Politics outside politics: how women redefine democracy

Srilatha Batliwala
10 May 2009


A conference on women redefining democracy can do no better than start with Mary Parker Follett, the unsung, unacknowledged 'mother' of modern organizational theory and management studies, and feminist political philosopher. In her book, The New State, she defined democracy in a particularly feminist way - a definition unlike that of any male philosopher, from the Greeks, to Rousseauvians, to Marxists and neo-liberals:

“Democracy is an infinitely including spirit. We have an instinct for democracy because we have an instinct for wholeness; we get wholeness only through reciprocal relations, through infinitely expanding reciprocal relations. Democracy is really neither [merely] extending nor including… but creating wholes.”

In another section of the book, she says:

“The vote in itself does not give us democracy - we have yet to learn democracy's method. We still think too much of the solidarity of the vote; what we need is solidarity of purpose, solidarity of will. To make my vote a genuine part of the expression of the collective will is the first purpose of politics; it is only through group organization that the individual learns this lesson, that [s]he learns to be an effective political member.”

Women’s experience with and in formal politics - meaning in political parties, elections, and legislatures and local councils - would seem to bear testimony to this prophetic woman’s words. In more recent waves of feminist activism, we have focused on women’s access to power and decision-making authority in formal political institutions as critical to achieving gender equality in the long term. Political empowerment of women became a clarion call by the mid-seventies, based on several assumptions about how this would change things for all women: that lasting gender equality could be achieved only through political change (enabling policies, legislation, enforcement and protection of rights); that women in politics would advance the cause of gender equality and women’s rights; that unless women themselves were represented in local, national and global political bodies, the momentum for such change could not be sustained; that a critical mass of women in political institutions would also initiate broader social justice and peace - by fostering non-violent conflict resolution, sustainable and socially just development, access to and protection of the full body of human rights, and placing people above profits; and most of all, that this critical mass of women in political institutions would transform the very nature of power and the practice of politics through more transparent, accountable and consultative political behaviour - in other words, that women would play politics differently and practise power accountably.

It’s certainly true that thousands of courageous women who entered politics have attempted to do all this and more - undoubtedly, women have made a significant impact on politics and political institutions at multiple levels. But we must also confront the fact that increased representation of women in elected bodies has not transformed these institutions or engendered policies in the way we hoped - not even in those handful of countries where women elected representatives have reached more than a critical mass. Women have not been able to advance this notion of democracy as wholeness, as something that enables every voice, perspective, and priority, to become part of the 'collective will'.

Indeed, AWID’s recent study of women’s movements worldwide indicates that the women who have been experimenting with and participating in this very essence of democracy, are women in social movements - their own and others. As Parker Follett foresaw, it is women in organized movements - or “group organizations” as she termed it - who advance democratic process in ways that women in formal political institutions are unable to do because of the very male, hierarchical, and centralized cultures of these institutions. They do so by confronting the structures and relations of power in private and public spheres, challenging the ideologies that justify or rationalize these relations, and by accessing and redistributing resources. They create struggles that redefine notions of development, sustainability, and peace. Most of all, they struggle with, and through, the complexity and heartache of constructing 'wholes' that hear and include the minorities within their own movements - this is much harder than the majoritarianism that marks most democratic political regimes.

To illustrate these characteristics from the AWID case studies, the Indigenous Women’s movement of Mexico has challenged the patriarchy within their own culture, while at the same time developing an intricate new construct of the relationship between themselves and the natural environment. The Domestic Workers movement of the United States, the Mothers movement of East Europe, and the Dalit Women’s movement in Northern India have all struggled to build the most democratic forms of internal governance even as they claim their rights from formal political structures around them. The One in Nine Campaign in South Africa and the GROOTS Kenya network challenge both the patriarchal violence against women that deprives poor women of their physical integrity or their inheritance rights as AIDS widows, and challenge the failure of their so-called democratic states to address their needs.

These are only a small handful of the women’s movements around the world that demonstrate that given the consciousness and opportunity to organize and build collective power, women are in a constant process of claiming true citizenship. They are not just champions of democracy but its true architects.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData