Antifeminism and the women at the centre of bolsonarismo

Brazilian researchers Aline Beatriz Coutinho and Camila Galetti look at the articulations of the far-right in Brazil and its connections to gender and violence

As of writing, 493 women have been arrested for actively participating in the invasion of the Planalto, the seat of the Executive Power, the National Congress and the Federal Supreme Court in Brazil on January 8th. In total, 1,166 people have been arrested for the attempted disruption of the Brazilian democratic order, meaning 42% of those arrested are women. These women are on average 48 years old and at least six of them have political careers, one of them being a city councilwoman and the other four, deputy legislators at the municipal, state and even federal level. This information may confound expectations that the vast majority of those involved were men, despite the extreme antifeminism articulated via bolsonarismo in Brazil.

Such context is consistent with the results of the 2018 elections, which were marked by a 15% increase in female representation in the House of Representatives.  That is, of 513 deputies, 77 were women. However, most of the increase in the number of female deputies came from the far-right, mainly in former president Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL). In previous elections, the PSL did not elect any women deputies and only one man, but in 2018 the party became the second largest bench in the House of Representatives, even electing 9 female deputies. This rise is directly linked to Bolsonaro and his political influence who at the time was affiliated to the PSL, although the former president has since joined the Liberal Party (PL) in 2021, which in the 2022 elections won the largest bench in the House, having 17 women elected.

In their speeches during the 2018 election campaign, and over the course of their mandates, the elected far-right female deputies mainly mobilized antifeminist narratives and attacks on the supposed ‘gender ideology’, which has found one of its main bases in Brazil. These narratives are articulated in defence of the notion that the natural family is uniquely formed by heterosexual couples, with the social function of women being mother and wife and the goal of marriage being procreation. As such, most of the advances acquired over the decades by the feminist and LGBTQIA+ movements, such as reproductive and sexual rights, are seen as dangerous and even wrongly linked to ‘communist acts’ that are intended to destroy society. In addition, antifeminism has also become stronger, structuring a new political subject. It homogenises the category of woman and assumes that society is not based on inequalities of gender, sexuality, class and race. It is from these perspectives, of the attempt to preserve a patriarchal, colonial and capitalist power, that the electoral campaign of extreme right-wing Brazilian women candidates becomes evident when they mobilised around the Bolsonaro.

Even before the 2018 presidential election, there were several actions that can be considered glimpses into the escalation of far-right violence that took place on January 8 in Brasilia. One incident occurred in 2017 during philosopher Judith Butler’s visit to Brazil. Dozens of people gathered in front of the place where Butler was going to give a lecture, among them, young mothers organised in favor of homeschooling and other women shouting slogans such as “man is man, woman is woman, and here in Brazil you don’t do what you want!” and “burn the witch!”, the latter at the moment they set on fire a life-size doll with a picture of the philosopher’s face, dressed in a witch’s hat.

Such actions were indications that far-right discourse were spreading through a part of Brazilian society, which holds that the best way to have power is via violence. Even data on this mobilization show that 73% of the people who spoke out against Butler totally or partially agree with the statement “a military intervention could help Brazil” and that 62% of these people would vote for Jair Bolsonaro for president in 2018. Moreover, the anti-gender discourses show their strength already at this moment, with 86% of these people placing themselves against the discussion of gender in schools, reaching 96% the position that it should be the family’s responsibility to take care of teaching about sexuality to children. The demonstration against Butler’s visit to Brazil ended after four hours with the women involved sweeping the street. This could not be more symbolic of the true position of women within these conservative movements is: reiterating the roles established by patriarchy and exalted in authoritarian regimes.

It is interesting to note how much bolsonarism has captured a significant section of the female electorate. In the last elections in 2022 it was evident in the messaging of the electoral campaign of the former president, even though Bolsonaro’s record in government saw a 94% fall in investment in policies to combat violence against women. Furthermore, the unification of the Women’s Ministry with the family and human rights agenda promoted the conservation of the family nucleus, even though this was the main site of domestic violence against women and children.

Many of these women remain ardent supporters of bolsonarismo, and this can be seen in the terrorist act that took place on January 8th, where women carried out terrorist actions. These include the elderly Bolsonarist Maria de Fátima Mendonça Jacinto Souza, 67 years old, who appears in the videos proudly depredating the Supreme Court. Despite all the talk about defending “the family” or Brazil, this woman had been previously convicted of drug trafficking. Another woman, coming from the state of Minas Gerais and identified in her statement to authorities after her arrest as I. I. P., 57 years old, declared that she participated in the coup attempt because “if there were many people, I would have the support of the Army to avoid the installation of communism in Brazil,” showing her idealization of a military coup. Even in the orchestration of the acts, women were in the front line operationalizing the situation, as the example of Elizângela Cunha Pimentel, 48 years old, who turned herself in after being accused of organizing and financing the terrorist acts in Brasilia and Ana Priscila Azevedo, arrested later on the same charge with the additional charge of inciting more than 30 thousand followers via a Telegram channel, telling them “We are going to collapse the system, we are going to besiege Brasília, we are going to take the power by assault, the power that belongs to us.”

The terrorist acts of January 8th in Brazil demonstrate how the extreme right seeks to create a shared collective identity. Regarding female participation in these acts, it is important to note that although the extreme right is sexist and misogynist, it bets on female figures, thus strengthening a supposed femonationalism – which, while producing a destabilization of gender boundaries, has as one of its main agendas the promotion of the strengthening of antifeminist ideals and the fight against the supposed existence of ‘gender ideology’. Finally, it is possible to state that the extreme right strategically pushes the mobilization of women in their actions, thus producing a certain ’empowerment’ among them. This ’empowerment’ has the purpose of maintaining patriarchy and its premises, and in the case of Brazil, it also produced an attempt at political destabilization of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government that fortunately did not succeed – although its discourses continue to spread.

Aline Beatriz Coutinho is an associate researcher at Lab on Social Differences and Inequality and a Master’s student in History, both at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), where she researches Reproductive Rights, political disputes over abortion’s issues, and gender.

Camila Galetti, is a sociologist, doctoral student at the University of Brasilia, and a researcher at the Elected Women Project (LAPPCOM-UFRJ)