(Last Sunday, TCW writer Belinda Brown braved the The Big Debate: Women and Politics in the 21st Century, taking on the arch feminists Bonnie Greer, Dr Leslie Orr and Heather Wakefield. This is the second in a series of posts in which she sets out her argument as to why their feminist demand for equal political representation is so deeply flawed.)

The symbolic legitimacy argument

Yesterday I questioned the validity of the ‘social justice’ case for gender parity in Parliament.

Today I move to another spurious justification for  increasing the numbers of women in Parliament.  One of the arguments made is that it confers ‘symbolic legitimacy’. The idea is that if people can see women among the MPs of a political party, that party is more likely to represent the interests of women as a whole. However this assumption leads politicians onto very sticky ground. When Philip Cowley conducted research to find out whether constituents wanted their MP to have a particular characteristic, he found that –  for both men and women – being female came at the very bottom of the list.

At the collective level more importance was attached to female representation. However, more importance was attached to a range of characteristics such as being gay, Muslim or working class. Symbolic representation means that processes of representation are subject to people’s prejudices. Prejudice will shape which groups are over or under-represented and ideas about who they would like to see. Once we start saying we need more women it becomes legitimate to say we need more working class, more disabled, or more Chinese people. The whole principle opens up a Pandora’s Box.

The pragmatic argument

The pragmatic case for equal representation stands up to scrutiny no better.  It assumes that the unequal preponderance of males results in a political process that promotes the interests of men. But there is absolutely no evidence of this. In fact, there is increasing awareness that when it comes to health, education, domestic and other types of violence, deaths at work, homelessness, suicide and paternity rights, or deaths in general, we actually almost completely ignore the interests of men.

And while there is research to suggest that female MPs bring different issues to the table, and that the presence of females in politics changes the spending priorities, this does not mean that the changes they are making serve the interests of women as a whole.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Why female MPs don’t speak for women

Being an MP is an extremely demanding job, requiring high levels of time, and commitment. It is a public service, not for the fainthearted and therefore there are rightly very high thresholds to becoming an MP. This means that the women who make it to the levels of highest political office are no more representative of Joanna Public than men might be.

Furthermore, these women come from a very different demographic of career-oriented, professional women, who delay or sideline motherhood and as a result their attitudes are very different from the intermediate or working class groups of women whose interests they claim to represent. Analysis of British Social Attitudes data shows, for example, that working and intermediate class women are much more likely to feel that a pre-school child will suffer if their mother works, or that family life will suffer if the woman has a full-time job, and they are much more likely than middle class women to have traditional views about the division of labour.

Interestingly, these working class attitudes are not only more likely to be shared by us conservative women. They are also more likely to be shared by the male MPs.

The fact that female politicians are very different from ordinary women would not in itself cause any problem if politics itself was regarded as a bottom-up process of interest representation, but instead of focusing on processes, where politicians are cogs in a machine, there has been a shift towards identity politics with individuals somehow bearing our concerns.

When it comes to female politicians this means their their sex gives them authority to speak for us – something available to women MPs not men. Fiona Mactaggart, while arguing how women influence decision-making behind the scenes, illustrates how this process could occur: “Women do politics in a different way. They put private pressure on ministers and this has led to important policy gains for women”. As Geoff Dench explains, “Women given a direct voice have a personal legitimacy which male spokesmen never enjoyed; so there is less incentive for them to listen to others  – particularly to women who do not share their views. So the representation of women’s views may well have become narrower than when it was filtered through men”.

Women MPs are feminist

Furthermore, female MPs have risen through the ranks with the support and cooperation of feminist charities and pressure groups such as the Fawcett Society, The Fabians, the Labour Women’s Network.

This also means that the women’s interests that they claim to be representing pass through a highly ideological filter. As a recent Fawcett Society survey found that only 7 per cent of women self-identify as feminists, the ideology underlying much of the policy-making done in ‘women’s interest’, does not have democratic legitimacy. As I will go on to show, the concerns and priorities underlying these policies tend to conflict with the needs and interests of women as a whole.


