Women transforming power?

Srilatha Batliwala
5 October 2005

History will undoubtedly reveal that the quest for gender equality and justice was one of the defining events of the twentieth century. Beginning with struggles for women’s suffrage in the early decades, the women’s movement for equality generated sufficient impact that by the end of the century, the majority of the world’s nations had pledged to eradicate gender discrimination through instruments such as the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action and the UN’s Security Council Resolution 1325.

As feminists expanded and deepened their understanding of the roots of gender discrimination, they realized that women’s access to power and decision-making authority in the public realm is as critical to achieving gender equality as changing power relations in the private sphere of households and relationships.

This triggered mobilisation and advocacy for women’s representation in elected bodies, as well as a voice in public policy. Political empowerment of women became a clarion call by the mid-seventies. Many victories were won. The Scandinavian countries, the US, and developing countries such as Uganda, India, the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico, have all made tremendous strides in enabling the entry of large numbers of women into the formal political system.

But with these achievements, new and troubling questions have arisen, necessitating a re-examination of both implicit and explicit assumptions underlying the movement for women’s political participation:

  • that the transformation of both the position and condition of women in society could be lastingly achieved only through political change (in the form of 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 change in broader policies of development and international relations – for example, by developing policies of peace and non-violent conflict resolution, access to and protection of the full body of human rights, sustainable and socially just development, and placing people above profits; and
  • that a critical mass of women in political institutions would transform the very nature of power and the practice of politics through values of cooperation and collaboration, holding power in trusteeship (“power on behalf of, not over”), greater transparency and public accountability - in other words, that women would play politics differently and practice power accountably.

It would be a grave disservice to thousands of courageous women to say that all these assumptions have been belied: women have had significant impact on politics and political institutions, on many levels. But few would claim that increased representation of women in elected bodies has transformed these institutions, engendered policies, or altered the nature of public power itself.

There is widespread agreement among feminist thinkers and activists that we seriously underestimated the power of existing modes of politics to corrupt, co-opt, or marginalise women. We did not fully understand how women would be compelled or manipulated to compromise their goals for narrow party interests. We failed to address the possibility that many of the women who gained entry into the formal political sphere would be advocates of patriarchal, mainstream, elitist or fundamentalist ideologies.

The experience of the last twenty years teaches that we cannot conflate biological women with women committed to gender equality and social justice. Feminists interested in gender, power and political transformation the world over have realised the complexity, resilience and insidiousness of the patriarchal model of political power, and how cleverly it neutralises those challenging it. We have learnt that power more easily alters us than we can alter it. It appears that our early assumptions have been tested, and found only partly valid.

This does not mean we abandon campaigns for greater representation of women in political bodies – or deny our own achievements. But we must recognize that this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the kind of change in politics and power that we set out to achieve.

We are at a historic moment, when we must learn from our own experiences, and re-cast our vision and strategies, based on the insight and wisdom gained over previous decades. After the events of 11 September 2001, it is even more urgent that women committed to agendas of peace, tolerance, equality, multilateralism and sustainable global development have greater voice and control over local, national and global politics.

But this is a difficult task unless we are able to articulate more clearly what engendered public power and policies look like. Feminist women around the world know a good deal about this, but there has been no way of surfacing and systematising that knowledge, and converting it into concrete measures, models and strategies.

The need of the hour is processes that will:

  • help surface, collate and sharpen knowledge and strategic insights about gender and public power;
  • generate a set of measures to help assess the impact of women in politics on public power, policy, and political culture;
  • yield data and information to analyze that impact; and
  • culminate in the development of sharper strategies for both women’s political empowerment and the engendering of public power and policy.
Only then can we hope to move from having more female bodies in politics to women actually transforming power.


openDemocracy’s new blog looks at how women make a difference. Five years after the UN’s resolution to involve women in fighting conflict, find out what has changed, and discuss what needs to happen next.

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