Feminism and Women’s Political Rights in Brazil

by | 24 Mar 2022

Gender inequality in representative institutions is still evident in contemporary democracies worldwide, and the path towards equity is not linear, involving disputes, conflicts, and resistances. In South America, more specifically in Brazil, theoretical and public discussions about the legitimate need for greater political participation by women were strengthened during the re-democratization processes that took place in the late 1980s. From the 1990s onwards, research in the field of gender and politics turned to the importance of the institutional presence of new political actors, questioning not only which agendas would be in the interests of women, but also who would be representing these agendas. Together with social and feminists movements, the international conventions including agreements signed in this period (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women -CEDAW- 1979, ratified by Brazil in 1984; International Pact of Civil and Political Rights 1966, ratified by Brazil in 1992; American Convention on Human Rights 1969, ratified by Brazil in 1992; The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women 1994; ratified by Brazil in 1995) strengthened the idea about measures that could enforce political parties to diversify their candidates. Currently, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 130 countries have some kind of affirmative action (legislated candidate quota; reserved seats and political party quota) to increase the election of women. In Brazil, the system adopted is the legislated candidate quota, however, it’s currently under attack, and may well be removed altogether. In this post, I discuss the various disputes around this regulation and the importance of broadening this affirmative action. 

Following feminist demands and despite resistance from right-wing and conservative political parties, a regulation was implemented in 1995 that stipulated a minimum quorum of women (and men) candidates. Considering the candidates’ lists were (and still are) predominantly male, this regulation was referred to as ‘quotas for women in politics’. Following feminist pressures and a decision from the electoral supreme court, this affirmative action began to be known as ‘gender quotas in politics’. Initially, the regulation recommended that political parties should nominate at least 20% women candidates, this was increased to 30% in 1997. However, the measure did not substantially impact the elections that followed for two main reasons: The regulation was not mandatory, and women’s candidacies were neither visible nor competitive. After a long period of 13 years, since the regulation was first implemented, it finally became mandatory in 2009. The compulsory requirement sought to ensure that political parties actually nominate at least 30% of women candidates. The 2010 election results, however, show that the legislated candidate quota was not enough to promote a change in those elected: the number of women elected to the Chamber of Deputies remained at 8.8%, the same percentage as in 2006. Nevertheless, because the legal obligation was implemented without supervision, an increase in ‘fictitious’ candidacies of women was observable. Political parties recruited women, or just their names, to fulfill the mandatory quota. According to data from the 2016 municipal elections in Brazil, 10.6% of women (15,052 candidates) had zero votes, whereas, in the case of male candidates, less than 0.96% had no votes. It can be said that candidates with zero votes had a gender pattern. 

After feminist discussions in the political sphere about the inefficacy of the gender quotas in Brazil, an important change was implemented in 2018 through a decision (ADI 5617/2018) from the supreme court: At least 30% of the resources for the campaign of the Party Fund and the Special Electoral Fund have to be allocated to female candidates. Since the law still requires at least 30% of female candidates, resources (Party and Special Electoral funds) must be distributed at the same proportion. With this change, it was already possible to observe some improvements; until the 2018 elections, the percentage of women elected for the Chamber of Deputies had never exceeded the 10% mark. Since then, the number of women elected in the Chamber of Deputies has increased by 50% (from 10% elected in 2014 to 15% elected in 2018). Also, such alteration made it possible for the first indigenous women to be elected for the Chamber of Deputies in 2018. 

Thus, it is only very recently that the regulation has begun to be minimally effective in Brazil. Moreover, the current attempt to dismantle this policy may be a reaction to the transformative potential of this affirmative action. Thus, it is relevant to contextualize this ongoing backlash: the present political scenario in Brazil is dominated by far-right ideas together with neoliberal-conservative actions, which reinforces the already hostile conditions for political engagement of diverse women. One of the backsliding actions that can be highlighted is the proposal to not only abolish the electoral gender quotas but also to pardon all fines imposed on political parties that did not comply with the quota requirement in the past. In this way, this proposal is a clear setback of the improvements made over the past decade. In the face of this backlash against feminist gains, there is an urgency to identify and employ ‘resources needed to mobilize for [feminist] change’ (Celis and Childs,2019; Lovenduski, 2019).

The current proposal to abolish electoral gender quotas and to render them mere recommendations, undoes, simultaneously, two cornerstones of this policy: 1) The effective nomination of at least 30% of women candidates with strong enforcement (legal obligation and punishment in case of non-compliance) together with 2) the equivalence of resources for these campaigns at a minimum percentage of 30% so that they can make their candidacies visible as well as competitive. The analysis of the problems of male dominance in politics along with the weak representation of women in their diversity is a large, complex, as well as structural phenomenon. So, the measures to address the systematic injustices depend on multiple transformative political actions. The systems of power are interconnected, consequently, the social reparation should not only be feminist and anti-neoliberal but also be anti-racist and LGBTQIA+ inclusive. In this regard, ‘combating complex social inequities is intrinsically linked to a social justice agenda’ (Collins, 2017).

To challenge the dominant logic, feminist scholars agree on the political importance to speak as and speak forwomen, which can also be seen as a temporary political strategy and lobbying effort (Benhabib, 1996).  To avoid ‘group essentialism’ (Gould, 1996) the category of women must be open and necessarily subject to continual deconstruction (Butler, 1996). This raises the classic as well as current tensions in feminist politics between on the one hand ‘descriptive representation’, defined as a presence of representatives who belong in the same societal group as the represented, also called ‘politics of presence’ (Phillips, 1995); and on the other hand, substantive representation, that is policy responsiveness or ‘politics of ideas’ (Phillips, 1995). Indeed, not all female politicians will advocate feminism. So why is it important to insist on affirmative action, even though there is no guarantee that those elected will be committed to feminist change? 

