Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Jair Bolsonaro all share what seems a natural antipathy toward women — yet it is ultimately because they fear them. And with good reason: When women participate in political movements, they are more likely to succeed — which is bad news for authoritarianism.
SÂO PAULO — In the first televised debate between the candidates for the Brazilian presidential elections, on August 28, the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro offered yet another demonstration of his misogyny. He was asked by journalist Vera Magalhães about the drop in vaccination coverage in the country and its connection to the misinformation about vaccines, which the president himself spread during the pandemic.
“Vera, I couldn’t expect anything else from you," he responded. "You sleep thinking about me, have some kind of passion for me. You can't take sides in a debate like this. You make lying accusations about me. You’re an embarrassment to Brazilian journalism.”
Bolsonaro's televised attack inevitably led his Twitter and Telegram base to double down, resuming and intensifying the attack on Magalhães even after the debate.
Monitoring manipulation and disinformation
In the 121 pro-Bolsonaro groups on Telegram that we monitor in the Sentinela Eleitoral — a project by Agência Pública that investigates manipulation and disinformation campaigns in the 2022 Brazilian elections— the negative mentions and attacks on Magalhães hit a record high the day after the debate, reaching 90 messages. In the previous 30 days, the journalist had been mentioned only on four days, between one and two times a day.
On Twitter, the attacks were also amplified by Bolsonaro’s base. Most of the most popular trigrams — the combination of the three most used words in a tweet — on the date of the debate contained an attack and/or offense to the journalist.
But Vera Magalhães was not alone. A women-led movement took to Twitter to show support and solidarity with the journalist.
The graph below shows the analysis of 54,090 accounts and 192,712 connections that mentioned Magalhães. The green cluster is formed by the media and Bolsonaro’s base. The rest is made up of accounts that supported her, mainly women journalists and politicians — which shows that the support was led by women and was, in the end, greater than the attacks.
Misogyny as an authoritarian project
Bolsonaro supporters tend to increase their attacks when the target is a woman. Another example is the influential singer Anitta, who has emerged on the world music scene in recent years.
It's no coincidence that women's equality is suffering at the same time that authoritarianism is on the rise.
Due to the singer's openly critical position towards the Bolsonaro government, pro-Bolsonaro groups on Telegram have been busy delegitimizing Anitta's influence, as well as tarnishing her reputation. This intensified particularly after she declared in July that she would vote for Bolsonaro's opponent, Lula.
Since the beginning of 2022, more than 1,520 messages with misogynistic and sexist overtones have been posted against Anitta in the same pro-Bolsonaro groups that we monitor on Telegram.
As Harvard researchers Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks describe in the article "Revenge of the Patriarchs — Why Autocrats Fear Women", it is no coincidence that the agenda of women's equality is suffering setbacks at the same time that authoritarianism is on the rise in several countries.
According to the researchers, patriarchal autocrats and authoritarians, from Donald Trump to China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have good reasons to fear women's political participation: when women participate in mass movements, these movements are more likely to succeed and lead to a more equal democracy.
In other words, fully free and politically active women are a threat to authoritarian or authoritarian-prone leaders — and therefore these leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist.
A history of attacks on women
Bolsonaro constantly attacks the press, one of the pillars of democracy, and women journalists are among his favorite targets. But Bolsonaro has a long history of sexist speeches and attacks that are not restricted to journalism.
In 1998, when he was a congressman, Bolsonaro physically assaulted a woman, Conceição Aparecida Aguiar, manager of a legal consulting firm that served the Army, from behind her back.
In 2011, on a TV show, when asked by a Black singer how he would react if one of his children got involved with a Black woman, Bolsonaro attacked her: "I will not discuss promiscuity with anyone. I don't take that risk. My children were very well educated and did not live in an environment like yours."
In 2012, Bolsonaro voted against an amendment to the Constitution that aimed to secure labor rights for domestic workers — a group mostly made up of women in Brazil.
In 2014, in a discussion with a Workers' Party congresswoman in the House, Bolsonaro said he "wouldn't rape her because she didn't deserve it." Bolsonaro also stated that women who decide to be mothers should earn less.
In 2016, during the vote on the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, the then congressman dedicated his vote to the memory of a torturer who inserted cockroaches into women's vaginas during the military dictatorship.
In 2017, he claimed that the only daughter among his five children was born a woman because he “had a moment of weakness”.
In 2019, Bolsonaro stated that Brazil could not be a gay tourism destination, but that "whoever wants to come here and have sex with a woman, feel free."
Brazilian journalist Vera Magalhães
In their article, Chenoweth and Marks assert that, despite blatant misogyny, authoritarians and autocrats manage to recruit women as protagonists in their political movements. In the case of the Brazilian president, the two main examples are the former minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, and the first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro.
Damares Alves promotes speeches in which she highlights motherhood and the traditional family to obscure unequal gender policies. Michelle Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has been instrumental in the reelection campaign to try to lessen the female electorate’s rejection of her husband. She has attended rallies and party conventions to promote the idea that Bolsonaro cares about women, and she has even claimed that he "approved 70 new laws protecting women."
In reality, Bolsonaro approved 46 such bills, none of which were authored by his government, and vetoed six proposals that directly benefited women — including the section of a law that would establish the free distribution of sanitary pads to people living in poverty.
Bolsonaro supporters also use social media to create fakes to artificially show that he has the support of women. The day after the presidential debate, the hashtags #SouMulherEVotoBolsonaro (#IAmAWomanAndIVoteForBolsonaro) and #MulheresComBolsonaro (#WomenWithBolsonaro) were among Brazil’s Trending Topics on Twitter.
But the two hashtags had strong input from accounts with bot-like behaviors and fake accounts, as pointed out by the Hoaxy tool. About 25% of the accounts that helped the hashtags reach the Twitter Trending Topics were fake.
Women are key to resisting authoritarianism
During the presidential debate, Senator Simone Tebet, also a presidential candidate, asked Bolsonaro: "Why so much anger toward women?"
The resistance is where the way out of the Bolsonaro era lies.
The answer is simple: because Bolsonaro hates democracy. As much as Brazilian women and their rights are being attacked and threatened, it is more necessary than ever to recognize their resistance efforts, where the way out of the Bolsonaro era lies.
Scholars of democracy have often framed women's empowerment as a result of democratization or even as a result of modernization and economic development. But, as Chenoweth and Marks assert, women demanded inclusion and fought for their own representation and interests through contentious suffrage movements and rights campaigns that ultimately strengthened democracy in general.
In Brazil, the pro-democracy movement during the end of the military regime in the mid-1980s had extensive female participation: at least half of the frontline participants were women. Today, women are 52.7% of the Brazilian electorate and thus can be decisive in defeating not only Jair Bolsonaro, but Bolsonarism as a whole.
If history serves as a guide, authoritarian strategies will fail in the long run. As Chenoweth and Marks explain, feminists have always found ways to demand and expand women's rights and freedoms, empowering democratic advancement in the process.
But in the short term, out-of-control patriarchal authoritarians can do great damage, erasing achievements that took generations to achieve.
Natalia Viana, Yasodara Cordova and Laura Scofield contributed to this article.
*David Nemer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies and in the Latin American Studies program at the University of Virginia.