Edited by Sarah Tobias and Arlene Stein

The Grip of Sexual Violence in Conflict: Feminist Interventions in International Law

Rutgers University Press, 2022 

189 pages


Reviewed by Aashka Dave

After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the Institute for Research on Women (IRW) at Rutgers University sought to understand the forces that led to Donald Trump’s election and its implications for democracy globally. By situating this line of inquiry in a series on feminist thinking, The Perils of Populism  evaluates populism intersectionally, adding breadth and depth to the literature on populism today. A combination of essays and transcripts of previous discussions at the IRW, The Perils of Populism  uses a feminist lens to address populism, authoritarianism, and nationalism as they pertain to gender and democracy. Through pieces about the US, Middle East, Europe, and India, the book achieves a scope that allows for a comparative perspective, one in which readers can identify similarities in the growth of populism across the globe as well as differences based on factors such as postcolonial movements. 

The central thesis of The Perils of Populism is that gender plays a key role in our understanding of the origins of populism, its growth today, and its potential weaknesses. Editors Tobias and Stein historicize this claim in the introduction, grounding the book in the idea that right-wing populism descends from a masculine and racial social contract, given how social contracts over time have overlooked women and people of color. Furthermore, the editors distinguish between populism and nationalism and popular sovereignty, helping readers understand the importance of feminist political participation and its key role in democratic processes. 

By situating populism within feminist theory to evaluate broader social forces across a global context, the book underscores the gender-based nuances of contemporary populism, and the possible ways that gender can be used to counter populism. The essays in The Perils of Populism approach this issue from a refreshing variety of approaches, making each of them worth mentioning. 

A key claim of populists, or the “international” right-wing, is the view that gender studies are a menace to traditional societal values. Sabine Hark traces instances of this rhetoric over time to demonstrate how gender discourse is leveraged to propel populism forward. Crucially, Hark notes that right-wing concerns over gender are no longer about a presumed inequality between sexes. Rather, the new argument is that women are equal yet also innately different—a right-leaning feminism is being actively constructed, in which a diversity of gender and sexuality are not included. 

Amrita Basu complicates understandings of gender and populism further by examining the public presentation of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Most right-wing populist leaders are seen to embody sexual bravado through misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric. In contrast, Modi intentionally describes himself as humble, low caste, and celibate. Modi also verbally supports women’s rights and uses female-gendered rhetoric to proclaim his love of India. These practices, a strategic means to leverage the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and the nationalist ideology of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, also present a case where nationalism and populism are being used to counter colonialism in the present. 

Nancy Fraser addresses capitalism as a source of power and its role in populism by highlighting a shift from capitalism managed by various nation states to a “financialized neoliberal capitalism” managed by central banks and other financial institutions. In such a context, Fraser argues, the only way out is through: democratic efforts must address the forces of capitalism and leverage them to build an alternative infrastructure, one that is more emancipatory in nature. 

In the book’s last essay, on the pivotal role Women’s March Inc. played in activism and organizing efforts after Trump’s election, L.A. Kauffmanemphasizes the fact that the Jan. 2017 Women’s March was the largest same-day mass protest in US history. Furthermore, women made up the majority (at time over 80 percent) of individuals working to counter the Trump administration. Though Women’s March Inc. has largely faded away today, the consequence of management and public image mishaps, the organization’s crucial impacts following Trump’s election underscore the importance of feminist thought and activism in countering contemporary populism. 

The book’s essays provide a strong foundation that provides in-depth information on populism from a study of domains including gender, social movements, economics, and political communication. That said, the two discussion transcripts that bookend The Perils of Populism fully establish the book’s value in practice as well as theory. 

The first transcript, featuring Khadijah Costley White, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, and Valentine M. Moghadam, reviews the characteristics of populism, the key features of a post-truth society, the role of minorities within populism, and the importance of using a feminist lens to address these issues. In the closing transcript, we see activists Heather Booth, Jyl Josephson, and Scot Nakagawa discuss their experiences with personal organizing and the roles they see for grassroots organizing while working to counter authoritarian populism. It is an illuminating view into the workings of democratic grassroots efforts, and a productive close to a generative book. 

Given the book’s scope and accessible writing style, The Perils of Populism will be relevant to anyone interested in contemporary issues at the nexus of gender, populism, and democratic governance. For academics, it is a productive launching point into an important body of literature that will surely grow in the years to come.