Michelle Bolsonaro wishes her fellow Brazilian women to view her husband Jair Bolsonaro in a fresh light. A campaign advertisement broadcasted on Brazilian TV on Tuesday features the lead role of the first lady. In it, smiling women relate how their lives have improved under four years of Bolsonaro’s government.
“If you think it’s strange that Jair has done so much to protect women,” Michelle then says, “that’s because you don’t know the President.”
Bolsonaro’s ad and increased attention to female voters over recent weeks show that he is acknowledging what pundits had long predicted: He has a problem with women.
Polls for Brazil’s 2022 election suggest female voters are far less keen on the incumbent than their male counterparts are. Only 29% of Brazilian women intend to vote for Bolsonaro as opposed to 46% who plan to vote in favor for Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, his main opponent. Men have a narrower gap, 39% voting for Bolsonaro, and 43% voting for Lula da Silva, according to the Leftist ex-President.
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Bolsonaro could be put off by many things. His platform’s core elements—liberalizing gun use and protecting national sovereignty—aren’t typically ranked as important by female voters. The former Army captain is known for his misogynistic, racist rhetoric. As a lawmaker in 2011, he said in a televised interview that his sons would never fall in love with Black women because “they’re very well educated.” In 2014, Bolsonaro told a female member of congress, “I wouldn’t rape you, because you don’t deserve it.”
Then there’s his tasteless unofficial slogan: “imbrochável.” Used frequently by Bolsonaro, and chanted at recent rallies, it has been translated as “never limp” or “unfloppable,” and is meant to suggest that the 67-year-old President is full of priapic vigor.
Jair Bolsonaro is Brazil’s President. Michelle Bolsonaro and her first lady attended the National Convention on Sunday, July 24, 2022 at Maracanazinho Gymnasium Rio de Janeiro.
Andre Borges/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bolsonaro’s belated overtures to women are, however, falling flat. He has made Michelle the center of his campaign in an attempt to make his image more positive. Interviews were used to emphasize a small list of pro-women accomplishments, like the high number of rural landholders that have been granted property deeds by his government. Yet at the same time—sometimes in the same breath—the President has continued to stumble into sexism.
“Good news here for women,” Bolsonaro said in a Facebook livestream on Sept. 1, as he talked about a reduction in femicide over the last year. “Although good news for women is kisses, roses, gifts, vacations… right? Is that what you like?” A week later, at a rally for Brazil’s independence day, he called women “princesses” for “unhappy men” to marry.
The President made headlines during a TV debate last month when he angrily attacked a female journalist, Vera Magalhães, after she cited his poor record on COVID-19 vaccines. “You must fall asleep thinking about me, you’re obsessed with me,” he told her. “You’re a disgrace to Brazilian journalism.”
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Magalhães, who has since suffered a wave of abuse from Bolsonaro supporters, tells TIME that it’s not surprising that the President is struggling to stick to a women-friendly script. “This is his problem,” she says. “To maintain his more radical base, he needs to be the bold, belligerent macho man, and so when he tries to make himself seem moderate like this, he fails.”
Beatriz Rey is a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s SNF Agora Institute, where she studies Latin American politics. “He knows that he needs more female voters, and still he’s out there saying these things,” she says. “It suggests this level of misogynistic behavior is just ingrained in him.”
This behavior may prove to be fatal for his campaign. Though Bolsonaro is narrowing Lula’s lead as the election’s first round approaches on Oct. 2—a second round will take place in November if no candidate wins more than 50%—polls suggest that the remaining undecided voters are up to twice as likely to be women than men.
Bolsonaro could be denied a second term by women
On Sept. 10, 2022, a woman is standing at her front door at her Coelho favela, which lies on the banks the Capibaribe River in Recife (Pernambuco), northeast Brazil. About 33.1 Million Brazilians suffer from hunger. This issue is a big concern during the October presidential elections.
NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP via Getty Images
Bolsonaro’s poor track record on issues affecting women
As Bolsonaro courts female voters, his campaign has highlighted “more than 70 laws approved by the President to help women.” None of these pieces of legislation were proposed by Bolsonaro’s government, according to Brazil’s Estadão newspaper. Many are only tenuously related to women’s rights—for example, the creation of a national day for the prevention of diabetes. Some, like a 2021 menstrual law were adopted despite Bolsonaro’s direct opposition. The President first vetoed the provision that would have allowed low-income women to receive free sanitary products, but he reintroduced the policy five months later following a backlash. Also, Bolsonaro vetoed a budgetary limit increase to pandemic assistance for single mothers. Congress overruled him. His government found $800,000.00 for Viagra and penile implant for the Armed Forces.
The President has pitched himself as particularly tough on domestic abuse, saying in a television interview Tuesday that rates of gender violence have fallen “a shocking amount” under his government. But a report published this year by the Brazilian Public Security Forum, a nonprofit, found that number of victims of femicide had slightly increased, from 1,229 in 2018—the year before Bolsonaro took office—to 1,341 in 2021. “Practically all other indicators on violence against women showed growth” in 2021, the report found, including cases of rape and threats.
Bolsonaro’s biggest hurdle with the female electorate, however, may not be a lack of gender-based policies. He has made guns the centerpiece of his presidency. More than 12 decrees have been signed since he took office to loosen gun restrictions. The analysis by NPR shows that the number private-owned firearms in Brazil has more than doubled from 2018 to 2,000,000.
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He has attempted to portray the proliferation of guns as an advantage for women during his campaign. “When you need to change a tire on the road at night all alone and you see people coming towards you, what would you rather have in your bag: the Maria da Penha law [a piece of domestic-violence legislation passed under Lula]? Or a gun?” he asked the crowd at a women-only campaign event on Sept. 3.
But an overwhelming 82% of Brazilian women oppose increasing the population’s access to firearms (compared to 63% of men), according to a recent poll for BBC Brasil. That is likely because women “know the ones who will be killed by those guns are their sons, or themselves in domestic violence,” says Bianca Santana, an activist for the feminist and Black rights movements.
Santana says Bolsonaro’s campaign has paid little attention to the issues that affect most women’s daily lives, such as Brazil’s growing hunger crisis. “Women are often the ones in charge of feeding their family or their community. When they can’t afford to buy food, it becomes very important to them that Bolsonaro doesn’t prioritize that.”
Women pray in the support for Bolsonaro event ‘Women for Life and Family,’ which the Liberal Party-Women organized in Novo Hamburgo and Rio Grande do Sul State (Brazil) on Sept. 3, 2022.
SILVIO AVILA/AFP via Getty Images
Michelle Bolsonaro’s mixed appeal to women
Bolsonaro’s biggest bet to reach women has been on the first lady. Michelle, the President’s third wife, was 25-years-old when she met him in 2007. A member of Brazil’s large evangelical community—a crucial demographic for Bolsonaro—she has featured prominently at rallies this year, rousing crowds in the style of a pastor, analysts say. She has tried to smooth her husband’s aggressive image. “This man has a pure heart, a clean heart, in addition to being beautiful,” she said at his campaign launch in Rio de Janeiro in July.
The first lady represents a narrow section of Brazilian women—young, white, rich, conservative. And she has generated controversy with her highly traditional views on a woman’s role in society. “The wife is the husband’s helper, isn’t she?” she said at an event on Wednesday.
That brand of womanhood appeals to “a certain part of the female electorate,” Magalhães says, because “the term Feminist has been really stigmatized in Brazil in recent years.”
Still, Michelle’s appeal is limited: though Bolsonaro’s poll ratings with women jumped six percentage points between June and July, when she hit the campaign trail, they have barely budged in the last two months, with a wide gap persisting between Bolsonaro and Lula.
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Lula made some mistakes. Lula gave an insipid exhortation to stop domestic violence at a rally held August. “If you want to hit a woman, go hit her somewhere else!” he told the crowd. He also refused, during a recent debate, to commit to gender parity among senior roles in his cabinet should he win, saying only that women would have a “very strong presence.” But Santana says Lula’s record in office and his discourse on women’s rights is “a world away” from Bolsonaro’s: his 2003 to 2010 government set up powerful equality commissions to guide policy and oversaw a marked increase in women’s participation in the workforce.
Santana advises leftists to be cautious about taking women as their own, and cautions them against taking this for granted. The turnout among women in previous elections was lower than that among men. “Women’s votes will be decisive at this election,” she says. “But we need to make sure they cast them.”
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