Democracy and Feminism: Why women are more than a political “interest group”

by Janani Ramachandran

The other day as I was perusing the New York Times, I saw an ad that said “Women for Obama!” Recently in the news, I have been coming across instances in which Democrats have tossed around the phrase “War on Women” as a political attack tactic against Republican policies on reproductive rights among other issues. Obama and Romney are pitted against each other in political commentary as to who is better wooing women voters. Why on earth are women treated as a mere interest group in the political game, rather than a constituent of 51% of this country’s population?

It unnerves me to see the fundamental rights of women exploited by the crude pre-election frenzied country. Women’s “issues,” as Kavita Ramdas puts it, are not exclusive to the rights and benefits of a particular gender, but a critical part to the overall development of a society. Reproductive rights, anti-domestic violence campaigns, equal pay, among other issues that are at the forefront of politician’s “women’s agendas”, are in reality, basic tenets to invoke a sense of respect and equality of all persons regardless of gender.

Yet, despite my outrage on the politicizing of key issues, part of the reason for which such issues have been demanding greater political effort can be traced to the lack of women present in politics. Representation is absolutely key to understanding the current status of women within democratic systems, and also how it can be used to change the status quo. In this I mean, representation of not only the parties governed, but representation within the government structure itself.

Frank Fukuyama discusses the importance of institutions as a key component of a functioning democracy. Institutions can both be inclusive of various influential social and economic groups of society, as well as marginalize groups unrepresenteded in government. For example, a recent US Congressional hearing on Women’s Reproductive Rights did not have a single woman present on the panel, which undoubtedly altered the course of discussion. In thinking about some of the critical components of good institutions such as accountability and efficiency, scholars often overlook the importance of having a diverse group of individuals in a decision-making process. Often unconsciously, the intentions of men in perceiving issues relevant to women greatly differ from a policy enacted by women represented within the institutional structure of the government. Had there been more women in Congress instead of the dismal 17%, perhaps the discussion on reproductive rights would have taken a different turn, and not have led to the political campaigning mess that resulted from controversial Congressional discussions and bills.

Most people avoid thinking of “patronage” as anything remotely positive, as images of corrupt politicians often come to mind. Patronage systems have often been considered to provide benefits to a select group of people within society, such as various ethnic castes in India. While this does not necessarily directly parallel political responses to gender inequality, the courting of women for political votes, as has been demonstrated in recent American elections, can actually be thought of as a form of engagement and participation. Despite the repulsiveness and condescending nature of the portrayal of the promotion of a women’s agenda in political campaigns, the interest of politicians in promoting gender equality is a progressive step. This is, of course, until we can raise the percentage of women present in politics, which is a more sustainable, long-term solution to protecting and persevering the rights of women, celebrating their unique potential and capabilities in not only political life but in society as a whole.

Samuel Huntington describes patronage systems as early forms of political participation and strengthens the political party system, which is a key component of democratic governance. Pitting one political party against another with their own unique perspective on protecting women’s rights, and the fact that today, parties are finally interested and keen on discussing these issues, regardless of political motivations, is something that only democracy can provide. Furthermore, Larry Diamond’s distinction between basic and quality democracies highlight some of the key differences between what is a democracy in name, and what is a functioning, accountable democracy that provides equality and good governance. Essentially, it is easy to label countries as democratic with free and fair elections and free press, but to obtain real accountability involves not only consultation of marginalized populations, but much greater representation within governments as well by an increase of physical numbers in political office.

Democratic systems, despite the many flaws and lack of accountable and representative institutional structures, will be the key to greater representation and a pushing forth of an agenda inclusive of women in future years. Societal changes must occur in the meantime, with more impetus and motivation for women to pursue political career paths, and prove that they are not merely an interest group to be courted, but a societal force to be accepted, celebrated, and reckoned with. A more active role from women in other forms of democratic participation, such as in social and civic enterprises and organizations, which grow in importance and influence within a democratic system, may take on newfound significance to pushing women’s rights issues to the forefront, parallel to an increase of female percent of actual women in office. The key is to ensure women themselves are not divided in the struggle regardless of economic class, race or ethnicity. Unity in strength would bolster the idea that women are not separate interest groups by which politicians can deliver patronage to, but a diverse, collective majority component of society.

The bottom line is that simply because feminism and democracy have not always appeared to work in conjunction, does not mean there is a lack of potential to do so. Greater female representation coupled with accountable and efficient democratic institutional structures will be key to a more equitable future.

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