There Is No Democracy Without Gender Justice

Authoritarians make the connection every day. When will more of us?

Amanda Zurawski (center) was denied abortion care in Texas after she experienced preterm pre-labor rupture of membranes (PPROM) at 18 weeks of pregnancy. She speaks outside the U.S. Capitol on March 7, 2024, ahead of the State of the Union speech later in the evening. (Kent Nishimura / Getty Images)

“We, women of South Africa, claim our rights. We claim full and equal participation in the creation of a non sexist, non-racist, democratic society.”

I’ll never forget the power of reading these words for the first time. As the first sentence of the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality, they introduce a profound political vision that was adopted by the South African Women’s National Coalition in 1994.

Just two years later, I arrived in the country as a young lawyer, jumping at the chance to work as a legal advisor with the ANC Parliamentary Women’s Caucus in the first democratically elected parliament. Amid the end of apartheid and the rise of a multiracial democracy, the air was filled with possibility. And I was getting the political education of a lifetime. 

In South Africa, the women’s rights movement was crystal clear in its vision. The brilliant activists I worked for made it plain—for everyone—that democracy could never exist without ending white supremacy and misogyny, and without women and girls’ rights being realized. 

I would go on to bring these lessons to many different roles in many different places—from an international women’s rights organization, to UNICEF, to a global foundation—where we built it into one world’s largest funders focused on building power with girls and women, especially girls and women of color.

The Fight to Connect Racial and Gender Justice

Fast forward to 2021: I became president of the Democracy Alliance, knowing it was a chance to thread all of this work together by leading a community of donors committed to a just, multiracial, feminist democracy. 

But I soon began to notice something. That political clarity—the visceral connections between racial, gender and economic justice and democracy that were so apparent to so many in South Africa—were not as clear everywhere else.

Authoritarians get it: Control over our bodies is fundamental to every other freedom. And cracking down on that control is central to consolidating power. 

I often found myself in conversations with leaders who would ask me, “So why did you decide to change issues?” Or, when I would strategize with funders, some would say, “We can’t fund women and girls of color right now, because we have to focus on our democracy.”  

From the boardrooms of philanthropy to the halls of government, democracy and gender were often treated as separate issues.

I’ve been working to sound the alarm ever since. Because while our side has been slow to connect the dots, the authoritarian right has been acting on these connections for decades. The consequences are deadly—and mounting.

As the London School of Economics has explained, “Right-wing agendas have consistently identified feminism, gender equality and anti-racism as a problem, and have used ‘anti-gender,’ anti-feminist, and anti-migrant feeling as a way of garnering support for nationalist … agendas.”

Authoritarians get it: Control over our bodies is fundamental to every other freedom. And cracking down on that control is central to consolidating power. 

Once you make the connection, it is hard to miss. Crackdowns in countries like Hungary and Russia now have clear echoes in states like Florida or Missouri. In 2018, Hungary’s far-right leader, Victor Orban, made it a priority to ban gender studies. Then the country’s parliament passed a law banning gay people from being featured in school educational materials. One year later, Florida’s infamous “don’t say gay” bill went into effect. Today, nearly 400 anti-trans bills are under active consideration by state legislatures across the United States.

As common tactics of a global “anti-gender” movement, these attacks all mirror each other because they draw from the same source: the authoritarian playbook. That means it is up to the rest of us—whether policymakers, funders, or concerned citizens—to band together to fight back. 

Fighting Authoritarianism

The first step is to make the connection, just like authoritarians do. More of us need to connect the dots—loudly and consistently. That starts with naming attacks on trans people, on women and gender expansive people, and on people of color for exactly what they are: a campaign against democracy itself. And then we have to coordinate across movements to fight back. No more single-issue meetings or initiatives that fail to recognize the common threat.

Second, we need to move serious amounts of money to movement organizations. Quickly.

U.S.-based organizations working against LGBTQ and women’s rights have funneled more than $1 billion overseas to bolster anti-gender groups, according to tracking from the Global Philanthropy Project. Meanwhile, the Black Feminist Fund found that 61 percent of Black feminist organizations have an annual budget less than $50,000. More than half don’t have funds available to carry them through the next fiscal year.

At Shake The Table, we are calling for $6 billion to counter funding for anti-gender and white supremacist movements, so that more resources flow to women—especially Black women and other women of color—and LGBTQ activists whose fight for their rights is the existential fight for our democracy.  

Third, all of us who care about a just, multiracial, feminist democracy must get political. By some accounts, progressives actually outspent the right on abortion rights in recent decades. But the vast majority of those dollars flowed to 501(c)(3) funding only.

Meanwhile, the right keeps maxing out on political funding. In 2022, one of the largest known donations for political advocacy—$1.6 billion—dropped from Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, the very architect of the corrupt, undemocratic Supreme Court now methodically stripping away those rights in the United States.

The Dobbs decision was simply the latest result of a 40-year conservative strategy to take over the courts. We need a big-picture vision and shared strategy of our own. 

Our democracy is too important to focus on tax breaks alone. For individual donors, this means prioritizing 501(c)(4) giving whenever possible, and rallying others to join in. For foundations, it means shedding the longstanding fear of political giving and exploring many legal and proven pathways to step into the arena.

Finally, we have to play the long game. In the United States, the Dobbs decision was simply the latest result of a 40-year conservative strategy to take over the courts. We need a big-picture vision and shared strategy of our own. 

This must include building political power, especially in the states where democracy and gender and racial justice are under severe attack. That means long-term, flexible funding for state-based organizations focused on developing power among all women, especially women of color. And it also means supporting candidates for office who are driving movements for change. Black women and women of color are leading the fight to rebuild democracy and protect and expand women’s rights. And we must invest in them.

The struggle for democracy and for gender, racial and economic justice is one fight. It’s our fight. Authoritarians are counting on us to miss the connection. Because once more of us do, we will become unstoppable.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

About

Pamela Shifman is president of the Democracy Alliance, a network of progressive donors committed to defending democracy and building the progressive infrastructure in the United States, and founder of Shake the Table, a global research and action hub that connects philanthropy and social movements to advance racial, gender and economic justice.