The pantheon of autocratic leaders includes a great many sexists, from Napoléon 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.
The patriarchal backlash has played out across the full spectrum of authoritarian regimes, from totalitarian dictatorships to party-led autocracies to illiberal democracies headed by aspiring strongmen. In China, Xi Jinping has crushed feminist movements, silenced women who have accused powerful men of sexual assault, and excluded women from the Politburo’s powerful Standing Committee. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is rolling back reproductive rights and promoting traditional gender roles that limit women’s participation in public life. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un has spurred women to seek refuge abroad at roughly three times the rate of men, and in Egypt, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi recently introduced a bill reasserting men’s paternity rights, their right to practice polygamy, and their right to influence whom their female relatives marry. In Saudi Arabia, women still cannot marry or obtain health care without a man’s approval. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s victory has erased 20 years of progress on women’s access to education and representation in public office and the workforce.
The wave of patriarchal authoritarianism is also pushing some established democracies in an illiberal direction. Countries with authoritarian-leaning leaders, such as Brazil, Hungary, and Poland, have seen the rise of far-right movements that promote traditional gender roles as patriotic while railing against “gender ideology”—a boogeyman term that Human Rights Watch describes as meaning “nothing and everything.” Even the United States has experienced a slowdown in progress toward gender equity and a rollback of reproductive rights, which had been improving since the 1970s. During his presidency, Donald Trump worked with antifeminist stalwarts, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, to halt the expansion of women’s rights around the world. And despite the Biden administration’s commitment to gender equity at the national level, Republican-controlled states are attempting to reverse the constitutional right to abortion, which is now more vulnerable than it has been in decades.
Not surprisingly, women’s political and economic empowerment is now stalling or declining around the world. According to Georgetown University’s Women, Peace, and Security Index, the implementation of gender equality laws has slowed in recent years, as have gains in women’s educational attainment and representation in national parliaments. At the same time, intimate partner violence has increased, and Honduras, Mexico, and Turkey have seen significant increases in femicide. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these trends worldwide, forcing millions of women to leave the workforce and take on additional unpaid care, restricting their access to health care and education, and limiting their options for escaping abuse.
The assault on women’s rights has coincided with a broader assault on democracy. According to Freedom House and the Varieties of Democracy Project at the University of Gothenburg, the last 15 years have seen a sustained authoritarian resurgence. Relatively new democracies, such as Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, and Turkey, have slid back into autocracy or are trending in that direction. Countries that were considered partially authoritarian a decade ago, such as Russia, have become full-fledged autocracies. And in some of the world’s oldest democracies—France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—antidemocratic sentiment is rising in established political parties.
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.