Political Representation for Women

Politics and governance involve all aspects of power: who has power, what power relations exist, how power is exercised, the institutions of power, how they operate, what laws and policies are churned out from these institutions and what impact those have on people. Through the patriarchal powers vested in them by society, men become the ‘directors’ of virtually all public life – the ‘face’ of politics and governance. (Lowe Morna, 2004: 25)

It is a statement of the obvious to note that women have been discriminated against in the political arena for centuries, enjoying little to no representation and playing no role in the governing of their countries. To effectively give credence to the arguments for women’s representation and to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of various ideologies, electoral systems and the use of quotas in offering women political equity, we must first understand how they have been politically marginalised.

To that end, this paper begins with an exploration of the concept of citizenship: what it means, how important is it in having access to rights and representation and how and why the notion is gender-biased. Arguments are then presented that highlight the imperative need for women to have a face in governments, indicating their right to be a part of the policy making process. Women’s representation is, however, not a cut and dried issue for many political theorists and there are a number of debates surrounding the issue including the matter of women’s interests being a part of policy making, the legitimacy of feminists in government and the substantive effect of descriptive representation. Each of these will be discussed and evaluated as will the effectiveness of liberal democracy in terms of women’s rights and representation.

Finally, a focused discussion on electoral systems and quotas and how they can be used to ensure fair representation and participation for both genders ensues. Based on this, the required evaluation of their effectiveness in increasing the number of women in government is made. Once again, this is a subject that elicits much debate but has in certain instances, as will be demonstrated in the final section, been immensely successful.
2. Women and Citizenship

The term citizen is a broadly used and widely interpreted one that has meant different things to different people across the centuries. The basic understanding of the word is any member of a state who is politically and legally recognised as an individual and who, by democratic principle, therefore has both rights and responsibilities toward that state. Erasmus goes one step further to outline those rights in terms of equal access to judicial, political, social and economic independence. Despite the fact that days where women, ethnic minorities and the mentally ill were not formally considered citizens at all have passed in democratic countries, the question remains whether their inclusion is meaningful to the extent that they have access to the political mechanisms of democracy.

A history of the state highlights some of the reasons why the concept of citizenship has traditionally been gender-biased. These include the perception that it is by defending a state in military terms or contributing to it in economic terms, that one has rights to citizenship. As both of these fields have, for centuries, been off limits to most women across the globe, their exclusion was a natural result of their relegation to the lesser-valued private sphere. In addition, land ownership laws, inheritance laws and marriage laws have been used to ensure that women were passed along from the care of their fathers to that of their husbands without ever enjoying either the experience or recognition of being individuals. (Phillips, 1991a:96) While most of these laws have been changed over the last century, the perception that accompanies them has been slow to follow.

In her article, Citizenship and Feminist Theory, Phillips explores the notion that citizenship is no longer just viewed as one’s right to show up at a polling station every four or five years, but is an “evolving complex of civil, political and social rights” that calls for more active participation and “more substantial citizen involvement and control.” (Phillips, 1991b: 78) This then calls seriously into question any instance where a group is denied the required access to get involved and make a contribution, making them, by implication citizens of a lesser degree, if at all. Lowe Morna comments on this point that women are often “rendered non-citizens by their virtual non-participation in decision making.” (2004: 26) It is with this in mind that we turn our attention to the arguments for women’s representation, for what more fundamental way to be an active citizen than to represent one’s people in government.

3. Arguments for Women’s Representation

While the need for women to be adequately represented in government may be as obvious to some as to defy the need for justification, there are no shortage of tangible reasons for those who are less certain. Phillips poses four arguments in her book, Engendering Democracy, why women should have equal representation to men. The first is a matter of democratic justice. Democracy claims to recognise the human rights of all individuals and this must necessarily include women. It is therefore a violation of human rights to exclude women from public representation just as much as when racial groups or ethnic minorities are given no political say. The second reason is utilitarian in nature, posing that it is an immense waste of knowledge, wisdom and skills to automatically exclude half the world’s population from your list of eligible politicians. As prior discussions on feminist ideologies have illuminated, women have a potentially vast and unique set of attributes to contribute to the public sphere. This ties closely with the third justification for women’s representation, which is that women bring something distinctly different and unique to political positions. This is important both in recognising that women are different and cannot be adequately represented by males and in creating a socially balanced political arena. “The representation of women and the inclusion of their perspectives and experience into the decision-making process will inevitably lead to solutions that are more viable and satisfy a broader range of society. (Lowe Morna, 2004: 29) Finally, in a world still battling to attain social equality between the genders, having women represent their communities in government creates a vital role model for upcoming generations. (Phillips, 1991a)

Phillips also makes rather astute reference to the renowned ‘for the people, by the people’ slogan, which is so widely associated with democracy, noting that in its truest sense, liberal democracy does not just promote a system that fights, or claims to, for the rights of all its citizens, but rather one in which all of those citizens have an equal say in the governing of their country. (1995: 28) If liberal society has, as it claims, acknowledged that old arguments that women are not possessed of similar reason or intellect to men are both incorrect and uncondonable, then it stands to reason that women are equally qualified and eligible for positions in the political arena. It therefore becomes a moot point to argue for women’s representation but is rather the responsibility of anyone opposed to the notion to offer valid justification for women’s exclusion.

As logical or obvious as these arguments may seem, there is not a single country in the world that boasts equal gender representation at this time. There are a number of reasons for this that call into question just how democratic liberal democracy has proven to be for women. Aside from the very pervasive social barriers to women’s participation such as the perception that their characteristics are not suited to the task, that they lack confidence and the support of other women and that they have been socialised into a submissive mindset, there are various more tangible, political constraints as well. A new system of public management, dominant in most liberal democracies has witnessed the devaluation of policy-making expertise in government positions in favour of management skills, a dynamic that tends to marginalise those politicians bent on representing particular issues (which would include most female candidates) in favour of those with financial clout and the ability to outsource. In addition, female candidates suffer from a form of backlash politics where men in authority, closely protecting the old guard, actively prevent their progress. (Sawer, 2006: 121) These hurdles are compounded by theorists that claim that gender equality issues are special interest pleadings and should be treated as such rather than being given a seat in government and that enforcing women’s rights through the mechanisms of government undermines the very foundation of democracy by limiting the rights of the individual in favour of a group. The latter two arguments will be dealt with more extensively in the section on debates surrounding women’s representation, but the constraints mentioned as a collective lead us to explore the relationship between women’s rights and liberal democracy.

4. Liberal Democracy and Women’s Rights

Liberal democracy, by its very definition, is both ideologically and pragmatically, a system of government that claims to protect above all else, the rights of the individual. It has as one of its founding tenants, the principle that all people are equal and have equal rights. It is disappointing then, to say the least, that even in countries that have been democracies for centuries, while all members of society have been formally recognised as equal, there are still vast numbers of citizens who do not have claim to the equal rights that should theoretically follow this recognition. In addition, there seems to be little urgency among governments across the globe to rectify this situation. This holds true for women who have been given the vote, but have only the option of voting for male dominated parties.

There are theorists who say that this is not simply a failure to implement democracy, but resultant of ideals within the practice that fundamentally oppose equality. Mendus phrases it rather succinctly, claiming that “democracy is not something that, as a matter of unfortunate fact, has failed to deliver on its promises to women. It embodies ideals that guarantee that it will never deliver unless it embarks upon extensive critical examination of its own philosophical assumptions.” (1992: 208) These ideals include the continued emphasis on the public, private dichotomy, the opposition of the notions of individual rights and rights of minority groups, the ideology’s understanding of citizenship and the male norm as the basis for the entire philosophy.

Earlier discussions on the nature of the democratic state revealed that the clear divide between the public and private sphere is not only a result of socially entrenched patriarchy but also a calculated formula that has allowed male dominated governments to legitimise violence, making it an integral part of any state, including modern day liberal democracies. This split effects women’s political rights on two fronts. Firstly, they are still, in a very real sense, perceived to be inferior citizens and the social inferiority that relegation to the private sphere perpetuates severely hinders their access to self-governance (the basis of democracy). As Phillips notes, “If the supposed equality of the vote is continually undermined by patterns of patronage and subservience and condescension, then society is not democratic.” (1991a: 159) Secondly and on a more practical note, women’s continued responsibilities in the home even in instances where they have entered the workplace, places a double burden or workload on them, restricting the time that they have available for involvement or participation in the political arena.

In terms of democracy’s emphasis on the rights of the individual, it is important to note that the concept of an individual in this case is based on a male norm. The term is most often understood in a market context in terms of ownership and activity in the economic arena. Much of the effort that goes into supporting women’s rights in modern politics uses as a basis the fact that women were unfairly judged for being different or deviating from the norm, when in fact it is not the judgment that is the problem but the perception of that norm and women’s deviance from it. (Phillips, 1991a: 150) In this context, liberal democracy assumes success in achieving gender equity as having allowed women ‘into the club’ as it were, by creating employment equity laws and giving them the vote. The very notion of that ‘club’, however, and a male dominated government’s place to allow women to do anything, upholds the strongest notions of patriarchy. Feminists themselves refer to this type of inclusion or progress for women as assimilation feminism, where women’s success is based on their ability to match up to men in a male defined world and it leads to another major conflict between liberal democratic theory and women’s rights, namely the concept of difference versus equality. Democracy has always held that a belief in equality implies a sameness about all citizens and that areas of difference, interpreted as deviance or disadvantage, should be downplayed or minimised. In order for democracy to truthfully reflect the diversity of modern day states, equality needs to be understood as being independent of, or existing in spite of differences. As Mendus points out, “where democratic theorists have urged that, in decisions about social policy, we should aim to minimise the disadvantages that spring from difference, feminists ask why such normal states as pregnancy should be categorised as disadvantages at all.” (1992: 213)

When faced with all of this theory, it is important to remember that individual programmes such as quota systems cannot correct thousands of years of patriarchy in one swift move and that as long as they are making headway in leveling the playing field, they hold value. It is none-the-less, both edifying and helpful to know what the theoretical debates are.

5. Debates Surrounding Women’s Representation

In a liberal democracy, where representatives in government are supposed to speak and act for the constituents who have voted them into power, women’s representation is, for many, not as simple as being merely right or wrong. There are several debates of legitimacy and effectiveness of women in government that deserve some attention. The first of these is the issue of women’s interests, which impacts on women’s representation in two ways. Firstly, there is the question of whether there is a common idea of what women’s interests are in any given country, given the diverse cultural and economic make up of most democracies, and secondly, the question is raised whether it is appropriate to use a seat in parliament, congress or similar government bodies to fight for what some people perceive to be special interests.

For decades, when women across the globe faced, over and above their more personal experiences of oppression, the common obstacles of total political and economic exclusion, the notion of women’s interests could plausibly be defined as a single set of goals. With suffrage, however, and a fair amount of political and economic liberation, women now face the more intricate and personal portion of their oppression. This creates vast divides between women in varying racial, economic, ideological and religious groups. The likelihood, for example, of an African American, single mother working for minimum wage, a wealthy European stay-at-home mom and a single, lesbian British student sharing common experiences of oppression or fighting for similar goals is highly unlikely. As Philips states, representative democracy cannot produce a perfect reflection of society. (1991a: 14) Although it might be desirable to elect students, pensioners, unemployed, women and men in numbers that mirror their proportion in society there are some practical problems, which electoral systems face trying to increase women’s representation in Parliament. For example, there are no geographical concentrations that could form the basis for women’s constituencies and as long as voting is tied to localities, no women candidate can seriously present herself as representing women alone. The argument then, that women should have a face in government in order to advance the position of all women’s interests becomes an impossible one to justify. This point is illustrated when Dodson refers to a major study done on women in the 103rd and 104th USA congresses, and highlights how female representatives from the two parties and even within parties spend much time feuding bitterly over women’s issues. While Republican women may fight for harsher abortion laws, decreased welfare for single women and incentives for women to stay home with their children, female representatives for the Democrats may find these notions as oppressive as any that a purely male government might endorse. (Dodson, 2006: 60)

The logical rebuttal to this argument, however, lies quite simply in creating the male parallel. No man in government mirrors the profile, needs and beliefs of every man he represents. Quite simply with enough men and women in any parliamentary system, the best that any democracy can hope is that each of the predominant cultures, religions and classes within the country finds a voice. What one can be sure of, is that despite the commonly heard argument that a white man, if he is a responsible politician, will do everything he can to fight for the rights of a black women, women constitute half of every population and every group within that population, making it impossible to claim fair representation until they have an equal showing in the halls of parliament.

Turning to the question of whether women in government should be focusing on women’s issues (would we, after all, want men in government fighting solely for the good of men?), critics argue that activists for any particular cause are non-representative of their people. Women are voted into positions of power by both the men and women in their regions and should, therefore focus on the needs of both. As Phillips notes, focusing on statistical representation and women working on gender specific policies can be seen to give credence to competing and exclusionary groups and can produce policy that divides people. (1995: 22) It is, on the other hand, impossible to deny that when weight has been given to one side of any political imbalance, time and effort is required to correct that balance. Therefore, just as it was necessary for the South African government post-1994 to put the weight of parliament and legislature behind combating the oppression so long institutionalised by Apartheid, so governments should necessarily legitimise and make room within their mechanisms for the correction of women’s oppression and exclusion. In doing this, they create a fairer society for all members of the country, both male and female.

Interestingly, Dodson’s research showed that with an increase in women’s representation in Congress, there followed a definite increase in governmental focus on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic abuse and employment equity, and that those women undeniably effected both the researching and processing of the related policy as well as the final vote, seemingly putting paid to the notion that women’s interests can not be fairly represented just by putting women in government.

6. Quotas and Electoral Systems

Today women constitute only 16% of the members of parliaments around the world with a mere six female head-of-state. (Dahlerup, 2006: 17) The concept of gender quotas for representation emerged in response to the under-representation of women in the formal political arena and involve the use of specified minimum levels of representation for each sex. Surprisingly, Rwanda has taken a world-wide lead in terms of women’s parliamentary representation with 48.8%. “Rwanda is an example of the new trend to use electoral gender quotas as a fast track to gender balance in politics.” (2006, Internet Source 1) Electoral quotas for women may be constitutional, legislative or in the form of a political party quotas. They can apply to the number of women candidates proposed by a party for election, or be in the form of reserved seats in the legislature.

The use of quotas is the topic of much debate with strong arguments both for and against. It is difficult to prove the effectiveness of quotas due to the untenable nature of research regarding women’s impact on policy making. “Some research has suggested possible changes in the political attitudes of women and in the nature of public policies. However, the actual policy impact of the boost of women’s presence in parliament is still unclear. “ (2006, Internet source 3) Lowe Morna refers to a study on women in the South African legislature, writing that “greater number of women in legislative bodies have resulted in increased attention to laws and policies dealing with families, women and children. (2004: 30) She also notes that evidence suggests that women can “impact the nature of the institution itself once they have critical mass.”

In favour of a quota scheme implementation are arguments such as the belief that it is the most effective way of translating legal equality between men and women into de facto equality by guaranteeing women’s presence in leadership in the immediate term. By bolstering the number of women working together in parliament, quotas eliminate the stress placed on token female representatives who often find themselves simply towing the party line. (Dahlerup, 2006) The balance created by quotas can also be perceived as creating a good example and a starting point for increased women’s participation in all fields of life and commerce. Lowe Morna’s investigation into the effects of women in South African governmental institutions revealed that positive changes included infrastructure changes to the facilities themselves, more family-friendly hours and work environments, changes to the discursive style of parliamentary debates, an increase in the confidence of women in power to fight their causes and positive alterations in the attitudes of men in the environment. (2004: 38) When added to the actual laws and policies that have been created due to a female presence, supported by Dodson’s research on the 103rd and 104th USA Congress, this has to amount to a success story for women’s representation and the quota system.

Opponents of quotas, a group composed of both men and women (some of them feminists), argue that they are discriminatory and elevate under-qualified women to power. There are also fears that the introduction of women’s quotas will lead to other groups – ethnic minorities, homosexuals, specific industries and the like – to demand their own quotas (an interesting reference back to the argument that women in parliament fighting for women’s rights amounts to giving special interest groups a place in government.) (2006, Internet source 2) In response to the argument that quotas are undemocratic as they don’t allow voters full control over whom they vote for, Dahlerup comments that political parties always choose the candidates on offer, so nothing is being removed from the power of the voter. In addition, to the theory that quotas allow people who are not necessarily qualified to achieve positions beyond their skill, she counters that representation in a democracy should be based on just that – representation: a shared experience with constituents and the intention to act on their behalf – rather than on qualifications alone. (Dahlerup, 2006)

Other controversies include the perception that those elected to office by means of a quota will lack legitimacy and authority because the means of their election will be judged as unfair and manipulative. Quotas have been contested in courts and in industrial tribunal, for example, in the United Kingdom, in 1996, the Labour Party’s all women shortlists were ruled to be in breach of fair employment practices. (2006, Internet source 2) Even those who stand to benefit from quotas have their reservations, voicing concerns that stipulated targets turn a lower limit into a ceiling that should not be breached and focus on the ever controversial ‘category women’ .

