Revenge of the Patriarchs
The pantheon of autocratic leaders includes a great many sexists, from Napoléon Bonaparte, who decriminalized the murder of unfaithful wives, to Benito Mussolini, who claimed that women “never created anything.” And while the twentieth century saw improvements in women’s equality in most parts of the world, the twenty-first is demonstrating that misogyny and authoritarianism are not just common comorbidities but mutually reinforcing ills. Throughout the last century, women’s movements won the right to vote for women; expanded women’s access to reproductive health care, education, and economic opportunity; and began to enshrine gender equality in domestic and international law—victories that corresponded with unprecedented waves of democratization in the postwar period. Yet in recent years, authoritarian leaders have launched a simultaneous assault on women’s rights and democracy that threatens to roll back decades of progress on both fronts.
The patriarchal backlash has played out across the full spectrum of authoritarian regimes, from totalitarian dictatorships to party-led autocracies to illiberal democracies headed by aspiring strongmen. In China, Xi Jinping has crushed feminist movements, silenced women who have accused powerful men of sexual assault, and excluded women from the Politburo’s powerful Standing Committee. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is rolling back reproductive rights and promoting traditional gender roles that limit women’s participation in public life. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un has spurred women to seek refuge abroad at roughly three times the rate of men, and in Egypt, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi recently introduced a bill reasserting men’s paternity rights, their right to practice polygamy, and their right to influence whom their female relatives marry. In Saudi Arabia, women still cannot marry or obtain health care without a man’s approval. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s victory has erased 20 years of progress on women’s access to education and representation in public office and the workforce.
The wave of patriarchal authoritarianism is also pushing some established democracies in an illiberal direction. Countries with authoritarian-leaning leaders, such as Brazil, Hungary, and Poland, have seen the rise of far-right movements that promote traditional gender roles as patriotic while railing against “gender ideology”—a boogeyman term that Human Rights Watch describes as meaning “nothing and everything.” Even the United States has experienced a slowdown in progress toward gender equity and a rollback of reproductive rights, which had been improving since the 1970s. During his presidency, Donald Trump worked with antifeminist stalwarts, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, to halt the expansion of women’s rights around the world. And despite the Biden administration’s commitment to gender equity at the national level, Republican-controlled states are attempting to reverse the constitutional right to abortion, which is now more vulnerable than it has been in decades.
Not surprisingly, women’s political and economic empowerment is now stalling or declining around the world. According to Georgetown University’s Women, Peace, and Security Index, the implementation of gender equality laws has slowed in recent years, as have gains in women’s educational attainment and representation in national parliaments. At the same time, intimate partner violence has increased, and Honduras, Mexico, and Turkey have seen significant increases in femicide. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these trends worldwide, forcing millions of women to leave the workforce and take on additional unpaid care, restricting their access to health care and education, and limiting their options for escaping abuse.
The assault on women’s rights has coincided with a broader assault on democracy. According to Freedom House and the Varieties of Democracy Project at the University of Gothenburg, the last 15 years have seen a sustained authoritarian resurgence. Relatively new democracies, such as Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, and Turkey, have slid back into autocracy or are trending in that direction. Countries that were considered partially authoritarian a decade ago, such as Russia, have become full-fledged autocracies. And in some of the world’s oldest democracies—France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—antidemocratic sentiment is rising in established political parties.
It is not a coincidence that women’s equality is being rolled back at the same time that authoritarianism is on the rise. Political scientists have long noted that women’s civil rights and democracy go hand in hand, but they have been slower to recognize that the former is a precondition for the latter. Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation: when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy. In other words, fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist.
Understanding the relationship between sexism and democratic backsliding is vital for those who wish to fight back against both. Established autocrats and right-wing nationalist leaders in contested democracies are united in their use of hierarchical gender relations to shore up nationalist, top-down, male-dominated rule. Having long fought against social hierarchies that consolidate power in the hands of the few, feminist movements are a powerful weapon against authoritarianism. Those who wish to reverse the global democratic decline cannot afford to ignore them.
