(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)