The backlash against feminist progress that’s overtaking the U.S. is part of a global trend. Free and empowered women are a threat to authoritarianism worldwide—and the autocrats know it.
U.S. feminists have been raising alarms about persistent assaults on gender equality. Across the country, GOP-led legislatures are rolling back reproductive rights, legislating against trans youth and their families, and censoring school curricula about racism, sexism, LGBTQ+ issues and even what to expect at the gynecologist’s office.
These developments in the U.S. reflect a troubling pattern: Around the world, patriarchal authoritarianism is on the rise, and democracy is on the decline. The connection between sexism and authoritarianism is not coincidental, or a mere character flaw of individual misogynists-in-chief.
Women’s political power is essential to a properly functioning multiracial democracy, and fully free, empowered women are a threat to autocracy. Assaults on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights—and attempts to put women “in their place”—constitute a backlash against feminist progress expanding women’s full inclusion in public life.
As women’s participation becomes more prominent in domestic and international politics, our research sheds light on why political sexism and gender policing are also becoming more virulent—and what to do about it.
Authoritarianism rejects political competition and promotes a strong central power that upholds the political and social status quo. Autocrats try to maintain control by attacking the rule of law, separation of powers, political expression and fair elections.
But strongmen and their enablers also tend to usurp power in part by promoting a conservative and binary gender hierarchy. Patriarchy is, in the words of political scientist Valerie Hudson and her colleagues, the “first political order.” And it is closely related to authoritarianism.
Authoritarian backsliding occurs when women are stripped of equal access, opportunity and rights in the workplace, in the public sphere and at home. By strengthening men’s control over the women and girls in their lives, authoritarian leaders strike a patriarchal bargain, doling out private authority in exchange for public loyalty to the strongman. Incidentally, many women buy into the bargain, too. Women from dominant groups and classes are often willing to promote conservative gender norms and policies that retrench the status quo. The policing of gender expression and relations becomes a powerful tool for promoting a hegemonic racial, religious or ethnic national identity.
This article originally appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.
Thus, alongside assaults on democracy, patriarchal authoritarians also promote increased state control over women’s bodies; the subordination of women in public office and the workforce; permissiveness toward sexual assault, harassment or abuse; hypermasculine ideals; the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people; tolerance of violence toward women and girls; and an emphasis on the “traditional family,” in which the role of women is primarily domestic. Put simply, the patriarchal authoritarian worldview is that men are “men,” while women are wives and mothers. Everyone else is a threat to the system.
It’s not hard to recognize patriarchal authoritarianism in U.S. political life today, but is it rhetoric or reality? Four key domains are under sustained legal and political attack by legislators seeking to set back gender equality: access to reproductive healthcare; workplace equality and economic inclusion; protection from sexual and gender-based violence; and LGBTQ+ rights.
A country in which more than half the population is subordinated politically, socially, economically and culturally is not a democracy.
Last year saw record-setting restrictions on abortion access, with 19 states passing new laws and just six expanding access. Yet despite enthusiasm for forcing women into motherhood, Republicans continue to stonewall paid parental leave.
The U.S. remains the only country among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 38 member states without mandated paid leave for new parents, despite the fact that more than 80 percent of Americans support such a policy and only 60 percent of current workers are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act’s guaranteed unpaid leave. At the same time, workforce participation plummeted during the pandemic, with women’s unemployment and nonparticipation nearly double that of men in 2020.
Not all countries experienced this “shecession,” which reflects structural inequalities in the U.S. economy, gender segregation by job sector, and lack of access to affordable childcare and healthcare. Democrats in Congress have attempted to address some of these issues in the “Build Back Better” bills. But components designed to support working women—such as childcare and extending child tax credits—met opposition, primarily from Republicans, that effectively killed the bills.
Meanwhile, laws against gender-based violence have loosened in the U.S., thanks, in part, to what scholar Ruth Ben-Ghiat describes as the GOP’s “culture of lawless masculinity.” The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, first championed by then-Sen. Biden in 1994, was blocked for years by Republicans and a few Democrats who refused to close the “boyfriend loophole” that allows certain convicted abusers to keep firearms. When VAWA was finally approved by Congress in March, tacked onto a spending bill, it lacked the gun control provision.
The patriarchal authoritarian worldview is that men are “men,” while women are wives and mothers. Everyone else is a threat to the system.
Finally, anti-transgender legislation has become a go-to wedge issue for the Republican Party, which has introduced discriminatory bills at an exponential rate: 79 in 2020, 147 in 2021 and more than 280 already slated for 2022 legislative sessions. Many of these proposals aim to pit cisgender girls and women against transgender people, claiming to protect equity in sports and safety in bathrooms.
