How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the far-right military officer turned politician who is likely to become Brazil’s next president, has said shocking things about women. He told a female member of congress that he wouldn’t rape her because “she wasn’t worthy of it,” explained that his sons would never love black women because they were “properly raised,” and claimed that a particular secretary of women’s issues shouldn’t have been appointed because “she was a dyke.” The reaction to such bomb-throwing in the era of #metoo has been, apparently, predictable: organizing via social media with the hashtag #EleNão (#NotHim), an estimated 150,000 people—of whom the majority were women—across Brazil took to the streets on September 19 (three weeks before the first round of presidential elections) to tell their fellow citizens, and the world, that Bolsonaro doesn’t represent them.
Some 44 percent of Brazilian women are expected to vote for Bolsonaro.Less predictable, however, and less remarked upon, is the surge of women who feel differently. In fact, come October 28, a good 44 percent of Brazilian women are likely to vote the exact opposite: #EleSim (#YesHim). Facebook groups for women who support Bolsonaro have more than 300,000 members. These voters see Bolsonaro as the answer to at least one problem—criminal violence—that disproportionately affects women, and they follow in the footsteps of Brazil’s conservative women’s movement of a bygone time.
Women voters are moved by some of the same issues that have swayed the larger electorate, and which play well for Bolsonaro, such as corruption. Bolsonaro’s leading opponent, Fernando Haddad, is the hand-picked successor of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Workers’ Party’s former president, known as Lula, who is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption and money laundering, specifically on account of having accepted a beachfront apartment as a bribe. The Car Wash probe, which began in 2014, revealed a system of kickbacks that linked Brazil’s majority-state-owned oil company, construction companies, and politicians. Disgust with such practices is driving voters of all kinds toward the populist insurgent.
But the issue that may have the most specific traction with women is safety. In the last ten years, 553,000 people have been killed in Brazil. In 2017, an average of 175 people were murdered every day; that’s seven people per hour. The number of Brazilians killed by criminal violence in the last 14 years rivals that of the Syrian war dead.
This pervasive insecurity has left women particularly vulnerable. More than 60,000 women were raped in 2017; another 1,133 were killed because of their gender, and 606 cases of domestic violence were registered every day. Recent polling shows that 69 percent of the female electorate is afraid of violence, compared to 54 percent of male voters. Another poll has 43 percent of women favoring the death penalty, and 75 percent supporting lowering the minimum age at which accused criminals should be tried as adults. Such numbers suggest a female constituency for the law and order politics that Bolsonaro represents, regardless of the candidate’s incendiary remarks.
If the conservative bent of a good part of Brazil’s female electorate seems surprising in an era of transnational feminism, it may not be so surprising inside Brazil. Five decades ago, women were at the forefront of the opposition to President João Goulart that culminated in a military coup and twenty years of right-wing dictatorship. The coup rode the back of a conservative civilian movement, known as the Family March with God for Freedom, which was arranged by the Female Civic Union and the Women’s Campaign for Democracy. These conservative Brazilians objected to the president’s reform program, which was to culminate in the redistribution of goods and land, and which they perceived as communist infiltration on behalf of a “unionist republic.” On March 19, 1964—a day dedicated to Saint Joseph, patron of families—half a million women marched in São Paulo with rosaries in hand. That month, a junta displaced Goulart.
In 2017, an average of 175 people were murdered every day; that’s seven people per hour.
After the military regime fell in 1985 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, a Pink Tide—characterized by the rise of left-leaning political parties—washed over Brazil and the rest of Latin America. The fall of communism and the failure of neoliberalism to generate Latin American prosperity opened a space for left-wing politicians and progressive economic policies. From the 1990s through the early 2000s, leftist figures such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela swept to power in presidential elections. Lula, a metalworker, trade unionist, and founder of the Workers’ Party, was Brazil’s answer to that moment when he became president in 2003. But the promise of those years was quickly swamped by corruption, self-dealing, and spiraling violence.
Today a crisis of trust in institutions, from law enforcement to schools and hospitals, has led many Brazilian women to see Bolsonaro—whose middle name means Messiah—as a savior who can rescue them from the country’s chaos. Brazilians see their country as highly corrupt, and 26 percent of Brazilian women are voting for Bolsonaro because they don’t want another four years under Lula’s Party.
The conservative wave that has replaced the Pink Tide has a cultural dimension. Many Brazilian conservatives associate feminism with what they see as a decadent and discredited left. Overall, 58 percent of Brazilians are considered highly conservative today. Eighty-two percent of Brazilian women are against the legalization of abortion and 40 percent are against same-sex marriage. Moreover, Brazil has a burgeoning evangelical population, which makes up 22 percent of the electorate and counting: Catholics are projected to become a religious minority by 2030. Bolsonaro has capitalized on this increasing social conservatism by assuming the mantle of “family values.”
Women were at the forefront of the opposition to President João Goulart that culminated in a military coup and twenty years of right-wing dictatorship.
For many Brazilian women, choosing their new president will be a balancing act. Women make up more than half of the country’s total electorate. The number of female-headed households more than doubled between 2001 and 2015, and more than half of all Brazilians with graduate degrees are women. And yet Brazilian women experience higher rates of poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of political participation, than men.
Alongside their more liberal peers, conservative Brazilian women will go to the polls on Sunday and help decide their country’s future. If they choose to elect Bolsonaro, they will ensure his already likely victory and once again pull Brazil to the right.