(Image: Herry Lawford)


  1. I’m not aware of any grassroots demand from women for more female MPs. The BBC, The Guardian and the Modern Tories take for granted that it’s a desirable thing but they don’t represent anyone’s views but their own.

    Once one recognises that there is no democratic will or mandate for such a change, it becomes clear that this is nothing but a putsch. When all the flummery is stripped away from Marxism, it is just a mechanism by which a self-appointed group may obtain power.

    Marxist-Feminists and their fellow travelers have achieved amazing things given their complete lack of democratic legitimacy. If only the rest of us had half of their determination, the world would be a much better place.

  2. The more one thinks about the arguments presented above the more one sees how the feminist position is actually quite insulting to women as a whole. If you break this right back, logically one could say that a mother can represent her daughter’s interests better than her husband could? And of course the opposite implication that a father can represent his son’s interests better that the boys mother. Obviously that is all nonsense.

  3. Surely this would be easy to solve. At elections each party fields multiple candidates representing whatever pressure groups they like. All votes for the candidates are totalled for a party tally but then the actual candidate going forward would be the one the people wanted.

  4. Very perceptive. As I’ve said elsewhere, the sort of super ambitious women who tend to be MPs are baffled by most women who want to be mothers and work part time. The constant push for the top is irrelevant for most women. Uber-feminists tend to despise mothers for letting the go-getting side down.

  5. Self identifying as feminist and being happy to give away rights which were fought for over centuries are not exactly the same thing. I don’t identify myself as feminist, but I have a major problem with women who are actively trying to give away my freedom to ‘choose’ the life that best suits me and mine, because of the reasoning that somehow everyone must give into whatever suits the average. Why is there an assumption that a woman who has had a career in politics can’t imagine life for women who have no option other than work part-time at Sainsburys – while a man can?, please.
    The issue of whether men have their issues raised in politics is the same issue for everyone who is in a minority group. Eg: violence against men by women happens, but it’s to a tiny minority. Laws have already been altered to improve the position of men after marital break up but still this is ignored by men who are still canvassing for the right to remove privaledge from women who are being put in a negative overall economic position through marriage/partnership. So lets look at how this is developing for minorities vs majority/averages; it’s OK to ignore the needs of women who are not the majority but still want a life of their choosing, while it’s right to canvas for the needs of male minority groups. Do you not see that this still looks like sexist reasoning?, and isn’t about allowing people to develop and improve their lives.

    • Mez,
      Do you ever wonder that things are the way they are in society because a balance has already been achieved? That human nature has evolved over the ages to ensure the best equity of existence? Do you trust mother nature? Thousands of societies that evolved in isolation, all turned out the same, how did that happen?

        • Not entirely true though. I have no wish to rewrite history, but it is possible to see considerable variation in how women were treated in different societies – ie. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon women seem to have enjoyed more freedom than their Greek and Roman counterparts. A little more recently – and perhaps more pertinently – Frankish Crusaders in the Middle East were apparently shocked by Muslim attitudes to women. It’s broadly true that men held more power throughout history, but that came at the expense of women who were all too often denied a chance of education, a career, or indeed any real say in how they lived their lives. I don’t think even the most ardent critic of feminism would wish to go back to those days.

          • There is a great deal of variation but even in those societies where the fathers did a huge amount of caring (e.g pygmies in Congo can’t remember name of tribe) anyway absolutely everywhere women always did more childcare and took more responsibility for children. Throughout societies women have the dominant role in the private realm of home family and community. The degree of power accorded to women generally depends on how powerful that realm was in that society and in most societies throughout history the private realm was the most important one and women actually were just as or more powerful than men. In the West following industrial revolution, Empire, nation state etc etc (potting history into one paragraph) the public realm became more important and because women weren’t dominant in it suddenly for perhaps the first time they realised they weren’t in charge. They soon set about correcting this and have done so very successfully. All this stuff about men being more powerful was created in order for women to regain the power they had lost. This idea of men who are so much more powerful than women is pretty much an ideological nonsense created to obtain a very specific goal.

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