Introduction: Women and Representative Democracy

Introduction: Women and Representative Democracy

Arguably the most appealing aspect of representative democracy is that the interests of the majority are represented within the political decision-making apparatus; thus, at least in theory, policies and decisions support the interests of the majority of the nation. After all, the core of democratic politics is theoretically about the distribution of resources amongst the nation as fairly as possible, with an eye to protecting the interests of future generations as well (Singerman and Hoodfar 1996). As such, a democratic political system should provide space for the involvement of all citizens in decision-making and neither deny nor capitulate to a particular group.


However, despite acceptance of this feature of democracy, it remains at best an ideal waiting to be actualized. Throughout political history, the exclusion of various groups has been systematically built into political structures, particularly based on markers of identity such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, or property ownership. It is only as a result of great struggles by diverse groups and constituencies that democracy in practice has expanded to include the demands and rights of non-elites.


As women have well understood, the sphere of politics has always been primarily male-oriented and dominated, and to this day male elites continue to employ sophisticated and subtle strategies to protect their privilege and to influence political decisions. Male dominance in politics which has created an unfriendly environment for women to access political positions is evidenced in myriad ways, one simple example being how informal meetings amongst political power-brokers are often held at hours that make them almost impossible for women to attend.1 It is also apparent that the rights to vote and to be elected are not sufficient guarantees for substantive democracy. The history of women’s political representation makes this abundantly clear. It took more than a hundred years of political activism and lobbying for women in the longest-established democracies (such as France, the United Kingdom, the United States) to gain full political rights; decades later there still remain major gaps in their parliamentary representation. Thus for those of us continuing the struggle, identifying the mechanisms of exclusion and control is a crucial step to successfully mobilizing for reforms that will remove the obstacles to true representation in the political process. Almost a century has passed since women gained suffrage in the West and some 50 years since they gained full democratic rights in many parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa. In the last few decades, as more research has led to greater understanding of the mechanisms by which women are excluded from political processes and power, there has been a swell of momentum-building and action to launch campaigns for women’s political inclusion. The rising chorus of voices from around the globe objecting to women’s political marginalization made it clear that the problem is a global one. This led to the realization that women must organize not only nationally but also across nations to more successfully end systematic political exclusion. The swell of efforts and momentum to address women’s political marginalization coincided with the United Nations (UN) Decade for Women (1976-1985), during which a series of international and regional meetings brought together women scholars, activists and policymakers from around the globe (Tinker and Jaquette 1987; Molyneux and Razavi 2006). Never before had so many politicized women from such diverse contexts come together to share and exchange their lived experiences. The architects of these international conferences had intended to focus specifically on strategies to include women in the promotion of economic growth and development. However participants made these gatherings their own, exchanging ideas and debating and networking on a diversity of issues, including more equal representation of women in political institutions. Through subsequent conferences, the publication of books and papers, as well as petition and letter-writing, women lobbied not only their own states but also the United Nations. They insisted that the issue of women’s political underrepresentation was a global phenomenon that needed to be tackled at the international and national levels simultaneously. Their voices did not go unheeded.


In 1990 the United Nations Economic and Social Council endorsed a target of 30 percent women in decision-making and parliamentary positions, to be respected by all member states.3 Additionally, in 1995 the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, presented its Platform for Action, emphasizing the need for government measures to increase women’s representation. These actions and the subsequent international agreements further validated the decades-long feminist demand for an end to discriminatory practices and regulations that hinder women’s access to politics. Signed unanimously by all 189 UN member states, the Beijing Platform for Action shifted the discourse of women’s underrepresentation from blaming women for their lack of general political will to holding the state responsible for ending exclusionary practices and integrating women into politics.


Although the UN has no mechanism other than “naming and shaming to force member states to honor their commitments, the Beijing document affirmed and promoted the legitimacy of women’s movements to demand reforms of their political systems. High-profile conferences discussed the various ways, within different contexts, that women have been and continue to be excluded. Women activists from developing nations argued that political underrepresentation signaled that women’s concerns had not been sufficiently addressed, and that inadequate resources were being allocated to issues directly affecting women or to removing obstacles to societal development. This has been evidenced with regard to inefficient attention to the promotion of women’s education, health, job training or skill building, or to addressing issues of violence against women in the public and private spheres, or to the reform of family law which in most contexts makes women subjects of their husbands. Activists arguing for substantive change across these spheres concluded that it could only come about if women were elected in appropriate numbers to legislative parliaments.