WOMEN ON THE FRONTLINES
Scholars of democracy have often framed women’s empowerment as an outcome of democratization or even a function of modernization and economic development. Yet women demanded inclusion and fought for their own representation and interests through contentious suffrage movements and rights campaigns that ultimately strengthened democracy in general. The feminist project remains unfinished, and the expansion of women’s rights that occurred over the last hundred-plus years has not been shared equally among women. As intersectional and anticolonial feminists have long argued, the greatest feminist gains have accrued to elite women, often white and Western ones. Yet women’s political activism has clearly expanded and fortified democracy—a fact that autocrats and illiberal democrats intuitively understand and that explains their fear of women’s empowerment.
In the past seven decades, women’s demands for political and economic inclusion have helped catalyze democratic transitions, especially when those women were on the frontlines of mass movements. Democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia during the 1980s and 1990s were driven in part by mass popular movements in which women played key roles. Our research shows that all the major resistance movements during the postwar period—those seeking to topple national governments or to win national independence—featured women in support roles, such as providing food, shelter, intelligence, funds, or other supplies. But these movements differed in the degree to which they had women as frontline participants—those who took part directly in demonstrations, confrontations with authorities, strikes, boycotts, and other forms of noncooperation. Some, such as Brazil’s pro-democracy movement in the mid-1980s, featured extensive women’s participation: at least half of the frontline participants were women. Others, such as the 2006 uprising against the Nepalese monarchy, featured more modest frontline participation of women. Only one nonviolent campaign during this period seems to have excluded women altogether: the civilian uprising that ousted Mahendra Chaudhry from power in Fiji in 2000.
In the first half of the twentieth century, women played active roles in anticolonial liberation struggles across Africa and in leftist revolutions in Europe and Latin America. Later, pro-democracy movements in Myanmar and the Philippines saw nuns positioning their bodies between members of the security forces and civilian activists. During the first intifada, Palestinian women played a key role in the nonviolent resistance against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, organizing strikes, protests, and dialogues alongside Israeli women. In the United States, Black women have launched and continue to lead the Black Lives Matter movement, which is now a global phenomenon. Their organizing echoes the activism of forebears such as Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other Black American women who planned, mobilized, and coordinated key aspects of the U.S. civil rights movement. Two women revolutionaries, Wided Bouchamaoui and Tawakkol Karman, helped lead the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Yemen, respectively, later winning the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring about peaceful democratic transitions through nonviolent resistance, coalition building, and negotiation. Millions more like them have worked to sustain movements against some of the world’s most repressive dictatorships, from tea sellers and singers in Sudan to grandmothers in Algeria to sisters and wives in Chile demanding the return of their disappeared loved ones outside Augusto Pinochet’s presidential palace.
It turns out that frontline participation by women is a significant advantage, both in terms of a movement’s immediate success and in terms of securing longer-term democratic change. Mass movements in which women participated extensively on the frontlines have been much more likely to succeed than campaigns that marginalized or excluded women. Women have been much more likely to participate in nonviolent mass movements than in violent ones, and they have participated in much greater numbers in nonviolent than in violent campaigns. To explain why women’s frontline participation increases the chances that a movement will succeed, therefore, one must first understand what makes nonviolent movements fail or succeed.
Generally, movements seeking to topple autocratic regimes or win national independence are more likely to prevail when they mobilize large numbers of people; shift the loyalties of at least some the regime’s pillars of support; use creative tactics, such as rolling strikes, in addition to street protests; and maintain discipline and resilience in the face of state repression and countermobilization by the regime’s supporters. Large-scale participation by women helps movements achieve all these things.
On the first point, power in numbers, the advantage of women’s participation is obvious. Movements that exclude or sideline women reduce their potential pool of participants by at least half. Resistance movements must achieve broad-based support to be perceived as legitimate. And the larger the mobilization, the more likely the movement is to disrupt the status quo. General strikes and other mass actions can bring a city, state, or country to a standstill, imposing immediate economic and political costs on a regime. Mass mobilization can also generate a sense of inevitability that persuades holdouts and fence sitters to join the resistance. People want to join the winning team, and when there are large numbers of diverse participants, that can help encourage tacit or overt support from political and business elites and members of security forces.
