics has been trending. While conventional political understandings tend to assume that more left-wing parties would provide the largest number of woman leaders, the right has slowly been integrating women into their key strategy of making their agenda more palatable.
With right-wing populism on the rise across the West, figures such as Marine Le Pen of France and Giorgia Meloni of Italy have sky-rocketed to the top of their respective conservative parties. Both candidates capitalized on their femininity as a strategic move to appeal to conservative as well as moderate audiences. The distinction that these candidates appealed to both right and middle-leaning audiences is key to understanding how and why their femininity propels them forward in right-wing electoral politics. Though Giorga Meloni ran with a party that has neo-fascist roots, many claim her victory to emphasizing her identity as a mother and a Christian. The international community widely remarked that though the rhetoric of the Meloni campaign felt similar to that of the Trump campaign, it was easier to digest because she was a woman.
Similarly, Marine Le Pen opted to weaponize sentiments of feminism to propel right-wing rhetoric. Le Pen has created a name for herself by attempting to rejuvenize her right-wing party under the guise of feminism, proposing anti-immigration policy in the name of sexual assault prevention. Though Le Pen did not win the election, her conservative agenda, integrated with feminist sentiment and quotes from Simone DeBeavouir, amassed an impressive voter turnout, especially regarding youth involvement in conservative politics.
Why would a political organization with a reputation for subjugating women suddenly promote so many female candidates to be the face of their platform? The theory political scientists regard as “the double bind” could provide one answer. Essentially, this phenomena is a common issue female politicians find themselves in, where they must decide to sacrifice appearing approachable or capable. Though this double bind exists under the premise of sexism, its effects have been more lethal for progressive female candidates. For instance, the Clinton campaign of 2016 was widely seen as a failure of charisma. Ultimately Clinton’s impressive resume did not matter because large swaths of the American public found Clinton fundamentally unlikeable. Upon first glance, this partially sexist rejection of Clinton may feel surprising. The Democratic Party is typically associated with women’s empowerment, yet in 2016, Clinton’s favorability rating dropped 11 points among Democrats post-election. U.K. political commentators have theorized that this may be the price that is paid when feminism is comfortably adopted by men. It hinges upon the idea that conservative men may outright reject feminism as an ideology, but liberal men not only embrace it, but expect to help shape it. Thus, in an unexpected turn of events, the liberal arena may demand far more of their female candidates than the conservative.
However, if a conservative candidate is to buy into a persona of tradition while also strongly espousing right-wing rhetoric, the strange cross hybridization between conservatism and femininity could be electorally advantageous. Nikki Hayley seems to be aware of this. During her campaign speech, she joked about how she approaches her bullies, stating, “And if you kick back, it hurts them more when you’re wearing heels.”