Flávia Biroli: “Women reject Bolsonaro due to the economic crises and his conservative agenda”

To the political scientist, women and young people who oppose neoconservatism are putting on the agenda their priorities

By José Eduardo Bernardes
From Brasil de Fato

This year’s presidential campaign exposes antagonistic policies to the country. Polarization divides Brazil, but most voters do not seem as divided as it may look. Women, who represent 53% of all voters, are mainly contrary to the policies of the current President Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), who is running for reelection. 

According to the most recent DataFolha poll, released on September 1, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers’ Party) has 48% of voting intention among female voters, while Jair Bolsonaro has 29%. 

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To political scientist Flávia Biroli, professor at the University of Brasilia (UnB), besides Bolsonaro’s misogynist episodes, the fact that women are heading the administration of most of the households facing financial difficulties may be what determines the current president’s rejection rating. 

Read below excerpts from the interview:

Brasil de Fato: Almost since 1520, men in Brazil can vote. In 1824, the country had its first national elections aimed to form an Assembly. However, women were only allowed to vote in 1932 – only 90 years ago. Today, women account for 53% of all Brazilian voters. In the 2022 elections, will female votes be crucial to Brazil?

Flávia Biroli: It is great to talk about it. First, I will say something that may sound ordinary to those working with female participation in politics, although it’s not always the way the issue is approached: women are the majority, not the minority. 

When talking about women’s political participation, it’s quite common to mention them as a minority. They are the majority of both the population and the electorate. It’s interesting to highlight, also, that they are half of all the people who have joined political parties in Brazil. According to the Supreme Electoral Court, about 47% of all these people are women.

But when we look at politics in Brazil, we see that political participation happens when there are candidacies and elected politicians. Regarding women, these numbers are way lower than female political participation as voters and female percentage in Brazilian society.

Thus, it is very interesting that in elections like the one we will have this year, in a way, it is as if candidates had found out about female candidacies – and this is due to two reasons. One is obvious: women are not a minority group demographically nor as voters, so they are important to the result of the elections.

The other reason is that, since 2018, there is an ongoing division of votes based on gender. We didn’t have it in the previous elections. It means that what explained votes as an important thing wasn’t the voter’s gender. Since 2018, we also see this phenomenon taking place in Bolsonaro’s government approval rating.

Women have been presenting voting options distinct from men’s options in all segments. Concisely, women have higher rejection ratings regarding Jair Bolsonaro than men have, and this happens in different electorate groups. 

I would like to discuss one of the subjects you mentioned. Many people argued that Bolsonaro rose to power as a conservative reaction of part of the society to gender, race, and diversity agendas, which became stronger at that moment [the 2018 presidential elections]. Plus, the rejection of these agendas became the government’s hallmark. Is this intensification going to be perpetuated for a long time?

For many reasons, this issue is crucial. We can understand the Brazilian electorate as receptive to conservative ideas. Therefore, of course that mobilizing these conservative ideas can have a positive effect on part of the voters. On the other side, I think it is important to understand that this is not a solved issue. It isn’t as if voters always have the same perceptions and values about, for instance, same-sex marriage, the right to abortion, and matters currently seen as normal, such as divorce.  

This electorate has already thought in different ways, even when we are talking about catholic voters or, more specifically, evangelical voters throughout time. Thus, I would like to emphasize that disputes related to the way people live their sexuality and reproductive capacity are here to stay. 

It is this way, above all, because we live in a society undergoing a fast process of change. I like to mention an example: in the 60s, Brazilian women’s average birth rate fell from seven to six kids. Then, it fell to five kids per woman. 

Today, Brazil is one of the Latin American countries in which the birth rate is lower than the replacement level fertility, about 1.6. It means a lot of changes in people’s daily lives and these changes have to do with the way people are reacting to the transformations. 

But it’s because these transformations are a reality in people’s lives, we need to understand that it is not always the same [perceptions] among conservative voters. The electoral debates are a way to discuss the issues I mentioned, such as reproductive rights and abortion. 

We need to talk about these issues in electoral periods since these are moments to clarify things and politicize them. There is a political pedagogy and, because conservatism is a reality, there is the risk of presuming that conservative reactions are relevant to the moment, [which ends up making us] always take these agendas as a political risk. 

We end up having the electoral periods as a kind of conservative pedagogy moment, instead of pedagogy towards rights and emancipation through politicization. 

