Lab Report

Do Brazilian Women Really Reign Supreme?

Brazil's woman-versus-woman presidential race suggests that feminism has triumphed. The reality is more complicated. The first in our series of Lab Reports on Brazil.

Top image: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Top image: Mario Tama/Getty Images

There is a pejorative phrase in Brazil that is occasionally applied to female would-be politicians: They are called “orange candidates.” The phrase’s etymology is juicy, if muddled: By one account, an “orange” was prison slang for a target of fraud, a sucker or a mark. By another, bootleggers injected the fruits with liquor to evade the authorities during prohibition. What both versions have in common is the implication of fraud or alibi — reflecting the assumption that a woman on a list of candidates may have no real influence if her inclusion is merely to inch the party closer to its legally enshrined gender quota.

Democracy Lab’s In-Depth Reports on Brazil

  • LAB REPORT 1: Do Brazilian Women Really Reign Supreme?, by Anna Petherick
  • LAB REPORT 2: The Subtle Art of the Brazilian Majority, by Gregory Michener and Carlos Pereira
  • LAB REPORT 3: How to Bring Brazil’s Economy Back to Life, by Rob Dwyer

Yet Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent in this year’s Brazilian presidential election, and Marina Silva, her main competitor, could not be less orange. Though Rousseff was plucked by her illustrious predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to inherit the benefits of his colossal popularity, both she and Marina Silva are the primary authors of their own success. Both were ministers in the Lula government. Both became politically engaged — riskily so — in their youth. While Rousseff made her name as a militant activist in the fight against dictatorship, Silva founded a trade union movement with fellow rubber-tapper and environmentalist Chico Mendes, who was ultimately murdered for these activities. Rousseff’s lymphoma of five years ago, and Silva reoccurring bouts of the infectious diseases she acquired growing up dirt-poor on a plantation, attest to their bravery and determination.

In comparison, the men who have featured most prominently in this election have benefited from more traditional dynastic politics. At the tender age of 25, Aécio Neves, currently third in the race, was appointed “secretary for special affairs” to president-elect Tancredo Neves, his grandfather (who died before he could take office). Eduardo Campos — who was replaced by then vice-presidential candidate Marina Silva after he died in a plane crash on Aug. 13 — became finance secretary in his home state at age 30 after serving his grandfather, the long-time governor, as cabinet chief.  

In many ways, the prominence of the competition between Rousseff and Silva conceals the puzzling realities of women in Brazil. Brazilian women do pretty well by many measures. The majority of illiterates in the country are male. Almost a third more women than men enroll in tertiary education. The 1988 constitution gives men and women equal rights and obligations in the family, prohibits sex discrimination in employment and wages, and includes the right to 120 days of paid maternity leave. Police stations staffed by mostly by women, for women, have mushroomed in every state since 1985, to tackle violence against women, such as rape and spousal abuse.

Behind many of these achievements lies the largest women’s movement in contemporary Latin America. During the 70s and 80s, more than 400 self-professed feminist organizations sprung up in Brazil’s cities, spurred by disgust at the sexual violence endured by political prisoners of the military regime — and by a broader gender consciousness that blossomed out of the regime’s contradictory promotion of the female homemaker, even as its economic policies forced millions of mothers into employment. Feminist groups forged links with other pro-democracy forces and, over the course of Latin America’s most protracted transition to democracy, had time to weave a gendered perspective into the new legal architecture of the state. Today, Brazilian voters show little prejudice against female leaders. A political science experiment conducted a year ago randomly swapped fake candidate pictures and profiles and then asked thousands of participants who they would vote for. It uncovered a 5-7 percent bias in favor of female candidates.

Yet other features of Brazilian law and society contradict the country’s breezily progressive reputation. The universities may be stocked by female undergrads, but the upper-echelons of professional jobs fit the cross-national norm: they are overwhelmingly male. The public sector upholds equal pay at all levels of its various hierarchies, but the private sector is way off. For a few years the women’s police stations operated in the knowledge that juries accepted claims by murderers of adulterous wives that an upwelling of machismo emotion causes a momentary loss of sanity, known as the “legitimate honor defense.” Domestic violence became a specific crime only in 2006. Even so, in 2011, 40 percent of murders of women still occurred in the home, and a woman was more likely to be murdered in Brazil than in all but six other countries around the world. (Since the turn of the millennium, murders of white women have been going down, while murders of black women having been going up.)

The women’s movement has not been a straightforwardly liberalizing force. Before it called for democracy, it called for dictatorship, organizing marches against the democratically elected government of João Goulart, including one through the streets of Rio de Janeiro the day before the 1964 coup. (The women in that procession whipped out their rosaries and crucifixes as they called on the military to do its “manly duty” and take the country back from the leftist leader who had vowed to expropriate big landownwers.) The proportion of women in power hovered below 0.6 percent while the military ruled. While female representation has improved during the current period of democracy, it has remained stubbornly low nonetheless. Within Latin America, only Panama counts a smaller proportion of women in congress — an astounding fact in light of this year’s presidential election and the recent research into Brazilian voting preferences. So what’s up with gender and politics in Brazil?

David Fleischer, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia, says that the culprit is clear. “Our main problem is this stupid, open-list system,” he says, referring to the country’s unusual electoral system. “We have the worst variant of proportional representation.” (Senators are chosen by a first-past-the-post system, while members of the Chamber of Deputies are selected by proportional representation.)

Opposite to the situation in the United States, the Brazilian lower house of parliament consistently has a smaller percentage of women than the upper house. Why? In most countries the need for financial firepower and the benefits of incumbency place a negative skew on the average prospects of female candidates in winner-takes-all elections. (It could also be that the gladiatorial style of winner-takes-all elections resonates better with male gender stereotypes.) But the Brazilian version of proportional representation has a way of amplifying the influence of money and media.

For example, the state of Rio de Janeiro, home to Clara Araújo, a politics researcher at Rio de Janeiro State University, elects 46 representatives. There are 32 parties. Each party can field one-and-a-half times 46 candidates. That’s an upper limit of 2,208 candidates. These swarms of political hopefuls explain why name recognition — through family ties or advertising, membership in soccer teams, or whatever — makes so much difference. The sizes of electoral districts tend to be big in a continent-sized country, which imposes large travel budgets on competitive campaigns. Araújo has found that official donations to female candidates’ campaigns tend to come from individuals, in the form of many small amounts; as a rule, the big lump sums from institutions go to male candidates.

The gender quota law only applies to elections to the Chamber of Deputies. It stipulates that 30 percent of the spaces on a party’s candidate list must be reserved for women. When party bosses signed off on the law in the mid-1990s, however, they never required these “reserved” slots to be filled. At the same time, because of the uneasiness of male politicians as it was debated, the new law allowed each party list to include more candidates than there are seats representing the district. Mala Htun, associate professor at the University of New Mexico, explains the misaligned incentives. “Politicians in power owe their positions to the existing system,” she says. “So they usually lack incentives to change what delivers them their positions in the first place.”

The upshot was a minor uptick in the percentage of female deputies in tandem with the arrival of an orange-scented haze. Before the quota law’s introduction, women were elected in about the same proportion as their candidacies; afterwards, the average female candidate became less successful than her male counterpart. Put simply, the evidence suggests that parties started enlisting uninterested, unprepared, or ill-qualified female newbies to drag up the numbers. 

As if that weren’t enough, the country also turns mainstream ideas about development and female political success upside-down. Women are not elected in greater numbers in the wealthier, better-educated regions of the south and southeast. Instead, two-thirds of female mayors and city councilors are found in the poorer parts — the forested north, the northeast and the central region — even though these regions account for only half of the total number of municipalities.

Various theories have been proposed to explain this pattern. Parties (and thus their old-school bosses) seem to play a more prominent role as gatekeepers to power in the south. Anecdotally, the more oligarchic politics of the north has allowed some local first ladies to grow patronage bases from their charitable activities. Historically, some women in these states have kept seats warm for male relatives, for whom constitutional constraints on re-election have inconveniently required them to sit out a term. The geographical pattern is too entrenched to reflect any recent empowerment of women in Brazil’s most poverty-stricken households, thanks to social programs such as Bolsa Família, the federal stipend paid to mothers in low-income families who regularly send their children to school and to the doctor’s.