But the crisis in fairness actually cuts the other direction: marginalizing and harming gender minorities, not female athletes. In Florida, the “Don’t Say Gay” law bans discussions of gender and sexuality in primary school classrooms and requires teachers to disclose their students’ gender and sexuality questions to their parents. Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation uses the power of the government to police the gender binary, which underpins male dominance.
Patriarchal authoritarians rely on stable, narrow constructions of masculinity and femininity to assert control in homes, families and private lives. The Republican Party is promoting an old yet predominant vision of family values by cynically pretending families are under threat from increased tolerance of LGBTQ+ people and rising anti-racist agitation. In doing so, it’s positioning itself as the party of “parents’ rights”—a direct bid for white women’s votes—while restricting rights of parents whose children are transgender or subject to racial discrimination in schools.
These seemingly inconsistent policies have a common through line: They restrict discussions of racial and gender equality in public schools while inserting ever more state control over women’s and LGBTQ+ families’ rights. It is consonant with the GOP’s unironic co-optation of “my body, my choice” as an anti-vaccine slogan by people who proudly restrict women’s access to medical care.
Autocracy to Democracy … And Back Again
Democracy and equal rights for women are rare in world history. Every country that is a democracy today was once an autocracy (or was part of one). When countries have transformed into durable democracies, it is because democratic movements mobilized to challenge the status quo and, over time, successfully pushed forward change.
In fact, it was women’s activism—demanding the right to vote, to own property, to have constitutionally protected bodily autonomy, and to have civil and political rights for all people—that inaugurated the expansion of global democracy in the 20th century. Our research finds that during the postwar period, mass movements demanding independence and democracy were more successful at achieving their aims when women participated in larger numbers at the front lines. From the Philippines to Brazil, from Tunisia to Argentina, from Chile to Sudan, “people power” movements were more likely to usher in sustained democratization when at least 25 percent of their participants were women.
Yet in recent years, many democracies have slid back into authoritarianism, unable to stave off the rise of illiberal forces. For the 16th consecutive year, the world has been moving toward authoritarianism—what some have called a “democratic recession.” Today, the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project reports that only 30 percent of people in the world live in democracies.
From the Philippines to Brazil, from Tunisia to Argentina, from Chile to Sudan, “people power” movements were more likely to usher in sustained democratization when at least 25 percent of their participants were women.
Often dismissed as simply a feature of autocrats’ personalities, misogynistic leadership appears to help bring authoritarianism to fragile democracies. Unsurprisingly, researchers have also discovered that women’s rights and gender equality gains have stalled or, worse, are being reversed. For instance, India, Myanmar and Venezuela have seen recent downgrades in levels of both democracy and women’s equality.
Fully autocratic countries like Russia, Turkey and China show us what consolidated patriarchal control looks like: Women are considered subordinate to men in the home, in the workplace and in public office. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called women who choose to work rather than have children “half persons.”
In these countries—and many others—reproductive rights are under threat or, in some cases, nonexistent. In China, women’s reproduction was policed for decades under the “one child” policy. That has been relaxed to increase the country’s population, but some Chinese feminists now worry that the government’s call for Chinese women to produce three children might inspire future intrusive reproductive policies.
Calls for “traditional values” facilitate the subjugation of women and LGBTQ+ people. Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his own authoritarian power grab in 2012 by invoking patriarchal and homophobic rhetoric. In his Feb. 24 speech, in which he rationalized his armed forces’ invasion of Ukraine, Putin invoked a defense of Russia’s “traditional values” against the West’s “false values” that “are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature”—a reference to the expansion of feminist and LGBTQ+ rights within the West.
Toward a Feminist Democracy
There is much we can do to protect and expand the hard-won rights that are already enshrined in policy and which, in turn, protect democracy. First, it is crucial to fully understand that assaults on women’s and LGBTQ+ autonomy, well-being and rights are assaults on constitutional democracy. A country in which more than half the population is subordinated politically, socially, economically and culturally is not a democracy.
Corresponding assaults on democracy—including restrictions on ballot access, protest and public expression, and weakening the rule of law—can unravel women’s equality, particularly for marginalized and subjugated groups. The fate of women’s rights is tied to the fate of democracy, and women’s mobilization can help to secure both.
More than 100 years ago, women worldwide mobilized for their inclusion in democracy. And they have since used their political power to demand fundamental rights in healthcare, employment and domestic life. As a result, women have become key constituents with whom authoritarian leaders and parties have to contend—and often seek to control.
This finding is instructive: Women and their allies mobilize when their rights are under assault, but they are even more powerful when they mobilize on broad-based issues. Women from all walks of life must continue to be vocal champions of inclusive democracy.
Feminist candidates, women elected officials and feminist policies are fundamental to the health and well-being of democracy. Feminists must find their political homes and invest in them. Women, gender minorities and feminists of all genders who are already engaged need to stay engaged. For those who have taken these hard-won rights for granted, the time has come to take a stand.
Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.