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The United States is still reeling from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion. The move makes the United States an outlier among developed countries when it comes to abortion rights, but this rollback in women’s equality is part of a broader trend. Women’s political and economic empowerment is stalling or declining around the world—and the assault on women’s rights coincides with a global democratic recession. Why is women’s equality being rolled back at the same time authoritarianism is on the rise? What is the relationship between sexism and democratic backsliding? And why do authoritarians see fully free, politically active women as a threat?
Erica Chenoweth is one of the world’s foremost experts on the history of civil resistance, mass movements, and political repression. They are the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and they direct the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Zoe Marks is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a faculty affiliate at the Harvard University Center for African Studies, where she focuses on political violence, gender equality, and social movements in Africa. Their essay “Revenge of the Patriarchs,” featured in the March/April 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs, previews their forthcoming book Rebel XX: Women on the Frontlines of Revolution. Their insights are crucial to understanding what’s happening to women’s rights at this moment in time, both in the United States and across the globe.
We discuss why autocrats fear women, why feminist movements are such a powerful tool against autocracy, and what the assault on reproductive rights in the United States signifies for American democracy.
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“The Foreign Affairs Interview” is produced by Kate Brannen, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Rafaela Siewert, and Markus Zakaria; original music by Robin Hilton. Special thanks to Grace Finlayson, Nora Revenaugh, Caitlin Joseph, Asher Ross, and Gabrielle Sierra.
"Revenge of the Patriarchs" by Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks
I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan, and this is “The Foreign Affairs Interview.”
There’s a tendency to think once you’ve gotten what you’ve been fighting for, as a movement, for decades, that there’s no going back.
It’s about whether or not women are people, equal people, within the society, with the capacity to make decisions over their own futures.
The United States is still reeling from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion.
For Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks, both political scientists at Harvard, this rollback of women’s rights is deeply linked to democratic decay and rising authoritarianism around the world. A common thread that runs from Putin and Xi to Bolsanaro and Trump is misogyny.
That’s because autocrats—and wannabe autocrats—fear women—and as Chenoweth and Marks recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, they’re totally right to be afraid.
Erica and Zoe, it’s great to have you here.
Thank you so much for having us, Dan.
It’s great to see you, Dan.
We will get the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion rights and the significance of what’s happening in the United States later in the conversation. But I wanted to start by going back to the fantastic essay the two of you wrote for Foreign Affairs a few months ago. The title was “Revenge of the Patriarchs.” And going back and reading it, it really does provide so much context for what we’re witnessing today, both in authoritarian regimes and in places like Russia and China—as well as in democracies, including our own, where democratic rights and institutions seem much less secure than they did not long ago.
But there’s a really powerful insight at the start of your piece, which is that you see this common strand across all of these cases that I don’t think was well appreciated. And that is that misogyny and attacks on gender equality and women’s rights take different forms, but you do see that in many places around the world. Erica to start, could you trace that and talk a bit about how you started to see that commonality between these cases?
I’ll say that the connection between authoritarianism and sexism is not necessarily one that only Zoe and I have noticed. There are a lot of studies that already exist out there that talk about the kind of hierarchical nature of patriarchy, and how it fits with the hierarchical nature of authoritarianism, and people like Valerie Hudson, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and other scholars have recently put out books that also make that connection.
Zoe and I actually came to it from the reverse perspective: we were interested in a broader study, in understanding how women’s participation and mass movements had actually effectively disrupted authoritarian regimes. And we’ve found through a data set that we collected that examines the degree to which women are participating in the frontlines of anti-authoritarian movements—we found that in movements in which women were participating in higher numbers, they were more likely to succeed, and more likely to usher in periods of sustained democratization.
