Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Blog

A Feminist Reading of 'Rethinking Democracy'

Karen Celis and Sarah Childs


Muzammil Soorma

| 8 mins read

We are most certainly living in difficult democratic times, with populism on the up. Any lingering complacency over the health of liberal, representative democracy, is well and truly disabused by the contributors to Rethinking Democracy. In the opening essay former UK MP and academic Tony Wright is pointed: democracies can die, and they do not always do so via non-democratic means (Levisky and Ziblatt 2018). Even as its authors document – and in many ways lament – the rather sorry ‘condition and conduct of representative politics’, they make a strong case for its defence. It might be that the era of ‘pure representative politics’ (Wright, p 61) is over, but for many of these highly and rightly regarded scholars, it is to be protected by more participatory reforms rather than rejected. The book is dedicated to the authors’ grandchildren – ‘citizens of the future’.

The failings of representative democracy to do good by women is the focus of Joni Lovenduski’s essay, ‘Feminist Reflections on Representative Democracy’, but hers is not alone in documenting how its institutions, actors and wider norms have not fully delivered on its promises  of political equality, popular control, freedom of expression and transparency (Saward 2003, 162). Whilst not all authors subject their analysis to a feminist reading, we can. As feminist defenders of representative democracy, we wish to see it protected from both a populist critique that is antithetical to feminist politics, even as it might claim to speak for women, and the varieties of post-representative politics which, like too much of representative democratic theory and practices, fails to admit gender inequality.

Like Lovenduski, we agree that representative politics fails to represent women well, notwithstanding advances in women’s political presence and the greater attention given to ‘women’s issues’. The failure to realize women’s inclusion and equality rests on women being an ‘afterthought’. Established prior to women’s political mobilization, it is premised upon a ‘public/private divide’ and a sexual division of labour that traps women in the home. The evidence Lovenduski marshals is pretty damning: women are not equally present in our parliaments; they enter political institutions not of their own making – institutions which privilege a masculinized political agenda and reproduce gendered norms of behaviour; and gendered institutional reforms have thus far been inadequate, and frequently resisted. Her reconsideration on the centrality of women’s political accountability is a must read. Elected representatives, ‘tend not to have a clear mandate about how to act concerning women’s issues and interests’; women are ‘explicitly considered to be a group to whom decision makers should be accountable’.

There is moreover a strong warning that proposed institutional and other reforms in circulation and put forward in Rethinking Democracy must themselves be subject to feminist critique. Much is made for the redistribution of political power, with the reform of local government advocated across chapters. Vernon Bogdanor argues for local government becoming ‘self-government’ once again; Gerry Stoker seeks to counter ‘the politics of resentment’ with a ‘politics of place and identity.’ Through local accountability citizens will regain their ‘stake’ in politics. There is an appeal to a ‘more consensual, better gender balanced and more open representative politics’ (Stoker p 148). But some caution is needed here: feminization does not happen by chance nor is it secure. Stoker’s example – the National Assembly of Wales – was ‘made’ more gender-balanced by Labour using a sex quota; and overtime the institution has become less gender-balanced. Questions must be asked too of how gender plays in the politics of place and identity? In popular commentary feminism and ‘metropolitan elites’ are frequently elided. When Stoker considers ‘resentful social liberals’, we worry about a populism/anti-populism that is nostalgic and sees feminism as a cause of democracy’s current difficulties – not that we are suggesting that Stoker thinks this.

The current fashion for more participatory and direct democracy to augment representative democracy requires critical reflection too. Participatory experiments are quite the fashion (Bogdanor, p 60; see also Allen 2018). Proponents of decisions made by groups selected by lottery make optimistic claims – and on paper they are correct. Women would almost certainly be better represented numerically given they make up half of the population. But recent scholarship queries whether women will be able to take up their invitations. Recalling Lovenduski, even when present women’s lack of authority means that they are frequently silenced (Karpowitz and Mendlberg 2014). More than this, random lot will struggle to ensure that a diversity of women are made present; with privileged women able to participate by the private sphere labour of poorer and likely minority ethnic women. Nor should we assume that random lot unquestionably brings about ‘good representation’ – is it really representation? Accountability is in any case written out (Allen 2018).

The attention to who participates in our parliaments by male scholars in Rethinking Democracy is to be welcomed. Criticism of narrow political classes (Runciman and Wright) and suggestions that ‘we’ should be ‘far more interested in the whole business of pol recruitment than we currently are’ (p 15) is something feminists have been talking for decades (Norris and Lovenduski 1995). Colin Crouch suggests a critical role for women’s political leadership in facing up to populism’s macho politics:  the problems of post-industrial society ‘may be best articulated by women’ given women’s keener experiences of work/life imbalance, precarious labour markets, inadequate care services, and consumer manipulation. Feminist criticism of populism, and of its academic study builds on criticism that there is simply no such thing as a ‘pure’ people (Wright; Weale), some are left out (Crouch). If illiberal democracies threaten the civil, social political rights of minorities (Gamble, p 153) they also threaten women’s rights; ‘the people’ are not gender- undifferentiated.

The discussion of social media across chapters limits our confidence that women’s and feminists’ role in defending democracy will not be met by resistance. The political public sphere reproduces social and cultural inequalities and is dominated by the right (Finlayson pp 79, 89). In asking feminists to engage, or lead the democratic fightback, we may be putting them at serious risk. Margetts (p 117) argues that social media misogyny, and some gender and politics scholars consider this violence against women (Krook 2018) ‘threatens to discourage a whole generation of women and ethnic minorities from public life’.

A feminist defence of representative democracy against itself and its critics will need to be more extensive. We read in Lovenduski’s essay a lingering optimism that it can be made. Rethinking Democracy is great place to start, led by Lovenduski. She has always challenged non-gendered political science. In the face of a backlash against feminist gains, there is an urgency to identify and exploit the ‘resources needed to mobilize for [feminist] change’ (Lovenduski, p 34).

This article originally appeared on the website of the Birkbeck Centre for Political Life.

  • Karen-Celis_avatar.png

    Karen Celis

    Karen Celis is research professor at the Department of Political Science, and co-director Research of RHEA (Centre of Expertise Gender Diversity and Intersectionality) of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

    Articles by Karen Celis
  • Sarah-Childs_avatar.jpg

    Sarah Childs

    Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck College, University of London.

    Articles by Sarah Childs