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Women's Engagement in Politics

Info: 3569 words (14 pages) Essay
Published: 13th Aug 2018 in Politics

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Why are there relatively few women engaged in political activity?


It is evident that women are underrepresented in government and in general do not engage in political activity in the same numbers as men do. Various explanations have been used to explain this phenomenon: entrenched discrimination on the part of candidate selectors, elite theory as well as the Supply and Demand Model. This paper visits each explanation in turn finding some value in each. Finally, the argument is made that another possibility is that the system has been created by men for men. When states and constitutions were created in today’s developing countries, women did not have the right to vote, own property or engage in any political activity. Therefore, one could argue that the terms of the social contract on which liberal democracies are based are male- centric and do not allow for the equal representation of women.

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Theoretical Perspectives:

Women and Democracy

Beyond the basic interpretation of democracy as “rule by the people”, scholars have noted that democracy has evolved, changing over time and space and responding to evolution in public affairs. As explained by Meny “it is commonly accepted that democracy has varied over time, evolving from a rather elitist and restrictive form to a more open and participatory form of government” (Meny, 2002, p.10). Dahl identifies three evolutionary waves, or “transformations” of democracy, from the Greek city- state to the republic and finally to the nation- state (Dahl, 1989).

Furthermore, Dahl identifies the basic criteria for a democratic process as: effective participation, voting equality at the decisive stage, enlightened understanding, control of the agenda by the people, and equal opportunity (Dahl, 1989). Effective participation is the requirement for citizens to have an equal chance of expressing preference for the political outcome, and their choice should be weighed as equal to that of any other citizen. Enlightened understanding means that citizens should be informed in their choice and have an understanding of the system.

At first glance, therefore, one would be surprised with the arguments posed by some Feminists that standard definitions of democracy such as the above are discriminatory against women and legitimize a gender- biased system. Waylen asserts: “democracy defined in these ways becomes a ‘political method’ simply an institutional arrangement to generate and legitimize leadership” (Waylen, 1994, p.332). To help us understand statements like these, we should consider the distinction between different kinds of “equality” and the historic inequality democratic systems have imposed on women. There is an important distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of result. If a system merely aims at equality of opportunity then giving women the right to vote and come forward as candidates would be an end in itself; but if equality of result is sought, then one would see that external factors diminish the value of equality of opportunity (Karam ed. 1998).

A historic overview of “democracy” reveals that as a system in application, it is embedded with inequality. The democrats in ancient Greece excluded women, slaves and immigrants and considered foreigners to be “barbarians” and therefore inferior to the Greeks. At a minimum, democracy requires that people have the right to vote, and this right was not given to women until recently: 1919 in West Germany, 1920 in the USA, 1921 in the UK and 1971 in Switzerland (just to name a few examples of developed and democratic states).

In accounting for this inequality, Feminists emphasize the concept of patriarchy and the distinction between the public and private sphere. Patriarchy[1] means “rule by fathers” and mainstream political theory argues that this system has been obsolete and no longer n existence since more than three hundred years ago. Feminists, however, have always been pointing out that it still exists. Pateman argues that patriarchy has been replaced by “fraternity”[2] through the establishment of the social contract.

Patriarchy has its foundations in the separation between the public and the private sphere, thereby keeping women confined in the private sphere, removed from politics: “The division of public and private life as one that differentiates the woman (private) from the man (public) is the overarching ideological tool of patriarchy” (Corrin 1999 quoting Eisenstein 1984).

Liberal Democracy

This system aims to check both the tyranny of the majority and the abuse of power by a government, usually through a system of checks and balances. The system merely aims at equality of opportunity (and not equality of result or of condition) and accountability through voting. It assumes that society consists of a plurality of interests which compete with each other over influence over political outcomes. As a result of this competition a stalemate may occur which means little or piece meal change to the system can be achieved and thus the status quo perpetuates.

This model embraces the distinction between the public and private sphere. [3] Feminists therefore criticize liberal democracy and assert that inequalities between husband and wife reduce the value of political life for women. Feminists also feel that a “gender- neutral” approach to citizenship (as is proposed by liberal democracy) actually serves to exclude women. Phillips argues that concepts such as the individual, citizenship, rights etc are male categories (Phillips, 1991).

Participatory Democracy

This model requires social equality and emphasizes participation. It challenges the private- public distinction and proposes that for democracy to be meaningful in the public sphere there must also be democracy in the private sphere. Feminists agree that voting is not enough and that there must be discussion and participation. However, feminists argue that this model also creates an elite of “active” citizens. As certain categories of women such as housewives have less free time, they are less able to be “active” in public affairs and would therefore be disadvantaged.

Elite Theory

Elite theory assumes that throughout history there has been a group of people who “rule” and the rest who are ruled by them. Essentially this theory is about power and its distribution. Gaetano Mosca argues that the existence of the elite and its dominance depends on its organizational position and abilities. Mosca believes that the more organized minority will prevail over the less organized majority. Mosca distinguishes between an upper stratum elite (small group of political decision- makers) and a lower stratum of the elite, who perform lesser political functions. Mosca saw elite- formation as inevitable; if the mass were to rise against the elite and replace it in government, another small group would rise from within the masses and prevail over the rest. Mosca saw elite theory and democracy as compatible (Rush, 1992).