But we also found a really important qualification to that finding, which is that when women participate in very large numbers, but the movements actually don’t lead to democratic breakthroughs, we started to see a severe authoritarian backlash that also rolled back whatever rights had been extended to women from the previous regimes, such that the degree of women’s empowerment was worse than it was before the campaigns even started. It wasn’t just patriarchal backlash—it was also authoritarian backlash. And we started to see that these phenomena really are, as we say in the piece, comorbidities: they’re mutually reinforcing. And, in fact, looking around the world today, we could then make sense of the fact that during the current global democratic recession, we’re also seeing rollbacks on women’s equality, and equality between genders all across the world, that have been documented by other think tanks and institutes that pay attention to these sorts of things.
People have come to appreciate and spent a lot of time talking about and trying to understand the democratic recession of the last several years. I think this rollback in women’s rights is probably less well appreciated. And in part because I think there’s been this weak-ish sense of progress or on these issues, the sense that we’re kind of always marching forward. When you look at the deterioration that the two of you have charted and others have charted, when did that begin and what are the key metrics or places where you see it globally?
When did the backlash begin or the march forward?
When did the backlash begin? The deterioration?
Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, the reason I asked for the clarification is because the backlash is ongoing while the march forward is happening, right? And so I think, keeping in mind that there’s this continual push back as people are trying to achieve progress, and particularly women and feminist coalitions have been trying to achieve progress, that helps us know that it’s not just the failure of the feminist movement, or the newfound sexist and patriarchal fervor, but actually that there’s this sort of a push and pull dynamic. And then structural factors start to shift. In terms of global trends, I would say that the indicators still looked relatively good over the past 20 years or so. So the twenty-first century has been better than the twentieth century, the twentieth century is when we saw women’s rights take shape, and take a kind of rhetorical, transnational, and then codified form. But it’s in the twenty-first century that you start to see massive gains, for example, in women’s and girls’ education. So women’s literacy was significantly worse in the 1900s than it has been in the past 20 years. We’ve seen some significant gains in women’s health.
But we’ve seen, most importantly to your question, these plateaus in women’s economic power, economic inclusion, or full participation in political representation. And so there’s a tendency in this sort of global conversation around gender equality, to think of this as a developmental problem. And that actually derives in part from thinking that gender equality is something that follows industrialization, that it’s sort of this natural progression of economic growth, economic development, women join the workforce as more jobs are created—and suddenly equality manifests from this sort of going out of the home that is seen as kind of an inevitability. And what our research argues is that actually, women are demanding rights, demanding political participation, and pushing for their own economic inclusion to move democracy forward rather than being the recipients of some sort of economic democracy.
I just want to linger on one point, which is this notion that some of this progress is starting to stall so that over the last couple of decades, you see significant gains by a variety of measures. But if you look at where we are now, we are starting to see not necessarily a huge rollback, but a plateauing in some of that progress.
Exactly. And it’s stalling in those two specific domains of the economy and politics, right. And so what that means to us is that it’s stalling right where women would get power. So women as mothers, women as daughters—there’s been a really effective global campaign starting with the Millennium Development Goals around educating the girl child, for instance, or saving mothers’ lives, but actually doing that so that women can be powerful, so that they can be influential, so that we can begin kind of pushing against the overrepresentation of men in all economic and political domains, and actually beginning to kind of generate women’s equal economic and political voice. That has not only plateaued but began to backslide in some really key areas, particularly in some of the world’s largest democracies.
And I think we should also say that there have been some pretty alarming reversals as well. So this is particularly true if we look at, for example, protections against domestic violence, or gender-based or sexual violence directed toward women. Laws that used to protect those things at the national level have either been weakened or eliminated in many different countries around the world over the past five to ten years. We’ve also seen major kind of rollbacks of rights of expression and privacy and equality for people who are not heterosexual or cisgender. So, LGBTQ+ people in many different countries around the world. I mean, in most authoritarian regimes, sexual and gender minorities are not fully recognized or included in society regardless, but in places like Russia, there have been even more kind of severe crackdowns that kind of outline what they call gay propaganda, from public discourse, advertising, you know, curricula, et cetera. And so those things, of course, are happening in countries that are backsliding toward authoritarianism as well. So those reversals are important because they reinforce these broader kind of limitations on women’s equal access to political and economic power, while also reinforcing very troubling cultural and social norms around women as not full persons to be respected in society.
