Could more women transform politics?

It's radical equality that matters to the transformation of politics, not diversity as such - we continue our debate between men about achieving gender parity.
Michael Edwards
1 October 2010

In July Nick Pearce and Anthony Barnett began an OurKingdom debate on the significance of the equality of women in politics -  and how this might be achieved. Michael Edwards takes up the the argument saying, “Although it is unfashionable to say so, democracy cannot be deepened through social media or the internet. The deep foundations of politics have to be re-fashioned through the pursuit of radical equality at every turn, face-to-face, and from the bottom up”.

“It’s high time Oxfam got in touch with its feminine side.” As my policy recommendation as the departing Field Director in Lusaka I’ll admit that my judgment raised some eyebrows on the senior management team, though I remember the Gender Advisor liked it. I’m not even sure I knew what I was saying, but I was definitely uncomfortable with the aggressive growth-and-competition-oriented tendencies that were beginning to infect large charities by the mid-1980s.


Where was openness to learning, or sharing, self-sacrifice, empathy and flexibility – all qualities that I thought were essential to Oxfam’s mission of supporting the empowerment and nurturing of others? Presumably they lay with women, as all the books I remember reading told me at the time, though they were more personal than political.

That set me thinking: since the wider landscape of politics was heading in the same direction – competing for power but rarely using it in liberating ways - maybe women, or the qualities traditionally associated with them, held the key to political transformation on a much bigger scale?Of course, getting more women into politics is not a new idea, and on the surface, you’d be hard put to find anyone against it. But the argument is usually framed in terms of the pragmatic virtues of diversity, not the deeper implications of equality. Could more women in politics transform politics - and if so how?

That’s an intriguing question. But it’s irrelevant until women actually possess equality of participation, at which point one could make a sensible judgment about the matter. We don’t encourage Catholics or African Americans to take part in politics because of the distinctive qualities they bring to the table (even if they have them), but because equal participation is everybody’s right, and the same argument applies to women. As a result of biology, socialization or a mixture of the two over a good few thousand years, it may well be true that women possess characteristics that could make politics more than a zero-sum game between narrow political interests. But as individuals, women are just as diverse, difficult and daft as men, and all of us have the ability to love, and to express love in the public sphere, even if some of us actively repress it.

And that’s the crucial point: since equality rests on radical upheavals in social structures as well as individual behavior – a complete re-ordering of the care economy, for example, and a revolution in male attitudes towards co-operation and compassion – it’s a fair bet that politics would be transformed in the process of securing it. In fact, putting the emphasis onequality creates a much stronger foundation for change than promoting more diversity in politics as we know it. On its own, that’s a strategy that virtually guarantees, not only that relatively few women will rise to the top, but also that those who do so will practice politics in ways that are often indistinguishable from men, since there are so few incentives to test real alternatives.

For example, equal participation in domestic work would free up time for women to participate in politics on a much more regular basis, and create routes to sustainable leadership in the process. Shared, physical acts of caring, compromise and negotiation could fashion a different set of skills for use on the broader political stage. And the same combination of empathy, strength and flexibility that is honed in the tasks of nurturing healthy human relationships might enable protagonists to argue through their political differences rather than embedding them permanently in the polity. Social activists call this ‘straight back, soft front’ – the ability to hold fast to your long-term vision and values while pursuing them in lots of different ways, some of which may even contradict your own short-term interests.

Although it is unfashionable to say so, democracy cannot be deepened through social media or the internet. The deep foundations of politics have to be re-fashioned through the pursuit of radical equality at every turn, face-to-face, and from the bottom up. Only encounters between equals can re-weave power relations into a fabric capable of sustaining new institutions built around caring, love and justice. As the building blocks of equality are put into place, values and commitments are forced into an open confrontation, and change occurs. Of course, political differences do not disappear, but better ways of handling them become available, methods which enable politics to be transformative as well as to be transformed, and to support breakthroughs in decision-making in favor of the public good which are not simply dismantled when the next party comes to power. 

What’s important here is that transformation is for everyone – we can’t rely on women to transform politics for the rest of us, a position that seems just a tad unfair given that they already sustain pretty much everything else of value in the world. So the acceptance of radical equality is the only real starting point for political transformation. This is “pre-figurative” politics at its best – the art of practicing the change you want to see in the world as a way of modeling healthier organizations and communities, and eventually whole new institutions and processes of governance.

But, turning the argument around, it’s also true that political institutions can be reformed in ways that are more welcoming to new forms of engagement, and that’s a task that doesn’t depend on immediate upheavals in personal or social relations. For example, reserving quotas for women candidates in India’s decentralized system of non-party village politics has already had substantive effects on political outcomes, and is beginning to have a deeper impact on gender relations too. Or take participatory budgeting, which has spread around the world from its roots in Brazil. It works both as a practical device for allocating resources more fairly, and as a crucible for fashioning new alliances and relationships across different social groups. When the forms and norms of politics come together in these ways, change becomes self-reinforcing.

The problem is that so few of these innovations are visible at scale or in the mainstream, and they seem so far distant from the determinedly non-transformative politics that are practiced in most of the world today. The reason is clear – pre-figurative politics make ‘winning’ much more difficult, at least in the conventional sense of accumulating enough political power to defeat your opponents, preferably forever. But that, of course, is the point, and it’s why feminism’s most important teaching – that ‘the personal is political’ and vice-versa, remains so absolutely important. Equality between men and women is the foundation of transformative politics. So we might as well get started with the washing up.

See also Mike's new oD article on Change and Knowledge

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