Feminism and the historical struggle for gender equality
Feminism can be seen as an ideology and a social movement that historically has been concerned with the unequal status of women.[i] The feminist authors employ gender as a central category of analysis. To be more precise, feminists are considering gender as a particular sort of power relations in both global politics and international relations. In other words, a focal fact of such power relations is the segregation within society, of males, who tend to engage in wage work and politics, and females, who are engaged in housework and childcare. This is exactly what the feminist authors are calling to be the public and the private spheres of lives. However, the crucial point is that for feminists, gender is focal to the understanding of politics, especially of international relations.[ii]
Historically, there were three big waves of feminism as a social movement:
- First-wave feminism was from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century and refers mainly to women’s suffrage movements which were of political nature and mainly concerned with women’s right to vote and, therefore, to become politically active and influential. This wave was based on the liberal goal of sexual equality in the areas of legal and political rights, particularly suffrage rights. Liberal feminists believe that sex differences are irrelevant to personal worth and call for equal rights for women and men in the public sphere of life.[iii]
- Second-wave feminism occurred in the 1960s and refers to the ideas and actions associated with the women’s liberation movement which campaigned for legal and social equality for women. It was characterized by a more radical concern with “women’s liberation”, including in the private sphere.
- Third-wave is situated at the beginning of the 1990s and still goes on. This wave refers to a continuation of and a reaction to the perceived failures of the second-wave feminism.[iv] This is, in fact, radical feminism – a form of feminism that understands gender divisions to be the most politically important concerning social cleavages. The radical feminists believe that these are rooted in the structures of family or domestic life.
Furthermore, feminism can be seen as an ideology with different writings and investigations on the unequal status of women. In the 1920s and 1930s, social sciences began to investigate the gender issue.[v] There was the main focus on sex roles investigation and while social scientists did not see sex and gender as synonymous, they believed that they were closely connected. They claimed that the particular characteristics of men and women led to the performances of particular social roles. The prevailing sexual division of labor reflected the close correspondence between gender traits and sex roles. Gender was thus held to be, if not immutable and natural, then at least relatively stable and fixed and, moreover, socially useful. It was even possible to speak about deviancy in relation to those people who were held to be insufficiently “masculine”[vi] or “feminine” and who could not be accommodated within such a framework.
In the 1960s, there was an upraise of feminist analyses which claimed that sex roles were assigned by society, and male-identifying roles were frequently seen to be more important and deserving of greater social rewards then female-orientated roles. The theories that explained women’s particular status in terms of either their “natural” or “essential” characteristics were ideological, serving to legitimize an unjust social order that valued men and the “masculine” more highly than women and the “feminine”.[vii]
Based on such analysis, feminists argued that the route to sexual equality and women’s liberation lay in challenging conventional sex roles. This was not an easy task as sex roles were deeply entrenched in a complex system of stereotyping, supported by a whole range of social institutions and practices and the state as a patriarchal power or patriarchy.[viii] Patriarchy literally means governing by the father. The term is differently used by different feminist groups. Some feminists use patriarchy in this specific and limited sense in order to describe the structure of the family and the dominance of the husband-father over both his wife and his children. However, other feminist groups like radical feminists use this term to refer to the system of male power in society including politics too. A patriarchal society is, therefore, characterized by both gender and generational oppression.[ix]
The feminist movement has given rise to a large body of theory that attempts to explain gender inequalities and set forth agendas for overcoming those inequalities. While on one hand feminist writers are all concerned with women’s unequal position in society, their explanations for it, on the other hand, vary substantially. Nonetheless, competing schools of feminism have sought to explain gender inequalities through a variety of deeply embedded social processes, such as sexism, patriarchy, capitalism, or racism.[x]
An example of a feminist school is liberal feminism, who focuses on inequalities in social and cultural attitudes and independent deprivations from which women suffer, such as sexism, unequal payment, and the “glass ceiling”. Liberal feminists do not focus on gender study though and they do not deal with the root causes of gender inequality and do not acknowledge the systemic nature of women’s oppression in society, unlike radical feminists who believe that men are responsible for and benefit from the exploitation of women, and believe that both the world system and political systems through history are of the patriarchal nature.[xi] Radical feminists do not believe that women can be liberated from sexual oppression through reforms or gradual change. Because patriarchy is a systemic phenomenon, they argue, gender equality can only be attained by overthrowing the patriarchal order.[xii]
Just to mention that many other feminist schools are worth taking a look at as, for example, black feminism, critical feminism, Marxist feminism, poststructuralist feminism, or postcolonial feminism.[xiii]
Gender and Politics
The study of politics is traditionally “gender-blind”. Here, it has to be stressed that gender refers to the social construction of sexual difference. As such term “gender” is clearly distinct from the term “sex”. For almost all feminists, “sex” highlights biological, and, therefore, ineradicable, differences between females and males, while “gender” denotes a set of culturally defined distinctions between women and men.
