Women can only be properly represented politically by other women. Discuss
The claim that women can only be represented politically by other women is one that assumes that women and men act differently in terms of politics. It is a claim which starts with the differing socialization of men and women and ends with the assertion that as a consequence only women can politically represent other women. By focusing on the relationship between descriptive and substantive relationship this statement suggests that an increase of female descriptive representation would consequently lead to an increase in the substantive representation of women. Whilst measuring the descriptive representation of women is straightforward, its relationship with substantive representation is not proven. The aim of this essay will be to analyze the extent to which the having women as representatives is the only way to achieve women’s substantive representation. Firstly this essay will focus on the extent to which there can be such a thing as ‘women’s issues’ in politics. . It will then go on to assess the extent to which women act differently to men in politics, and the extent to which this difference is beneficial in ensuring women in the electorate are properly represented politically. This essay will finish by highlighting the broader structural factors within which women’s descriptive representation takes place, and suggest that in order for women to be properly represented politically, more focus needs to put on structure rather than whether representatives are male or female.
One of the main issues arising from the statement that ‘women can only be politically represented by other women’ is the consequent idea that women as a societal group have political goals which are both unique and homogenised. This essentialist claim is one of the main drawbacks of advocating the descriptive representation of women in order to ensure women’s substantive representation due to the fact that it tends to overlook the multiplicity of differences that exist between women including age, race, and sexuality. In order to counter this problem, feminist scholars such as Mansbridge (1999) and Young (2002) have argued that there can be such a concept as ‘women’s interests’ by focusing on shared perspectives and experiences. This is an idea that states that the way in which women represent other women is not in terms of a laundry list of women’s objectives, but rather in terms of similarities shared amongst women on the grounds of gendered. In this sense women can only be politically represented by other women because only other women share their experiences.
On the other hand, the argument has been raised by Weldon that such shared experiences do not necessarily legitimize one woman to act on the behalf of other women. Weldon (2002, p.1156) phrases this by stating that “a white, straight, middle class mother… cannot speak for African American women, or poor women, or lesbian women, on the basis of her own experience any more than men can speak for women merely on the basis of theirs”. This is a point reinforced by Mackay (2008, p.127) who argues that “individual experiences are cross-cut with other social divisions and identities, particularly race/ethnicity, class and sexuality”. Whilst it could be argued that gender is the defining factor in social experiences, it is not a factor which is unconnected to the other identities of an individual. As Spelman (1998) states, it is not possible to detach ‘the woman part’ of an individuals characteristics from the rest of their identity. In such a sense then it must be concluded that we cannot assume that women will be able to successfully represent women in terms of shared experiences, but rather that their representation must be done in another way.
Instead of focusing on policies that can be seen to be representative of women, it is more appropriate to frame representation in terms of the ability to construct a women’s agenda in the political arena. Whilst it has been shown we cannot draw up a laundry list of ‘what women want’ in the political arena, it is possible to highlight issues that women see as salient regardless of their age, ethnicity or sexuality. This is represented by a recent cross-country comparison (in Childs et al, 2012, p.11) whereby issues such as equal pay and violence against women were generally assumed to be issues that were of high relevance to women. However, that is not to say that on such issues women are homogenized, as Weldon (2002, p.157) argues, on the issue of wages for childcare, middle class women and working class women often have conflicting interests. The importance in such a case then is not that women agree on childcare, but that it is ‘women who have the responsibility for childcare, and it is women for whom the issue has the most serious consequences’. Therefore what needs to be represented in the political arena is not a set list of policy proposals but rather the ability to construct a debate around women’s issues themself.
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As has been shown then, when judging the statement that ‘women can only be represented politically by other women’ it is not relevant to focus on specific policies as there is no set objective list of women’s demands that can be cross referenced with modern democratic performance. Instead it is important to look at other ways in which a female political representative is debated to be more equipped to politically represent other women as opposed to a male counterpart. One of the more important feminist arguments is the trust argument that women in the electorate are more likely to become politically active if their representative is female. This is an argument which revolves around the idea that past betrayals of female citizens by male representatives have made women less inclined to involve themselves in politics (Dovi, 2007, p.308). As a consequence, it is only through the election of a female representative that women in the will become politically active and thus be effectively represented. This is a point made by Atkeson (2003, p.1043) who states that “When women…become visible players in the political system they empower women citizens. Women candidates lead women to feel more connected to and a part of the political system in a way that they do not when they look around and see only men”. Whilst this inspiration may be of significance to women individually, crucially it doesn’t appear to translate into actual actions, as Elizabeth Haynes has shown in her study, women in districts represented by a woman are not more likely to contact their representative than women in districts represented by a man (Haynes 1997). To conclude then, having a female representative may make women feel more empowered, but crucially it does not seem to lead to increased political involvement. Therefore to claim in this sense that women can only be represented politically by other women would be misplaced due to the fact that there is no difference between having a male or female representative in terms of increasing political activity amongst women.