Second, popular movements improve their chances of success when they persuade or coerce their opponents to defect. In research on public attitudes toward armed groups, scholars have found that female fighters increase the legitimacy of their movements in the eyes of observers. The same is likely true for nonviolent mass uprisings. Significant participation by women and other diverse actors also increases the social, moral, and financial capital that a movement can use to erode its opponent’s support system. When security forces, business elites, civil servants, state media, organized labor, foreign donors, or other supporters or enablers of a regime begin to question the status quo, they signal to others that it may be possible to defy that regime. For example, during the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986, President Ferdinand Marcos ordered the security forces to attack large crowds of demonstrators who were demanding his ouster. But nuns who were participating in the protests put themselves between the tanks and other demonstrators. The security forces could not bring themselves to follow through with the assault, averting a massacre that could have altered the course of the revolution. High-level defections followed, and Marcos eventually fled the country, leading to a democratic transition.
A third way women’s participation makes mass movements more effective is by expanding the range of tactics and modes of protest available to them. Everywhere it has been studied, diversity has been found to improve teamwork, innovation, and performance, and mass movements are no exception. In particular, diversity enhances creativity and collaboration, both of which help movements tap into broader information networks and maintain momentum in the face of state crackdowns. Women’s participation also makes possible culturally gendered tactics, such as marching in full beauty queen regalia, as women did in Myanmar’s pro-democracy protests in 2021; cooking food at the frontlines of demonstrations, as women did during an uprising of farmers in 2020 and 2021 in India; or protesting naked, as women in Kenya, Nigeria, and many other countries have done in order to stigmatize or disarm their opponents. Some protest movements have relied on social shaming. For example, during antigovernment protests in Algeria in 2019, grandmothers told riot police to go home, threatening to report the officers’ bad behavior to their mothers. In Sudan that same year, a women’s Facebook group named and shamed plainclothes policemen: its members outed their own brothers, cousins, and sons as members of the shadowy militias that were trying to terrorize the opposition into submission.
Women have also developed other forms of gendered noncooperation that can benefit mass movements. Consider the origins of the term “boycott.” In the late nineteenth century, women cooks, maids, and laundresses in County Mayo, Ireland, refused to provide services and labor to an absentee British landlord named Captain Charles Boycott. They encouraged others to join them, making it impossible for Boycott to remain in Ireland and inspiring a new name for their tactic. Women have pioneered other forms of social noncooperation, as well. Although the antiwar sex strike in Lysistrata was fictional, it is likely that Aristophanes had some historical precedent in mind when he wrote the comedic play. Women activists have organized sex strikes over the millennia: Iroquois women used this method, among others, to secure a veto over war-making decisions in the seventeenth century; Liberian women used it to demand an end to civil war in the early years of this century; Colombian women used it to urge an end to gang violence; and on and on.
Power in numbers, the persuasion of opponents, and tactical innovation all help facilitate a fourth key factor in the success of nonviolent people power movements: discipline. When movements maintain nonviolent resistance in the face of violence or other provocations by security forces, they are more likely to mobilize additional support and, ultimately, to succeed. And movements with women on the frontlines, it turns out, are less likely to fully embrace violence or develop violent flanks in response to regime crackdowns. At least in part, that is likely because having large numbers of women on the frontlines moderates the behavior of other protesters, as well as the police. Gendered taboos against public violence against women and against violent confrontations in the presence of women and girls may explain part of this phenomenon. So might the higher political costs of violently repressing women who are participating in sit-ins and strikes.
Women from different backgrounds face different risks of violent repression, however. The women on the frontlines of movements demanding and expanding democracy often come from oppressed castes, classes, and minority groups. They are students and young people, widows and grandmothers. Women from marginalized backgrounds have often been ignored or subjected to greater violence during mass mobilizations than have wealthy or otherwise privileged women who benefit from patriarchal authoritarianism. This is why, for example, “Aryan” German women succeeded in securing the release of their Jewish husbands during the Rosenstrasse protest in Berlin in 1943, whereas Jewish women would have been arrested or executed for such a protest. Black Americans who powered the U.S. civil rights movement similarly faced much greater risks than did the white people who participated as allies. Only sustained cross-class, multiracial, or multiethnic coalitions can overcome these dynamics of privilege and power, which is why such coalitions are crucial for facing down violent authoritarian repression and pushing societies toward egalitarianism and democracy for all.
A RISING TIDE
Women who participate on the frontlines of mass movements don’t just make those movements more likely to achieve their short-term objectives—for instance, removing an oppressive dictator. They also make those movements more likely to secure lasting democratic change. Controlling for a variety of other factors that might make a democratic transition more likely—such as a country’s previous experience with democracy—our analysis shows that extensive frontline participation by women is positively associated with increases in egalitarian democracy, as defined by the Varieties of Democracy Project.
In other words, women’s participation in mass movements is like a rising tide, lifting all boats. Researchers have found that inclusive transition processes lead to more sustainable negotiated settlements and more durable democracy after civil wars. Although there is little research on settlements that come out of nonviolent mobilizations, the presence of women likely translates into increased demands for electoral participation, economic opportunity, and access to education and health care—all of which make democratic transitions more likely to endure.
What happens when inclusive popular mobilizations are defeated and no transitions take place? Incumbent regimes that stamp out inclusive mass movements tend to indulge in a state-sponsored patriarchal backlash. The greater the proportion of women in the defeated movement, the higher the degree of a patriarchal backlash—a dynamic that has ominous implications for Afghanistan, Belarus, Colombia, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Myanmar, Russia, Sudan, and Venezuela, all of which currently have inclusive people power movements whose outcomes are uncertain. Our research shows that countries with failed popular movements tend to experience major backsliding in both egalitarian democracy and gender equality, making them worse off than before the movements began. In other words, the impressive impact of women’s frontline participation on the probability of democratization is contingent on the movement’s victory; women’s participation leads to democratic change and women’s empowerment only when the broader movement succeeds.
THE AUTOCRAT’S PLAYBOOK
Authoritarian leaders and illiberal democrats have responded to the threat of women’s political mobilization by reversing progress on gender equality and women’s rights. Their motivation is not all strategic—many probably believe in sexist ideas—but their worldview is self-serving.
In fully authoritarian states, the mechanisms of sexist repression can be uncompromising and brutal. Often, they take the form of policies that exert direct state control over women’s reproduction, including through forced pregnancies or forced abortions, misogynistic rhetoric that normalizes or even encourages violence against women, and laws and practices that reduce or eliminate women’s representation in government and discourage women from entering or advancing in the workforce.
In China, for instance, Xi has launched a population suppression campaign against the Uyghurs and other ethnic and rural minorities, forcing birth control, abortions, and even sterilization on many women. Women from ethnic minorities now face the threat of fines or imprisonment for having what Beijing considers too many children. In Egypt, state control over women’s reproduction is harnessed to the opposite effect: abortion is illegal in any and all circumstances, and women must seek a judge’s permission to divorce, whereas men have no such requirement. In Russia, where abortion has been legal under any circumstance since 1920, Putin’s government has attempted to reverse the country’s declining population by discouraging abortions and reinforcing “traditional” values. In all three countries, despite nominal constitutional commitments to protect women against gender discrimination, women are dismally underrepresented in the workforce and in powerful official roles.
In less autocratic settings, where overtly sexist policies cannot simply be decreed, authoritarian-leaning leaders and their political parties use sexist rhetoric to whip up popular support for their regressive agendas, often cloaking them in the garb of populism. In doing so, they promote misogynistic narratives of traditionalist “patriotic femininity.” The scholar Nitasha Kaul has described these leaders as pushing “anxious and insecure nationalisms” that punish and dehumanize feminists. Where they can, they pursue policies that assert greater state control over women’s bodies, while reducing support for political and economic gender equality. They encourage—and often legislate—the subjugation of women, demanding that men and women conform to traditional gender roles out of patriotic duty. They also co-opt and distort concepts such as equity and empowerment to their own ends. Although such efforts to reassert a gender hierarchy look different in different right-wing settings and cultures, they share a common tactic: to make the subjugation of women look desirable, even aspirational, not only for men but also for conservative women.