In the academic discipline that focused primarily on politics, states, and inter-state relations, gender politics and gender relations are of little relevance. However, since the beginning of the 1980s, feminist perspectives on global affairs is gaining growing prominence.
There are series of important contributions by feminist authors in the academic fields of politics, international relations (IR), and political theory in which they focused on how gender issues, concerns, and women’s participation are excluded from the public politics on various levels from local to national. Their focal conclusions are for the reason of such practices because of, on the one hand, the division between the public and private spheres, and the language and politics of universal political rights, on the other.[xiv] However, the feminist writers heavily challenged such constructs pointing at the same time out that the public and the universal historically are masculine in nature. Therefore, feminist activists are fighting for greater access to institutional politics of women in particular, and to reconstitute the world of politics in general.
The concern of the liberal feminist movement was improving access for women to institutions of public power through the process of improving education, the legislation regarding equal opportunities, and in such a way challenging the system and practices of political patriarchy. Nevertheless, both radical and Marxist feminist groups have been challenging the very linking of the political to the public. Representatives of both groups are in the strong opinion that the focal reason why women are systematically excluded from the political sphere is the false distinction that is made and maintained by patriarchy between the public and the private spheres of life.
The feminist authors as well as challenged the institutionalized, delegation form of political activities by stressing the importance of direct participation in politics (“direct democracy”). A common contribution of all black feminists to the debate on politics by insisting upon the importance of race in Western societies, especially in the USA, which does not allow them to take a serious role in the participation in the politics both as females and “colored”.[xv]
All feminists are supporting an idea and practice of the so-called gender mainstreaming – the terminology that was first proposed as policy in the international arena in 1985 during the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi (Kenya), and formally featured in the policy conclusions of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (China). Gender mainstreaming today is a mainstay of both national and international bodies looking to address gender equality including and in politics. Gender mainstreaming legislation is focused on two focal questions: 1) How to integrate gender across a wide variety of policy platforms? and 2) How to apply that integration is not only policy-making but policy implementation. Shortly, gender mainstreaming is the attempt to “mainstream” gender into the decision-making process by requiring that, before decisions are made, an analysis has to be done of their likely effects on women and men respectively.
It is true that in most political systems, women are vastly underrepresented. Throughout the world, women face obstacles for their participation in politics. These barriers exist in prevailing social and economic systems, as well as in existing political structures.[xvi] It is not the case that women are not represented, rather than that, they do not have the share of political power that would be expected given free and equal access. In other words, in this context exists a visible democratic deficit.[xvii]
In 2007, for example, the rate of female representation at the national level stands at merely 18 percent globally. Although this figure has increased in recent years, minimal progress has been made, meaning that the ideal of parity between men and women in national legislatures remains distant.[xviii]
Moreover, there are also very few women in the “high politics” (or key positions in politics), but some of them who are becoming notorious warmongers, racist or imperialists as, for instance, Queen Victoria,[xix] the US Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, Madeline Albright or the UK PM Margaret Thatcher. The achievements of some female individuals like I. Gandhi, G. Meir, or B. Bhutto, remarkable as they are, mask a considerable imbalance in the numbers of women who have political power.[xx] The question can be asked if this is a consequence of discriminatory practices based on the general belief that women are not eligible for political involvement, at least in “high” politics – a belief which is a pure consequence of traditions and stereotypes.[xxi]
Some factors which make it hard for women to rise to the top levels of industry and commerce operate with even more vigor in politics. This includes four main issues:
- The enormous drain on an individual’s time if they are to rise to the key political functions. Far fewer women, particularly if they choose to have children (and then become locked into a childcare role), can devote the time it takes to reach the top positions. Many research results made clear that childcare and housework are very unequally shared with the women taking on most of the burden.
- There is an alleged operation of the “old boys” network in selection for key positions. Even where the policy is one of promotion to key jobs on merit alone, there are far fewer suitable qualified women (in terms of experience) to choose from.[xxii] This is largely because access to such suitable qualified previous positions is not there for them in the first place.
- Men also set the very standards by which women will be judged when they apply for senior positions, and these may discriminate against women because they are based on male assumptions of a “woman’s place”.
- Political power might well represent the ultimate in the ability to influence things. Are men especially reluctant to loosen their grip on this?[xxiii]
Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.
[i] Steans J., Gender and International Relations, Second Edition, Polity, 2006, pp. 7−8. About feminism, see more in [Scott W. J., Feminism & History, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2000].
[ii] Haynes J. et al, World Politics, New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis, 2013, 196.
[iii] This approach is very familiar to androgyny: The possession of both male and female characteristics. It is used to imply that human beings are sexless individuals in the sense that sex is irrelevant to their social role or political status [Heywood A., Global Politics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 414].
[iv] Krolokke C., Sorensen A. S., Gender Communication Theories and Analyses: From Silence to Performance, Sage, 2005, p. 24.
[v] In the early social sciences, sex differences were largely taken for granted, reflecting the degree to which gender differences were uncontested – or perhaps unnoticed – among male-dominated scholarly communities [Steans J., Gender and International Relations, Second Edition, Polity, 2006, pp. 8−10].
[vi] Masculinism is, in fact, gender bias that derives from the portrayal of male or masculine views as either superior o ras objective and rational.
[vii] See more in [Reeser W. T., Masculinities in Theory: An Introduction, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010].
[viii] Steans J., Gender and International Relations, Second Edition, Polity, 2006, pp. 8−10.
[ix] Contrary to patriarchy, matriarchy means literally rule by the mother. Matriarchy is a society, whether historical or hypothesized, that is governed by women. Nevertheless, many radical feminists claim that a matriarchal society would be more peaceful compared to the patriarchal one. However, such an approach is misleading gender stereotypes as the idea that culture and social conditioning disposes men to favor war while women allegedly favor peace breaks down as soon as the behavior of real women and men politicians is taken historically into consideration. Just to mention that women as well as fight, as it can be demonstrated by female terrorists and guerilla fighters. Many women political leaders, like M. Thatcher in 1982, adopted warmongering policy, while many male leaders (M. Gandhi. M. L. King, W. Brandt) took strategies of non-violence and conciliation. See more in [Shepherd L. J., Gender Matters in Global Politics, 2010].
[x] Giddens A., Sociology, Cambridge−Oxford: Polity Press, 2004, p. 114.
[xi] See for instance [Isaacs K. A., Political Systems and Definitions of Gender Roles, Pisa, Pisa University, 2001].
[xii] Giddens A., Sociology, Cambridge−Oxford: Polity Press, 2004, pp. 114−115.
[xiii] See more in [Budryte D. et al (eds.), Feminist Conversations: Women, Trauma, and Empowerment in Post-Transitional Societies, Lanham: University Press of America, 2009].
[xiv] See more in [Coates J. (ed.), Language and Gender: Reader, Oxford−New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2000]. About women’s citizenship and political rights, see in [Sirkku K. et al (eds.), Women’s Citizenship and Political Rights, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006].
[xv] About racism, see in [Bulmer M., Solomos J. (ed.), Racism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999].
[xvi] Phillips A., „The Representation of Women“, The Polity Reader in Gender Studies, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1998, pp. 195−204.
[xvii] European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, 2009-02-23, Gender Equality:
[xviii] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), 2009, Democracy and Gender:
[xix] About gender in Victorian Britain, see more in [Chaudhuri N., „Shawls, Jewelry, Curry, and Rice in Victorian Britain“, Chaudhuri N., Strobel M. (eds.), Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, Bloomington−Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 231−246].
[xx] Clements P., Spinks T., The Equal Opportunities Handbook: How to Deal with the Everyday Issues of Unfairness, Fourth Edition, London−Philadelphia: Kogan Page, 2006, pp. 82−83.
[xxi] Steans J., Gender and International Relations, Second Edition, Polity, 2006, p. 28.
[xxii] See more, for instance, in [Davidoff L., Hall C., Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780−1850, Revised Edition, London−New York, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2002].
[xxiii] Clements P., Spinks T., The Equal Opportunities Handbook: How to Deal with the Everyday Issues of Unfairness, Fourth Edition, London−Philadelphia: Kogan Page, 2006, pp. 85−87.