You have a number of examples in the piece of this sexist agenda, this anti-women agenda in China and Russia. I think we all have seen some of the more, let’s say, theatrical examples of this from Vladimir Putin, and especially where that’s him riding horseback shirtless or staging hockey games, where they’re basically set up to allow him to score goals, but you see a much more substantive agenda both in Russia and China and more broadly. Could you talk a bit about where you see the most problematic and threatening aspects of that and how that fits into the sense of power and control that Putin and Xi Jinping have?
Yes, one of the things that’s really interesting to me is I spent a lot of my adult life outside of the U.S.: I was based in the U.K., and there’s a slightly different rhetoric around Russia and China if you’re outside of the States. And so I’m very aware that it is normalized in the U.S. to talk about Russia and China as always sort of being the sort of beacons of bad policy, of authoritarian policy. But if we pull that back a little bit, and we go to the historical politics of gender equality in communist Russia, and in communist China, it makes it even more alarming that these are countries that are leaning deeply on patriarchal and misogynistic norms. And what I mean by that is simply that both leaders Putin and Xi Jinping, in very different ways, are using a narrowed conception of patriotic femininity and national kind of identity that’s deeply steeped in the gender binary, as a way to articulate who can be citizens and how, and to kind of control the cultural narrative of politics.
One case that does seem to cut a bit against this broader trend is Saudi Arabia, where you have a government that is very repressive and continues to be very, very repressive. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who seems to be consolidating power in lots of ways, but at the same time has at least purported to push an agenda that is liberalizing the treatment of women quite significantly. I mean, do you see that as a counterexample? Do you see that as more complicated than the relatively simple version I laid out?
I think that women getting to leave the home without a male relative or being given a driver’s license doesn’t mean that they’re given the right to dissent, right? And so if women aren’t given that full political voice, if they aren’t given broader space for social organizing and expressing collective action, then they’re not even pandering to a feminist agenda, right? It’s literally just pandering to women as individuals who are seen as relatively well-ensconced in existing power structures. And so I think we’ve actually seen that in the United States and elsewhere, where you have a relatively advanced democracy that is still deeply attached—not saying Saudi Arabia is a democracy—but just to use a counterexample still deeply attached to conservative social norms. And what you ended up with is a lot of women, as well as men, who are not invested in a feminist agenda or political campaigns for gender equality because the current hierarchies serve them well, and it serves them on an individual or household level rather than in this sort of broader coalitional politics.
When we think about gender identity and sexism, its unwelcome bedfellow, it doesn’t exist separately from our other identities. And so I think it’s really important to think about the ways in which sexism is working alongside other inequalities and systems of power, like ethno-nationalism, religious nationalism, classism, and racism. So in the U.S., we see this in the ways that white women are complicit in upholding power structures that exclude black women and immigrant and brown women. Abroad, you can think about the way that the Chinese state, for instance, is encouraging Han families to grow, but discouraging Uyghurs and other kind of ethnic minorities. In the Middle East, there’s lots of religious politics around Israel and the Orthodox Jews being encouraged to have bigger families, but the Arab population and Palestinian population are not, and so that’s part of how we understand intersectional feminism, but also how we think about patriarchal authoritarianism. It’s really tied to a very specific vision of the national project.
Erica, the work that you and Zoe did for this piece, and the broader research project that you’re working on, builds on many years of really groundbreaking work that you’ve done on what makes civic action and protest movements effective. Before we focus on the specific role of women, could you talk a bit about what, after these years of research, you know about what makes a movement effective? More broadly, what makes these kinds of movements work and not work?
Yeah, so typically, I focus on four key things that successful mass movements do. And when I talk about mass movements, I really mean movements that are trying to overthrow the incumbent national leader, like an authoritarian leader or create an independent country through a separatist movement, a secessionist campaign, or an anti-colonial movement. The claims I’m going to make are based on that universe of cases, so to speak, over the last 120 years.
So, there are four things that I look for. The first is the size of the campaign. The more people are participating from diverse sectors of society, the more likely the campaign is to win. The reason is because very large and diverse campaigns tend to have more leverage over more pillars of support that are upholding the regime. So, for example, they have more access to, and influence over, economic and business elites, security forces, particularly if they are conscripts. They have more influence over the actions of civil servants and other civilian bureaucrats in the way that they assess their own self-interest and upholding the status quo.
And so, very large and diverse campaigns are much better at eliciting defections within the opponents’ pillars of support. So, you know, you can recall many examples of dramatic footage where security forces laid down their weapons, allowed people to put flowers in the end of gun barrels or simply refused orders to shoot live fire on demonstrators. Those are examples of defections that actually can be truly pivotal in key moments of crisis and determine the entire course of a country’s future.
The third thing that successful campaigns do is they innovate new tactics; so they don’t just rely, for example, on street demonstrations or symbolic protests, but they escalate to different forms of noncooperation, particularly the strike. And the fourth thing that successful movements do is they maintain resilience and discipline, even as repression begins to escalate against them. So, movements that win have some degree of capacity to effectively absorb episodes of violence directed against them—and in many cases make that violence backfire, so they’re able to find a way to maintain their own discipline and organizational integrity while also making the opponent pay politically for the violence that the opponent visited upon the movement. So, when movements do those four things, historically they are much more likely to win in the end.
Zoe, explain what these autocrats were seeing. What, when they look at the kinds of mass movements that were threatening them or trying to unseat them, what did they see about the difference that significant women’s participation either in supporting roles or in frontline roles made to that effectiveness?
In our work, we found that when women participate in large numbers—and what we mean is not really necessarily just large numbers, but the proportion of participants who are women, right? If that’s 25 percent, or more, even better, if it’s 50-50, then all four of those kinds of factors that Erica just laid out around the size of movements, their ability to elicit defections, their innovative potential, and their resilience, they all go up. So one thing is just that women’s participation in a way becomes a useful indicator of public legitimacy, of buy-in of mobilization. And so women in that way can be a canary in the coal mine for how broad-based could this movement against the repressive dictator and authoritarian leaning ruler, how effective could it become?
But I think there are some other specific things that patriarchal authoritarians see that they don’t like. And I think one of those things is that true feminist mobilization is really about kind of identifying the ways that different downtrodden or oppressed or marginalized groups are being subjugated and trying to bring them together. I’ve mentioned the word coalitional several times. It’s really about trying to get together, workers and mothers and migrants, and all of these people who really can become a much more powerful coalition than the people who are otherwise holding power than the elites. And I think that they also see that they can lose the moral narrative, right?
So a lot of what makes authoritarianism compelling to the population is this idea that it’s the it’s the winning side, it’s the you know, the keeper of truth, the keeper of what is good in the country, what is going to be upstanding and you can be part of the winning team, you can have some of the shine of the dictator rub off on you. And when young girls and beauty queens and grandmothers are out there naming names and calling out an exploitative or oppressive power structure, it’s very hard to use that kind of masculine crackdown authority structure as a way to debunk the voice of women and a feminized kind of political potential.
Are there cases that we’ve seen in recent years where we can see that playing out on the ground, where that participation has made the critical difference in a way that has led to the overthrow of a leader or at least enhance the effectiveness of a movement?
Absolutely. Erica is the keeper of numerous examples. But I think the one that comes to mind is probably the one that in some ways is the most well known and not necessarily recognized as being a particularly women-led or gender inclusive revolution. And that’s the Arab Spring; the Arab Spring had a number of incredibly prominent female leaders, particularly in Yemen and Tunisia, but also beyond the leaders it was this massive kind of mobilization in a gender equitable way in societies that were not recognized for having particularly good gender inclusivity at the public level, right.
So it really was a case of creating the democracy that people wanted to see and wanted to be part of, and that meant having gender equality at the frontlines of protest, as well as in leadership and rhetoric and that type of thing. And we’ve seen in 2019, the Sudanese revolution, it’s almost like a late-breaking kind of Arab or North African spring, which is very similar in that it had resilient women’s participation, kind of emboldening and strengthening sit-ins, making it possible to have the army defect, and then also kind of creating optics and tactics that really captured the imagination not only of the Sudanese people, but of the whole world.
Yeah, and I think there are really important examples during many of the different kind of waves of democratization that are familiar to lots of comparative politics scholars and pro-democracy policymakers. So the two big revolutions in Latin America that I think are iconic, for the role of women’s frontline participation, are the Argentinian democratic transition, which was a people-powered transition, the Chilean transition that was initiated by people power against Pinochet. And then, you know, the Brazilian pro-democracy movement also had a very large number of frontline women participants that made a huge difference in their ability to galvanize truly massive participation. The people power movement in the Philippines up until then was a huge, multimillion person movement from 1983 to 1986, and it involved women from all walks of life and Philippine society. And I think that that movement was largely powered by large-scale women’s participation.
We’ll be back after a short break.
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Your insights have enormous implications for U.S. policy, both foreign policy and our own domestic situation. But let’s start with the foreign policy implications. President Biden has made a point of stressing that he sees the world as split between autocracies and democracies, and he sees one of the pillars of U.S. policy being the promotion of democracy globally. Given what you have discovered through your research, what should the U.S. be doing to bring women and women’s rights into the global fight for democracy that we’re not doing right now?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that there’s a tendency to see funding and support for say women’s movements or women’s civil society organization, or girls and women’s education as the most impactful thing that the U.S. can do. But in research that Maria Stephan and I carried out over the last few years and published in 2021, what we find is that the most impactful form of assistance that mass movements can receive before they end up mobilizing is training and convening. And the reason is that people power movements, what’s really required is relationship building, organizing, visioning, strategizing, and the ability to come up with a feasible and workable plan among people who otherwise may have not have had an opportunity to even speak with one another or know each other, who each other were in countries that have major restrictions on oppositional assembly, free expression, et cetera.
The second thing that we would argue is that supporting women’s frontline participation, and trying to normalize and encourage the inclusion of women in every part of a pro-democracy effort in equal numbers, is necessary to assure the success of a pro-democracy movement, and the possibility for women to be fully and seriously included in the society that emerges from it. So I think that that’s something that could be seen in every different dimension of democracy support that the U.S. does, and that it should be taken seriously not just as a feminist claim, but as a democracy issue.
I thought that this was the administration that was going to finally give us the feminist foreign policy, and they didn’t come anywhere close to that. Sweden launched the first feminist foreign policy, Canada has a sort of slightly different version, France joined, and then Mexico also joined. I think the Biden administration could take notes from what’s worked and what hasn’t in those foreign policies, and really think about whether or not it wants to kind of redirect its focus in that way.
And then there’s a lot that we shouldn’t be doing. I think we learned—or I hope that we’ve learned—from the war in Afghanistan not to build a narrative around saving Afghan women as an excuse for war. It’s deeply undermining to the legitimacy of a campaign, particularly when there’s a lot of research that documents how harmful militarism is for gender equality more broadly. And that’s, I think, been one of the outcomes or lessons learned of the UN Women Peace and Security Agenda, that we need to not over-focus on the victimization narrative because it plays into the hands of an existing gender hierarchy.
The other thing that I think is really important from our research is thinking about how to be supportive of those pacted transitions. So every mediation, every opportunity for including people in a new government, needs to have gender quotas, it needs to have women mediators at the table. And we know that, we’ve seen that: we could think about creative campaigns to have gender equitable cabinets worldwide. It’s really about going beyond every girl child and thinking about, well, what if we had gender equality at the highest levels of power? And then finally, I think that we have a serious credibility challenge right now because we’re one of the most regressive countries at the state level when it comes to reproductive rights and access as of last week, and when it comes to LGBTQ rights and basic freedoms. And so I think there’s a real tension in how the U.S. can advocate for these things abroad when it’s not doing the same at home.
