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Shirin Ebadi, Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, and Jody Williams are Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

This week, U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting a virtual Summit for Democracy with global leaders, the aim being “to renew democracy at home and confront autocracies abroad.”

It is important that the summit spotlight and denounce deepening attacks on women’s rights and gender equality around the world. These attacks are core features of new-generation electoral autocracies (not to mention old-school dictatorships). If the summit, which will launch a year of action focusing on democratic renewal and respect for human rights, is to succeed, it has to acknowledge that the bombastic sexism of emerging autocrats is no random affectation. Rather, it is essential to the illiberal rationale driving the erosion of democratic systems and the growth of neo-populist visions of state and society.

As Nobel Peace Prize winners, we recognize the relationship between women and democracy because of our own struggles for peace, most of which started in desperately violent and undemocratic contexts. As anti-war activists, we needed peace to get to democracy. And then we needed democracy to get to women’s rights. What the many shocking reversals in democratic progress the world over have demonstrated, however, is that democracies need feminist activism if they are to survive.

This is quite a claim, given that the foundational democracies managed for generations without even acknowledging women’s full humanity or status as citizens with a right to vote. “Democracies” have perpetrated other exclusions too, denying equal rights to Black and other racial groups and privileging the political voice of wealthier citizens.

Over time, politically excluded groups have been able to challenge manifest lies about inclusion, resulting in broader participation. Yet, inclusion does not ensure institutional transformation. Decades of women’s political engagement in liberal democracies have put more women than before into political office, but change has been grudging and slow.

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Today, a mere 25 per cent of national parliamentarians are women. And feminist laws and policies are exceptionally hard-fought. Political parties seem to feel that proposals for redistributing power between women and men are not vote-winners, so they rarely offer voters a feminist policy platform to support. This aversion to feminist social change proposals have left us ill-prepared to handle the current COVID pandemic, let alone the looming climate change crisis. Both challenges require the use of public power to control the excesses of capital and invest in care economies, which is a core feminist policy objective.

Feminist policies that challenge men’s privileges imply a commitment to improve not just women’s condition, but also their position or status in relation to men. While most societies welcome improvements in women’s welfare, it is quite a different thing to accept that men ought not to control the bodies of women, dictate their reproductive decisions, enjoy impunity for violence against them, monopolize power positions in the state and economy, or criminalize alternatives to heterosexuality. This is why feminism is so profoundly subversive.

What does this have to do with democracy and governance? Nothing, democrats would have you think. Democracy, we are taught, is not relevant to what goes on at home, in private space, between women and men. Democracy happens in regulated, visible, rule-bound, public space. This artificial public-private divide, however, has enabled democracies to avoid for centuries a massive contradiction: profound authoritarianism is prohibited in public, but tolerated in private spaces.

It is no accident that so many recent erosions of democracy come with explicit calls to restore men’s (sometimes imagined) past privileges – not just over women but over racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities. Misogyny is elevated to an explicit, shamelessly illiberal political ideology, and increasingly an almost lawless, highly toxic masculinity is glorified in male leaders’ displays of extreme sexism.

Feminist activism that condemns male sexual and social privileges therefore presents a serious threat to autocrats, because the core feminist insight that ‘the personal is political’ requires democracy in the relationships between women and men. It thus refuses the foundational autocratic bargain: the restoration of private privileges of men, and of economic and social elites, in exchange for tolerance of the erosion of democratic freedoms.

Historically, the only social force that has ever effectively confronted and overturned patriarchal, autocratic excesses is feminist mobilization. This means that the most effective mechanism to support democracy anywhere is to boost the size and strength of feminist organizations, coalitions, movements. In other words, support for feminist organizations – the ones running domestic violence shelters, providing reproductive health services, getting girls into STEM, and leading fights against the arms trade, corruption, racism – is an urgent, immediate democracy promotion priority.

If misogyny is authoritarianism’s fuel, then feminism is key to democracy’s survival. Will this be adequately addressed at the summit? Much of the public debate over the summit is focused on the qualifications of the participants: which countries meet enough measures of procedural democracy, defined by mere electoral process, to be there.

The summit must instead focus supporting substantive measures of democracy, defined by the equal participation of all groups in political processes. It must expose the connections between autocracy, the erosion of democracy and the type of patriarchal defensiveness that finds feminist and other activism to be such a threat. The year-long program of action must build conditions for the growth and resilience of feminist activists and organizations. Democracy depends on it.

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