Thursday, May 24, 2007

Women and Politics

In the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, Swanee Hunt of Harvard's Kennedy School has written an interesting piece calling for greater political participation by women around the World. The article is well argued, and raises many points that are worthy of further analysis. Let me acknowledge first that as a reasonably well-off white male in an industrialized liberal society, I approach Dr. Hunt's article with limited personal experience of the problems she attempts to address. I will therefore try to approach her argument with some humility, and critique it in the manner in which porcupines mate: very carefully.

Hunt's thesis, boiled down to its essence, is that women continue to face serious structural and ideational barriers to their effective participation in high-level politics, and that both women and politics would benefit from those barriers being broken down. At this level, Dr. Hunt and I are in complete agreement. In almost every society, historical and modern, women have inhabited different socio-economic spaces than men. Greater representation in the political sphere would undoubtably bring important issues to the table that had theretofore been given short shrift. Beyond obvious gains for women themselves in terms of legal equality, reproductive rights, equitable economic opportunity and other "women's issues" (I use quotes because I dislike the term - issues of equity and opportunity are in my opinion issues for every member of every society), female perspectives would be of value across the policy spectrum.

By way of example, I recall a professor of mine once telling a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a development agency that wanted to build a road in a certain rural village. The agency's representatives consulted with men of the village from various walks of life, all of whom agreed that a new, well-paved road would be an excellent project that would stimulate the local economy and should be started right away. Before construction began, someone suggested that they consult with some of the village's women, many of whom began pointing out problems that simply did not occur to the men. The road's high embankments and lack of sidewalks would make it too dangerous for children to walk to school. Likewise, the proposed route cut off access to a critical local water source and would necessitate walking much further and wasting much more time and energy simply to keep a household going.

True or not, the story points out the value of women's participation in the policy-making (gender lines, of course, are not nearly so clear-cut in most cases). I am with Dr. Hunt up to this point, though I do question whether or not the many positive correlations she cites between women's political participation and increases in good governance are spurious (whether good governance and women's political participation aren't both dependent on an forward-looking political culture). I begin to take more issue with her argument, however, when she suggests that female participation will change politics qua politics, rather than simply policy-making. In making her point, she adopts a more intellectually sophisticated version of the men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus argument, positing that "A critical mass of female leaders will change norms ... generally speaking, stereotypical 'feminine' qualities (such as the tendency to nurture, compromise, and collaborate) have been confirmed by social science research. The world needs those traits." According to Hunt, a greater preponderance of women in politics would reduce the amount of "swagger" involved in governing. Politics would be less cut-throat and more conciliatory.

My first reaction here is to question the ability of "social science" to separate innate female traits from those developed as a result of occupying social space that encourages them. I simply can't imagine how one would control for that. I'm sure Dr. Hunt has a better knowledge of the literature than I do, but since citing sources doesn't seem to be something Foreign Affairs encourages, I'll have to revel in the uncertainty.

Some (Hunt included) consider the nature-nurture debate irrelevant. Women clearly do posses more of these traits - for whatever reason - so we should take advantage of them. To my mind, though, it is quite relevant. Politics - defined as the art of managing the distribution of power and resources, and distinct from policy-making - is by nature an arena that rewards a certain self-interested rationality, combined with an large ego and a desire for power as an end in itself. For those who look at me as cynical, I would point out that some of the most visionary leaders of the last century, from Churchill to Roosevelt to Kennedy, were as power hungry as they come. That the impulse to acquire power has also produced Mao and Hitler is not lost on me, but the fact is that people who do not desire power generally don't acquire it, and those that do generally don't know what to do with it (Jimmy Carter is a case in point). To that end, women (and men, for that matter) who exhibit the kinds of nurturing, conciliatory traits that Hunt exalts are likely to have neither the desire nor the audacity to seize the reins of state. Indeed, Hunt notes in her article that women tend to view politics as a "dirty game" and thus eschew it. It all comes down to one's view of politics - does it involve "swagger" because it is a man's game and men naturally act that way, or is it a man's game because men have historically been encouraged to develop the kind of brazen attitude necessary to play it?

Dr. Hunt tends toward the former explanation, I tend toward the latter. Judith Warner recently had an excellent piece on the myth of innate female moral superiority. She argues that womens' historical tendency to play more nurturing roles in society has been largely a function of social position, not of biology. This is relevant because, logically, people who would be most likely to go into politics - women and men - would be the people with the desire and capability to amass power at others' expense. That women have not been historically socialized to play this role may account for Dr. Hunt's observation that women predominate in the area of NGOs and other elite institutions that are less power-dependent.

Again, for the record, I am not arguing for a second that women do not deserve a larger place in politics. I believe that from the perspective of policy-making, greater female participation would be enormously beneficial. I believe women are capable of being just as visionary, just as strong, just as capable leaders as men. I also believe, though, that they are capable of being just as avaricious and corrupt. The world, indeed, does need more women in politics, but Dr. Hunt is overly optimistic in her estimation of what this would accomplish.

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