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Western feminism has made some memorable theoretical mistakes. A major one is the frequent assumption that, if women held the decision-making power in society, they would be "kinder and gentler" (a phrase devised for George H.W. Bush in 1988 to appeal to the female vote). Indeed, so-called "second-wave" feminist theory abounds in assertions that war, racism, love of hierarchy and general repressiveness belong to "patriarchy" – women's leadership, by contrast, would naturally create a more inclusive, collaborative world.

The problem is that it has never worked out that way, as the rise of women to leadership positions in Western Europe's far-right parties should remind us. Leaders such as Marine Le Pen of France's National Front, Pia Kjaersgaard of the Danish People's Party and Siv Jensen of Norway's Progress Party reflect the enduring appeal of neofascist movements to many modern women in egalitarian, inclusive liberal democracies.

The past is prologue: Wendy Lower's recent book Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields adds more data to the long record of women embracing violent right-wing movements. And the rise of far-right movements in Europe – often with women in charge – confronts us with the fact that the heirs to the fascism of the 1930s have their own gender-based appeal.

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One obvious reason for the success of women like Ms. Le Pen, Ms. Kjaersgaard and Ms. Jensen is their value for packaging and marketing their parties. Just as Mr. Bush sought to revamp the Republican Party's "brand" of cold-hearted elitism and hostility to women, so Europe's far-right parties must now appeal to citizens by not seeming dangerously extreme and marginal. How dangerous can the movement be, after all, if women are speaking for it? Such parties come to be seen as more mainstream, and their appeal to traditionally harder-to-win women supporters receives a boost.

As Prof. Lower shows, the Nazis reached out with special programs – from organizing homemakers to colonizing the conquered eastern territories – that gave working-class women things they craved: a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves (fascism's eternal draw), backed by a complex official iconography in which the traditionally devalued roles of wife and mother held a crucial place in the national drama. Young unmarried women who were sent to administer the neocolonial efforts in conquered Poland and other territories found adventure, advanced professional training and opportunity.

And, for all of these women, as for any subordinate group anywhere, fascism appealed to what social scientists call "last-place aversion": the desire to outrank other groups. Add, finally, the gendered appeal of the strong authority figure and rigid hierarchy, which attracts some women as much as some men, if in different psychodynamic ways. As Sylvia Plath, the daughter of a German father, put it in her poem Daddy: "Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you."

Certainly, many of the same themes in far-right ideology attract the support of some women in Europe today. And we can add the fact that right-wing movements benefit from the limitations of a postfeminist, post-sexual-revolution society, and the spiritual and emotional void produced by secular materialism.

Many lower-income women in Western Europe – often single parents working pink-collar ghetto jobs that leave them exhausted and without realistic hope of advancement – can reasonably enough feel a sense of nostalgia for past values and certainties. For them, the idealized vision of an earlier age, one in which social roles were intact and women's traditional contribution supposedly valued, can be highly compelling.

And, of course, parties that promote such a vision promise women – including those habituated to second-class status at work and the bulk of the labour at home – that they are not just faceless atoms in the postmodern mass. Rather, you, the lowly clerical worker, are a "true" Danish, Norwegian, or French woman. You are an heiress to a noble heritage, and thus not only better than the mass of immigrants, but also part of something larger and more compelling than is implied by the cog status that a multiracial, secular society offers you.

Why women are attracted to the far right should be examined, not merely condemned. If a society does not offer individuals a community life that takes them beyond themselves, values only production and the bottom line, and opens itself to immigrants without asserting and cherishing what is special and valuable about Danish, Norwegian or French culture, it is asking for trouble.

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Until we stop regarding cultural pluralism as being incompatible with the defence of legitimate universal values, fascist movements will attract those who need the false hope and sense of self-worth that such movements offer, regardless of gender.

Naomi Wolf is a social critic whose most recent book is Vagina: A New Biography.

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