Former President Lula himself even talked about abortion at the beginning of his campaign, as if to gauge how the period would be, but soon he backed down. Part of the media outlets also criticized his mentions of the matter, saying that this is not the right moment and place. How can we dodge this conservative agenda, especially during this year’s electoral campaign?

We have a very difficult situation in Brazil, because the Brazilian far-right uses these agendas as a spectacle, intending to stigmatize, not inform about what they really are. An example of it is the way they talk about abortion. 

Of course that center, leftist center, and leftist candidacies defending, for instance, women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, and even the rights of Black people in Brazil the tendency is to go back and avoid mentioning these subjects. This is because the conservative reaction is also about refusing the basis of the human rights agendas, including racial equality, plus the sometimes-violent use of them, a use that is always as if it was a spectacle.

But I keep thinking about whether or not there is something that we still know little about and that these leftist candidacies may be forgetting to emphasize. We need to ask ourselves why women are not so prone to vote for Bolsonaro when compared to men. Why do young people, whatever men or women, have a higher rejection rating against Bolsonaro when compared to older voters?

Is it precisely because these voters perceive the use of such violent conservatism and attacks to the basis of human rights agenda as a problem? Are these groups sending a message [to politicians], including to the left?

It seems to me that it is a mistake to reduce these different views to the economic issue only. By the way, that is a question: how did Lula’s candidacy, for instance, try to cope with the attacks linked to the so-called “moral agendas” – which are, actually, rights agendas?

“Well, let’s put it in the economic agenda. Forget about it”. It doesn’t seem possible and won’t be, because the right wing and the far right have been using these agendas. So, would it not be more appropriate to develop languages and possibilities of discussion that activate precisely the very broad segments of the electorate that understand, for instance, LGBT rights, women’s rights, and the right to abortion itself as something that can and should indeed be part of life in our society?

I think that we still have in place a way to see things that makes some attitudes the majority although they aren’t necessarily the majority. It doesn’t take into consideration the change and the messages coming from the electorate. By saying this, I’m not refusing the idea that the economic agenda is crucial. I’m just saying that it doesn’t define positions in an isolated way. 

I’m also saying that women’s rejection of Bolsonaro, including among evangelical women – which is 10 percentage points higher than that among evangelical men – may be saying something to us. What is it? Is it a rejection of the violent approach the bolsonarist masculinity adopts? Is it refusing to the downplaying of agendas defending rights that have to do with our daily lives?

As you said, Flávia, Lula has an expressive advantage over Bolsonaro not just among evangelical women but also among female voters in general. In the most recent poll, the difference was 46% against 27%. It was higher before but decreased in the most recent polls. Has Brazil Aid (Auxílio Brasil, in Portuguese), the monthly income payment mainly paid to women, influenced this change?

As you mentioned, there was a decrease in the gap compared to the previous polls, about 20 percentage points between male voting intention and female voting intention for Bolsonaro. 

As I said, it is interesting to notice that even among evangelical voters, who are the electorate whose voting intention for Bolsonaro is the highest among any specific group, there is a difference of 10 percentage points between female voters and male voters, the latter always aligned to Bolsonaro candidacy.

Whatever Family Grant (Bolsa Família, in Portuguese) or Brazil Aid now, [this federal monthly payment] is mainly paid to women. In recent years, there is, for instance, the intensification of the precarious conditions of households headed by women. Women have more precarious jobs. When talking about socioeconomic conditions, their households are poorer.

So, it’s obvious these women are more directly helped by social policies that allow or expand the support to basic daily needs. Despite that, we see that there is still a significant difference between men and women. We must ask “why?”.

First, I answer “yes” to your question. Social policies aimed to redistribute income may influence women’s perceptions about the context of their own lives, the federal government, and, in this case, the president running for reelection. But women are also those that were hit harder by a series of recent changes. 

Even before the covid-19 pandemic, we already had reasons enough to understand that the changes in the Brazilian labor law and the backlash of rights have been harming women more than men. Women’s jobs are even more precarious than men’s jobs. Women face more difficulties to deal with their jobs and children care and house working, which is predominantly on women’s shoulders due to the gender perception of work. 

There are data from the National Survey by Household Sample (PNAD, in Portuguese), part of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE, in Portuguese) showing that it happens in Brazil and other countries. Women suffer from the rights and social policy backlash because they are the ones taking care of others. 