In addition, the implementation of quotas comes under scrutiny due to the fact that they are not necessarily self-executing. Under a list system, quotas only work if female candidates are placed in a favourable position on the list, under a single-member constituency system, they work only if the constituencies in which women stand are, in political terms, winnable seats. (2006, Internet source 2)

With all of this theory in mind, it remains now to explore the actual effect of quotas on governments around the world.

7. Conclusion

Having explored all of the debates and arguments, many of which concern themselves infinitely with semantics and apparent attempts at justifying existing beliefs or structures, it is impossible to deny the basic right of women to be equally represented in and by their governments. Any notion that this can be done effectively in systems where they either comprise a minority portion of parliaments or where they operate within the rigidity of male rules and power plays is absurd. This means that liberal democracies have to rethink existing paradigms and find a way to change both the ideas and principles they promote in terms of a women’s value as well as the mechanisms that govern how the country is represented and run. It is at this juncture that quota systems take their place and while they can not be saddled with the responsibility of correcting women’s political oppression entirely (they do not pretend to be an all-encompassing solution to a centuries-old injustice) they have value in speeding up the corrective process necessary for true ideological change.

As to how quotas, and in fact the presence of women in government at all, effect the outcome of policy making, we have noted how difficult this is to measure. However, if democracy is founded on the principle of fair representation for all then, as Lowe Morna notes, “women have a right to equal participation in political decision making, whether they make a difference or not.” (2004: 27) There is, however, no clearly defined and universal concept of quotas as they are conceived and implemented with very different contexts in individual countries. Quotas in themselves do not remove all the other barriers for women’s full citizenship. In order to be truly effective, “it is important that quotas are not just imposed from above, but rest on grass root mobilization of women and the active participation of women’s organizations.” (Dahlerup, 2006)

(Word Count: 4 371)

9. Bibliography

Dahlerup, D. (ed) 2006. Women, Quotas and Politics. Routledge, London.

Dodson, DL. 2006. The Impact of Women in Congress. Oxford University Press, New York.

Held, D. 1991. “Between State and Civil Society: Citizenship” in Andrews, G (ed). Citizenship. Lawrence and Wishart, London.

Lowe Morna, C. 2004. Ringing up the Changes. Gender Links, Johannesburg

Mendus, S. 1992. “Losing the Faith: Feminism and Democracy” in Dunn, J. Democracy the Unfinished Journey. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Pateman, C. 1989. The Disorder of Women: Democracy Feminism and Political Theory. Stanford University Press, Stanford California.

Phillips, A. 1991a. Engendering Democracy. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Phillips, A. 1991b. “Citizenship and Feminist Theory” in Andrews, G. (ed) Citizenship. Lawrence and Wishart, London.

Phillips, A. 1993. Democracy and Difference. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Phillips, A. 1995. The Politics of Presence. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Sawer, M. 2006. “From Women’s Interests to Special Interests: Reframing Equality Claims” in Chappell, L and L. Hill (eds). The Politics of Women’s Interests. Routladge, Oxford

Vickers, J. 2006. “The Problem with Interests: Making Political Claims for Women” in Chappell, L and L. Hill (eds). The Politics of Women’s Interests. Routladge, Oxford

“Women, Quotas and Politics.” Internet Source 1, accessed 08 September 2006. http://www.quotaproject.org/aboutQuotas.cfm
“Quotas: a Key to Equality?” Internet Source 2, accessed 08 September 2006. http://www.statsvet.su.se/hemsidor/drude_dahlerup_right.htm
“Gender Quotas in a Comparative Perspective.” Internet Source 3, accessed 08 September 2006. www.essex.ac.uk/…/women/workingPapers/Gender_Quotas_in_a_Comparative_Perspective_oct2002