Women, Masculinism and Democracy

Throughout the centuries when the political project that has resulted in “modern democracy” was developing, women were excluded from decision making processes. The development of “modern democracy” – from ancient Greece to the French Revolution to the Constitutional Convention in the USA – had no meaningful participation of women, and took place in the context of profound gender norms. Therefore, I use quotation marks when referring to “modern democracy” to indicate that it is neither unquestionably democratic nor modern. The  existence of differences in gendered behaviour means that the political ideas, practices and structures developed were complementary to dominant gender norms of privilege men- masculinism with an elitist and racist edge. This has resulted in political systems which, although now legally open to women to vote, run for office, etc, are still not a place where most women can thrive because these systems still privilege masculine norms, and gender norms continue to be deeply embedded.

The way that democracy functions in many political organisations is structurally masculinist- by which I mean that the socially constructed norms associated with men, rather than innate biological qualities, are privileged. Majority rule voting rejects compromise in favour of a winner-takes-all heavyweight contest, and rhetorical flair in often aggressive debates privileges the loudest and most confident voices, and the system is geared towards putting individuals in charge rather than working collaboratively. In addition to these structural issues, there is the more obvious gender inequality in the dominance of men’s voices in most campaigning groups, University politics and government. We listen and learn through observation- women remain in the background, unseen and unheard. Only one of the past dozen CUSU Presidents have been women, there has been one woman (elected) head of state in the UK, and none in the US, and there are very few political groups locally or nationally who do not suffer from gender inequality in the volume and prominence of men’s voices. We are not simply in the “catch-up” period during which our society is adjusting to “gender neutral” forms of decision making and group structuring- rather the way we organise in itself is geared towards masculine traits, and women will not fully participate unless all women take on masculine traits, (ie Maggie Thatcher), which I do not believe is the path to liberation.

Because the masculinism of mainstream forms of “modern democracy” is largely rooted in the gender norms it is based on, all-women’s groups tend to exhibit different forms of democracy. My observations of the Women’s Forum of CUSU over five years indicate that women, although working in the same voting system as CUSU Council, will be more likely to seek common ground or proffer amendments rather than unconstructive criticism. In discussions about contentious topics, members of Women’s Form would be likely to bring up the thoughts of other people not in the room, and would not be obstructive if things weren’t going their way. Groups which work by Consensus Decision Making (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus_decision-making) are meant to function this way, but in my experience the formal process takes a back seat to the attitude adopted going into the process, and a room full of women working by majority vote often feels more like consensus than male-dominated groups striving to work by Consensus. The problematic gender role of self-sacrifice is perhaps quite relevant here- perhaps women are more likely to put their desires secondary to that of the collective. I am not trying to propagate the mythology of women always avoiding conflict and cooperating- clearly women challenge the gender roles that they are assigned by society- but women do learn, live and perform gender.

The role of leaders and leadership is another salient point in which gender roles come into play. As mentioned earlier in this article, the overwhelming majority of leaders in our society have been, and continue to be, men. For centuries women have been told that they were not leaders, or even fit to select their leaders. Some women broke out of this norm and became player’s in a man’s world (Thatcher, Boudicca, Catherine de Medici), but below the surface, many women simply learned to organise together without leaders, finding that replicating the hierarchies of patriarchy wasn’t what they wanted their liberation to look or feel like. But this way of organising doesn’t fit within the dominant norms of society- people often cannot process the idea of not having someone in charge. I’ve seen this throughout my involvement with environmental group Climate Camp- journalists persistently ran stories claiming to have discovered the “key protesters” or “council of elders” who are really running the show. The University also seems to suffer a mind-block in regards to leaderlessness- at various protests over the years they always ask to speak to a “leader”, and if one fails to step forward they often pick a student to identify as a leader seemingly at random- except it is always a man. The student press also treats leadership as a masculine characteristic. In a recent article in TCS, the journalist identified individuals likely to run to CUSU office- he focussed exclusively on men. He even identified a possible candidate from the Old Schools occupation, writing that “although Old Schools occupiers will be quick to tell you they were a leaderless democracy” he was able to pick out a key (male) protester who would make a good president. Although undoubtedly this individual would make a good president, I find it disturbing that despite there being many outspoken, experienced and active women in the occupation (many of whom had been involved in CUSU), it is men who are being profiled as the leaders by the press and the University. However, we do need a culture shift rather than just more “women leaders”- we need to challenge and dismantle leadership and organise based on mutual and equal respect and dignity, and build from the grassroots through cooperation rather than domination. Perhaps a lot of women are simply better than men at not being leaders, but still being active participants- this is something we all need to practice.

Democracy is an idea I fight for, but current forms of democracy are systems I fight against. It is not simply a matter of time before our political institutions represent women- we need a profound political reworking of gender relations to build gender equality into our political systems. This cannot happen from within the current institutions. As Audre Lorde wrote- “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. In creating new ways of doing politics, we are dismantling the hierarchies of oppression which lie a the root of our dominant systems. This is a process of a learning- we must educate ourselves and others to be aware of gender inequality, we must teach ourselves to be brave when we speak out against normalised forms of misogyny, and we must learn to build a democracy which is based on equality, justice and dignity rather than authority, factionalism and domination.


  1. Great article. It’s a cruel irony that the norms attributed to women – cooperation, thoughtfulness, empathy – are the ones that are best for politics and decision-making, but get a poor showing, precisely because of the arbitrary femininity which they are assigned. Women are not conceived as able to do politics, yet they are shackled to all the best political qualities. If society happened to assign these qualities to men, then at least we could have a sensible sexism, rather than a completely perverse sexism (not that any sexism is ideal, but you see my point).

  2. I loved this article, thank you.

    I think the “old schools leader” thing was especially obvious sexism. If I’d been asked to look around the occupation and say who was making the most substantial contributions, or who was voicing opinions which were well listened to and sometimes brought the room with them, I’d have indicated (almost) exclusively women and/or people whose gender I interpreted as female (I’m not sure of the gender identities of everyone involved so don’t want to make sweeping statements). 🙂

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