One measure that women activists lobbied around was quotas in national parliaments. Although political quotas were first adopted in India in the 1930s and later in Bangladesh and Egypt, it was the quota systems in the Nordic countries – particularly Sweden and Norway – that succeeded in increasing women’s political representation on a national scale during the 1980s. This success caught the imagination of activists around the world, and the adoption of gender quotas in politics has since become widespread. In the 1990s about 50 states adopted quotas, followed by 40 states since 2000. More than 75 percent of all countries that have ever adopted such quotas did so only in the last fifteen years. Interestingly, the majority of states adopting gender quotas in recent years have been from non-Western contexts, particularly non-industrialized states.


It is of the utmost importance to note that quota systems have been understood and applied very differently in different societies. For instance, in some countries the quota system has been applied to the candidacy level of elections, while in others it has been applied to the final make-up of parliamentary seats. Indeed, as we will explore, the particular type of quota applied in a state’s electoral system, and its implementation process, have important implications for democracy as well as for women’s substantive representation.


Clearly, as women around the world have come to realize, the right to vote in and of itself does not result in equal representation of both genders in politics. Today, despite close-to-universal suffrage, long-established in many cases, women are still organizing and struggling for equal political rights, and are increasingly monitoring the workings of the political system in order to make sure that political gender equality is actually attained and protected. Women activists have researched and documented the experiences of diverse political systems, assessing the pros and cons of each, in order to push for reforms and policies, including gender quotas that would work best in their national contexts. Informed activism and learning from each other’s experience is necessary to promote gender equality in politics. Not surprisingly, given the diversity of experiences with quota systems in different countries, many lively debates among feminist scholars have arisen on this topic.


In this publication we hope to outline an overview of these debates, and to provide an examination of various case studies in order to inform and support activists and policymakers currently working to promote women’s political equality. However, it is necessary to first outline why and how women have been excluded from political structures, as well as how, often through mythology, their exclusion prior to and after they gained the right to vote has been justified.


The Long Struggle against Women’s Political Exclusion


The struggles for women’s access to political participation began with the demand for women’s right to vote, since suffrage was originally conceived as the exclusive right of men. Justified by various assumptions of women’s intellectual, psychological, and physical inferiority, the political domain was argued to be no place for this weaker sex. Thus, throughout most of the major political, philosophical, and social shifts in human history that targeted the advancement of human rights, women were not considered completely human. Instead they were regarded as second-class citizens requiring male protection and guidance. Furthermore the cultural and ideological beliefs that relegated women to the private sphere were codified into political thought and practice.


A telling example of women’s marginalization was particularly evident in the aftermath of the 1789 French Revolution, which radically enhanced human rights through the promotion of the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. None of these gains were, however, extended to the female sex. Women, who had participated widely in the revolution, protested, demanding the same citizenship rights granted to men, including the right to political participation and the recognition of the equality of men and women. They formed political groups, organized petitions and lobbied the intellectuals (Mousset 2007; Scott 1996b). In 1791, Olympe de Gouges, a radical revolutionist who fought alongside her male peers, outlined these demands in a statement titled Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, calling for equal citizenship. That women’s exclusion was not a mere oversight by the male elites of the Enlightenment, but rather an active attempt to dehumanize women, is evidenced by the fate of Olympe de Gouges. Her efforts to achieve women’s citizenship rights, including the right to political participation, resulted in her execution by guillotine in 1793 on charges of hysteria and wanting to be a “statesman” (Tomasevski 1993; Bauer 1996). Her execution however did not silence women’s voices or stifle their actions; after more than one hundred years of demands for legal reforms supporting equal rights, women’s political rights were gradually recognized. Olympe de Gouges’ declaration not only serves as a testimony to women’s long and difficult struggle, it also served as a model for other women’s charters of rights created two hundred years later; much of its spirit is reflected in the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).


