International Women’s Day is a good time to take stock of how much political power women wield around the globe. For those who believe in advancing gender equity, the news is both bad and good. Women have more than tripled their numbers as prime ministers and presidents over the past two decades — but less than 10 percent of countries worldwide are led by women. When women are prime ministers and presidents, that generally advances women’s political power more broadly. Women leaders often make a point of moving forward policies that benefit women and marginalized groups; when they’re seen as successful leaders, citizens think more highly of women in leadership generally.
But having women in power does not mean gendered obstacles are a thing of the past. As my book with Pedro dos Santos shows, having women in power can trigger a misogynistic backlash that reverses women’s gains.
Women and crisis leadership
During the pandemic and other recent political crises, some female leaders have had a chance to show different kinds of policies and leadership styles from their male counterparts — and have enabled citizens to evaluate whether those offer better results. But crises are fraught with risks, and citizens may scrutinize female leaders more harshly, sometimes leading to gendered backlash.
As the pandemic erupted globally in 2020, countries’ responses varied. Some observers concluded that women leaders handled the challenge more successfully than did men. Whether that’s true or not, women political leaders are generally more likely than men to support a variety of public health measures and increased health-care spending, and that was visible in their pandemic response. Many female leaders responded quickly to threats and designed policies to address the disproportionate effects the pandemic had on women and girls.
Some women were especially effective at communicating both the urgency of the health threat and the importance of caring for the community. For instance, Samia Suluhu Hassan stepped into Tanzania’s presidency when John Pombe Magufuli, a covid-19 denier, died — and quickly reversed her predecessor’s approach. As she was vaccinated on live television, launching a national vaccination campaign, she stated: “I’m a mother of four, a grandmother of several grandchildren, and a wife, but most of all I’m the president and commander in chief. I wouldn’t put myself in danger knowing that I have all these responsibilities as the shepherd of the nation.”
Political scientist Louise K. Davidson-Schmich writes that because women are expected to be caring, it might have been easier for them to show care in their pandemic response.
Backlash against women in power
But having women at the top does not necessarily mean women no longer face gendered obstacles. Social science finds that women in power are held to higher standards, receive greater scrutiny and are more quickly punished when they do not live up to gendered ideas of women’s behavior, such as the belief that women are less corrupt than men. Female leaders may also face political violence specifically because they are women.
We can see these dynamics at work in the experience of the first female president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who took office in 2011. Rousseff’s first three years were very successful, bringing record levels of presidential popularity. She expanded Workers’ Party programs launched by her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”), reducing electricity and food prices and including more recipients in Lula’s cash transfer program for the poor, all of which reduced poverty rates, our research found.
Rousseff placed far more women in her Cabinet and more often appointed women to influential positions than had any of her male predecessors. Our research shows that she supported measures to combat violence against women, promote women’s homeownership and improve maternal health. She expanded policies addressing poverty to explicitly target poor women.
But Rousseff made political enemies by trying to stamp out corruption and refusing to cut deals. In 2016, Rousseff was impeached over a budgetary procedure that, while questionable, two previous presidents had used. Many of the people leading the impeachment drive were being investigated for corruption.
While discussing Rousseff’s impeachment, many members of the Chamber of Deputies showed signs of misogyny. Many held signs reading, “Tchau Querida” (“goodbye dear”). When one deputy called Rousseff a jararaca, a venomous snake, others applauded. After the Senate trial, Rousseff was permanently removed from power.
But was the impeachment motivated by concern about abuse of power? Two days after convicting Rousseff, the Senate legalized the very same budgetary procedure for which she had just been impeached. Although Brazilian law bars presidents removed from power from occupying government positions for eight years, Rousseff retained her political rights and thus remained eligible to hold political office.
The future of women’s political leadership
The president who followed Rousseff, Michel Temer, reversed many of the programs she’d implemented benefiting women. Programs aimed at poor women were eradicated, unenforced or underfunded. Temer did not to appoint a single woman to the Cabinet. On International Women’s Day, he applauded women’s contributions to their homes and children. His successor, Jair Bolsonaro, is an unapologetic misogynist whose rhetoric has coincided with rising rates of violence against women. His pandemic response has been widely condemned as disastrous, resulting in the Senate recommending he be charged with crimes against humanity. Yet Bolsonaro and Lula, himself jailed during the national corruption inquiry, remain front-runners for the October presidential election. Rousseff has left the political stage altogether.
We can celebrate International Women’s Day knowing women have made important strides in gaining access to political power. But having women in positions of executive leadership can sometimes trigger backlash.
Note: Updated Sept.29, 2023.
Farida Jalalzai (@faridajalalzai) is associate dean of global initiatives and engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of political science at Virginia Tech, and co-author with Pedro A.G. dos Santos of “Women’s Empowerment and Disempowerment in Brazil: The Rise and Fall of President Dilma Rousseff” (Temple University Press, 2022).