Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why are there still so few women political leaders?

This is a topic of a book about women and politics by Ruth and Simon Henig. It is more a collection of essays that catalogue women’s participation in the political sphere in Europe since 1945.

It is an important area for those who value the contribution of women to all aspects of society and it is also important to understand what has gone on before.

If nothing else, ‘Women and Political Power in Europe since 1945’ is a look at the state of play of who gets to take part in the decision making in society. It may just look at Europe but it acts as a history lesson and example to benchmark our experience in Australia. It teases out the themes that can aid us in our discussion in how we can make the Australian political scene as well as it’s Civil Society more inclusive and representative.

After all women make up roughly half the population so why should our parliamentarians and political elite be already privileged white males? As Henig and Henig cite an American Study that argues that, ‘though 99.5% of the women in the world are legally entitled to participate in the political process, the numbers of women in public office remain in most countries appallingly low’. (2001, 2)

Political agendas as defined by men (ibid) and unequal divisions of domestic responsibilities both play a part in limiting the number of women in public life.  

While this book briefly touches on these barriers, what I found especially interesting is the explanation of the parallels between the second wave of feminism, the Green Movement (including the Anti-nuclear protests) and the rise of women participating in mainstream politics.

What I found useful was the discussion about the effect of women’s organisations on the level of female participation in politics. More common in 1970s and 1980s, women’s groups as part of mainstream political parties grew in an attempt to increase female participation and to appeal to women voters.

The question was asked, is it more effective to outside the tent or within it? Henig and Henig seem to argue that women’s voting habits transcend gender and individual’s decision to caste their ballot is based on other variables, making special women’s parties and lists ineffective.  

An alternative to these special parties that was discussed were the women’s factions within mainstream political parties. There was some debate in regards to the effective of this strategy and whether having a female only section really increased participation in the wider organisation. Henig and Henig state that ‘not all authors have viewed party women’s organisations in such a positive light. Specifically, such groups have been criticised for women away from mainstream party structures, thereby exacerbating the isolation of women, and for concentrating on social activities rather than political (2000, page 45). 

It seemed that the key was to empower women to contribute in the mainstream parts as equals with men rather than relegating them to a separate section. Of course there are issues that prevent them from doing this but the effort should be spent reducing these barriers.

This book did make me think about the ways that institutions can be more inclusive of women as well as other minority groups. It makes me look more closely at strategies that try to increase participation and be more critical about tokenistic programmes and empty rhetoric. It is one thing try and increase participation in politics, etc. but it is pointless unless individuals have the agency to actually make a difference.

The discussions around how to do this is complex and is worthy for a much longer book but Ruth Henig and Simon Henig’s Women and Political Power was an interesting read despite it written over a decade ago. I’m much more appreciative about what feminists have done before and its inspired me to continue to be part of the movement.  I’ve learnt the importance of being inside the metaphorical tent rather than loitering in the foyer or outside in the shadows because more can be done this way. 

Henig, R. and Henig, S. Women and Political Power: Europe since 1945 (Routledge, London: 2001)

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