The history of women’s struggle against exclusion from the political sphere deserves our attention and analysis. Indeed many of the same excuses and practices that marginalized women more than a century ago remain today. Women’s political exclusion has not been accidental, or unintended, or due to a lack of interest on the part of women to participate, nor are any of these the case today. This exclusion was deliberately engineered by male political leaders at the “dawn of democracy”, with the signing of the American and French revolutionary declarations of 1776 and 1787 respectively. In a historical sense these declarations, which claim equality amongst all human beings and citizens, are considered to mark the birth of the first democracies, despite the fact that they did not grant voice to more than half of the population, namely women and racial minorities.5 Their underlying assumption was that women’s primary duties lay within the domestic sphere, and that participation in the public and political spheres was beyond a woman’s biological capacity and destiny – tropes that continue to prevail, even in some modern democracies. Though such assumptions are not overtly mentioned in the official policies of these states,6 they are nonetheless an ingrained aspect of many cultural beliefs and practices, and easily translated into the framework of government policies and the way women’s economic and productive activities are viewed (Waring 1999; Nash 1995). To justify such discrimination, political elites have referred to a series of assumptions ranging from women’s intellectual deficiency to patriarchal ideology whereby men are considered the “natural” heads of the household and the community at large. For instance, a common claim made at the time of the revolutions (and which continues to be made today by many men in diverse countries) is that women’s interests will be protected by their husbands and fathers. On the other hand, various intellectuals of the Enlightenment justified women’s exclusion by developing a theory that argued women lack the necessary political imagination and intelligence to participate in politics

(Scott 1996b). Although some political theorists viewed women as having a vital role to play in society, this was not as citizens and political actors, but as the upholders of the private foundation of the political world of men. Intellectual, political and scientific discourses penned by feminists and women’s rights activists, as well as women’s longstanding political activism, have long demonstrated the fallacy of women’s inferior intellectual capacity and unsuitability for politics and public life. One of the earliest transnational movements, formalized in the first transnational congress of women’s rights in Paris in 1878, created a network of suffragettes supporting one another in their efforts and political activities (Rupp 1997).8 Over the course of many decades women from various countries began to win the right to vote. They had hoped that their political rights would gradually bring a large enough number of women into electoral politics to reformulate and reshape the institutions that had evolved as male-only clubs.


However, the goal of equal representation of both genders has yet to materialize in the majority of global political institutions within the 21st century, illustrating a slow progress since the 19th century. Therefore, the dearth of women in the political structures of modern democratic societies has been a major obstacle to the removal of other forms of social and legal discrimination against women and has negatively impacted other aspects of women’s rights, including health, education, employment and much more, since women’s interests in such debates have often been overlooked. After all, politics is really about the distribution of a nation’s resources. In response to the lack of female representation and the neglect of issues of concern to women, feminists began to strategically politicize women’s issues, beginning with the domestic sphere. The notion that the “personal is political”9 was one such approach to this particular divide, introducing the idea of the centrality of the personal and domestic to the body politic and a thriving society (Phillips 1998a). In sum, despite having secured their political rights in the early decades of the twentieth century, at least in Europe and North America, by the mid-1970s women were still far from the goal of gender balance, or a 50-50 representation of both sexes in elected offices. This underrepresentation on a global scale spurred many women activists and scholars to re-examine the causes of low female political representation. As this table indicates, although women constitute at least half of the world’s population, they are represented by only about 19 percent of female parliamentarians worldwide.


What Keeps Women Out of Politics?

A common assumption held by proponents of suffragette movements and other social commentators interested in women’s equality was that women’s right to political participation would automatically lead to increased representation as societies developed and modernized. Such an assumption, particularly in developing countries, was rooted in the belief that modernization and democratization are pre-requisites for achieving gender balance in political representation. However, evidence from many of the strongest and longest democracies and industrialized nations, such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, does not support this assumption, given that the levels of female political representation remain low despite women in these societies having obtained formal political rights in the early twentieth century.


Another common assumption concerning women’s low levels of political representation has been women’s limited access to material and social capital, including low levels of women’s labor market participation, education, and access to significant social networks. But findings from recent studies reject this simple equation, suggesting other forces at work. For instance, countries with high percentages of women’s enrollment in secondary or tertiary education, such as Iran or the Republic of Korea, have extremely low levels of female parliamentarians (below 10 percent); while some states with extremely low levels of female literacy, such as Pakistan and Nepal, have high levels of female representation (above 20 percent). Similarly, the level of female economic activity does not correlate with a state’s percentage of women in national parliaments. While female economic activity in Cambodia and Gambia ranges from 70 to 80 percent according to UNDP estimates, the percentage of female representatives in parliament is below 10 percent. Such studies indicate the complexity of factors that mitigate women’s political participation.


