Most democratic governments claim to support equality for women, but none have so far achieved it. Even after decades of struggle and despite significant progress, at the beginning of 2018, only one of the top five countries in terms of the presence of women in the legislature is a democracy. In only two countries, Rwanda and Bolivia, neither of which are democracies, are women more than 50% of legislators.
Worse, it seems that the relative absence of women is not even seen as a problem. Voter suppression, attacks on the judiciary, intolerance of minorities and increased violence all figure in recent assessments of serious threats to democracy by watchdogs such as the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch. But the inequality of women hardly features at all.
The problem is that democracy’s failure to deliver equality for women results from fundamental biases of design: representative democratic political institutions pre‐date women’s political mobilisation. They were engineered for and by successive dominant groups of men aiming to build institutions to protect their power and privilege. From the ancient world to the present day, women have been afterthoughts in representative democracy. Any reading of the history of democratic thought reveals not only that its key proponents were men, but also that its vision was a masculine one. Nowadays, while women are eligible to vote and hold elected office, we are still not considered to be fundamental elements of systems of representative democracy.
The resulting arrangements are based on a relationship between public and private life that trapped women in the private sphere, where they are designated as others, as different, always as less than men. In these systems, women were first treated as chattel, as dependents, as minors, and more recently as a minority, despite constituting more than half the population.
True, many groups of men lack access to the levers of political power, but it is not simply because they are men. Their bodies do not disqualify them from political activity or consideration. Disqualifiers for men are mainly about class, race and territory, barriers that women also experience. Women therefore face additional obstacles simply because of their gender. Thus, women are often treated like they ‘don’t belong’ in politics. During and after the 2017 UK general election, Boris Johnson and Diane Abbott (both controversial characters) were treated as polar opposites. While criticism of Johnson concentrated on his haphazard buffoonery, which may or may not be a suitable source of amusement, Abbott was and continues to be routinely subjected to appalling levels of sexist and racist abuse.
No set of institutions can guarantee the equal presence of women in democratic decision making. In fact, an apparent naturalness of masculine dominance is hardwired. Equalities advocates among the founders of the Scottish Parliament were disappointed to see adversarial Westminster habits and ways of doing politics soon establish themselves at Holyrood.
There has been some positive change. Almost a century after enfranchisement, women have been able to get everyday sexual abuse onto the political agenda. This type of maltreatment is a crucial impediment to women’s political activism and, as such, a barrier to democratic politics. We’ve also seen the implementation of quotas of women political candidates, as well as more focus on the gender pay gap, childcare, and gender‐based violence. However, policy is never framed as explicitly for women’s rights, but as business efficiency, family policy or child protection.
Such piecemeal change is not actually enough, especially when too often it requires assimilation of female politicians to the political order. What is needed is a paradigm shift whereby roles and institutions are reimagined and re‐engineered. The entire institutional structure and culture now requires root and branch reform if women are to be politically equal.
Why then should feminists support democracy? The standard answer is that it permits access to some of the resources needed to mobilise for change. Another answer is that there is no choice.
Anyway, it may be time to concentrate on what is coming next. Global corporations such as Amazon, Google and Facebook are assuming control of large parts of our lives. All the evidence is that they are, at best, very slow to prioritise ridding their companies of sexism; at worst, they are sexist organisations, many of whose senior employees take some pride in the exclusion and mistreatment of women. Are the structures of Silicon Valley a more urgent challenge for feminists than the difficult project of reforming democracies?
Note: this article was originally published on the LSE Politics and Policy blog. It is adapted from a chapter in Rethinking Democracy, edited by Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright (Political Quarterly Monograph Series, 2019). For information on launch events throughout the year, see here.