Less budget for daycare centers, schools, and hospitals: all this falls upon women. And then there was covid. Although an important percentage of women in vulnerable situations were recipients of financial aid during the period of the covid pandemic, it was these women who had their children at home with schools closed for a longer time than in most countries, without adequate response from the federal government not even regarding sanitary conditions to maintain people healthy in a period of such a widespread tragedy of which Brazil was an example. 

Because they were the ones who took care of the children, particularly during the period when schools were closed, the Ministry of Education took little responsibility for the situation. If we pay attention to the data and see who were the women who faced the biggest difficulties in looking for a job, we see that it was Black women.

If we compare women and men, women faced more difficulties looking for a job during this period, including white women. Why? Due to that context I was talking about. So, elections now echo different layers of that complexity. 

On the one hand, a lack of government responsibility for the conditions in which women can work. On the other hand, the maintenance of their responsibility for care in our society.

Here is some interesting data: 217 tickets are running for elections to the states’ governments in Brazil and only 37 have women heading them. Another 85 have women as vice candidates to govern Brazilian states…

There is another data, which is: in 2020, there was an increase in the number of female candidates for deputy mayor, which was higher than the increase in the number of councilwomen candidacies, and, obviously, higher than female mayor candidacies. And it was then that we understood what was happening. 

The political parties have been doing a thing to comply with the Supreme Court 2018 decision, followed by a Supreme Electoral Court resolution, which determines a minimum of 30% of the electoral budget to be used in women’s campaigns. Parties have been using these resources in tickets with women as vice candidates. 

We can talk more about it in another moment, but to my understanding, it means that there is a lack of regulation. The political parties are taking advantage of a loophole. An explanation for this is that the parties are trying to make male candidacies “more feminine” by using women as vice candidates or calling up the wives and partners of candidates to the electoral process, establishing connections with female voters.  

Janja [Lula’s wife] has played this role. However, it seems to me that in Lula’s candidacy there is also a whole image that has been propagated by him as someone very focused on what is constructive, focused on positive affective bonds.

In the case of the current president’s reelection candidacy, if we pay attention to his administration, we see that he has always turned his back on women and their rights, Bolsonaro took sexist and misogynist positions. 

And then Michelle Bolsonaro is called up to help make Bolsonaro’s image more feminine, [to change an image] which is not only masculine, but also misogynist. Also, it seeks to connect with evangelical voters, with evangelical women. It is evident and has been analyzed by many researchers. Michele adopts an image, a way to speak, a language that has a specific target: evangelical women.

I would like to share two pieces of information I gathered. The total number of female candidacies in this year’s elections was a record. According to the Supreme Electoral Court, 9,415 women are running for political positions, that is, 33% of all candidacies. However, a recently released survey organized by the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL, in Portuguese) points out 34 cases of violence against cisgender and trans women affiliated with the party. It means that women are more and more in politics, but also have been victims of violence more frequently, right?

It’s a fundamental issue to be discussed. We have to have it as a goal. Women can’t, when engaging in politics, face this tremendous violence they have been facing. Political gender violence is something that can be seen in different parts of the world as a reaction to the growing participation of women in politics and also women’s pressure to reach it. 

Brazil is one of the countries with the lowest rates of female representativeness in Congress, Senate, and executive power. But there is intense pressure for their participation. Also, there was the adoption of quotas in our legislation throughout the years. 

The recent decisions that determine minimum amounts to fund female candidacies and the funding aimed at Black people showed a very strong and violent reaction. It is an action to maintain male dominance in politics, which seeks to discourage women – including those who are already politicians – to continue and run for reelection

But we also have to observe – and we still need to research this further – the patterns that this violence assumes in the context of the rise of the far right in the country. In my understanding, this violence has preferentially affected women with certain characteristics: activist women, Black women, and trans women, because they are seen as double, triply deviant.

They are women in politics. They challenge the status quo. They are activists who question racism and violence – let’s not forget about Marielle Franco. In the case of trans women, they challenge sexual binarism and heteronormativity.

We have, indeed, to observe political gender violence as a problem for democracy and the patterns that political gender violence assumes in a context in which the far right has been the one who orchestrates the grammar that this violence adopts.

*Edited by: Thalita Pires and Flávia Chacon
Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha