Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine is unfolding into the autocrat’s most aggressive move to extend his reach. Beyond Putin’s Russia, authoritarian regimes are on the rise globally—a worrying trend that could roll back decades of democratic gains and human rights achievements worldwide. Autocracies pose a particular threat to gender equity and the rights of historically marginalized people, including women and LGBTQ+ people.
To explore those trends, Harvard Kennedy School faculty members Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks have conducted research to understand the interplay of gender, violence, and resistance—including through the Women in Resistance Data Project. They discuss the rise of autocracy and its attendant patriarchal backlash in a substantial new Foreign Affairs essay.
We spoke to Chenoweth, the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment, and Marks, a lecturer in public policy, about their work.
Q: You write about a current wave of authoritarian regimes that are highly patriarchal—from Xi Jinping’s China to Vladimir Putin’s Russia—including democracies that are moving in an illiberal direction, such as Brazil, Hungary, and Poland. Why do you think we are seeing this global patriarchal backlash now, at this moment?
EC: The world has witnessed a major wave of autocratization, which has been expanding for the past 16 years (according to Freedom House and the Varieties of Democracy project). In response, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of mass pro-democratic social movements rising up to resist the autocratic tide. Many of these—in places like Turkey, Russia, Hong Kong, and the United States—have featured a high proportion of women participants. But many of these mass movements have been defeated, at least in the short term, and patriarchal backlash is one way that autocrats attempt to undermine and prevent mass movements from effectively mobilizing again.
ZM: Democracy by definition requires equal human and civil rights for citizens—including, of course, women, who have had the right to vote for less than 100 years in most countries. Authoritarians often rely on the overrepresentation of male power (patriarchy)—in both public and private life—to consolidate their power and chip away at crosscutting social coalitions. They seek to minimize women's equal rights as citizens and frame it as niche "opposition" or identity politics; and they center masculinity and male breadwinners' status as the key indicator of the nation. Some of the most male-dominated parties and regimes are also the most preoccupied with reasserting gender hierarchies, revealing profound insecurities about gender equality and LGBTQ freedom.
Q: While misogyny and gender discrimination may at times be expressed differently in different cultures and contexts, what overlapping themes cross national boundaries?
EC: The primary commonality—and the most dangerous trend—is the enshrinement of sexist policies. These include increased state control over women’s reproductive rights (i.e., withdrawal of healthcare, forced pregnancies or forced abortions), the loosening of laws punishing sexual violence or domestic abuse, the criminalization of LGBTQ+ people, the promotion of the “traditional family” where women’s roles are to be subservient to men and primarily confined to the home, and laws that make it more difficult for women to fully participate in the workforce and in politics. All of these policies serve to reinforce gender hierarchies in which women are not considered full and equal persons.
Q: You write that women’s participation in protest can make a big difference in fighting against authoritarian and patriarchal regimes. What can organizers do to increase women’s participation or to create a more gender-inclusive environment?
EC: First and foremost, they should see gender parity as a necessary but insufficient factor in the movement’s success. At a minimum, this requires actively recruiting and retaining women organizers, activists, community leaders, and public figures to build a deep bench of women participants. It also means providing many different points of entry for movement participation recognizing that many women tend to have numerous care responsibilities that make it difficult for them to become full-time dissidents without support (e.g., child care at planning meetings, etc.).
ZM: We know from our research that women participate at much higher rates in nonviolent mass movements and that women's presence can lead to new strategies and tactics in civil resistance. Campaigns that turn violent will be less inclusive, as well as less effective. We are currently doing a deeper dive into the effects of women leaders and gender equitable ideology. Activists looking to harness the power of inclusive revolution should certainly incorporate women and full equality at every level of the movement.
Q: You discuss how some authoritarians get women to support them by valorizing the concept of traditional motherhood, and that these authoritarians sometimes use their own wives or daughters as examples. Why does this tactic work? And why is it compelling for women?
ZM: Many women benefit from the status quo, especially elite women and those from dominant castes, like white women in the United States. Women have also been socialized in the same patriarchal society that trains us to imagine the default voter, politician, worker, or business-owner is a man, and that being a "good" wife or daughter to a successful man is deeply desirable. The combination of being invested in one's own status—often tied to a man—and being socialized to deprioritize your own autonomy and ambition can be incredibly politically disempowering for women, while also feeling aspirational.
Q: Another authoritarian tactic you mention is creating the perception that masculinity is under threat. How can people work against this narrative? And in what ways can more men be allies in building gender-inclusive agendas?
ZM: First, when people say men are under threat, we can step back and look at how economic and political power is still overwhelmingly male—in this country and in most of the world. Second, we can take seriously concerns about men's mental health and declining life expectancy and recognize that women and gender minorities are not the cause of these problems. Often, they're tied to growing inequality, environmental and economic crisis, and other complex problems that require fully inclusive solutions. Third, at the executive and legislative levels, politicians pushing the male victimhood narrative are also selling the story that the system is unjust unless they're winning; it's important to pause to recognize that gains by women, gender minorities, racial minorities, and other historically excluded groups are often contingent on systems becoming more just. It is antidemocratic to reverse these trends. Anyone—men, LGBTQ allies, all people—can support democracy and gender-inclusive agendas by remembering that they, too, lead gendered lives, that pernicious hierarchies and inequalities hurt all of us, and that everyone, regardless of their gender, can advocate for what bell hooks describes as "an end to sexist oppression."
Q: What role can, or should, the United States play in combating misogyny and attacks on women’s rights in other countries?
EC: As with anything the United States does to support women’s rights and pro-democracy movements worldwide, the struggle starts at home. Today, in numerous states around the country, restrictions on voting—such as eliminating drive-through voting in some states—have made it harder for women to vote. There are full-out assaults of the rights of trans children and their families. The Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, with numerous states ready to introduce draconian restrictions on abortion access immediately thereafter. Americans who are interested in protecting and improving democracy in the United States must see these assaults on women’s equality as assaults on democracy. If the United States wants to champion democracy abroad, it could help to marshal its considerable resources to convene a global summit of democratic leaders, advocacy organizations, civil society, and grassroots activists and organizers to help to boost a multinational campaign to promote both democracy and women’s equality. But I think our most important point is that the United States cannot afford to treat these issues as separate any more.
Banner image: Women from the Ukranian community in London protest the attack on Ukraine by Russia. Photo by Jenny Matthews/Getty Images. Faculty portraits by Martha Stewart