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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 205 | Agosto 1998



Women: The Other Face of Power

The presence of women in political posts is not a quantitative matter of more or less generous quotas. Nor is it the way to make people aware of “women’s problems” and the need to struggle around them. The important thing is the presence of “the different”, the irruption of private values into the realm of the public. When this happens, politics will become more human and democracy will reveal its meaning.

Victoria Camps

That the 21st century will be a "feminine century" is a reasonable prophecy. Women's increased presence in positions of responsibility has been the result of a slow and difficult process, but it is unstoppable. Our presence in middle management is already a fact. The question now is not so much access but rather what meaning will this access have?
What consequences will it have for everyone concerned: women and men, society's future in general? Will it simply mean more women everywhere or will it also bring a qualitative change? Will the feminist politics of the left be distinguishable from those of the right, now that the right has ended up incorporating into its political programs the nucleus of basic feminist demands that were once progressive?

Who Represents Us?

In the political realm, women's demands translate into public policy. And it is here that the left fails in offering any innovative options. Currently, feminist politics has two clear objectives: to increase the number of women in positions of power and responsibility and to demand progress in traditional feminist issues—abortion, educational programs, social services that would ease the burden of the traditionally female responsibility for home and children, and so forth. In short, a greater number of women to resolve women's problems.

In her book The Politics of Presence, philosopher Anne Phillips addresses the first objective—more women in power—calling it the "politics of presence." She discusses the pros and cons of replacing the traditional "politics of ideas" with this "politics of presence," arguing that it is a change that would affect not only women, but all minorities and excluded sectors in general. According to Phillips, an increasing number of women in positions of relative power would affect not only the distribution of basic economic goods, but also the possibility of establishing decision-making criteria aimed at making this distribution more equitable.

This change would mean an innovation in the way of understanding political representation. The "politics of ideas," which is promoted by the political parties that have been the basic units of representative democracy, is rooted in the presentation of a program. The electorate doesn't take as much note of who represents it as it does of what those representatives do. This is especially true when the electoral system employs slates of candidates, in which it is the program that is elected, not the individual. And sometimes the electorate doesn't even vote for a program, but for a party, a method that is less personality-oriented. This could possibly have better results in already-mature democracies where there is a proliferation of new ideas.

To call politics-as-usual the politics of ideas is a euphemism, pure wishful thinking, since current political platforms are ideologically bereft. Party platforms are more abstract than philosophical texts—full of generalities that make one program practically indistinguishable from another. Ambiguous political promises that are never carried out in concrete terms make it hard for the electorate to demand accountability. While it is true that, in spite of their ideological sterility, democratic electoral systems favor the rule of the majority, they do so at the risk of excluding the needs and ideas of minorities—no matter what their grievances, numbers and composition.

This system of representation is obviously biased and unjust, in that no real equity exists in the possibility of acquiring a representative position. When the interests of various sectors of society are not reflected in the representative majority, it is nearly impossible for the feelings, perceptions and experience of these minorities to be represented and thus taken into consideration by the elected politicians. For this reason, the insistence on increasing the number of women in power is fully justified. No one can speak for someone else when the one speaking has never experienced the problems and conflicts lived by the other.

If women themselves had not risen up to protest their subservient position, the emancipation of women would never have been demanded by anyone at all. Few men could see women's reality; indeed, very few throughout the entire history of political thought have spoken on behalf of women. And in the few cases in which they did, there were frequently reasons to doubt the purity of their intentions.

Drawbacks to the "Politics of Presence"

The politics of presence has its drawbacks. Anne Phillips points out three:
* A divided politics of the different sectors could lead to "Balkanization": undermining the viability of inter-group cooperation, with the resultant loss of social cohesion.
* Making political representation dependent upon group characteristics could undermine the basis of the responsibility—accountability—that obligates representatives of the people to be answerable for what they do. Accountability can be requested of a program, but not through the women who are in those positions solely by the fact that they happen to be women.

* The attention directed to common interests could be compromised given that the interests defended by individual groups are, by definition, those of that sector and not necessarily interests held in common.

What Is Politics, And What Democracy?

No one doubts the necessity of defending disadvantaged groups more vigorously and skillfully. Nevertheless, in the case of women in the more advanced countries—where women have already passed through various stages of liberation—one has to ask if the quantitative battle for their increased numerical presence in public positions is sufficient and satisfactory. Should the feminist political thrust aim only at increased numbers, or should we not also—now that women have attained a certain level of power—begin to head up other things? Should we not, for example, push for changes in how—the style, the language, the priorities—politics are practiced?
Anne Phillips' doubts about the consequences of the politics of presence illustrate that women's increased presence should be a means to an end and never an end in itself. We must now ask ourselves what end this means should serve.

Phillips responds by proposing that an increased number of women in power should be coupled to consolidating what she calls "communicative or deliberative democracy." We must reject both the essentialism that characterizes closed interest groups and political exclusion to avoid jeopardizing social cohesion and common interests as well as to make it possible to know what has been accomplished. To do this, we must start with the premise that democracy is a process of communication and deliberation where no one voice has more weight than another and no person or group is assumed more right than another. Politics is an exploratory procedure whose goal is to pull positions closer together and find agreements that benefit the whole.

If we think of politics as a simple aggregate of interests, the rule of the majority is the only solution; the dominant interests win. But what is needed is a politics based on the willingness to incorporate excluded sectors, to identify new areas of common interest. Common interest is not something outside that lies waiting to be recognized; it is something that we can only recognize and begin to discover by means of the most democratic dialogue possible. What is needed, then, is inclusive participation in which no groups are denied access. What is also needed is that this participation be proposed as a goal for everyone: that I not just take care of number one or champion only the exclusive interests of the group I represent but also look for common ground and interests.

Male Cultural Imperialism

The politics of presence is more a point of departure than a port of arrival. "Difference" is the necessary ingredient to ensure that deliberation doesn't degenerate into pure formula. "Deliberation matters because difference exists," writes Phillips. It matters and, what's more, it is indispensable, not only to bring together different viewpoints, but also to transform them: the function of debate, observes Phillips, quoting Iris Young, is "to transform people's preferences."
The repercussions of women's presence in the public domain should be that the system be capable of expressing other problems and from distinct viewpoints, and not fall victim to "male cultural imperialism." "If the new representatives cannot express a vision that departs from the existing party politics, their inclusion will become merely symbolic."
That cultural imperialism of the male politician has defined and is defining politics as we know it, and that way of engaging in politics runs through all dimensions of public discourse. Nonetheless, we need not fall into petty or badly reasoned arguments that the democratic model as a whole is unworkable and should be thrown out. Democracy has its dysfunctional aspects, but it has also been responsible for some progress. We should not throw the baby out with the bath water. We have to start with what we have in order to transform it; it's impossible to start with a clean slate. We should conserve the beneficial aspects, the positive values that have evolved over time, and discard what no longer serves true democracy—but not in order to destroy, weaken, or rob it of its credibility.

Locked in the Feminist Ghetto

Political feminism currently has two primary objectives. One is quantitative: more women in power. The other is traditional: progress in the resolution of feminist demands. The first objective is more a condition than a final goal. What is needed now is to make real medium- and long-term advances in resolving women's issues.

This second objective has been too mono-thematic thus far. It has been aimed at bettering women's situation in general—a situation that still obviously needs boundless improvement. But this objective, proposed in such an open-ended way, has several drawbacks. To make it their own, women unintentionally mark out their own plans of action and find themselves excluded from other spheres or concerns. They end up relegated to a closed camp that seems to be separate from more general concerns.

But the operative word is seems, because women's problems are not separate; indeed, they should be seen as an integral part of the general interest. But because politics-as-usual does not view women's issues in this light, it is essential that women put an end to their exclusive "politics of feminist emancipation." They should continue this fight, of course, but indirectly, through increased involvement in the general political milieu, avoiding the impression that their goal is to replace "male cultural imperialism" with "female cultural imperialism."
It is, first of all, a question of strategy. Women must escape their entrapment in the feminist political ghetto. Second, women should become involved more inclusively to spread the conviction that there are no exclusive female or male problems, but rather that all relevant social problems are entwined, converging the interests of both women and men in all the major issues that preoccupy us in these times.

More Participation and Publicity

Of all the questions of general interest, one should be overriding: that of shunning whatever impairs democracy—overcoming stumbling blocks to its development and avoiding practices that undermine its political legitimacy.

