The Gender Debate in the Presidential Elections

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By FLAVIA BIROLI*

As in neighboring countries, the feminist agenda is increasingly becoming an unavoidable part of politics. And it can vote

The first debate of the 2022 presidential elections was crossed by gender issues. But for anyone researching politics from a women's perspective, there is no debate or election that is not. The question is why now even the most unsuspecting seem to recognize that gender is a central part of the disputes.

I start with what is not new. In Sunday's debate, two candidates clearly expressed their positions, Simone Tebet (MDB) and Soraya Thronicke (União Brasil). In 2014, also in August, the debate broadcast by Band featured three women. The then candidate for re-election, Dilma Rousseff (PT), was in first place in the polls, followed by Marina Silva (PSB). Besides them, there was Luciana Genro (PSOL). Marina Silva would also participate in the 2018 debates. In those elections, women already made up more than 50% of the Brazilian electorate. The law that determines a minimum of 30% of candidacies of one of the sexes in the party lists exists since 1997, having become more effective after changes in the law in 2009 and with the decision of 2018 that determines a minimum of the party fund and free time propaganda for female candidacies.

Well, women were already in the circle, the difference is that feminisms expanded into the public sphere and political identities took on new gender patterns.

First, at least since 2018, patterns of rejection or voting intention can be correlated with whether people are male or female. Their preferences are not defined in isolation, of course. The point is that, along with other cleavages, gender has been important in explaining voting.

Second, female candidates have claimed more to be women or feminists. Diffuse feminism is everywhere and feminist candidacies have drawn more attention in recent elections. The Chamber of Deputies has, since 2019, a Feminist and Anti-racist Parliamentary Front. What is new is that feminism has become something to be claimed even if there is no more organic relationship with movements. In the debate of Band, Simone Tebet, lawyer and politician from the center, defined herself as a feminist. She included Soraya Thronicke, a right-wing politician, in this characterization, and even rehearsed a discussion about the meanings of feminism.

Finally, the third reason for the difference. Feminist movements expanded the debate on gender inequalities and violence. As a result, they have been denaturalized (it is no longer “normal” to silence, harass, offend) and become politicized (these are collective and public problems, not individual women’s). Thus, it is relevant how male candidates behave towards women, whether they are hostile or whether they make commitments to a fairer society.

Candidate Jair Bolsonaro's (PL) lack of control, when he attacked journalist Vera Magalhães when she asked him about the relationship between his position against vaccination and the drop in vaccination coverage in the country, may be related to the fact that he does not find a place in this new configuration. Part of a movement in reaction to egalitarian and human rights agendas, it rejects decades of feminist achievements. With greater rejection among female voters, she does not seem to know how to refer to them, as seen when speaking of “without a husband” or highlighting credit for “opening her beauty salon”. In his public trajectory, he rehashed the catchphrase of “defending the family” and alternated contempt and irony when dealing with wage inequalities and rape.

Men's identity is also a question of gender, as this concept illuminates relationships and the way in which feminine and masculine are defined, in concrete contexts. Ciro Gomes (PDT) referred to his macho upbringing and the need to reflect and change. Leader in the polls, former President Lula (PT), who concentrates the highest rates of voting intentions for women, has preferred to deal with the issue only indirectly. This is an effect of 2018, when advances in policies for women in PT governments were taken as “ideology” by conservatives, suffering attacks. Does it make sense to accept this framework in 2022? The first debate between presidential candidates showed that no. As in neighboring countries, the feminist agenda is increasingly becoming an unavoidable part of politics. And it can get votes.

* Flavia Biroli is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. She is the author, among other books, of Gender and inequalities: limits of democracy in Brazil (Boitempo).

Originally published on the website election observatory.

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