The reversal of Roe, bans on teaching about gender, and gunmen showing up at drag shows all are part of a trend in US and international politics. Rebecca Sanders and Laura Dudley Jenkins call it 'patriarchal populism'. They explain what patriarchal populism is, and three tactics used to undermine and attack established women’s and LGBTQ+ human rights
Populist rhetoric calls for ‘the people’, rather than ‘the elites', to rule. Our research analyses populist leaders’ public pronouncements and policy initiatives. This allows us to track how contemporary populist administrations manipulate language to undermine the words essential to women’s human rights. In doing so, we identify the central role of sexism in right-wing populism.
Patriarchal populists are the focus of our recent article in Global Constitutionalism. These actors challenge established women’s rights, including the most fundamental premise — that men and women are equal. They paint women’s rights advocates as nefarious global ‘elites’. Allied with religious conservatives, they defend ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’ families based on rigid gender binaries and hierarchies. They attack those who seek recognition of diverse gender roles and identities. Our article and special issue on Contemporary International Anti-Feminism assesses this global trend.
Patriarchal populists challenge established women’s rights, defending ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’ families based on rigid gender binaries and hierarchies
Patriarchal populist leaders include Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and Viktor Orbán, to name a few. In rallies and statements, they denigrate both feminist principles and prominent women. Their misogynist rhetoric ranges from Duterte’s exhortation of soldiers to shoot rebel women ‘in the vagina’ to render them ‘useless’, to Trump’s call to ‘lock her up!’ in reference to Hillary Clinton.
Some of the most notorious patriarchal populists are no longer national leaders. Yet even in such cases, their political progeny populate political bodies, from local to national, ready to retake control.
Working with or waiting for friendly governments in power, anti-feminist transnational organisations such as the World Congress of Families (WCF) increasingly incubate and share ideas on global stages. The US-based Conservative Political Action Committee (C-PAC), returns to Budapest in May 2023, with Viktor Orbán as keynote speaker.
Patriarchal populist leaders, governments and allied organisations pursue three distinct tactics to undermine women’s and LGBTQ+ human rights. These are controlling, altering, and deleting women’s and gender rights. Like the Ctrl-Alt-Delete commands on our computers, such tactics reboot human rights systems. They force women’s rights defenders to stop, restart their work, and go back to arguing for basic gender equality.
Like the Ctrl-Alt-Delete commands on our computers, patriarchal populist leaders want to control, alter and delete women's and gender rights
First, patriarchal populists control what women’s rights advocates can say, through policies such as the United States’ ‘global gag rule’. Second, they alter the meaning of women’s rights, reframing them as an attack on other rights, such as religious freedom. Third, they literally delete foundational words and phrases, such as ‘gender’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’, from international agreements.
The Mexico City Policy is periodically enacted by Republican US administrations. This policy leverages US foreign aid to restrict access to safe and legal abortion care around the world. Known as the ‘global gag rule’ by critics, it controls what healthcare providers that accept US funds can say. The rule specifies that healthcare providers are not allowed to inform women about the availability, safety or appropriateness of abortion care, even if patients ask them about it.
The Trump administration extended global gag rule restrictions to the entire US$9 billion American global health assistance budget. Named ‘Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance’, the last iteration of the policy covered all US granting agencies and cut off all funding, not just family planning funding, to NGOs that did not comply.
This severely limited patients' access to critical sexual and reproductive healthcare such as contraception, prenatal monitoring and HIV/AIDS prevention. What's more, it also limited access to tuberculosis and malaria care, tropical disease initiatives, and sanitation and hygiene programmes — with deadly results.
The Biden administration reversed these policies, but they will undoubtedly return when partisan control of the White House changes.
Patriarchal populist attacks on women's and LGBTQ+ rights are anti-pluralistic and increasingly authoritarian. Yet despite this, advocates sometimes present far-right policies as a means to a liberal end. For instance, the Heritage Foundation alters the debate over women’s rights by portraying itself as an advocate of religious freedom, rather than an enemy of gender equity. By advancing this framework, it suggests women’s rights are divisible from other rights.
We also find the tactic of distinguishing women’s rights from human rights and pitting them against each other in the work of the Trump State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. Its final report avoids the word ‘gender’ and only mentions sexual or reproductive health in a sentence about controversies over ‘abortion, affirmative action, [and] same-sex marriage’. It warns against the ‘temptation to cloak a contestable political preference in the mantle of human rights’.
The Commission did not consider women’s rights, particularly women’s health, social, and economic rights, to be unalienable, but instead ‘ad hoc’ and ‘political’. Such moves reframe and alter women’s rights, undermining their universality and legitimacy.
Another way opponents of women’s rights advance their aims is by eliminating words in international resolutions, declarations, and treaties.
The terms targeted for deletion include ‘gender’, ‘gender-based violence’, ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’, ‘comprehensive sexuality education’, ‘unmet need for family planning’, ‘safe abortion’ and ‘unsafe abortion’, and ‘various forms of the family’. Anti-feminists purge words that could support abortion care or LGBTQ+ families, or which could challenge biological essentialism.
The Trump administration even refused to agree to a UN Security Council Resolution safeguarding the reproductive health of women raped during armed conflict
Deletion demands have delayed and undermined efforts to address critical women’s rights violations. For example, the Trump administration’s UN delegation refused to agree to UN Security Council Resolution 2467 until reference to the ‘sexual and reproductive health’ of women raped in armed conflict was removed.
In addition to blocking and revising agreements, patriarchal regimes created the ‘Geneva Consensus Declaration’. Led by the Trump administration, it was signed by Belarus, Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Uganda, among others. The declaration denies that the language of international law respects abortion rights.
In short, the role of language in today’s patriarchal populism goes beyond populist leaders’ notorious speeches, rallies and tweets. Their governments and allies systematically control, alter, and delete the words essential to women’s rights.