Women and Politics
Women and Politics
From an international perspective, the scholarship of women and politics focuses on issues of women’s participation and representation in governmental institutions, the legal right over decisions concerning reproduction and sexuality, and the effects of globalization on women’s work and social movements.
Issues of participation and representation of women in politics (political empowerment) are centered in the ideology of the Enlightenment period of the mid-eighteenth century and, therefore, the idea that equal political participation and representation of women in local, state, and federal governments will challenge gender inequality. American feminists were at the forefront of this movement arguing in the 1920s and then in the 1970s for suffrage and equal treatment, respectively. The United Nations (UN) promoted the importance of political empowerment for women as evidenced by the UN’s observance of a Decade for Women (1976–1985); the UN’s agenda for the political empowerment of women set forth in The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995); a UN treaty based on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and embodied in Article 25 of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976); and the convening of delegates at the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1967) to discuss the political rights of women around the world. The liberal political theory that informs the UN’s politics embodies the ideas that (1) political systems are undermined and illegitimate when women are underrepresented; (2) the representation of women in politics contributes to an inherently more democratic multiparty system; (3) gender reform lies in legal reform; (4) “special treatment” (e.g., maternity leave) reproduces gender inequality; (5) a “critical mass” of women represented in governments ensures gender equality; (6) states should legally protect women from discrimination in all areas of social life; and (7) women have a civil right to representation and their political participation serves as role model behavior and influences the status of women outside the political body.
Critics of the idea that representation and participation challenge gender equality argue that (1) women’s participation and representation do not necessarily translate into a representation of women’s interests, (2) feminist priorities need to be reinforced in structures and networks (with non-governmental organizations and women’s committees within legislative bodies) in order for change to occur and (3) the presence of women in politics does not ensure a feminist political platform. All women, in other words, are not feminists. As a response to the underrepresentation of women in politics, quotas ensuring the participation of women have been suggested and imposed (e.g., France established party laws in 2000). In 2004, the Inter-Parliamentary Union reported that only 15.6 percent of governmental bodies around the world were represented by women. Women represented 6.8 percent in the Arab States, 18.6 percent in the United States, and 39.7 percent in the Nordic states.
The political struggle over rights to abortion, contraception, and the female body has characterized feminist movement around the world. In the United States this is characteristically exemplified by the legalization of abortion in 1974 (Roe v. Wade ). In the Middle East, North Africa, India, and parts of Southeast Asia, the political struggle over reproduction and sexuality is framed in discourses about the high incidents of female genital mutilation, honor crimes, sex trafficking, bride burning, marital rape, and sexual abuse.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), feminists argue, family law (called in the region “personal status law”), as well as criminal law is informed by traditional and patriarchal cultural norms, thereby legitimizing the violation and control over women’s bodies and rights. In neo-Islamic states, such as Iran, religious scholars are increasingly informing the legal code. Global feminists have argued that laws in MENA have allowed for violence against women, statutory discrimination, and disproportionate punishment for women. Women’s movements in MENA are demanding political equality, the ability to contract and register their own marriages, a right to divorce, and justice in cases of rape or sexual abuse. Not only the state, but families and local communities have great control over women’s sexuality and reproductive rights. “Honor killings”—the murder of a woman by a male family member for a violation of the social norms of sexuality—exemplify the control family has over the sexuality of daughters. Sometimes the families, including mothers, gather and plan the murder of a daughter. Feminists in the region, scholars of women in MENA, as well as global feminists recognize the role of family and community over the control of women and seek to criminalize behavior such as “honor killings” that are often treated as private rather than public matters.
The effect of globalization on the status of women is a central theme in the study of contemporary women worldwide. Globalization is defined as the movement toward global capitalism and culture. Scholars have explored the negative and positive effect of globalization on women cross-culturally. Critics of globalization point to policies that buttress the industrialized monetized sector of the economy, thereby favoring work performed by men at the expense of informal modes of work performed by women, particularly in the developing countries. According to this perspective, public subsidies that support social programs for women and children are diminished as nations struggle to pay off high interest loans to industrialized nations.
In Latin America, as a response to the weakening economic position of women, political collectivities of women have organized around the demand for greater provision of public services such as running water, electricity, transportation, day care and health services (all sorely lacking in squatter settlements in which poor women live). The women have also protested against the rising price of food. Often these women defend their right to a decent living on the basis of their status as “mothers,” “housewives,” or both. These types of social collectivities have been criticized by feminists who favor “equality” and “no special treatment” over supporting women in their traditional roles. Conversely, women activists engaged in informal social movements sometimes separate themselves, by way of identification, from woman activists who are more concerned with mainstream political participation and representation (“equality” and “no special treatment”). Since the period of advanced economic globalization, Latin American women have mobilized along with men in labor unions; yet, unions, it has been argued, continue to be regarded as a male sphere where women only serve as supplementary workers.
Other scholars believe there are positive effects to globalization such as women’s political representation (in formal governmental institutions), the liberalization of traditional gender roles, and increased education. As a result of these positive effects, they argue, the political presence of women has increased dramatically in the beginning of the twenty-first century. For example, in January 2007 in Chile’s presidential run-off Michelle Bachelet was elected the first female president of Chile. Other Latin American women have made inroads into state power. The Brazilian constitution of 1988 formed The Council on the Condition of Women (subsequently named The National Council on Women’s Rights), which implemented a family planning program; extended maternity leave; facilitated the establishment of a special police force to end sexual abuse and domestic violence; ended the prohibition of abortion; and successfully promoted a women’s agenda.
The democratization and the rise of civil society often attributed to globalization further increased Latin American opposition groups. In 1988, Chilean women fought against President Augusto Pinochet’s (1915–2006) military authoritarian rule and demanded the recognition of human rights. The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo in Argentina played a decisive role in the defeat of the dictatorship there. On the basis of their status as mothers, sisters, daughters, The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo protested the disappearance of their sons, brothers, and husbands.
The UN’s Human Development Program has recognized the need for a broad understanding of gender that includes not only the role of politics, but economics and cultural interpretations of women’s and men’s roles on the lives of women throughout the world. Consequently, in 1995 they created the Gender Empowerment Measure, which measures gender equality/inequality on the basis of decision-making power, and political and economic participation.
SEE ALSO Feminism; Feminism, Second Wave; Gender Gap; Inequality, Gender; Participation, Political; Poll Tax; Rape; Representation; Reproductive Rights; Roe v. Wade; Sexual Harassment; Sexuality; Suffrage, Women’s; United Nations; Women; Women’s Liberation; Women’s Movement; Work and Women
Kahne, Hilda, and Janet Z. Giele, eds. 1992. Women’s Work and Women’s Lives: The Continuing Struggle Worldwide. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Tinker, Irene. 1992. Persistent Inequalities: World Development. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Women for Women’s Human Rights. 2005. Gender, Sexuality and the Criminal Laws in the Middle East and North Africa: A Comparative Study. Istanbul, Turkey: Women for Women’s Human Rights.
Vaso V. Thomas