One way that autocratic and illiberal leaders make a gender hierarchy palatable to women is by politicizing the “traditional family,” which becomes a euphemism for tying women’s value and worth to childbearing, parenting, and homemaking in a nuclear household—and rolling back their claims to public power. Female bodies become targets of social control for male lawmakers, who invoke the ideal of feminine purity and call on mothers, daughters, and wives to reproduce an idealized version of the nation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has argued that women are not equal to men and that their prescribed role in society is motherhood and housekeeping. He has called women who pursue careers over motherhood “half persons.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has similarly encouraged women to stop trying to close the pay gap and focus instead on producing Hungarian children.
Across the full range of authoritarian and semiauthoritarian regimes, sexual and gender minorities are often targeted for abuse, as well. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are seen as undermining the binary gender hierarchy celebrated by many authoritarians. As a result, they are frequently marginalized and stigmatized through homophobic policies: Poland’s “LGBT-free zones,” for instance, or Russia’s bans on “LGBTQ propaganda” and same-sex marriage. Beijing recently went as far as banning men from appearing “too effeminate” on television and social media in a campaign to enforce China’s “revolutionary culture.”
Despite their flagrant misogyny—and, in some cases, because of it—some authoritarians and would-be authoritarians succeed in enlisting women as key players in their political movements. They display their wives and daughters prominently in the domestic sphere and sometimes in official positions to obscure gender unequal policies. Valorizing traditional motherhood, conservative women often play supporting roles to the masculine stars of the show. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than the dueling women’s movements that supported and opposed Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 presidential campaign in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s opponents organized one of the largest women-led protests in the country’s history under the banner of Ele Não, or “Not Him.” His female supporters swathed themselves in the Brazilian flag and derided feminism as “sexist.”
In the patriarchal authoritarian’s view, men are not real men unless they have control over the women in their lives. Trump’s masculine authority was therefore heightened when his wife, Melania Trump, walked behind him onto Air Force One, and it was challenged when she refused to appear with him in public. Sara Duterte-Carpio, the mayor of Davao City, in the Philippines, and a daughter of President Rodrigo Duterte, was a front-runner to succeed her father until he announced that women are “not fit” to be president. Despite the country’s history of female heads of state and Duterte-Carpio’s leading poll numbers, she dutifully filed her candidacy for vice president instead.
While women are pigeonholed into traditionally feminized roles, patriarchal authoritarian leaders trumpet their power with gratuitous displays of masculinity. Putin posing topless is the viral version of this public peacocking, but casual misogyny, carefully staged photo ops, and boastful, hypermasculine rhetoric also fit the bill. Think of Trump’s oversize red tie, aggressive handshake, and claims that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim’s—or Bolsonaro’s call for Brazilians to face COVID-19 “like a man.” This kind of talk may seem ridiculous, but it is part of a more insidious rhetorical repertoire that feminizes opponents, then projects hypermasculinity by criticizing women’s appearance, joking about rape, threatening sexual violence, and seeking to control women’s bodies, all in order to silence critics of patriarchal authoritarianism.
The counterpart to this violent rhetoric is paternalistic misogyny. As Kaul writes, “While Trump, Bolsonaro, and Duterte have most explicitly sexualized and objectified women, projecting themselves as profusely virile and predatory, [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and Erdogan have promoted themselves as protective, and occasionally, even renunciatory, father figures . . . to keep women and minorities in their place. . . . [They] are at times deeply and overtly misogynist, and yet at other times use progressive gender talk to promote regressive gender agendas.”