First of all, feminism is a socio-political movement and not an individual identity. Thus, it is a ‘political commitment’ hooks (2015) that materializes in collective action. Therefore, the two dimensions of political representation (substantive and descriptive) cannot be analysed separately. According to a more principled approach, the structural absence in the political sphere of gendered and racialized bodies should not be conditioned on the political outcome. This is because, as Anne Phillips has argued:

if the politics of ideas is taken in isolation from (…) the politics of presence, it does not deal adequately with the experiences of those social groups who by virtue of their race or ethnicity or religion or gender have felt themselves excluded from the democratic process. Political exclusion is increasingly viewed in terms that can be met only by political presence’ (Phillips,1996). 

Secondly, gender equality in descriptive including substantive representation should be analysed within the framework of power struggles (Celis, Lovenduski 2018), and not on an individual level. This indicates that it is important to consider political actions organized by women as a political group, even if temporary and transitory, as nevertheless potentially transformative. As can be seen in women’s parliamentary organizations (WPO). These organizations/committees are central for articulating women’s interests as supra-partisan. For example, in Brazil, the women’s committee of the Chamber of Deputies[1] was decisive in the power struggle for the implementation and the advancement of the gender quotas law. This corroborates that even with modest growth in women’s presence, it was already possible to articulate and produce these relevant spaces for collectively building the dynamic interests/issues of women.

As a result of these aggregations, we can see some meaningful gender policies in South and Central America (the region where the adoption of legislated candidate quotas is the highest in the world, according to IPU, 2020): The world’s first gender parity constituent assembly in Chile in 2020. In Argentina, the legalization of abortion in 2020, the recognition of maternal care as work in 2021 and, in addition, the passing of the ‘trans law’ that reserves 1% of public administration vacancies for trans people as well as the creation of an identity document for non-binary people. In Mexico, there was a great movement towards the decriminalization of abortion that took place in 2021. Back in Brazil, a policy was proposed for distributing sanitary pads in public schools and prisons, since this is a basic human necessity. Although, it was first rejected (vetoed) by the President; it was later approved (on March 2022) due to articulations from women’s parliamentary organizations and feminist pressures. This mobilization could politicize a situation that was previously seen generally as a private and individual matter, bringing to the public agenda the concern around the ‘period poverty’. These actions undoubtedly demonstrate a shift of perspective made possible by the articulation of women as a political group. That doesn’t mean that we can assume an automatic relation of causation between ‘presence’ and ‘ideas’, but it is clear that the growing presence of women in their diversity increases the potential for the implementation of feminist policies.

In order to diversify the occupation of spaces of representation, a constant dialogue between theory and practice is indispensable. That is, the construction of affirmative actions must be in tune with the demands of feminist emancipatory social movements. In this regard, the starting point to discuss the feminist agenda should consider the differences in along with the heterogeneity of women as a political group: ‘By breaking the silences it’s possible to bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.’ (Lorde, 2019). 

Thus, instead of being abolished, the electoral gender quotas in Brazil should be enlarged as well as reinforced to encompass intra-group descriptive and substantial differences. In this regard, ‘the differences and conflicts between women need not be imagined or transcended but must be incorporated into the political agenda of debate’ (Young, 2002). Further, the affirmative actions must reach political party structures and organizations, aiming for gender equality in key positions: party leadership, commissions, and committees. To this extent, ‘mechanisms should be – and can be – devised that address the problems of group exclusion without fixing the boundaries or character of each group (Phillips, 1996)’. Therefore, it is vital to collectively construct political imaginaries based on feminist inclusion, especially because ‘public policy-making is never gender-neutral’ (Dahlerup, 2018).


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BENHABIB, Seyla; BUTLER, Judith; CORNELL, Drucilla; FRASER, Nancy. Feminist contentions: A philosophical exchange. Routledge, 1995

CELIS, Karen; LOVENDUSKI, Joni. Power struggles: gender equality in political representation. European Journal of Politics and Gender, 2018

COLLINS, Patricia Hill. Lost In Translation: Black Feminism, Intersectionality and Emancipatory Politics. May 2017 Special issue on “Communication and Inequalities,” in Portuguese. Online: http://revistaseletronicas.fiamfaam.br/index.php/recicofi/issue/current Paragraph Journal (Revista Parágrafo), 2017

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HOOKS, bell. Feminist Theory from margin to center. New York: Routledge, 2015

LORDE, Audre. Sister Outsider. Penguin Classics, 2019

LOVENDUSKI, Joni. Feminist Reflections on Representative Democracy. The Political Quarterly, 2019

PHILLIPS. Anne; GOULD, Carol. in BENHABIB, Seyla (org).Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. Princeton University Press, 1996

SACCHET, Teresa, FABRIS, Ligia; FERRETI, Michelle; ARAÚJO, Clara. O que está em jogo para as mulheres na nova proposta de reforma eleitoral? Nota Técnica nº 2 Frente pelo Avanço dos Direitos Políticos das Mulheres, 2021.

YOUNG, Iris Marion. Inclusion and Democracy. New  York:  Oxford University Press,  2002.

[1] Brazil has a bicameral legislative assembly, composed by the Chamber of Deputies and the Federal Senate. The women’s commission in the Federal senate was just created in 2021.


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