“Mixed up in all this is a degree of prejudice against women,” Rousseff told foreign journalists on April 19, 2016, a few days after Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies impeached her. “There are attitudes towards me that would not exist with a male president.”
In the months leading up to that vote, Rousseff and supporters had often noted that men — that is, male former presidents — did some of the same accounting maneuvers Rousseff was accused of and faced no consequences.
In the weeks between the Chamber of Deputies vote and when the Senate would take up the legislation, arguments that misogyny was a leading factor in impeachment were increasingly being articulated by Rousseff supporters and debated nationally.
Sexist chants had been heard at some anti-Rousseff rallies, and that was far from the first time: Explicit and misogynistic chants about her echoed through the opening ceremony of the World Cup in 2014.
In 2015, stickers appeared of Rousseff with superimposed spread legs; online vendors stopped selling them after a public outcry that included the government lodging complaints with the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General. José Eduardo Cardozo, the president’s top legal adviser, said several investigations were opened related to sexism against the president, but none amounted to legal action against any of the alleged perpetrators.
The atmosphere was clearly hostile, but was Brazil’s first woman president really being submitted to an impeachment push because of machismo? And if having a woman president really was so problematic, how was it that twice the nation voted one into office?
Women have long been a minority in Congress; in 2016, they held only 11 percent of the 594 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate. But it wasn’t as if Rousseff was the first woman to hold an important political office in Brazil or aspire to the top office in the land.
Before Rousseff was elected, women had served as governors in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul, among others. São Paulo had elected two female mayors, Luiza Erundina and Marta Suplicy. And Marina Silva, environmental minister during Lula’s presidency, competed against Rousseff in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections.
As always with gender issues, nuance was important. Though Rousseff’s Cabinets did have more women than those of previous administrations, she had always presented herself as a leftist president for all Brazilians. Her agenda was not heavily focused on the rights of women, racial minorities, members of the LGBT community or labor unions, all groups that tended to vote for left-leaning leaders and often supported the Workers’ Party. But it wasn’t lost on her that she was the first woman (and first divorced woman) to be president in a nation with deep religious, conservative and sexist currents — and she saw that as a great responsibility.
“By the sovereign decision of the people, today will be the first time that a presidential sash will be fastened to the shoulder of a woman,” Rousseff said at the beginning of her inaugural speech on Jan. 1, 2011, pausing for several seconds so many in Congress could stand up and cheer loudly. Later that day, when the presidential Rolls-Royce paraded through Brasília, Rousseff rode with her daughter, Paula. Her predecessors had always been accompanied by their wives.
In that first inaugural speech, which lasted 40 minutes, several times Rousseff mentioned women, from her hope that her presidency would lead to other women presidents to arguing that Brazil could only move forward with the full participation of women in all aspects of life. She also used a word, “presidenta,” that prompted grammarians to weigh in on its correctness. Her use of the word, and by extension a request that she be referred to with it, was something that some male critics, major media companies and even some allies openly ignored.
In Portuguese the word for president is “presidente.” The spelling of the noun itself doesn’t change whether the person being referred to is male or female. Gender is defined by the article in such words, so a male president would be “um presidente,” and a female president “uma presidente.” The definite article works the same, so “the (male) president” is “o presidente” and “the (female) president” is “a presidente.” It was common for news organizations to say Rousseff would be “A primeira presidente do Brasil,” “The first female president of Brazil.”
Many nouns and adjectives in Portuguese, a Romance language, do change their ending depending on gender. For example, a male nurse is an “enfermeiro” and a female nurse is an “enfermeira.” But some words like “presidente” are considered gender neutral.
Rousseff had said “presidenta” on the campaign trail in 2010, so the linguistic debate was well underway. Grammarians generally agreed that her use of the word was grammatically acceptable, though not common or linguistically necessary. Detractors made a play on the word, making it “presidanta.” “Anta” in Portuguese literally means tapir — an animal — but can also mean somebody very stupid.
Using the word “presidenta” in her first speech as president, Rousseff was emphasizing that gender mattered, that she would be a different president in part because she was a woman.
That background was important during the impeachment fight.
For many feminists, the use of the phrase “Tchau, querida,” or “Bye, dear,” during the Chamber of Deputies vote, was derogatory. Many legislators chanted the phrase and waved signs with it during the entire process.
On the surface, legislators were simply copying, with a good dose of irony, what former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had said to Rousseff at the end of a conversation about plans for him to become her chief of staff. That conversation had been wiretapped and released by Judge Sergio Moro the month before the first impeachment votes, so it was very much on the minds of Brazilians.
“Tchau, querida,” Lula had told Rousseff at the end of that conversation.
But for many, that legislators repeated it so ferociously and frequently during impeachment felt like something beyond just a playful goodbye; Rousseff, the nation’s first woman president, was being removed from the public space.
“When someone who likes us says that, it’s one thing,” Carol Patrocinio, a São Paulo based communications specialist who often blogs about issues related to women, wrote on Medium the day after the impeachment vote. “But when somebody tells us that in other moments every woman knows what that ‘dear’ means. And it isn’t pretty.”
“That dear could be swapped out for easy, vagabond, slut, crazy, hysterical, manic and many other adjectives that are usually used only when referring to women,” she wrote.
Indeed, Rousseff had been called some such names going back to the 2013 protests against her administration. The impeachment saga had been no different.
While it would be impossible to fully measure what role sexism had in pushing impeachment forward, one thing was clear: Many women deputies were not moved by a feeling of gender solidarity when it came to casting their votes.
Of the 49 women deputies voting in the Chamber of Deputies, 29 favored impeachment and 20 were against.
Peter Prengaman, AP’s news director for the western United States, was Brazil news director from 2016 to 2019. Mauricio Savarese is a São Paulo based reporter.