Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The she-wolves of politics

I’ve never identified as a feminist more than earlier this summer. In the chaotic aftermath of the British General Election, in which Theresa May grappled with a hung parliament and the reality of her party losing their parliamentary majority, I discussed the results in passing with a regular client of the firm where I was working. Until, said client stated, “Sure she has nothing better to be doing with herself that one! She doesn’t have children, you know?”. Quite suddenly I didn’t feel like courting political debate anymore.

I mulled over his statement long after he left the office. It was universally accepted that May had blundered in her decision to call a snap election, and that the outcome had significantly weakened her position both in the British and European political landscapes. However, I find it almost impossible to believe that if she were male and had suffered the same crushing defeat, my political sparring partner would have reduced her career to a mere frivolity that she only engages in to fill in the blanks left over from her inability to have children which frustrated her “natural”, if it is natural, societal role as caregiver. 

Although this man’s viewpoint hopefully isn’t indicative of the majority’s, I’d be naïve in thinking there wasn’t a bias in favour of men across global politics. Women’s underrepresentation in politics is a phenomenon that transcends the boundaries of culture, colour and creed. Yes, slightly more women are making their political débuts each year, and yes, we’ve come a long way from actually attaining the right to vote. However, the pace is glacial, and frankly we don’t have the luxury of waiting to see how things transpire naturally if we would like to see equal representation of men and women within our lifetimes. Enter gender quotas. 

Gender quotas are being moulded to the varied political frameworks of over 100 countries across the world, the US being one of the most glaring exceptions. The 2016 Irish general election saw political parties flex their stiffened equality muscles for the first time, induced only by the threat of slashed state funding if women didn’t make up at least 30% of their candidacies. Although driven largely by an ominous economic threat, the measure produced the desired result of almost doubling female candidacy in the space of five years from 86 women in 2011 to 163 in 2016. 

“But what about the ‘deserving men’ being robbed of their candidacies?”, “Surely it’s contrary to the values of democracy?” cry the sceptics. Studies conducted on Swedish elections from 1982 to 2014, a country which has been in the vanguard of political gender equality, revealed that it’s not always the ‘most deserving’ candidate that actually gets the job. Not surprisingly, gender quotas have been found to actually boost the competency of male candidates now competing for coveted political appointments against the nemesis ‘token females’. This study, compared male competence in politics under the lenses of income, education, occupation, age and residence and concluded that a 10% rise in female representation corresponded with a 3% rise in ‘competent’ male candidates. 

If we’re to dwell on the vein of the ‘meritorious’ being most deserving of candidacies, we must also take into consideration the fact that a glaring majority of female candidates have had the same or greater levels of political work experience as their male counterparts. The ‘extra’ women on Irish ballot papers in the 2016 election weren’t just plucked from the kitchens of cosy suburban cottages to serve as appendages to the ‘big boy’ game of politics. Many of them were already experienced local representatives with just as much political exposure as their constituencies’ golden boys. This time they were merely afforded the opportunity to actually appear on the ballot paper. 

Forty out of the 46 countries that have over 30% representation by women in politics have gender quotas. Have these countries spiralled into anarchy as a result of such a sharp influx of ‘dreaded’ female influence? I think not. If the aim is to achieve equality of representation while at the same time encouraging and equipping women to put themselves forward for election, then gender quotas satisfy that aim. Despite all this, it still unsettles me that in Ireland, our fresh-faced Taoiseach has been bending over backwards making ‘commitments’ to oversee gender equality in order to win favour with the new breed of ‘trendy’ politicians, Justin Trudeau's state visit to Ireland in July being a prime example of this.  The difference is, Trudeau has actually followed through on his promises of gender equality in his cabinet (although disappointingly not in the Canadian House of Commons), whereas Varadker quite evidently has not, with only 6 of the 34 Ministers in Government being women. 

Equality in politics evidently still has a long way to go, yet in my view gender quotas are a good place to start. As with any social issue, societal attitudes need also to alter in order to foster change. The electorate, as well as political parties, need to stop subconsciously limiting women to menial political roles and to stop viewing them as unnatural she-wolves if they succeed, or fragile maidens if they fail. Only then can I hope that my political adversary might comment on something of political substance when describing the defeat of a female politician, rather than merely pointing out her infertility. 


B. Williams said...

Reading this post gave me a sort of culture shock. There is strong motivation among large political campaigns in the U.S. to choose private funding (unlimited) over public funding (limited). It's incredibly difficult to imagine a scheme wherein the United States could enact a gender quota system for politicians. In fact, given the toxic political environment in the United States, a suspect certain parties or candidates would frame government attempts at gender equity in the political sphere as part of a larger anti-male, anti-merit, intrusive nanny state. I'm sure they would continue to eschew public funding in lieu of private funding, and they would somehow turn gender quotas into an issue that would raise them even more money.

The political will to mandate gender quotas in U.S. politics is roughly nonexistent, however your post made me curious as to what other systems/reforms might be enacted to increase female representation in local, state, and federal elections. Campaign finance reform is an obvious first step. Ranked choice voting systems are another option. However, both of these reforms will likely threaten incumbents, and are therefore difficult to get off the ground. However, I also found compelling arguments for working on the issue from less-direct angles such as by setting recruitment goals for political parties seeking political candidates, leveraging large individual donors and PACS to support female candidates more aggressively, and paying state legislators a living wage in order to remove or mitigate financial barriers to political participation that disproportionately affect women and other underrepresented groups.

One hopeful note in the U.S. political arena is that, anecdotally, I have personally heard more women expressing a desire to become more engaged in the political process following Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2016 presidential election. Here's hoping that energy and enthusiasm (and perhaps, a general feeling of being pissed off about Donald Trump winning) translates to an increase in female political candidates (and increased public support for those candidates) in 2018/2020 and beyond.

Aoife Mee said...

Thank you Suzanne, for such an informative and analytical blog. I am sorry to hear you had such an upsetting encounter, but unfortunately you are probably not unique in your experience.

It is great to see that, in general, there is much greater female participation in the world of politics. The nature of the political arena means that both the professional and private lives of politicians are subject to public scrutiny. Unfortunately for female politicians, this "scrutiny" is often more related to their status as a woman than their political polies. There are countless examples of female politicians, in the US and beyond, being subject to sexist attitudes and abuse by the public and other politicians in carrying out their day-to-day professional duties. For example, at one of Hilary Clinton's political rallies, she was heckled at by a spectator shouting "Iron my shirt!" ( Throughout her political career and even more so during her Presidential campaign, Hilary Clinton faced sexist abuse from the public, the media and her political opponents.

So like you, I believe there is still a long way to go. I likewise agree that gender quotas are a good place to start in terms of opening up opportunities for women in politics. However, greater societal and cultural change is needed to achieve the same level of respect for female politicians in the political arena as their male counterparts. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that this change will come in the near future, especially given the sexist culture and attitudes of the current US administration.

Joterias! said...

I agree, we need more women in politics; however, I doubt that gender quotas could ever gain political traction in the US. On the one hand, gender quotas seem like an innocuous solution to a pressing problem. Sure, we need more women in Capitol Hill, but who should these women be? Should they be Latinas? African Americans? Caucasians? Asian Americans? Should they come from diverse work, political, and geographic backgrounds? I wonder what our political affairs would be like if Capitol Hill were comprised of fifty-percent of legally trained, white women from urban areas! Americans are also much more resistant to implementing quotas outside the immigration context. The rhetoric on affirmative action highlights this: while personal background characteristics merit consideration in the admissions process, it is impermissible to reserve seats for specific groups of people—even if some seats are by de facto saved for economically privilege white males. That is why need to look for other solutions.

First, we should to disrupt and resist gender practices that teach young girls of all race and class backgrounds to stay out of the public sphere. At minimum, we should teach young girls and boys that mothering is an action rather than a gender specific trait; that strategic/economistic thinking may suit certain situations, and that an “ethic of care” may suit others; and that careers are gender blind. Granted, I recall a Friends episode where one of the male characters stated: “Yeah, it’s like a woman wanting to be a...” And concludes with: “A penis a model!” But we live in a post-Caitlyn Jenner world, where anatomy no longer dictates gender, and a woman may very well be a penis model. With that in mind, I think we should take collective responsibility for the ways we socialize boys and girls, including the ways in which we gender them.

Second, feminism should to develop a coherent philosophy of praxis. I can’t help but think of the number of (white) women who voted for Trump last year, despite his—shall we say—questionable rhetoric and antics. We feminists need to ask ourselves what happened: why do grown women continue to make excuses for grown men’s foolish behaviors or utterances? Or blame other woman for playing the same game the “boys” play? Yes, women who voted for Trump based their presidential choice on numerous factors. But there’s a problem when self-identified feminists think that contemporary feminists are asking for “extra privileges” rather than equality, and then cast a vote with that mindset. We feminist need to devise a pragmatic method to advance the feminist cause, and we must thoroughly promulgate it so that more feminists are on the same page.

To that end, although we need more women in positions of power in Capitol Hill, I doubt that quotas are tenable in the US. That is why we should focus on how we socialize children, and on developing a coherent feminist philosophy of praxis that can help the feminist cause move forward. Si se puede!

Glen Oh said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful post! The issues you raised regarding gender quotas were incredibly insightful and are issues that I too am troubled by. You touched on a host of common responses that individuals have when it comes to mandatory quotas – whether they be on the basis of race, class, gender, or socioeconomic status. The two that I wanted to comment on were the narrative of “deserving men” being robbed of their candidacies and the idea of the “meritorious” being most deserving.

In my experience, discussions of mandatory race or gender quotas are often derailed by individuals who make disingenuous claims of reverse-racism or reverse-sexism. In it’s most basic form, the rebuttal usually takes the form of “if you explicitly focus on someone’s race or gender, instead of focusing solely on their merit, you’re being a racist or sexist.”

This false narrative of a “meritocracy” is often combined with one’s claim to be color- and gender-blind. Adopting an ahistorical analysis of present day gender inequality in politics gives one the impression that the unequal participation of females in politics is caused by the “natural” inadequacies of females, rather than as a consequence of historical and systematic exclusion.

The above response is incredibly frustrating, because there seems to be a level of intellectual dishonesty embedded within their response. People who respond in such a way are really just acting under the guise of colorblindness/genderblindness. By taking a genderblind stance, women who have been systematically excluded from participating in politics are put in a double-bind. If women’s evaluations of fitness for office are being colored by sexist biases (whether they be implicit or explicit), but people simultaneously deny such a thing is occurring – they are left without direct recourse.