Michels drew upon Mosca’s “iron law of oligarchy” and argued that like all other organizations, political parties are dominated by their leadership. Pareto diverges from the Marxist notion that the elite are defined in economic terms, and argues instead that it is human attributes such as motivation and abilities which define it (Rush, 1992).

Political Recruitment

The Selection Process

Norris and Lovenduski identify three levels of analyzing political recruitment: a) systematic factors such as the legal system, the electoral system and the party system, which set the context for analysis, b) context- setting factors such as party organization, rules and ideology, c) factors influencing directly the recruitment of individual candidates such as resources and motivations of applicants and the attitudes of “gatekeepers” (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

The recruitment process is generally evaluated by testing whether the system is democratic (involving local activists and grassroots members), whether it is fair (treating all applicants equally), whether it is efficient (as a decision- making process) and whether it is effective in producing candidates of a high standard (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

There are six main types of selection process and these are: 1) informal- centralized, where constitutional mechanisms may be in place but in essence patronage controls outcomes and rules are largely symbolic 2) informal – regional where factions bargain in order to get good positions for their candidates, 3) informal- localized where the decision over which selection procedure will be used depends on local groups and therefore procedures vary and the system is open to manipulation by small groups 4, 5) formal- centralized/ formal- regional where party leaders at national or at regional level have the power to choose candidates and 6) formal- localized where constitutional rules and guidelines create a standard procedure and all applicants are treated equally (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

According to Norris and Lovenduski: “in the long term the main change in recruitment within British parties has been in process rather than power. There has been a gradual evolution from an ‘informal- localized’ system based on patronage in the nineteenth century towards more ‘formal- localized’ system today based on more meritocratic standards” (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995, p.5).

Supply and Demand

In analyzing trends in political recruitment, Norris and Lovenduski present the Supply and Demand Model : “based on a ‘supply and demand’ model, the study distinguishes between the factors influencing the ‘supply’ of candidates willing to come forward and the factors influencing the ‘demand’ of party selectors in making their decisions” ((Norris and Lovenduski, 1995, p.14). On the Demand side, selectors choose based on perceptions of the candidates’ abilities, experience etc. Such perceptions can be affected by discrimination and stereotyping either in a positive r in a negative way. Direct discrimination is judging people as members of groups instead of as individuals. Imputed discrimination amounts to selectors favouring certain categories of candidates e.g. women or racial minorities (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

On the Supply side, selectors may argue that certain categories of people such as women do not come forward as candidates. Motivation and constrained resources may affect potential candidacies. Also, demand and supply are inter-related; some may be deterred from coming forward out of fear of discrimination (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

Applied to the case of women, the Demand side proposes that women may have lower resources in terms of money and time as well as lower levels of political ambition and confidence. On the supply side, selector may employ direct or imputed discrimination against women: “the basic problem is that selectors are not enthusiastic about women candidates. They believe the electorate does not want them. They do not see women as having the same commitment as men. They do not know how to categorize them … in short, they apply different standards” (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995, p.115 quoting Mitchell 1982).

Party Selection

In the Conservative Party, following the Chelmer Report 1972 the rules guiding procedures were revised. This slightly strengthened the role of party members at the expense of the constituency executive committee. In 1980 the Conservative Central Office introduced managerialist selection boards to scrutinize candidates on the Approved List before they could apply. These boards aimed to produce better quality candidates and fairer procedures (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

The Labour general party modernization in the 1980s included selection rules reform. Thus, there was a mandatory reselection for incumbents, a formalized selection procedure and power shifted downwards to an electoral college of all members. To encourage more women candidates the Party altered short listing rules and introduced more training programs (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995). For the general election 1997 Labour introduced women-only shortlists whereby a proportion of local parties were required to shortlist only women candidates for selection. The policy was then withdrawn as it was found in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

The Electoral System

According to Norris and Lovenduski “the British electoral system is commonly seen as contributing towards the localism of the selection process, by strengthening the links between individual MPs and their constituency” (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995, p.28). The British first- pass- the post system is based on a 651 plurality, single member districts and opportunities are determined by the number of seats. Voters can vote for or against individual candidates, but have no say over who is placed before them as a candidate (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

The incumbency turnover further constrains opportunities to enter parliament. The rise of “careerism” whereby MPs enter parliament at a younger age and see their position as a career further supports this proposition. The party system is a further constraint; traditionally the UK was considered a two- party system, but this has gradually been weakened in the post- war period (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

Conclusions: Accounting for Women’s Under representation

The Discrimination Argument

Some feel that women are discriminated against by part selectors: “discrimination by gatekeepers is probably one of the most common explanations of the social bias in our parliament” (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995, p.123). However, it is difficult to establish proof of this discrimination. Others feel that at present the system is open to women and explain the under representation in terms of structural constraints such as lack of confidence or the difficulty to combine family life with a career in politics (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995).

