By Daina Beth Solomon
MEXICO CITY, March 6 (Reuters) - Mexico's president sells himself as lifelong champion of the rights of women, who he calls "more honest" than men. To stress the point, he made history upon taking office in December 2018 by putting women in half his cabinet posts.
But Andrés Manuel López Obrador's prickly reaction to criticism of the government over brutal murders of women in recent weeks has riled feminists and undermined support for him among female voters, helping to fuel protests and calls for a massive walkout next week.
Support for an unprecedented women's "strike" on Monday has swelled, even as Lopez Obrador has tried to paint the event as a cynical attempt by political opponents to discredit him and capitalize on problems he says they created.
Such comments strike many as tone-deaf and lacking empathy, exposing a weak spot for a government already battling to tackle gang violence, impunity and a stagnant economy.
"As a woman and a citizen, I feel outraged," said Claudia Calvin, a consultant on gender and technology. "It's despicable that the head of this country has been unable to understand the importance of women and the impact of violence."
Allies of the president reject such criticism.
Irma Sandoval, head of the Public Administration Ministry, which monitors federal employees, described Lopez Obrador as "the most feminist president in modern history."
Polls suggest women are increasingly skeptical.
Lopez Obrador remains popular. But support for him has never been lower ahead of the strike, in which women will withdraw from work, school and public spaces.
A survey by pollster Consulta Mitofsky showed his approval rating among women fell some 3 percentage points from January to February to 52.7%. Among men, it dipped 0.6 points to 59.2%.
The president's tendency to dismiss criticism and the women's protests has caused unease inside the government.
Saying he would put "the poor first", Lopez Obrador took power pledging to tackle chronic inequality and violence.
The row over women has been uncomfortable for him, because Mexico still has more basic problems to address than in advanced economies, where debates over gender equality are more prominent, said an official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Lopez Obrador described himself as a "humanist" on Friday when asked at a daily news conference if he was a feminist, and pointed to deeper-rooted problems in Mexico.
"Because of corruption, we've given rise to monstrous economic and social inequality," the 66-year-old said.
Interior Minister Olga Sanchez has tempered assertions that the popular ferment, including a massive march planned on International Women's Day this Sunday, has ulterior motives.
"As far as it being a movement by women, for women, with women and against violence, it is," she said last week.
An intervention by Mexico's first lady on the issue also caused embarrassment to the government. First, she came out in support of the strike - then quickly changed her mind.
"What would they do without us?" Beatriz Gutierrez wrote on Instagram on Feb. 20 next to an image promoting the strike.
Later that day, she backed a counter-demonstration in support of her husband that urged women to be visible on the streets. Lopez Obrador said he did not know why she had reversed course.
Mexico holds mid-term legislative elections next year, and if the president cannot stem the slide in support among women, it could cost him control of Congress.
Murders of women for reasons of gender known as femicides surged to 976 cases last year, more than double the total five years earlier. At a time of increased scrutiny, critics feel Lopez Obrador has often downplayed their concerns.
They bristled at his announcement that tickets for a raffle to recoup money spent by his predecessor on a presidential jet would go on sale on Monday. He later reversed that decision, saying he did not realize it was the day of the women's strike.
Others say Lopez Obrador is waking up to the discontent.
On Thursday, six of his female ministers held a news conference to express support for women and their rights.
"It's still not quite on his radar," said Vivir Quintana, a musician who wrote a song against femicides. "But I think he can help us a lot, that he's a sensitive person."
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Dave Graham and Daniel Wallis)
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