Whilst it has been shown that having a female representative does not necessarily make women more involved in politics, it is also similarly important to assess the claim that female representatives are more receptive to their constituents in general. This is another area whereby it is claimed that the status of women as elected representatives is the only way that other women can be politically represented due to the fact that female representatives are more inclined to listen to the desires of their electorate. This is a theory espoused by studies such as that of Richardson and Freeman (1995, p.171) who argue that female representatives are significantly more receptive to their constituents than their male colleagues. As a consequence, female representatives are more likely to be able to cater for the desires of political minorities, namely women, in their constituencies. The evidence behind this argument however is questionable. Richardson and Freeman argue that in Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, and Ohio, twice as many female as opposed to male representatives believed they “put more emphasis on constituency service than the typical legislator in my state”. Moreover, the women, on average, reported receiving significantly more requests for constituency casework than did equivalently situated men. The issue with this argument is that by focusing mainly on the subjective views of female candidates it is failing to exert independent verification. Furthermore, other studies including Reingold’s (2000) suggest that there are very few gender differences in terms of receptiveness to constituencies. In this study both men and women spent equivalent amounts of time on constituent casework and meeting with constituents. As has been shown then, the claim that women are more receptive to the needs of their constituents and thus better placed to represent other women is one that is unproven.
Another important argument which is used to argue that women can only be represented politically by other women is the idea men are prone to, either intentionally or unintentionally, ignore issues which are specific to women. Such a point has roots in Sapiro’s argument (1981) that trusting one societal group to protect another societal group’s interests is an undesirable method of conducting politics. Underpinning this argument is the idea that, whilst women are not one homogenized group, females are far better equipped to express the distinctive viewpoints of the group as opposed to their male counterparts. This is in contrast to a Burkean conception of democracy whereby the representative should act as a judge of the needs of their constituents. The main reasoning behind the argument that men are not equipped to represent women politically focuses on the deliberative phase of the political process and particularly the point of uncrystallized issues on which political parties have not developed policies. Mansbridge (1999, p.365) argues that in the deliberation process in legislatures, the existence of women is necessary because whilst men may attempt to act on behalf of women, crucially this is “not enough to promote effective deliberation either vertically between constituents and their representatives or horizontally among the representatives”. Such an argument gains strength from the fact that due to the open-ended nature of political deliberation, it seems logical that there will be information-based advantages for representatives who have experience of the issues they are discussing. This is a point further developed by Childs (2006, p.9) who argues that it is difficult for male representatives to be aware of how public policies affect women in society. Similarly it is also feasible to suggest that by their presence, women also make it more likely that men will recognize and address their concerns, thus effectively feminizing the political agenda. This analysis then shows that in terms of the deliberative process of politics, women to a large extent can only be properly politically represented by other women.
Having acknowledged the importance of female representatives in ensuring that women’s issues don’t get overlooked in the deliberative process, it is now important to focus on the extent to which the main aim of female representatives’ in the political system is acting on behalf of women. If female representatives do tend to act on behalf of women more than men, then it should be asserted that women can only be politically represented by other women, however if the opposite is found then the claim will be undermined. One example of the importance of women for properly politically representing other women is found in the study of Wolbrecht (2002) who determines that the diversification of women’s right in Congress from 1953-1992 can only be explained by the increase of female representatives. Wolbrecht states that women proposed more legislation regarding women’s employment, equal pay and women’s health as opposed to their male counterparts. This is a study which also resonates with Celis’s (2006) claim that in the Belgian Lower House women were the most enthusiastic supporters of women’s interests. Whilst these studies do suggest that women can only be represented politically by other women, it is also important to acknowledge other studies which have reached different conclusions. In her study of the Canadian parliament Tremblay (1998) found that that there was no relationship between the increased descriptive representation of women and their substantive representation. Similarly Weldon’s (2004) study failed to find any proof that the presence of women in state legislatures impacted on the adoption of women’s health or domestic violence policy. Therefore the assertion that women are more likely to initiate policies that will benefit other women has shown to be false. As a consequence then the claim that women can only be properly politically represented by other women is undermined.
Since there is no overwhelming evidence to suggest that women do act on behalf of other women in legislatures, it makes sense to analyze other potential factors that inform how female representatives act politically. One of the key factors in Western democracies that devalues the claim that women are more effective at representing other women than men are is the existence of party discipline. The importance of party discipline revolves around the concept that representatives are not often voted into power as a consequence of their gender, but rather they are voted in because of their alignment with a specific party. As a consequence, representatives have to tow the party line and so gender becomes less relevant in terms of their ability to influence policy. One example which illustrates this in Britain is the significant rise in female Labour politicians following the 1997 General Election. Whilst feminist theories might argue that an increase in the descriptive representation of women in this situation would increase the substantive representation of women in the British Parliament, this was not the case. Phillips (2000, p.16) raises this point by highlighting the fact that the Labour candidates “were elected as candidates of the Labour Party, with no obvious mandate to speak for anything else. How, then, could they legitimately challenge the Government's decision to end special benefits for single parents - the first major issue on which all those extra women in parliament might have been expected to make some difference?”. Such an assessment is given strength by the Cowley and Childs’s (2003) report which highlights that these female Labour representatives were no more likely than their male colleagues to rebel against the party whip. This analysis then highlights that party structure is one of the key factors which render women’s involvement in politics to be no more beneficial to other women than men’s involvement is.
The issue of structure is one which is particularly important to analyze further because it shapes and constrains the environment in which women are able to represent other women. If women are not able to represent women politically due to the structure of the political system then there is no backing to the claim that women will be able to represent other women better than men would. Therefore, rather than just focusing on the extent to which women can only be represented by other women in legislatures, it is also important to focus beyond legislatures on institutions, agencies and social organizations. This is a point raised by (Weldon p.1158) who states that “policy outcomes…are not just a product of the legislators that enact them. They are shaped and implemented by the institutional structure in which they are formed”. One of the key areas of such analysis then is the focus on gendered norms and definitions. This is a point of analysis which is highlighted by Staudt (1997) who argues that traditional understandings of the issues within public administrative systems reflect the context of sexual inequality within which such bureaus were created. This is an argument also made by Lovenduski (1998, p.340) who focuses on masculinist ideologies as being “central to the workings of public institutions and therefore to political life”. Such an argument gains strength from examples such as the fact that the official definition of unemployment in the United States excludes women who are looking for paid employment but cannot obtain work because they cannot find child care (in Weldon, p.1159). This point shows that the claim that women can only be represented by other women fails to account for the sexist structural settings within which women act politically. As a consequence we should not look at increasing female representation descriptively in order to improve women’s substantive representation, rather there needs to be more focus on the structural powers that are restricting women issues from being properly acknowledged in the political arena.
As this essay has shown, analyzing the claim that women can only be properly politically represented by other women is one that is not at all straightforward. Firstly in terms of women’s substantive representation, there is no set policy list of women’s political needs that we can use to judge whether it is only women that can politically represent other women. This is due to the lack of homogeneity among women as a social group, thus highlighting the problems surrounding the advocacy of increased descriptive representation of women. Secondly, even if we then focus on issues that are relevant to women as a whole, this essay has shown that whilst the existence of female representatives may increase the female electorates perceptions of empowerment, crucially this does not translate into increased political participation. Therefore the symbolic existence of women in power has little influence in ensuring that the broader female population in the electorate are represented properly. Furthermore, whilst it has been argued female representatives are more receptive to their constituents needs than their male counterparts, this essay has shown that this is not the case and thus men are equally able to take on board the political desires of women within their constituencies. On the other hand that is not to undermine the existence of women as representatives of other women’s issues altogether, as crucially this essay has highlighted the fact that women are necessary in the deliberative phase of politics to ensure that issues relevant to women are not overlooked. Whilst these assertions are all relevant and important, this essay has shown that it is also equally necessary to appreciate the structural factors which are restricting women’s proper political representation. It should be concluded then that in some senses having a woman representative is beneficial to ensuring other women are properly represented politically, however, in order to ensure an increased political representation of women, an increased focus on structure is necessary.
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