The Wrong Argument for Women in Politics

by | June 27, 2011
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics

On to HuffPost Canada today, where Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett has a well-intentioned but misguided column on one of my pet issues: women in politics.

It’s no secret that I’m a New Democrat, but as a feminist I have a certain amount of respect for Bennett. She’s brought forward some important but less-than-popular issues like concerns about toxic chemicals in sex toys and she’s one of the leading figures in her party working on increased women’s representation.

Both Bennett and I agree we need to do better on women’s representation in our legislatures: it’s sad that only 25% of our Parliament is women, even if it is the highest number we’ve turned out yet. But where I take issue with Bennett’s argument is the why. In “Why Politics is Too Important to Leave to the Men,” Bennett contends women are innately suited to a peaceful, consensus-based, egalitarian style of governing.

Carolyn Bennett

Bennett uses her background as a medical doctor to argue that men and women think and behave differently due to their biology :”What is discussed changes; more time on health, child care, and environmental concerns. How issues are discussed also changes. More consensus-driven win-win approaches replace the ‘gotcha,’ ‘winners and losers,’ testosterone-driven triumphalism of politics as usual,” she states.

Bennett also quotes The Female Brain author Louann Brizendine (whose research has been challenged on the left and right), who states: “Outstanding verbal ability, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, a near psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind. The ability to defuse conflict. All this is hardwired into the brains of women.”

There are a few issues with Brizendine’s/Bennett’s argument. First, it’s extremely difficult for biological research to control for social constructions of gender. Biologists like Anne Fausto-Sterling have found that many studies purporting to explain gender differences in terms of biology are in fact mistaking socialized traits for genetic ones. Further, trans, intersex, and non-gender-conforming cis people challenge the idea that there is a biological binary that assigns traits like aggression, nurturing instinct, and cooperativeness by sex.

If being a woman means you’re going to advance women’s issues in government, how do you explain the rabidly conservative women in politics and public life, who seem to want to turn back the clock on women’s equality? The argument that Bennett puts forward can’t account for the Margaret Thatchers, Michelle Bachmanns, Phyllis Schaflys, or Deborah Greys of the world.

Second, the very argument that women are innately good at nurturing is anti-feminist. It’s actually the same argument that’s been used to keep women out of politics, making sure that when mothers run for office they get questioned about how they’re making sure their children are taken care of. It’s the argument that pressures and shames women who don’t want to have children. Ironically, it’s the argument that keeps women who do get into politics in the “girl ministries” of health care, education, and social programs.

These are important issues and there’s nothing wrong with being a woman (or person of any gender) who is nurturing. But feminists have spent decades fighting for more choices for women, and the argument that women would be better at governing because they’re more maternal only turns back the clock and takes away credibility from the push for equal representation.

Bennett also argues that women enter politics for different reasons and that they’re more likely to stay in touch with the plight of average Canadians.

“These successful women determined to make a difference stand in stark contrast to those (unfortunately mostly men) who were all too eager to suit up in their team jersey and run with no other purpose than to repeat their party’s talking points verbatim,” Bennett states.

Again, it’s true this may bear out in research but much of it is likely due to gender socialization that trains women to avoid bragging and appearing too ambitious, as well as attempting to cultivate empathy from an early age.

We can fight for equality without being forced to promote outdated biological arguments. We can argue for equality in our parliaments because 52% of the population has just as much to offer as the other 49%. We can challenge unequal representation on the grounds that concentrating political power in the hands of (mostly) straight, white men is the result of systemic discrimination and is patently unfair.

The wider variety of backgrounds and perspectives included in policy-making, the better.

The only mention of structural barriers Bennett makes in her post is: “Structural barriers remain to getting more women elected.” It’s unfortunate because so much of the gap is due to structural barriers: women’s lower earnings potential, political parties’ “old boy’s club” informal mentoring systems, and plain old discrimination. There’s also internalized sexism that convinces women they aren’t up to the job and its confrontational elements.

Politics is a patriarchal system, and women aren’t going to change that simply by being women: we need politicians of all genders who are feminists to make a real difference. I believe all parties need to work internally and take strong action to ensure they run gender-balanced slates. I’d like to see a world where I can choose between women of all political stripes, but for now when it comes down to it on election day, I would rather vote for anyone who believes in same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and trans legal protections than a woman who wants to take away basic women’s rights.

I want the same thing as Carolyn Bennett: more women in politics. I hope we can keep up the fight for equality because it’s our right. But let’s stop arguing along the lines of that old saying:“if women ruled the world, there would be no more war.” It just doesn’t hold water.

-Jarrah


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  • E. Cain

    It’s interesting – I read this article and didnt have the same reaction.

    The referenced op-ed piece was not particularly clear or structured. To be frank, it was all over the place.

    But here was the difference between my view and yours – in my reading of Bennett’s article, I felt that she put forth a number of different arguments for why politics is too important to be left up to men.

    For me, this whole article revealed a tension between her background as a doctor (and the biological argument that she did advance in places) and her identity as a feminist (and her an understanding of socialization, gender roles, feminist priorities, etc).

    I think both came out in this article which is part of the reason why it was so all over the place!

    • jarrahpenguin

      Thanks for the feedback. That’s an interesting point you make about her tension as a doctor and a feminist. I agree that that came out in the article and you’re right it was a bit all over the place. The reason I felt the biological arguments came out more was because she basically began and ended with them, and the closing with the quote from The Female Brain I found really problematic.