Finance Minister Riikka Purra at a plenary session of Parliament in Helsinki on May 22, 2024. LEHTIKUVA


A recent study from the University of Helsinki reveals how female political leaders Marine Le Pen and Riikka Purra utilize the themes of gender and perceived threats to bolster their roles within right-wing populist parties. The research indicates that framing issues like Islam and feminism as threats allows these leaders to advocate for both men's and women's rights, enhancing their appeal across a broad spectrum of supporters.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Rally, and Riikka Purra, head of Finland's Finns Party, navigate their identities as women and right-wing populist leaders in three primary ways. First, they emphasize strong leadership, portraying themselves as decisive guides for both men and women. Second, they position themselves as protectors of women allegedly threatened by Islamic ideology. Third, they advocate for men's rights against what they describe as misandrist feminists.

The study analyzed their official Twitter accounts and political blogs, scrutinizing their rhetoric on womanhood, equality, and leadership. According to Associate Professor Katarina Pettersson, Le Pen and Purra differentiate themselves from traditional feminist actors by championing women's rights without opposing men or ignoring the challenges posed by Islam to women's status.

"By managing their relationship with feminism, right-wing populist female leaders can present themselves as appropriately woman-friendly while also reinforcing their roles as advocates for men's interests," Pettersson explains. This balancing act allows them to appeal to diverse supporter groups, maintaining an image of empathy towards women's issues while projecting competence and strength in political leadership.

The study found that leveraging their female identity helps these politicians appear as empathetic champions for women's rights while simultaneously upholding the image of a strong political leader. This strategic use of gender allows them to address various constituencies effectively.

While both leaders share notable similarities in their rhetoric, there are differences. Purra's discourse includes a stronger element of victimhood, particularly highlighting perceived discrimination by the media due to her political background. This rhetorical strategy has seemingly aided her rapid rise within her party, contrasting with Le Pen's more measured approach.

"Speaking out for women's rights is more central to Purra, reflecting the Finnish political discourse and national identity, which prides itself on being a leader in gender equality and women's rights," Pettersson notes. This societal norm necessitates that Purra takes a firm stance on these issues to resonate with Finnish voters.

The study provides new insights into how female leaders in right-wing populist parties navigate their identities in a traditionally male-dominated space. By examining how Le Pen and Purra handle gender and political leadership in their online communications, the research opens up new perspectives on female populism and the broader appeal of right-wing populist parties.

This research underscores the complexity of modern political leadership, where gender and perceived threats are strategically employed to craft a compelling narrative that appeals to a wide audience. As Le Pen and Purra continue to shape their political identities, their approaches offer valuable lessons in the intersection of gender, politics, and populism.