In the September 2011 issue of National Geographic, to which I subscribe through my beloved grandmother, Cynthia Gorney chronicles the steep decline in fertility rate of Brazilian women. It is a thought-provoking coincidence that, in the short-term at least, this decline has coincided with a woman ascending to the presidency. Gorney shows that the decline in fertility correlates with improvement in several quality-of-life indicators, but Brazilian gender roles are still very traditional – domestic violence is discouragingly common, and women remain under-represented in politics. However, Gorney sees a unique enterprising spirit that Brazilian women have used to steer the terms of motherhood. Evidence suggests this spirit is showing up in both the politics and perception of the Dilma Rousseff administration, and is motivating further female participation in government.
By anyone’s imagination, the decline in births per woman in Brazil is staggering. In 1960, Brazil’s fertility rate clocked in at 6.3 children per woman. As of 2009, the fertility rate was below replacement at 1.9 per woman. This is in a Catholic country where abortion is illegal, and government policy has never favored birth control. Gorney generally attributes the reduction to a special Brazilian “6-point plan” that has been throttled forward by the country’s female population, with some help from the government:
1) Industrialize quickly and relatively late. As Brazil’s economy has reshaped since the 1960’s, workers have shifted residence toward the cities. This means less space for large families, and that extra babies are simply more mouths to feed.
2) Loose regulation of birth control – it’s really been that way since pills came about in the 60’s.
3) Focus on parents at childbirth and at retirement. As the health system’s child care improved, Brazilian parents felt less compelled to have extra kids. Implementation of a pension system for the elderly had the same result, shifting the burden of support partially off of families.
4) Provide financial incentives to doctors to perform C-sections. In exchange, doctors were informally expected to do tubal ligations free of charge. Many women wanted this, and I’m guessing the government did as well.
5) Introduce electricity and television. Gushingly popular telenovelas promoted the idea of small, affluent, upwardly mobile families.
6) Brazilian women are tremendously strong – I get the impression this is why there was never any debate about a woman becoming president. Advice on family planning is a mutual pact amongst women here, and has been for a while. According to Gorney, underground use of the abortion pill Cytotec was common before the drug was approved in the U.S. in the 80’s.
Gorney’s account of Brazilian women breaking out of older mores of motherhood dovetails well with both Ms. Rousseff’s presidency and a 2012 political cycle in which female candidates are prevalent. According to AP writer Juliana Barbassa, 47 women are candidates for mayor in Brazil’s 26 state capitals. While Ms. Rousseff is by no means Brazil’s only stateswoman (Barbassa focuses on state legislator and Porto Alegre mayoral candidate Manuela D’Avila), she is undoubtedly the shiniest product and main driver of the female leadership movement.
President Rousseff has directly promoted other female leaders by placing 9 women in a 24-member Cabinet. However, her leadership style and social incentive policies may become true instigators for diversification of gender amongst the political class. In writing a previous blog entry, I wondered how Dilma’s faxina, or firing of corrupt ex-Cabinet ministers, would be perceived by society as a whole. Critics claimed the “housecleaning” was simply a response to criticism by the press. In reality, based on my reading and discussion with Brazilian friends, it looks like Dilma has come out on top. Political Scientist Maria do Socorro Sousa Braga, of the Federal University of São Carlos, says “She has a different attitude, she’s showing that she has guts” (Barbassa article). My reading is that the faxina has evinced a strong leader, not a reactive one. Nobody would deny that Dilma is succeeding where many male Presidents failed.
Rousseff’s success makes it seem ironic that, as Barbassa notes, Brazil has so much catching up to do to encourage women into leadership roles. Only 9% of Brazilian mayors are women, and according to the Interparliamentary Union, Brazil ranks 109th out of 136 in terms of female representatives in Congress.
Rousseff has initiated a series of incentive-based policies molded after President Lula’s Bolsa Família that may help in the long-term. These include both government-sponsored daycare and provision of official documentation to women who are lacking so that they may receive employment benefits. Bolsa Família itself has helped women gain influence within families and households – in 93% of families receiving aid, funds are disbursed to the woman. These are sensible policies, and helping women rise through the work force may be the best way to incubate a new class of female leaders. After all a political novice, man or woman, can’t simply role out of bed and run for office – to be a candidate, any person needs some mixture of experience in business, community reputation, and confidence.
 Gorney, Cynthia. National Geographic, “Brazil’s Girl Power.” September 2011.
 Barbassa, Juliana. Salon, “Popular Brazil President Helps Women in Politics.” December 29, 2011.