Democracy should be centered on two basic objectives: broader participation and increased public promotion. A democracy in which the only participatory act is voting doesn't make much sense or merit much credibility, particularly since voting trends indicate that abstention is rising and will continue to increase. Concerning publicity, ever since Kant we have known that all public decisions are suspect without it. Democratic decisions should be truly public, they should be broadly publicized; indeed, this is what determines that they democratic.

Accepted and Shared Differences

Hannah Arendt, a philosopher little loved by feminists but very lucid in her analyses of political life, has said that what is specific about public life, about life in common, is not our labor—in its double meaning of childbirth and work, of the labor of our body or the work of our hands. It is rather action, la vita activa, or, put simply, politics.

Action makes human life transcendent, makes it more than just biological work or "fabrication." Action implies plurality. It is the action of beings who join together and act in concert. And thus, "plurality is the condition of human action, because we are all the same, that is, human, even though no one is ever the same as any other who has ever lived, is living, or will ever live in the future." Plurality is the politics of accepted and shared differences.

Accepting difference in gender or anything else as something we have in common is what women should pursue in politics and from politics, breaking through the male cultural imperialism affecting political thought and practice. Women should make feminist emancipation theory coincide with the theory of renovation and a deepening of democracy.

First Point: "Partyocracy"

It is easier to talk about what's not working in democracy than to suggest how a genuine democracy should function. Why do democratic participation and publicity, or public promotion, not operate as they should, as the constants of democratic life? I think it's possible to isolate at least three main obstacles to greater political inclusion and plurality today: the "organizationism" of political parties and groupings, formalism or empty political discourse, and half-truths.

"Organizationism" is the same as what has been called "partyocracy": political parties that have devolved into purely bureaucratic organizations with specific electoral goals and with such a multitude of internal squabbles that its leaders have little time to dedicate to any real issues. Losing oneself in the organization, a form of losing oneself in power, is an inherent characteristic of masculine culture and goes hand in hand with the limited sense of reality—which is another feature of that culture. The same thing doesn't tend to happen with women, as we have always been the victims of these bumbling organizations.
I don't suggest, of course, doing away with necessary political organization, but rather to trivialize, to abandon the party "apparatus" as it has evolved, because it has erroneously been viewed as indispensable to political life and to the democratic process. On the contrary, this bureaucratic apparatus has been the source of discipline imposed at any cost and the rejection of differences. Parties and political groups should become more open and flexible, more ready to listen than to speak—especially when it is obvious that they don't have much to say.

Second Point: Empty Words

Formalism, empty words, the facile, contentless speeches of politicians is the second defect, together with the tendency to politically attack adversaries—without proposing any alternatives. Formalism serves to underscore the current vacuum. We can blame this vacuum on men for they have been the ones historically responsible for creating opinion, making doctrine, elaborating theories, and writing treaties.

Women can also be formalists. The difference is that it is harder for women to produce a speech without content. Women are more practical—we've had to be—and we tend to get to the heart of the matter, to proceed in a straightforward manner. Feminist discourse is more concrete. Being in closer contact with daily life, with real-life problems that can't wait long for resolution, women practice a more down-to-earth—and also more effective—linguistic economy.

This surely derives from the insecurity that comes with powerlessness. In public women tend to be courteous and discrete; those who have never been either listened to or taken into account fear ridicule. In addition, women have little or no affinity for male-oriented discourse and so tend to measure their words and think more about what they are saying. It is this reflection that, even if it derives from insecurity, is necessary for democratic dialogue.

Another aspect that goes hand in hand with linguistic formalism is the public exhibitionism inherent in politics. This extravagant waste of public time is one that the citizenry is all too aware of, but seems lost on the politician. This blind oblivion on the part of politicians is related to men's dedication to profession. Men's professional life is less schizophrenic; their identity has always been tied up with their profession and they give little, if any, thought to balancing their private and public lives. Since public life has priority, they don't find it necessary to save time in this area, hence the interminable meetings, the parade of useless ceremonies, the need to be constantly in the public eye. All this is part of their professional obligation. Empty formalities thus end up taking precedence over the substantive issues that should be what is essential.

Third Point: Half-Truths

The opaqueness of current democratic processes takes refuge in the employment of half-truths. The dominant and the powerful have used this political artifice since antiquity. Plato says in The Law that legislation should be preceded by a persuasive preamble about the proposed law's advantage. The truth or falsity of the argument, he adds, is not important; it would be a "well-employed lie." It may, at times, be legitimate to lie or not tell the whole truth, but this practice has become so habitual in politics that it is a major factor discrediting politics itself. This is not to say that women are not as skillful at lies and deceit as men are. But one thing is certain: women have historically been the main ones deceived and taken advantage of in traditional male-female relationships. Those in power always have more resources to fool the subordinate and dominated. As women gain in power, we would be well advised not to take on the vices that those in power have always had.

The three defects I have delineated can be summed up in one word: arrogance. And who can deny that arrogance is a typically male attribute? The arrogant man knows he has the advantage and so doesn't think twice about resorting to lies, half-truths, and empty words, because the others, those who can only listen, are thought not to be really very capable of understanding anyway.
The arrogant create powerful organizations to protect themselves in and are so contemptuous of others that they employ an ambiguous, enigmatic and critical language to assure that are not understood. This arrogance stems from a badly understood and badly used "professionalism," which becomes even more obvious when politics are professionalized. Deprofessionalization would mean really listening to the general citizenry so they will have more interest in participating and assuming the political role they should have in a true democracy.

Mixing Private and Public

What makes women able to be at the head of change in the political terrain and to establish themselves as spokespersons for a visionary transformation? Precisely the fact that we still view politics at a certain distance, more objectively and clearly than men. This allows us to see what is needed and to contribute to its materialization more intelligently.

It is time that women and other historically marginalized groups enter into public life. To accomplish this it is indispensable that we turn the public eye to the importance and value of what traditionally has been private, and therefore the domain of women. As Hanna Pitkin has written, "women should be as free as men to participate in public affairs and men should be as free as women to raise children. A life confined exclusively to personal and domestic necessities is absurd and diluted, and the same thing can happen to a life so public and abstract that it has lost contact with the practical, sustaining activities of daily living."
Only an interchange of roles, a mixing and a mutual recognition of two spheres—the private and the public—that have until now remained separated would be able to revitalize politics. The citizenry's ethics, the terrain of private life, can exercise a powerful critique on male arrogance and also serve as a complement to an excessively abstract way of doing justice to real, everyday problems. Women and other marginalized groups can provide different voices that would enrich communicative interaction in political debate, which today more often seems like a monologue than an authentic dialogue.

The Private Is Political

Let's discuss just one of the very serious problems of our time. One of the challenges of the labor crisis we are suffering is a conceptual change in the meaning of work or professional occupation. There will have to be, we are told, a new distribution of labor. This means a reordering of life that gives less emphasis to work and more to other activities such as leisure, domestic responsibilities and other private concerns.

If this is so, women have a crucial role to play in this new order. The manner in which we have entered the work force—with our limitations, our reticence, our insecurities—seems to be the general work model of the future. Everyone, men and women, would be asked to divide his or her time, giving less importance to "productive work" and more to "reproductive work." The old proposal of a "time law" could begin, perhaps, to become reality, given the current labor crisis and the presence of women who are keenly aware that work needs to be understood in a very different way.

All of this is to say that it's absolutely necessary that there be an end to the concept that public and private are two domains differentiated by gender and level of social importance. Women's invasion of the public sphere needs to be complemented by men's invasion of the private. Without a change in personal, domestic life, there can be no changes in political life, writes Carole Pateman. The private is political; politics is unthinkable separated from the personal and domestic.

When Women Make Demands

This idea has two dimensions. The most obvious, which is developed by Pateman, is that the problems of private life—of women—are also political problems. This is so not only because women's demands are seen as an element that destabilizes society's structures but, above all, because what women are demanding points to a different societal model.

When working women demand child care and maternity benefits, we are saying that we refuse to renounce our desire to have children and that we should be able to have them under conditions that are not discriminatory. When we ask for training programs for unemployed women, we are demanding a more realistic equality of opportunities. When women fight for the legalization of abortion, it is not because we want abortions; we are demanding the right to decide for ourselves if the abortion is justified. When women seek legal/economic protection for single-parent families, we are saying that such families serve a function and should be protected, even if they diverge from the traditional model.

To politically disregard issues that are traditionally "women's problems," or those of domestic life, is to abandon society to a future based on selfishness and lack of solidarity. What such a society would be like could be seen very clearly if women refused to continue providing all the services that we—and only we—have given, for free, over centuries.

This is one obvious reason why the personal and domestic have a political dimension, but there is another. Private and public life cannot have radically opposed priorities and rules of conduct—not in a democracy. The more understanding and reciprocity there is among people sharing private life, the easier the relationship and the fewer rules and restrictions of liberty there would be. This would promote cooperation and participation around common problems and projects.

The concept of justice, says Michael Walzer, does not pertain to family or private life because it is not needed. Justice is a public, not private, value. But even if that is true, even if each sphere has its own values, it is also true that public life, and the democracy it proclaims, is experiencing a dehumanization and atomization that has reached extremes that are incoherent with the ideals everyone is seeking and pursuing. As Carole Gilligan has said, the cold and impartial ethic of justice needs the complement of—though not a substitute for—the "ethic of caring."
What is wanting in public life today is the capacity for cooperative work toward common goals and projects, the ability to live together with at least a minimum of dignity and good faith. The hyper-regulation of our time is the symptom of a lack of commonly held principles. The result is a decadent and unsatisfactory democracy.

Female Schizophrenia

To correct the overarching character of "masculine democracy" means somehow introducing models and attitudes into public life that are more specific to domestic life. Pragmatism, sincerity, transparency, and de-bureaucratization (organizational openness and flexibility) are ways of operating more familiar to women. Maintaining contact with these values would be a way of bringing the public and private closer together, to the benefit of politics in general.

This is so not only because it would correct systematic defects that have become intolerable, but because it is a requisite change if we want productive and reproductive work to be given more equivalent social status. The degree of dedication demanded of those in the public arena today is totally incompatible with an equal dedication to private life. Men have never cared that this was the case because domestic life is not their sphere, nor do they attach much importance to it. But if we want private life areas to be more equally shared by men and women, we have two options: either women in politics can also renounce having a private life, or men can make private life an area of their own concern so that both spheres are shared equally. This sharing would inevitably result in a modification of politics, since super-professionalism is incompatible with any kind of private life.

Women are victim to a kind of schizophrenia that results from the need to work in two worlds governed by opposing norms and models. Dedication to people and the cultivation of feelings clashes brutally with the imperatives of an outer-directed, depersonalized life. Men, with rare exceptions, have not had to try to make these two worlds compatible; they do without their home when it encumbers their professional responsibilities too much. But both worlds should coexist because both are necessary.

A less arrogant and self-important professional life, and a more modest political sphere truly dedicated to serving are absolutely necessary conditions to make the public and the private spheres compatible. When both worlds are shared, there will be no more exclusively women's problems and politics will gain in prestige because it will be more human.

The Presence of a Different Culture

As a feminist strategy, the politics of presence should mean more than the physical presence of women in positions of power—even including the higher echelons of public responsibility. It should also mean the presence of a culture that is not exactly feminist, but diverse, different—a presence that impregnates public life with the values of private life, making both more cooperative and compatible.
If the politics of presence means more than just a quantitative presence of women—or any other marginalized group—we will be able to save ourselves from the dangers suggested by Anne Phillips.
Women's qualitative participation in politics cannot be independent of programs and content. It will not be enough that a chapter be dedicated to the need to elect more women. Our presence will become a reality when we are able to take the lead in envisioning and delineating concrete programmatic proposals.

The danger of sectorializing can be side-stepped to the degree that we avoid approaching politics with a language and a set of programs erroneously thought of as exclusive to women. We have to it clear that what is at stake in the emancipation of women is both a new societal model and the resolution of issues held in common: the future of the family, birth, old age, social well-being and the concept of work itself.
The feared Balkanization will not occur if we are able to show that democracy should be understood as a process of communication and deliberation in which differences serve to enrich rather than divide. One element that makes this concept of democracy so slow in gaining ground is precisely party politics. Parties are too involved in their own bureaucratic survival and seem absolutely incapable of objectively considering interests that are different from those of their own group. As long as this attitude persists, as long as we find it impossible to correct these systematic deficiencies, politics will never regain its credibility and will deserve the distrust it has earned.

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