It is hard to overstate Bolsa Família’s place in the political discourse. The policy is credited with Lula’s second-term victory, which was threatened by a giant corruption scandal that embroiled much of the senior ranks of the Worker’s Party, or PT. (To Brazil’s credit, no other country has seen so many senior members of a democratically elected party punished soundly by the courts while that party was in power.) A good part of Rousseff’s support also draws on a sense of gratitude and loyalty from Bolsa Família’s beneficiaries. Municipalities far from the nuclei of power have experienced huge change because of Bolsa Família, minimum wage increases, and an overall trend of economic growth. A good example of such a place is Rio Branco, in the eastern state of Acre, where Silva worked as a maid and famously transformed herself from an illiterate 16-year-old into a 26-year-old with a history degree. In Rio Branco, the proportion of people living in houses with piped water jumped from 53 percent to 94 percent between 2000 and 2010. . Over the same period, the 34 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds with full primary education rose to 64 percent.

After falling far behind Silva earlier in the campaign, Rousseff’s team recently staged a dramatic comeback largely by claiming that Silva would cut back Bolsa Família. Despite denials buttressed with tales of how her parents wouldn’t eat for several days in a row so that her siblings could, Silva has slipped in the polls. About a month ago, the candidates were neck-and-neck in the first round, with a clear victory predicted for Silva in the second where she is expected to pick up the Neves vote. She is now predicted to lose the second round, although that may change. Brazilian electoral rules mean that her coalition gets far less TV airtime in the first round than Rousseff’s party, a major disadvantage

But neither of these women is talking about women’s rights. Throughout the debates, it has been the third female candidate, Luciana Genro, who has inserted gender issues into the electoral discourse. Little known beyond Brazil, she has — like Rousseff and Silva — spent the majority of her political career in the PT. This is the party that has openly backed the gay rights movement ever since it supported striking metalworkers in 1979; the party that introduced its own 30 percent gender quota years before the national one (and in more rigorous, zero-sum terms); the party that, under Lula, established a special secretariat for women’s rights with the status of ministry.

The PT has never dared to make the decriminalization of abortion party policy, however. Brazil is the most populous Catholic country, and abortion is a crime unless conception is the result of rape or the woman’s life is in danger. Most citizens, moreover, agree with the legal status quo. And successful politicians, whatever their personal position, must operate with this in mind.

Silva, an evangelical who once trained for two years to become a nun, is opposed to abortion — but perhaps surprisingly for someone so religious, she also frames the topic primarily in terms of public health rather than reproductive rights. When the Rousseff administration tried to increase spending on medical care for botched abortions, the congressional religious lobby sunk the idea. (More than a hundred times as many Brazilian women seek this kind of help from the state than have legal abortions.)

For her part, Rousseff is suspected of being privately in favor of decriminalization, but constrained by the necessary compromises of coalitional politics. The 2010 election saw her enter into a weird arms race with her main opponent over who could appear more Catholic — as health minister he had made legal abortions more accessible, and so was also considered to be lying about his true thoughts on the matter. “It was sort of embarrassing to watch,” says Paulo Sotero, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute. “You know, they were there all going to church, probably for the first time in years.”

This time around, Silva’s biggest handicap is probably not going to be any particular issue, but history. If she wins, she will be only the second challenger since 1990 in Latin America — a continent where elections are dizzyingly frequent — to uproot an incumbent president. But the future bodes very well for her. Analysts such as Eurasia Group’s João Castro Neves reckon that the PT’s grip on the north and northeast is at an inflection point. And unlike any other politician of national significance, Silva gained support during the huge urban youth movements of the past year; her stated intention to take the pork out of Brazilian politics resonates well with Brazilians who no longer feel represented by the traditional parties. It is striking that she has so dramatically outperformed the late presidential candidate to whom she was supposed to play second fiddle. This demonstrates just how out of touch, and hopelessly macho, most party bosses still are.

is a PhD student at Oxford University and former Argentina correspondent for  The Economist. Twitter: @annajessiep