There’s a line in the piece that is really chilling to read in light of the Supreme Court decision in recent days, in which you note that repression in autocracies often takes the form of policies of direct state control over women’s reproductive rights. And we’re of course seeing steps in that direction in the United States. Why has that been the case? And what, to your mind, is the effect of the Supreme Court decision? Does this rollback of reproductive rights in the United States signify something deeper to you? Do you see broader consequences going forward?
Yeah. I mean, anything that is a state enforced burden that has unequal impacts on people on the basis of basically biological sex or gender can’t really be democratic. I mean, if people are fundamentally treated unequally by the state on the basis of things that they can’t themselves control—which is, you know, your reproductive capacity—then I think that it is fundamentally an anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian action. But I will say that the issue here is, it’s more about the state determining people’s futures for them, right. So in China, there was the one child policy for an extended period; then now, there are policies that are allegedly requiring sterilization of Uighur women, right? So, at the same time, some Chinese feminists have expressed concern that the state is now trying to encourage women to have more children to deal with the aging population. So either way, forced pregnancy or forced abortion is not democratic, cannot be democratic. It’s about whether or not women are people, equal people within the society with the capacity to make decisions over their own futures.
I think the other issue is that it’s easy to view, or it may be easy for some people to view, the overturning of Roe as like an isolated incident or particularly kind of sexist kind of development in the U.S. But there’s been a lot that’s been going on in the U.S. other than the Supreme Court decision that echoes some of the very troubling policy and kind of cultural trends that Zoe and I have been watching elsewhere. So, in many states, there are attempts to restrict what schools can teach children with regard to sexual and gender minorities. There is a kind of enforced silence already in Florida now, because of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, where school teachers cannot kind of divulge that they themselves are in same-sex relationships or have same-sex families. And that’s a serious rollback on taken-for-granted rights, I would say, over the past few decades. There are pretty serious assaults on the ability of transgender youth to access health care and to allow parents of transgender youth to make decisions for their families without the interference of the state. And it’s specifically targeting transgender youth and people as opposed to a broader kind of a public issue. So, these are also part of reinforcing this very binary—and, by the way, very male dominated—gender and sex hierarchy that Zoe and I are concerned about, and systems of authoritarianism.
And that is above and beyond a lot of the other kinds of troubling trends around the functioning of U.S. democracy and general restrictions on the ways that people can vote, and the ways that people can protest that have developed in many of the same states. So this, I think, really highlights the way in which these are, as we say, comorbidities and mutually reinforcing, they’re not isolated from one another. And for that reason, the Biden administration has to see these as the same—different parts of the same beast, as it were, as opposed to kind of separate issues, some of which affect women, and the other which affect other minorities or protesters or people who are trying to vote, for example.
What kinds of global effects do you think the overturning of Roe will have? And Zoe, you noticed the ways in which the domestic situation here has restricted the U.S. ability to lead globally on some of these issues. But do you see effects already in either encouraging similar rollbacks in other countries, or in perhaps motivating leaders and activists elsewhere to focus on ensuring that what’s happened in the United States doesn’t happen elsewhere?
I think it’s too soon to tell. I know that. I mean, a lot of people are very worried that this sends a very bad signal, right. This is why I said the Biden administration has to think about how do you get out in front of this and maintain a feminist international agenda, while not seeming hypocritical, which the U.S. has a bit of a track record of on occasion. You know, I think that the question to me will be robust democracies that have been able to democratically protect or expand reproductive rights for people of all genders, and specifically abortion access, should be able to consolidate that. And this will be a warning that that may not be as achieved as they thought, right.
