A New Agenda for Gender and Politics Scholarship
Peace A. Medie
International Women’s Day marks important progress that has been made in addressing gender inequality and in advancing women’s rights. However, social and economic analyses show major and persistent gaps, and conditions that undermine women’s rights, some of which have been thrown into stark relief by the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, while the adverse effects of the pandemic have been widespread, women have been uniquely impacted. With school closures, the responsibility of increased unpaid care work has mostly fallen on women, leading to a reduction in remunerated working hours for many (Power 2020). This increase in unpaid care work has caused some women to drop out of the workforce. Furthermore, women are more likely to be employed in less secure jobs globally (Burki 2020) and are overrepresented in the service and other sectors that are laying off the most workers. These are but some of the financial effects of the pandemic that are occurring alongside issues such as an increase in domestic violence (Wenham et al 2020). And in some countries, disabled women and women of minority ethnic groups have been disproportionately affected. According to the UN, “The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic” (UN 2020).
This underlines the need for gender and politics scholarship to centre the study of such systems.
Women’s overrepresentation in low-paying and less secure jobs, and the fact that they largely carry the burden of reproductive labour are problems that have been analyzed in the feminist literature (Anyidoho and Adomako Ampofo 2015; Elias 2004; Tsikata 2009). However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these and other related problems and demonstrated the inadequacies of existing systems to address them. Whether it is states’ failure to enforce labour rights such that women are trapped in precarious employment, or organizations’ refusal to provide protective gear for on-site workers, the pandemic has shined a light on how social, political, and economic systems exacerbate gender inequality.
Social, political, and economic systems are made up of structures such as international organizations, corporations, and legislatures, as well as structural processes such as capitalism. These structures (and structural processes) are gendered, racialized, and heteronormative, unevenly reproducing gender inequality in women’s lives (Hagan 2016; Medie and Kang 2018; Prügl and Tickner 2018). Structures organize and delineate the nature of interactions within systems and institutions and contribute to continuously defining the borders of what can be achieved in terms of women’s rights and gender inequality.
At the core of gender and politics scholarship are the objectives of understanding gender inequality and producing knowledge that can contribute to rectifying the problem. However, both of these objectives cannot be achieved if we overlook the underlying structures that can contribute to producing and maintaining this inequality. Without close attention to the structural components of gender inequality, and the various social, economic, and political problems that women face, the scholarship can only produce partial understandings and recommend partial measures that, therefore, cannot form the basis of full solutions.
This virtual issue is dedicated to highlighting cutting-edge gender and politics scholarship from previous APSR issues. These scholars study how various policies, practices, and norms affect women and contribute to gender injustice. The next section discusses how two of these articles critically investigate the effects of structure on women and gender inequality and what we can learn from them. The third section points to how recent articles in the APSR invite scholarship on this research agenda. The final section draws on the gender and conflict literature to discuss how more attention to structure in areas of critical importance to the lives of women around the world can generate new questions and answers that have the potential to advance gender justice.
Critical Feminist Analyses of Structures
The articles in this section illustrate how structures can be centred in gender and politics scholarship. They draw on feminist theories and methodology to demonstrate how the organization of institutions, and the ideas and values that constitute them, can hinder the achievement of gender equality and discriminate against women.
Mary Hawkesworth (2003) studies Congressional legislative practices to explain the reported marginalization of Congresswomen of colour. Hawkesworth draws on feminist and critical race theories to develop the concept of race-gendering and employs it to illuminate the raced-gendered hierarchies that structure interactions among members of Congress and institutional practices, and how they shape policy. Undertaking a textual analysis of interviews with Congresswomen in the 103rd and 104th Congresses and a case study, the article shows how Congressional institutions can play a key role in “producing, maintaining, and reproducing raced and gendered experiences within and through their organizational routines and practices” (530).
Zehra F. Kabasakal Arat (2015) studies how the United Nations women’s rights approach is informed by liberal feminism and addresses the problems that arise from this. She underlines the limitations of aggregate indicators of women’s empowerment (e.g., percentage of seats held by women in parliament and adolescent fertility rate) which equate “individual access to some sources of power with their empowerment,” such that rights are advanced in theory and rhetoric, but “with little hope of change in practice for the majority of women” (675). The author connects this problem with the theoretical approach that informs the UN’s work on women’s rights and argues that liberal feminism’s focus on non-discrimination prioritizes making “existing institutions more inclusive. The adverse function and hierarchical structures of these institutions are not questioned. Yet an ‘integrative’ progress that does not alter the structural obstacles to equality can only benefit some while continuing to sustain violations of others’ human rights” (683). Arat (2015) explains that this “integrative” approach aligns with the “data-driven epistemology of the UN apparatus, which seeks benchmarks and relatively easy measures needed to demonstrate achievements and set the next targets” (680). This critical interrogation of structures and the ideas and values that underpin them enables Hawkesworth (2003) and Arat (2015) to reveal silences as well as the structural barriers to reducing discrimination against some groups of women and to empowering the majority of women.
Drawing on Hawkesworth (2003) and Arat (2015) and other critical feminist scholarship (e.g., Ackerly and True 2018; Hudson 2016; Medie and Kang 2018; Prügl and Tickner 2018; Yacob-Haliso 2019), I argue that a critical interrogation of structures requires scholars of gender and politics to 1) contest conventional answers, 2) ask new research questions, and 3) imagine alternatives to existing structures.
Women and Gender in the Gender and Politics Scholarship
The second set of articles in this virtual special issue study women and gender through policies and norms that affect women. They make major contributions to the scholarship in this research area. And while the critical interrogation of structures is not similarly centred in these analyses, they provide insights into the importance of structural processes and present avenues for future research that centres these processes. Aala Abdelgadir and Vasiliki Fouka (2020) draw on qualitative and quantitative data to evaluate how the 2004 French headscarf ban affected the socioeconomic integration of French Muslim women. Timm Betz, David Fortunato, and Diana O’Brien (2020) study the impact of another policy, a gendered import tax, which discriminates against women. Through an analysis of democracies and non-democracies, they show that women’s presence in the legislature corresponds with a decrease in this gendered tax on women’s goods.
The articles also examine women’s representation in formal and informal politics. Several assess the factors that explain women’s underrepresentation in political office and their experiences and performance when they are in office. Dawn Langan Teele, Joshua Kalla, and Frances Rosenbluth (2018) employ conjoint survey experiments to investigate the sources of vote-distorting bias in the United States. They find evidence of a double–bind for women candidates as “respondents consistently prefer both male and female candidates who are married with children compared to those who are not” (526). Tackling the same issue of underrepresentation, Danielle Thomsen and Aaron S. King (2020) find that women are less likely to run for office than men. They argue that the dearth of women in the pipeline plays a substantial role in this problem. Rachel Bernhard, Shauna Shames, and Dawn Langan Teele (2020) study obstacles to women candidacies in US politics. They conclude that breadwinning, “the responsibility for a majority of a household’s income,” negatively affects women’s ambitions, and this is especially so for mothers (1). The final article in this section extends beyond the issue of underrepresentation in formal politics to also assess women’s participation in activism. Tabitha Bonilla and Alvin B. Tillery Jr (2020) employ a survey experiment to study participation in the Black Lives Matter movement. Through this study of the effect of identity frames (Black nationalist, feminist, and LGBTQ+) on potential supporters of the movement, the authors find among other things find that intersectional identities can have a demobilizing effect on some segments of the African American population.
This second set of articles touches on the importance of structural processes in institutions such as the legislature, voting systems, and schools. Some of them also open up avenues for future research that require analyses of structural processes. For example, Teele, Kalla, and Rosenbluth (2018) note that future research could shed light on whether the double bind operates differently in proportional representation systems, which is structured differently than district-based systems. Abdelgadir and Fouka (2020) in their study of the effects of the French headscarf ban on Muslim girls underline how perceptions of discrimination in schools reduce girls’ secondary educational attainment. This underscores the importance of research questions that explore formal and informal organizational practices within these schools; the racialized and gendered nature of these practices; the ideas and values that are at the foundation of these practices; the evolution of these practices over time; the power hierarchies they create within schools; and how they may result in perceptions of discrimination and in discrimination against Muslim girls. In the next section, I discuss how the study of structures can be integrated into the gender and conflict and gender and peacebuilding literatures.
A Focus on Structures in the Study of Gender and Conflict
Critical feminist scholarship has demonstrated how structures can be interrogated in the study of gender and politics. I argue that this scrutiny of structures requires scholars to 1) contest conventional answers, 2) ask new research questions, and 3) imagine alternatives to existing structures. I illustrate these points with a focus on the literature on gender and conflict.
There is a dearth of scholarship on how global political and economic structures contribute to violence against women during conflict. Scholarship that makes this connection has provided important insights into this problem. For example, Meger (2015) in her study of the political economy of wartime sexual violence seeks to move beyond dominant individual and cultural understandings of gender that have been employed to study this issue. With a focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo and with a feminist political economy approach, she instead studies gender as a “structure of international relations” that “shapes the behaviours of actors and the understandings of actions” (417). “Sexual violence is directly linked to the political and economic drivers of conflict and the operation of gender at the individual, cultural and structural levels toward these political and economic motivations” (417). By incorporating global political and economic structures into the analysis, the author is able to make visible the relationship between them and wartime sexual and gender-based violence. She explains that men’s inability to attain traditional ideals of masculinity (e.g., protecting their family) has been exacerbated by their exclusion from the international political economy. This has contributed to both the conflict and men’s perpetration of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. To scrutinize global political and economic structures, the author had to question conventional answers and narratives that overlook the role of these structures in motivating conflict-related sexual violence.
Meger (2015) also demonstrates how attention to structures requires and enables researchers to expand the types of questions posed. Connecting conflict-related sexual violence to global structures unearths multiple components of this relationship that require further enquiry. For example, how have global financial crises affected the occurrence of conflict-related sexual violence in particular countries? How has the gendered and racialized structure of peacebuilding affected the outcome of programs to reduce poverty among women in conflict-affected communities? These types of questions implicitly contest conventional answers and make visible global and domestic processes that contribute to the problems researchers seek to address in the gender and politics literature.
This critical interrogation of structures also underlines the need for scholars to imagine alternatives that have the potential to reduce gender inequality and advance the rights and wellbeing of the majority of women. These could be alternatives that seek to transform existing systems and institutions or bypasses them. For example, since conflict-related sexual violence has been linked to global political and economic structures, there is a need to conceptualize sexual violence prevention programs that address these structures. Widening the focus, the COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the need for flexible work arrangements that eschews the precariousness of the current gig economy. Scholarship that recognizes the importance of structure, therefore, could analyze nascent or under-researched alternatives and their feasibility in the face of global economic processes. A critical interrogation of structures would, thus, not only reveal the workings and effects of gendered structures but would enable scholars to advance gender and politics scholarship in innovative ways. Feminist methodology and its emphasis on enquiry that reveals silences (Ackerly and True 2008) can serve as a guide for gender and politics researchers seeking to delve into structures and to unearth power dynamics and perspectives that have been neglected.
This international women’s day, some progress has been made in addressing gender inequality and advancing women’s rights but there is much more work to be done. I have argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the need for knowledge that has the potential to upend gender inequality and advance women’s rights and that attention to structures is required to produce this kind of knowledge. Thus, it is necessary to reflect on whether the gender and politics literature is producing knowledge that has the potential to inform efforts to politically, socially, and politically empower the majority of (as opposed to a select few) women and to address the problems that daily confront them. The feminist literature has shown that conflict, poverty, sexual violence, and other pressing policy problems are affected by (global) political and economic structures. There is, therefore, a need to discuss how our understanding of these problems, and efforts to address them, are hampered by a failure to interrogate structures in analyses of gender and politics. Critical feminist scholarship has provided a theoretical and methodological toolkit from which gender and politics scholars can borrow to have these conversations and to critically interrogate the structures that daily affect women’s lives.
- Peace A. Medie, Senior Lecturer in Gender and International Politics, University of Bristol, firstname.lastname@example.org. The author would like to thank Alice Kang, Martin Williams, and Denise Walsh for comments on an earlier draft of this introduction.
The APSR articles referenced above (and shown below for ease) are available free of charge until the end of March 2021.