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The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide (Book Launch)

On December 1, 2020, the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program hosted a presentation of the book, "The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide" by the authors, followed by a discussion with experts focused on encouraging progress to better understand the first political order—the sexual political order. 

Date & Time

Dec. 1, 2020
9:30am – 11:00am ET


“What you do to your women you do to your nation state. And so, if you decide to curse your women, we argue that you will curse your nation state as well,” said Valerie Hudson, University Distinguished Professor and Holder of the George H.W. Bush Chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, at the launch of The First Political Order. Co-authored by Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, Professor Emerita at Brigham Young University, and P. Lynne Nielson, Professor of statistics at Brigham Young University, The First Political Order is the culmination of 2 decades of research on the linkages between the status of women and the status of nation-state security.

The first political order in any society is the sexual political order established between men and women, said Hudson. Whether society considers the two groups equal, whether it resolves conflicts between the groups peacefully or by force, and whether resources are equally distributed between them have far-reaching consequences for peace and security. “And we argue, along with many, many other scholars, that the character of that first order molds the society, its governance, and its behavior,” said Hudson.

Women’s disempowerment underlies instability and conflict

The sexual political order in a nation begins at the household level with issues like women’s property and inheritance rights and how society views domestic violence and femicide, said Hudson. These issues form a series of “interlocking mechanisms” designed to subordinate women. Control over access to resources ends up in the hands of men while women are disenfranchised from property and inheritance rights, said Hudson. Family becomes defined by the male line so that male kin retain the resources and power. This results in son preference and the devaluation of women’s lives, including early marriage for girls.

“And as such, all of these things begin to influence family and personal status laws, and these begin to be deeply inequitable, favoring men over women,” said Hudson. If women’s labor is considered valuable, polygeny and bride price result. If it is not deemed valuable, then dowry and sex ratio alteration arise instead. These mechanisms work like “a series of interlocking magnetic beads. If you have one, you’re liable to have more than one. If you have three or four, you’re liable to have five or six of them,” said Hudson. The authors refer to this system of interlocking pattern of institutions, processes, and norms that enforce it as the “Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome.”

The Syndrome affects not only women, but society as a whole. The subordination of women and political instability are deeply connected, said Mark Weiner, Professor of Law and Sidney I. Reitman Scholar at Rutgers Law School. “It’s deep in that female subordination beginning at the household level is not simply a consequence of bad political order, but rather, its ultimate cause.” This is because “the home is a boot camp,” said Bowen. “There is no better training ground for political violence and instability than lived domestic terror, lived domestic corruption and exploitation, lived domestic autocracy.” By raising our children in Syndrome practices, we prove that women’s disempowerment works in perpetuating the Syndrome, setting up future generations to follow in that pathway, she said. 

Gender equality is critical to national security

After evaluating data based on nine dimensions of nation-state outcomes, the authors found that nations that highly encode the Syndrome also experience more instability, violence, and corruption. For example, a nation that encodes the syndrome has 2.13 times the chance of being a fragile state, said Nielsen. Such nations also have “3.53 times the chance of having a government that is more autocratic, less effective, and more corrupt.”

These findings have powerful implications for national security and development. “If we can disrupt the weak points of this syndrome, we may have found a way to cut out the roots of instability, conflict, and ineffective governance,” said Bowen. “Only by adopting women, peace, and security lenses can we see these linkages and make our foreign policy and security policies more effective,” she said. For example, achieving democracy in a nation requires breaking the Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome. The subordination of women through the first political order is “not good ground for the export of democracy,” said Hudson. The United States would be more likely to succeed in exporting democracy to nations that have transitioned away from the Syndrome.

Such considerations have largely been missing in the United States’ approach to development and foreign policy, said Hudson. But “if the U.S. isn’t tracking the situation of women, how’s it going to effectively anticipate instability in other countries?” she asked. “How will the U.S. know that ending child marriage worldwide would probably do more for world peace than any other investment?” One day, the idea that foreign policy could ignore the situation of women will be laughably naïve, said Hudson.

A combined approach in policymaking

Measures aimed at gender equality, like the Women, Peace and Security agenda as well as policies promoting sexual and reproductive health, are not immediately captured in the framework of the Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome, said Jeni Klugman, Managing Director of the Institute for Women, Peace, and Security at Georgetown University. Indeed, sometimes laws fall short in practice: In Bangladesh, child marriage was banned in 1924, but today, three out of four Bangladeshi girls are still married before their eighteenth birthday, she said.

Still, laws do matter, and such policies do fit within the Syndrome’s framework, said Klugman. For instance, sexual and reproductive health—both family planning and access to safe and legal abortions—are relevant. “Having no control over one’s own fertility is recognized as a prime driver of female subordination, including in the context of early marriage,” she said, “and could be a key option for advancing the agenda more broadly.”

“Clearly these changes are not in themselves sufficient, and progress on one aspect may well not survive,” said Klugman. But these changes are also necessary, as even so-called conventional routes to gender equality bring benefits to women themselves, such as girls’ education and working outside the home. 

Tackling child marriage, polygyny, and pensions are three of the easiest ways of addressing the Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome, said Hudson. “If those three were the focus of attention, we think that a lot of cascading downstream effects from that would take place,” she said. But we should not ignore traditional measures like female literacy, female participation in government, and female economic participation, said Nielsen, since rather than being mutually exclusive, these measures should go together to improve the status of women worldwide.

Every human society, past and present, has encoded the Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome in some way, and it is “constantly evolving, retreating, and advancing,” said Bowen. Hence, even in states that move away from the syndrome, regression is still possible. “[T]he battle will need to be fought anew with every generation,” said Hudson.

Written by Cindy Zhou, edited by Sandra Yin. Sources: Center for Reproductive Rights; International Security; National Academies; “The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide,” by Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen; UNICEF; UN Women

Continue the conversation on Twitter by following @NewSecurityBeat and find related coverage on our blog,

This event is part of a Wilson Center series held in recognition of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (November 25 – December 10, 2020), an international campaign to build awareness and galvanize action in the fight against violence against women and girls.

























Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and US institutions in all sectors. The Brazil Institute plays this role by producing independent research and programs that bridge the gap between scholarship and policy, and by serving as a crossroads for leading policymakers, scholars and private sector representatives who are committed to addressing Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.  Read more

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

Latin America Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin America Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more

Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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