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There is also the argument that selectors may not be biased themselves, but may feel that the electorate has biased perceptions. Therefore, to avoid ‘losing’ they do not select ‘risky’ candidates such as women or ethnic minorities. In general, ‘winning’ candidates are perceived as local, white, middle class and male: “perceptions of anticipated electoral gains and losses reflect, and thereby reinforce the dominant class and racial biases within parliament” (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995, p.136).

The Elite Theory argument

An application of elite theory to liberal democracies at present, confirms the validity of this model. Electoral systems may mean that the voters do not have a genuine choice and that this lies in the hands of the selectorate, usually party officials: “studies in a number of countries show that in socio- economic terms the differences between successful and unsuccessful candidates are not great and that the selection of candidates is often in the hands of a small group of party leaders and activists” (Rush, 1992, p.66).

The Social Contract Revisited

Nadezhda Shvedova identifies the difficulties women face in achieving equal representation in government: political, socio-economic, and ideological/psychological obstacles (Karam ed. 1998). Political obstacles include: the type of electoral system ( Shvedova believes proportional representation is better for increasing women’s representation), prevalence of the “masculine model” of political life e.g. the “predator mentality” that is supposedly alien to women, and lack of party support. Arguments of socio-economic obstacles usually stem from the theory that higher development brings more democratization; Ideological/psychological obstacles are the traditional social roles assigned to women and men, women’s lack of confidence, the perception of politics as a “dirty”, and the way in which women are portrayed in the mass media.

In newly democratized countries mechanisms such as quotas have been devised to ensure equal representation. Quotas are introduced to make sure that women constitute a certain percentage of the members of a public body such as a candidate list, committee, parliament assembly, or government. They usually aim at achieving at least a “critical minority” of 30-40% for women (Karam ed. 1998). The three most common forms of these mechanisms are: constitutional quotas which reserve seats in the national parliament for women, election law quotas which are written in national law, and political party quotas which are adopted by political parties to achieve a certain percentage of women as candidates.

According to Dahlerup, “History seems to prove that the implementation of a quota system is made easier in a new political system than in an older one, where most seats might be ‘occupied’, and consequently a conflict may arise between the interests of new groups versus those of the incumbent” (Karam ed. 1998). Countries that have implemented quotas for women are : Uganda, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Tanzania, Belgium, Italy and Namibia (Karam ed. 1998).

An example of a newly democratized state where women played an important role in creating the institutions and the foundations of the state is South Africa. According to Seidman “During the South African transition women activists played a surprisingly important role in the negotiations, in the elections, and in designing the new state. Women’s participation is already leading to new approaches in policy making and, I will suggest, to the construction of a new vision of gendered citizenship” (Seidman 1999, p. 288). This illustrates the ambiguous relationship between development and democracy, and the relationship between the role played by women in freedom or independence struggles and their subsequent role in the new state. .

However, it is more difficult to implement such mechanisms in older democracies where rules of procedure and systems are entrenched. Another reason is that the liberal democratic model creates systems that are less “gendered” than the participatory democracy model, for example, would. This may not have been done to purposely discriminate against women; it may be more about the general ideology of liberal democracy. A good illustration would be the case of the USA where the founding fathers of the American Constitution aimed at creating a “free” society. “Free” however, does not imply equal in resources or in condition. Liberal democracy can be therefore criticized because the state will strive to achieve the equality of disadvantaged people; it is more likely to act as a neutral mediator or even observer in the free, pluralist system, where the strongest group/ elite will prevail. It therefore follows that in such a system, reforms to improve the representation of women in political activity will be piece-meal and gradual.


Corrin, C. (1999). Feminist Perspectives on Politics, Essex, Pearson Prentice Hall.

Karam, A. (ed) (1998). Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers, Stockholm, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

Waylen, G. (2003), Gender and Transitions: What Do We Know?, Democratisation, 10 (1), p. 157- 178.

Waylen, G. (1994), Women and Democratisation: Conceptualising Gender Relations in Transition Politics. World Politics, 46 (3), p. 327- 354.

Seidman, G. (1999), Gendered Citizenship: South Africa’s Democratic Transition and the Construction of a Gendered State, Gender and Society, 13 (3), p.287-307.

Phillips, A. (1991), Engendering Democracy, Cambridge , Polity.

Pateman, C. (1988), The Sexual Contract, Cambridge, Polity.

Meny, Y. (2002), De la democratie en Europe: Old Concepts and New Challenges, Journal of Common Market Studies, 41 (1), p. 1-13.

Dahl, R. (1989), Democracy and Its Critics, New Haven; London, Yale University Press.

Rush, M (1992), Democracy and its Critics, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Prentice Hall.

Norris, P. and Lovenduski, J. (1995), Political Recruitment: Gender, Race and Class in the British Parliament, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.



[1] Adrienne Rich defines patriarchy as “a familial- social, ideological, political system in which men by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labour, determine what part women shall or shall not play” (Corrin 1999, p.8 quoting Rich 1997).

[2] Fraternity means “rule by brothers” and is seen by Feminists such as Pateman as equally discriminative against women as patriarchy

[3] Plato and Aristotle had made this distinction in their writings (Phillips, 1991)


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