Strong women, weak parties : challenges to democratic representation in Brazil



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As a crisis of representation challenges third wave democracies, two of its most salient indicators – weak party institutionalization and the underrepresentation of marginalized groups – have thus far been evaluated only in isolation. This dissertation contends that the two dynamics are related, and uses extensive variation within Brazil, the third wave's most populous democracy, to analyze the relationship. Employing an original empirical database of 21,478 candidacies, 73 interviews, and field observations from throughout Brazil, I explain how voters, electoral rules, and parties interact to undermine women's political participation and representative democracy.

Despite socioeconomic progress, an effective women's movement, an electorate increasingly receptive to female politicians, and a legislated gender quota, Brazil ranks poorly in global assessments of women's legislative presence. Using mixed methods, this dissertation analyzes variation in women's electoral performance across districts, electoral rules, parties, and women to explain the puzzle of women's underrepresentation in Brazil. I argue that the weakly institutionalized and male dominant character of most Brazilian parties has undermined the quota while also hindering women's political prospects and circumscribing their pathways to power.

I subject the hypotheses of the women's representation literature and my own arguments to empirical testing and find that Brazil's female political aspirants are thwarted not by development level, electoral size, or ideology, but rather by the preponderance of inchoate and male-led parties. The analysis demonstrates that to effectively promote women's participation in candidate-centered elections, parties must have the capacity to provide women with essential psychological, organizational, and material support and the will, heralded by the party leadership, to do so.

The paucity of such support and persistence of traditional gender norms have led Brazil's few female politicians to craft novel profiles; by conforming to traditional gender norms as supermadres, or converting social, organizational, or professional experiences into political capital as lutadoras or technocrats, such women have nonetheless thrived in inhospitable electoral contexts. I conclude that reforms that strengthen parties while incentivizing the promotion of women's participation within parties offer the greatest potential for mitigating Brazil's crisis of representation, situating once more the goals of the women's movement within the broader democratic reform agenda.