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How does gender affect politics?

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Above, Audre Lorde sums up one of the key arguments within contemporary feminist theorising. This is not just a boring discussion about differing political theoretical approaches but about the political agenda of feminism itself. That is, whether feminists should be seeking radical social change (dismantling the master’s house) or mere acceptance within the academic community, "as a legitimate area of institutional knowledge" (using the master’s tools to gain respectability). These objectives require different approaches to the title question. The ‘social change’ objective requires investigating the effects of gender upon women’s inclusion in and exclusion from the political process, (and where the boundaries of that process lie), while the ‘academy’ objective requires analysis of feminist critiques of the study of politics.

Gender to many feminists is seen as a social construct not a genetic/biological predetermined given. That is they argue that because the accepted roles and behaviour of women and men differ widely dependent on culture that difference ascribed to sex can only make sense when viewed within that culture and not as a universal biologically determined truth. This deconstructive analysis sees societal perception of male and female as in Simone de Beauvoir’s terms ‘self’ and ‘other’. That is masculinity is valued above femininity as a social construct no matter how the two are defined by that particular society.

If gender is a patriarchal construct of oppression, then what is the politics which it affects? Politics is a contested concept. The feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ puts the definition of politics into the private (feminine-domestic) sphere as well as the public (masculine-governmental) sphere. This view of politics sees oppression in all its forms as the political battleground. It is also a method of criticism of the liberal conception of politics as existing in the public domain only. It can do this for example by asking why it is that after seventy-one years of universal suffrage in the UK we still have no where near equal numbers of men and women sitting as MPs? Clearly the answer lies in gender determined expectations within the private sphere.

So, how does gender affect politics? As can be seen above, gender is more than mere biological difference and it is convincingly arguable that any definition of the practice of politics is affected by society’s conception of the gender roles of women. In order to enable commensurate political opportunity women require not only theoretical legal equality but also the creation of an androgynous societal norm for the understanding of gender roles. Whether this androgyny is something closer to the present conceptions of feminine than masculine, visa-versa or a totally new construction is an important question but beyond the scope of this essay. In order to rectify/destroy this inequality and remove the oppression caused by it, it is necessary to understand where, how and why it exists. Unfortunately, as noted by Lorde, the existing methodology of analysis was created and is owned by the masculine establishment. Understandably, many feminists see this as making it suspect and in need of replacement with a feminist form. This questions the establishment ‘Holy Grail’ of objectivity and plausibly argues that all viewpoints are inherently subjective and that any pretence at ‘academic neutrality’ is a sham and in Foucaultian terms an attempt to use the concept of truth as power. Some feminists such as Jenny Chapman argue that it is not the male behavioural methodologies themselves which are at fault but the ways in which they are applied which lead to patriarchaly inclined distortion.

In conclusion, gender affects politics in the practical sense by creating a public space for a hegemonic male elite group. In terms of the methods and approaches to politics gender can distort research findings by positing masculine assumptions as a neutral analytical position.



Ed. Mary Evans, The Woman Question, second edition, London, Sage, 1994

Ed. Sneja Gunew, Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct, London, Routledge, 1990

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972

Ed. David Marsh and Gerry Stoker, Theory and Methods in Political Science, London, Macmillan, 1995