HKS Authors

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Academic Dean for Faculty Engagement
Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment


The pantheon of autocratic leaders includes a great many sexists, from Napoleon Bonaparte, who decriminalized the murder of unfaithful wives, to Benito Mussolini, who claimed that women "never created anything." And while the twentieth century saw improvements in women's equality in most parts of the world, the twenty-first is demonstrating that misogyny and authoritarianism are not just common comorbidities but mutually reinforcing ills. Throughout the last century, women's movements won the right to vote for women; expanded women's access to reproductive health care, education, and economic opportunity; and began to enshrine gender equality in domestic and international law-victories that corresponded with unprecedented waves of democratization in the postwar period. Yet in recent years, authoritarian leaders have launched a simultaneous assault on women's rights and democracy that threatens to roll back decades of progress on both fronts. It is not a coincidence that women's equality is being rolled back at the same time that authoritarianism is on the rise. Political scientists have long noted that women's civil rights and democracy go hand in hand, but they have been slower to recognize that the former is a precondition for the latter. Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women's political participation: when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy. In other words, fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders-and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist. Understanding the relationship between sexism and democratic backsliding is vital for those who wish to fight back against both. Established autocrats and right-wing nationalist leaders in contested democracies are united in their use of hierarchical gender relations to shore up nationalist, top-down, male-dominated rule. Having long fought against social hierarchies that consolidate power in the hands of the few, feminist movements are a powerful weapon against authoritarianism. Those who wish to reverse the global democratic decline cannot afford to ignore them.


Chenoweth, Erica and Zoe Marks. "Revenge of the Patriarchs: Why Autocrats Fear Women Essays." Foreign Affairs 101.2 (March/April 2022): 103-116.