There’s a tendency to think once you’ve gotten what you’ve been fighting for as a movement for decades that there’s no going back. And of course, what we’ve talked about today is all the ways that people are trying to take us back. Well, the movement is still trying to proceed. So in some ways that may be that kind of warning to people who are advocating for increased abortion access and reproductive health care. I think in other ways, places that have a strong, right-wing conservative, usually also authoritarian groundswell right now will be emboldened to really think about reproductive access and reproductive choice as something that should be in their crosshairs, if it isn’t already. And I think it’s likely that there will be international or transnational networks that are built from U.S. right-wing organizations that are getting what they wanted and have all of this excess enthusiasm and funding to then spend elsewhere. We’ve seen this with gay rights, particularly the role of U.S. evangelicals, working to make homosexuality a lethal offense in Uganda. There’s been a role of the ultra-conservative right in the United States that’s already been pushing against certain human rights globally, and I think that I would not be surprised if we saw attacks on abortion and reproductive choice elsewhere along that same playbook.
I think there’s also a lot of potential for the criminalization of women and its unequal distribution in society to be something that’s replicated. We’ve already seen the copycat laws proliferate within the United States of, how can we criminalize doctors? How can we criminalize women? How can we surveil them? How can we create a sort of vigilante justice where citizens are snitching on other people who are trying to save their own lives and futures? And I think that that will in some places embolden people for what new laws and new ways of criminalizing women could look like. We are an innovative society, and we’re innovative with our repression and with our liberation.
In an attempt to close on a somewhat optimistic note, are there places where you see encouraging signs or models that point in a different direction?
Absolutely. Myself and a lot of my students and colleagues and transnational feminist activists are very excited about the different ways that particularly majority Catholic countries have expanded reproductive rights and health care, and really change the narrative in a way that is neither minimizing the kind of hardship of accessing reproductive health and wellbeing, nor compromising on women’s rights. And I think we can learn a lot from those moral discourses as well as the political playbooks in places like Ireland, across Latin America, in Argentina, in Italy. You know, there are really interesting ways that people in complicated conservative and progressive societies have been able to work together to expand human rights, while also coming to terms with kind of cultural integrity and resonance in their political system. And I think that actually looking at gender equality, and even the sort of microcosm of reproductive rights and justice, is a good way to think about how we can bridge polarization and overcome this authoritarian impulse while still including everyone in the democracy and in the conversation.
Erica, anything optimistic to add by way of closing?
I still have some optimism about the United States. And the reason is because over the past five years or six years, we’ve seen more people from more walks of life and more backgrounds engaged in civic life than at any point in my lifetime, or potentially in the history of the country, the modern history of the country. And so, I think that this is encouraging, because we have a lot of problems, but we also have a lot of people wanting to inform themselves and be part of the solution. The main reason that the solutions are slow to be realized is because we have such a massive country, they’re really big problems, they’re very difficult. We often obviously have all kinds of other issues like asymmetric polarization, entrenched institutions that don’t necessarily represent the population as accurately as they could.
But there is a growing impulse to develop a genuine pro-democracy civil society, and to try to uphold and encourage democratic principles, norms and institutions. So it’s this generation’s turn. And what I see just from paying attention to where people are protesting and what the responses are, I see that civil society is standing up here. So the future isn’t written. But we have all of the ingredients to be able to weather the political, economic and social disruptions in our society right now. And it’s a matter of keeping on, keeping on.
That is a great note to end on. Eric and Zoe, thank you so much for joining me today. And thank you for the really wonderful piece, “Revenge of the Patriarchs,” and we will look forward to continuing this vein of research and analysis in Foreign Affairs in the coming years. Thank you.
Thank you for listening. You can find the articles that we discussed on today’s show at ForeignAffairs.com.
“The Foreign Affairs Interview” is produced by Kate Brannen, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Rafaela Siewert, and Markus Zakaria. Special thanks also to Grace Finlayson, Caitlin Joseph, Nora Revenaugh, Asher Ross, Nick Sanders, and Gabrielle Sierra. Our theme music was written and performed by Robin Hilton.
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Foreign Affairs invites you to join its editor, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, as he talks to influential thinkers and policymakers about the forces shaping the world. Whether the topic is the war in Ukraine, the United States’ competition with China, or the future of globalization, Foreign Affairs' biweekly podcast offers the kind of authoritative commentary and analysis that you can find in the magazine and on the website.
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