Why Autocrats Fear Women

A pre-release from Foreign Affairs magazine headlined “Why Autocrats Fear Women”:

“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,” warn Harvard Kennedy School’s Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks in the forthcoming March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. “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’s no coincidence that women’s equality is regressing as authoritarianism is rising, argue Chenoweth and Marks. In fact, “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.”

“Women who participate on the frontlines of mass movements don’t just make those movements more likely to achieve their short-term objectives,” but also “make them more likely to secure lasting democratic change.” Controlling for a variety of other factors, the authors’ research shows that extensive frontline participation by women is positively associated with increases in democracy. Moreover, the presence of women leads to “increased demands for electoral participation, economic opportunity, and access to education and health care—all of which make democratic transitions more likely to endure.”

“Although many autocrats and aspiring autocrats no doubt believe the sexist and misogynistic things they say, their campaigns to restrict women’s empowerment and human rights also seek to undermine potential popular democratic movements that would oust them,” the authors maintain.

“Understanding the relationship between sexism and democratic backsliding is vital for those who wish to fight back against both.” Domestically, the authors urge democratic governments to “model and protect the equal inclusion of women, especially from diverse backgrounds, in all places where decisions are being made—from community groups to corporate boards to local, state, and national governments.” Additionally, they recommend creating a multinational coalition to “explicitly reject patriarchal authoritarianism and share knowledge and technical skills in the fight against it.”

“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,” the authors conclude.

This article is part of the forthcoming March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, which will be released on February 22.

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