Populism and Women’s Lives

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            In July, The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Trump administration regulation that allows employers with religious or moral objections to contraception to limit women’s access to birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. 

            This was yet another win for populism, though the decision was rarely covered in this light.

         As a wave of populism intensifies across the globe, and democracy recedes, women’s rights are in danger of being rolled back. “Democracy won the 20th century,” writes critic Andrew Rawnsley in the Guardian. “The hubristic mistake was to think that this trend was so powerful that it could not be reversed.” Freedom House, a think tank that conducts an annual audit of global freedom, reports that “the fundamentals of democracy are under attack around the world.”

         Those most often targeted for attack are those who most recently won legal rights; women are a prime example. In the U.S., the Trump administration is moving swiftly against women’s reproductive rights. The European Women’s Lobby reports that far-right extremist parties are gaining power and taking “concrete steps against equality between women and men.” 

         The patriarchy, the ancient code that cedes to men the control of most of the power and authority in a societyis a formidable foe. Women’s lives, research finds,  are shaped by what Laura Bierema of the University of Georgia calls life’s hidden curriculum, that teaches girls and women “subordination to the dominant patriarchal system of power.” She says, “Lessons learned include gender roles, a devaluing of women, silence and invisibility, submission to male power, and acceptance of role contradictions. Girls and boys, women and men learn these power relations throughout their lives. [They] are so ingrained in the culture that they are practically invisible, neither questioned nor challenged by most people. “

         At a time when populism is on the rise, patriarchy flourishes, and today, democratic countries have been outnumbered by those becoming less so. Andrew Rawnsley observes that democracy is “more fragile, vulnerable and contingent” than we supposed. “The arc of history is not irreversibly bent in favor of freedom. The case for it has to be renewed and reinvigorated for each generation.” If it is not, the hard-won rights of women could be a major casualty.” Further, according to The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020: “This year’s report highlights the growing urgency for action. At the present rate of change, it will take nearly a century to achieve parity, a timeline we simply cannot accept in today’s globalized world, especially among younger generations who hold increasingly progressive views of gender equality.”

         But perhaps even more ominous than falling behind in economic areas, women are being urged to abandon feminism to return to their traditional status as the second sex, retreating to home and hearth and being subservient to men. Shelina Janmohamed, author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, writes,We should be most concerned about the prevailing social and political mood. In some circles, the empowerment of women is seen as an existential threat to men. Populism has swept into power on the back of a largely male desire to return to how things used to be, born of an aggrieved sense of being “left behind.” 

         Politicians like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Recep Tayyip of Turkey, Andrzej Duda of Poland  and Donald Trump of the United States have displayed anti-woman sentiments and policies.

         Amanda Marcotte of Salon writes that the past for which many man feel so much nostalgia is at heart patriarchal. “It’s a system that depends on putting women under the direct control of men and extracting unpaid labor from them to keep the system running. It’s a system where men’s freedom is predicated on women’s entrapment, where men can run the world, secure in the knowledge that someone is at home making sure the dishes get done.”

Some men are growing more and more angry over the idea of gender equality. In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2018 added two male supremacist websites to its list of hate groups, for the first time identifying male supremacy as an explicit ideology of hate. This ideology,  according to the SPLC, represents all women as “genetically inferior, manipulative, and stupid” beings who exist primarily for their “reproductive and sexual functions.”

         ‘It’s why Mr. Trump’s brand of admissions of sexual assault are brushed of as ‘locker room’ talk,’ says Shelina Janmohamed “It’s why Mr. Duterte (the Philippine president ) can joke about rape with little to no comeback.”

         When patriarchy and populism rise together, among the first causalities are women’s hegemony over their own bodies. The Guardian notes that “The attack on reproductive rights has gone hand in hand with damage to the most fundamental right to physical safety. Poland’s President Andrzej is threatening to leave a treaty aimed at preventing violence against women – at a time when the pandemic has seen domestic violence soar worldwide .”

         In the U.S., the Trump administration has launched a global and domestic blitzkrieg on reproductive rights. Trump decreed the Global Gag Rule, which bans organizations that receive U.S. funding from using their own funds to advocate for, share information on, or offer abortion services. At international meetings such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Trump administration has argued for blocking access to sexual and reproductive health—particularly abortion

         Domestically, legislation around domestic violence has been partially gutted. The Trump administration recently changed the definition of violence to include only physical harm. Psychological abuse, coercive control and manipulation – which are now accepted by most medical experts as key to abuse – will no longer be recognized. He also made significant changes to the federal Title X family planning program. Federal funds will no longer be given to family planning providers that offer abortion services.

         Concern about the ways in which populist strongmen are stripping away rights that women have battled for years to gain is growing. In 2019,  a group of 40 women leaders from around the world published a letter warning of the threat. Argentina’s former foreign minister, Susana Malcorra, noted that populist regimes are claiming that that women’s empowerment is a dangerous challenge to male power. She told Reuters, “There are number of places where we see this happening as a trend. And in our view, if we don’t speak up loudly about it, it will be hard to reverse.” 

            Stanford political scientist Anna Gryzmala-Busse says that populism is a political program and has a political solution. She says to women (and to men), “Vote! Vote for politicians and parties who make credible promises, who do not simply want to shut down criticism or who view their opponents as their enemies, and who are committed to the democratic rules of the game. At the same time, we need to understand, not just condemn, why so many voters find populist politicians appealing.”

Silence, in this case, is not golden, especially where women’s hard-won rights are concerned gender awareness. 

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