The New Authoritarians Are Waging War on Women
Donald Trump’s ideological cousins around the world want to reverse the feminist gains of recent decades.
January/February 2019 Issue
The problem with both American-born story lines is that authoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries. Some are mired in recession; others are booming. Some are consumed by fears of immigration; others are not. But besides their hostility to liberal democracy, the right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.
To understand global Trumpism, argues Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist at Texas A&M, it’s vital to remember that for most of human history, leaders and their male subjects forged a social contract: “Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.” This political hierarchy appeared natural—as natural as adults ruling children—because it mirrored the hierarchy of the home. Thus, for millennia, men, and many women, have associated male dominance with political legitimacy. Women’s empowerment ruptures this order. “Youths oppress My people, and women rule over them,” laments Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. “My people, your leaders mislead you.”
Because male dominance is deeply linked to political legitimacy, many revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries have used the specter of women’s power to discredit the regime they sought to overthrow. Then, once in power themselves, they have validated their authority by reducing women’s rights.
Commentators sometimes describe Trump’s alliance with the Christian right as incongruous given his libertine history. But whatever their differences when it comes to the proper behavior of men, Trump and his evangelical backers are united by a common desire to constrain the behavior of women. That alliance was consecrated during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when Republicans raged against Judiciary Committee Democrats for supposedly degrading the Senate by orchestrating a public hearing for Christine Blasey Ford, who had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro linked this counterrevolution to a counterrevolution against uppity women. When, as a legislator, he voted to impeach Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff—who had been tortured by Brazil’s military rulers in the early 1970s—he dedicated the vote to one of that regime’s most infamous torturers. In 2015, he told a Brazilian congresswoman, “I would not rape you, because you are not worthy of it.” Crowds at Bolsonaro rallies chanted that they would feed dog food to feminists. And, like Trump, Bolsonaro has intense support from his country’s growing population of evangelicals, who appreciate his fervent opposition to abortion and gay rights.
In the Philippines, Duterte didn’t have an economic or corruption crisis to help him delegitimize the political order. (...) Also like Bolsonaro, Duterte has threatened violence against women. In 2017, he informed Filipino soldiers that because he had declared martial law on the island of Mindanao, they could each rape up to three women with impunity. In 2018, he told soldiers to shoot female rebels “in the vagina,” because that would render them “useless.”
Duterte’s anti-feminist crusade—like Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s—has also featured the ritualized humiliation of powerful women. When Senator Leila de Lima demanded an investigation into Duterte’s drug war, he vowed to “make her cry.” The government then detained de Lima on drug-trafficking charges and leaked evidence supposedly proving, in Duterte’s words, that she was “screwing her driver” like she was “screwing the nation.” A congressman who would later become Duterte’s spokesman joked that de Lima wanted to be detained at an army base “because there are many men there.” Not even Duterte’s female vice president, Leni Robredo—a member of a rival political party—has escaped his taunts. At a public event in 2016, he noted gleefully that the skirts she wore to cabinet meetings were “shorter than usual.”
One can see parallels in Italy, whose deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, a Steve Bannon ally noted for his authoritarian tendencies, in 2016 compared the female president of the lower house of parliament to an inflated sex doll. The Italian government is promoting a law that critics say would eliminate child support, and a government spokesperson said forthcoming legislation would prosecute women who accuse their husbands of domestic violence if the husbands are not convicted.
Not all of the new authoritarians are this flamboyant. But they all link the new political order they seek to create to a more subordinate and traditional role for women. Orbán, who has accused his predecessors of permitting immigrants and Roma to undermine Hungary’s identity, has proposed “a comprehensive agreement with Hungarian women” to bear more children. He promotes debt-free education for women, but only if they have at least three children.
For its part, Poland’s autocratic government has run ads urging Poles to “breed like rabbits” and banned over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill. In late 2017, after Polish women protested draconian new restrictions on abortion, the government raided the offices of women’s groups.