As tolerance for misogyny in general increases, other shifts in the political and legal landscape occur: protections for survivors of rape and domestic violence are rolled back, sentences for such crimes are loosened, evidentiary requirements for charging perpetrators are made more stringent, and women are left with fewer tools with which to defend their bodily and political autonomy. For instance, in 2017, Putin signed a law that decriminalized some forms of domestic abuse, despite concerns that Russia has long faced an epidemic of domestic violence. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump famously minimized a video that surfaced of him bragging about sexual assault, dismissing it as “locker room talk,” despite the fact that numerous women had accused him of sexual assault and misconduct. Once Trump became president, his administration directed the Department of Education to reform Title IX regulations to give more rights to those accused of sexual assault on college campuses.
Finally, many autocrats and would-be autocrats promote a narrative of masculine victimhood designed to gin up popular concern about how men and boys are faring. Invariably, men are portrayed as “losing out” to women and other groups championed by progressives, despite their continued advantages in a male-dominated gender hierarchy. In 2019, for instance, Russia’s Ministry of Justice claimed that reports of domestic violence were overstated in the country and that Russian men faced greater “discrimination” than women in abuse claims. In a similar vein, aspiring autocrats often maintain that masculinity is under threat. Among Trump supporters in the United States, such claims have become commonplace. For instance, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, recently blamed leftist movements for redefining traditional masculinity as toxic and called for reviving “a strong and healthy manhood in America.” Representative Madison Cawthorn, a Republican from North Carolina, echoed Hawley’s sentiments in a viral speech in which he complained that American society aims to “de-masculate” men and encourages parents to raise “monsters.”
As an engine of genuine democratic progress, activism by women and gender minorities threatens authoritarian leaders. Although many autocrats and aspiring autocrats no doubt believe the sexist and misogynistic things they say, their campaigns to restrict women’s empowerment and human rights also seek to undermine potential popular democratic movements that would oust them.
Those who wish to combat the rising tide of authoritarianism will need to make promoting women’s political participation central to their work. Domestically, democratic governments and their supporters should model and protect the equal inclusion of women, especially from diverse backgrounds, in all places where decisions are being made—from community groups to corporate boards to local, state, and national governments. Democratic governments should also prioritize issues that directly affect women’s ability to play an equal role in public life, such as reproductive autonomy, domestic violence, economic opportunity, and access to health care and childcare. All these issues are central to the broader battle over the future of democracy in the United States and around the world, and they should be treated as such.
Democratic governments and international institutions must also put defending women’s empowerment and human rights at the center of their fight against authoritarianism worldwide. Violent, misogynistic threats and attacks against women—whether in the home or in public—should be denounced as assaults on both women and democracy, and the perpetrators of such attacks should be held accountable. The “Year of Action” promoted by the Biden administration to renew and bolster democracy should include an uncompromising commitment to stand up for gender equity at home and abroad. Efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development to support human rights activists and civil society groups could likewise make explicit that women’s empowerment and political participation need to be integrated throughout all democracy renewal efforts.
Internationally, a multinational coalition is needed to explicitly reject patriarchal authoritarianism and share knowledge and technical skills in the fight against it. Those who are best equipped to build and sustain such a coalition are feminist grassroots and civil society leaders, as they are often the most aware of acute needs in their communities. An ambitious summit or conference convened by a multilateral group of countries or a regional or global organization could help jump-start such an effort by bringing women and their champions from around the world in contact with one another to share their experiences and strategies. One step in the right direction would be to dramatically increase the support and visibility given to the annual meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Finally, organizers and supporters of mass movements for democratic change need a gender-inclusive agenda in order to attract women to the frontlines and to leadership roles. Supporters of democracy at home and abroad should focus on assisting, amplifying, and protecting civil society groups and movements that are pushing for gender equity and work to make sure they are included in any negotiations or transitions that follow mass uprisings or democratic movements. Pro-democracy groups and organizations must understand that truly inclusive movements—those that transcend class, race, gender, and sexual identity—are the most likely to achieve lasting change.
If history is any guide, authoritarian strategies will fail in the long run. Feminists have always found ways to demand and expand women’s rights and freedoms, powering democratic advancement in the process. But unchecked, patriarchal authoritarians can do great damage in the short run, erasing hard-won gains that have taken generations to achieve.
This content was originally published here.