Similarly, the fact that some communist bloc and non-industrialized countries have had some of the highest percentages of female parliamentarians, and that India, a country known for its discrimination against female children, was ruled by an elected female prime minister as early as 1966, also complicate the neat equation that suggests “democracy + development” will lead to gender equality. More recently in 2003, Rwanda also stunned the world by surpassing the percentage of female parliamentarians in Nordic countries, which until then ranked the highest in the world, by electing 48.8 percent female representatives. Hence, it appears that the level of women’s political representation is not necessarily related to a country’s level of formal democracy or to economic advancement.


These observations have led to considerable new research and debate attempting to map out the various factors that hinder or promote women’s access to political decision-making power within democratic societies. Based on extensive review of these studies, we have identified three broad and overlapping zones that lead to women’s exclusion from the political sphere. These are: the gender ideology of the state, cultural and social barriers, and institutional and structural barriers. Although such categorization may appear rather reductionist given the multiplicity of reasons and contexts that cause women’s underrepresentation in the political sphere, they nonetheless will help us to outline practical strategies that women have adopted to address these obstacles.


State Gender Ideology: Until recently the existence of a democratic structure (defined as a system that holds fair and open elections) was viewed as the most important element for women’s incorporation into political structures; state gender ideology and the political will to include women received little attention. However, state gender ideology, commonly reflected in a society’s constitution and legal framework, can endorse, tolerate or even oppose women’s presence in politics and public life, greatly impacting the extent of women’s access to political office and the larger public sphere. As discussed earlier, the much-celebrated American and French revolutions denied women citizenship and excluded them from politics. Conversely, the revolutionary ideologies of communist China and Cuba deemed women as essential political participants and promoted the inclusion of all citizens. Furthermore, the collapse of communist states and their move towards “democratization” in the early 1990s resulted in a drop in the percentage of female political representatives. Clearly the levels of women’s representation are significantly related to state ideology on gender, rather than to the prevailing political system. Although one may argue that under “non-democratic” systems representatives are not able to influence political decisions, this does not always hold true. In fact, some evidence suggests that under such systems various women-friendly laws, particularly in the area of family law, have more often undergone greater reform, and given women more rights than previous systems had afforded them, even if they failed to achieve complete equality.
Furthermore, one can argue that politics of presence matter. That is, regardless of the political system, the presence of significant numbers of women in the political arena leads to the normalization of women as part of the political landscape, which helps break taboos about women in power and can in turn improve women’s status (Phillips 1995).


Cultural and Social Barriers: A second cluster of obstacles to women’s political participation is cultural and social barriers including religious ideology. These obstacles discourage women from entering politics in a variety of ways and degrees, but mostly include socialization and cultural and religious attitudes that consider politics an exclusively male domain.  In this regard, it is important to keep in mind that public opinion matters greatly in elections and thus how the public perceives women’s place in society can be decisive. Similarly, prevailing religious beliefs also shape women’s presence in the public sphere. For instance, if a common belief is that women’s voices should not be heard by unrelated males, or that women need their husbands’ permission to leave their homes, women’s entry into politics will be severely constrained and men will continue to dominate the political sphere. And when societal norms suggest that women’s roles should be limited to the domestic sphere as mothers and wives, then women acting in the public sphere may be viewed as rebels harming their families and undermining the fabric of society in order to fulfill their own ambitions. Similarly if women are considered apolitical, irrational, emotional, inferior, or incapable of acting independently from men, they will not be taken seriously as candidates for political power (Paxton 2000). A receptive state gender ideology, an active women’s movement, and influential role models are among the most important means of counteracting these obstacles. As the experiences of women everywhere indicate, to bring about such conditions requires unflagging, continuous, vigilant effort on the part of women activists and those interested in social justice for all. Such efforts are even more crucial and demand more commitment and strategic analysis under states such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, whose governments oppose outright the presence of women in public life.


However, despite the many cultural, religious, and social obstacles that women face when attempting to access a political position, it is important to be cautious of simplistic explanations that consider culture/religion as the key factor in women’s exclusion from public life. It is important to keep in mind that religions are understood and practiced very differently by the various communities that adhere to them. Furthermore cultures are not static. They are contested by various social forces and are continuously

evolving. After all, historically, democracy was not an inherent part of European culture or religion, and only came about as the result of organizing and agitating by civil society. An essentialist and reductionist approach to culture, particularly when scholars deal with non-Western societies, ignores the considerable complexity of social and political changes that are shaping the world and women’s lives. For instance some scholars researching Muslim societies focus only on a few variables and disregard the vast differences between various Muslim cultures (ranging from Indonesia, to Saudi Arabia, to Iran and Turkey), concluding that Muslim nations have the most conservative attitude towards women as political leaders. This approach cannot account for the fact (among others) that many Muslims have popularly elected female heads of state. Indeed, four of the five biggest Muslim-majority countries, namely Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey, have elected women as leaders. Neither can a culturally reductionist approach explain why many of these societies have adopted features of republicanism, but have in some cases resisted addressing the issue of gender equality. Simplistic analyses problematically divert researchers from recognizing and seeking to understand the complex web of factors involved.


Cultures ascribing a more rigid sexual division of labor, particularly in relation to domestic chores and childrearing, also disadvantage women in terms of the time required to participate in formal politics. In almost every context worldwide, women still perform the majority of domestic and childrearing tasks, based on the historical cross-cultural sexual division of labor. Randall’s 1982 survey of women politicians in New York concluded that the most serious and enduring obstacle for women in office is responsibility for children still at home. The survey also noted women do not find politics boring or corrupt. Motherhood as a situational constraint was also echoed in a study of British women Members of Parliament (MPs); out of the twenty-seven women MPs elected in 1974, only two had children under 10 years old. It is likely that over time, as mothers become adamant about participating in formal politics, fathers will become more involved in child-raising and domestic chores, and states will provide more services to support families.


Institutional or Structural Barriers: The third and possibly most significant cluster of obstacles we address here are identified as institutional or structural barriers. These constraints include political systems, electoral rules, political party structures, and institutional cultures, such as campaign financing trends which tend to discriminate against women. Many scholars argue, for example, that mechanisms within the structure of political parties work to limit qualified and experienced female candidates’ entry into top decision- making positions. The increasing realization that political parties often work to undermine efforts to make politics more inclusive has greatly influenced the strategies that women’s movements have adopted to promote female political representation, as the various case studies in this work will discuss. This area has been the focus of women’s rights research and activism in recent decades; thus proponents of gender quotas have devoted their energies to opening up the political space available to women.


It has taken more than half a century of observation and research, and often immense frustration, for women’s political rights proponents to recognize that once a right is secured, its implementation must be rigorously monitored and legal reforms and refinement must follow to ensure the gains become operational. Achieving rights is in a sense a means to an end; removing embedded structural obstacles and achieving true reform of the political system requires critical refocusing and consistent organizing within women’s rights movements. Indeed studies indicate that institutional reform often leads to the dissolution or modification of cultural and social obstacles, while the reverse does not necessarily hold true (Rule 1994).


Over the decades, increasingly refined strategies have been crafted to promote the participation of women in politics and public decision-making bodies. Context-appropriate strategies based on understanding the specific obstacles in a given socio-political environment are crucial to crafting effective campaigns to end women’s exclusion from political decision-making structures. Though we have referred to three broad and overlapping zones that hinder women’s access to formal politics – state gender ideology, cultural and social barriers, and institutional and structural obstacles – in this work we focus mostly on the latter, as this is where the discourse on gender quotas is most relevant. Institutional and structural obstacles are more easily addressed, mostly through legislation and policy, and can eventually help disarm or dissolve other obstacles, including socio-cultural biases and state ideology. Furthermore, context-specific cultural and religious obstacles do not necessarily lend themselves to strategies that can be adopted easily in multiple contexts. As activists and others concerned with political equality, we must critically examine lessons from the broadest spectrum possible in the struggle against women’s political exclusion and be profoundly mindful of the key features of both successes and failures so that we can move towards gender equality in politics and elsewhere. It is to this effort that this work is devoted, in the hope that it will support the organized struggle against discrimination by women fighting to have their voices and the voices of their daughters heard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *