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Will Women Fix Politics For Us?

01/03/2017 15:31
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There's a lot of anger in public life today. But it's crude and shortsighted to tie the case for more women in politics to the idea that they will bring empathy with them. Women are getting the top through pragmatism and strategy: and we need to be good allies.

The second presidential debate on 9 October last year was uncomfortable viewing. Women told Rebecca Solnit that it caused flashbacks, deprived them of sleep, and gave them nightmares.

Trump roamed, loomed, glowered, snarled and appeared to copulate with his podium, grasping it with both hands and swaying his hips, seeming briefly lost in reverie...He was, as we sometimes say, in her space, and her ability to remain calm and on message seemed heroic. Like many men throughout the election, he appeared to be outraged that she was in it.

Pankaj Mishra recently argued that our current angry age is fuelled by the denial of emotion in our social and economic systems, which are founded on the rationally self-interested actor. As Geraldine Bedell expands further, this means that "emotion is stigmatised as belonging to lesser, non-normative groups." The consequence is a lot of emotion with nowhere to go, in Bedell's words. It's an energy that turns on the liberal order with a vengeance before lashing out first at women and Muslims alike.

Yet a notion that feminine virtues will save the day makes progress harder rather than easier. The Women's Equality Party has a platform of equal representation, equal pay, and an end to violence against women. However, Bedell saw tears cross the face of Sophie Walker during her leadership speech and read her square demands for equality as a plea for empathetic politics.

The association of leadership traits with stereotypically masculine qualities is fading, a 2011 psychology study found, while the presumption of male competence in leadership roles may also have evaporated. However, political scientists found that stereotypes of women politicians do not include the qualities typically ascribed to women, such as empathy and warmth. Instead, women in office are seen to 'lose' on stereotypically masculine qualities without gaining any stereotypically feminine advantages. All told, perceptions of female leaders are generally fuzzy because of their low numbers, and the academic evidence on their experience is even thinner. Gender essentialism fills the gap: Hillary Clinton can lose an election for being too female while also not feminine enough.

There's a short answer for anyone still claiming at this stage that there are enough women in public life. While women are half of the population, the Political Studies Association found in 2015 that they made up less than a third of MPs, 41 per cent of UK MEPs, 34 per cent of MSPs, 42 per cent of AMs, and 19 per cent of MLAs. In politics, Meryl Kenny finds, the evidence "overwhelmingly demonstrates that the central issue is one of demand rather than supply - in other words, women aren't the problem, parties are." Exclusionary behaviours stretch from explicit sexual harassment to indirect discrimination by party staff during selections.

So how can women continue to get ahead? A two-year study of women leaders from Afghanistan to Malawi found that while gender stereotypes could be strategically engaged with, politics was ultimately needed to build "substantive power". While appeals to traditional morality may help pass a Domestic Violence Act in Uganda, women's inheritance and land rights remain out of reach. Women pull together with other women to place transformative ideas on the agenda: and then they make pragmatic alliances with men to make change happen.

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