While I was writing this review, The Guardian carried a photograph of the seven most important people in the Chinese Politburo. Few will be surprised that all were male, including, of course, Xi Jinping, who was recently confirmed as president for another five years. A particular irony of this photograph is that it was taken in Beijing, the city where the 1995 UN Declaration on Women proclaimed that democracy was impossible without the representation of women in political life. The “stickiness” of male dominance in political institutions of which Drude Dahlerup writes seems, in this instance, to be made of the strongest glue.
But although China is far from being the only country in the world where photographs of the political elite would show a similar male dominance, what is most interesting about this case is how it relates to another assertion made by Dahlerup, namely that “an all male assembly or government has in most parts of the world lost its democratic legitimacy”. This seems to suggest that the significant presence of women in public politics is now part of our definition of democracy, in which literal representation – women being there – is fundamental. Yet the ways and means that prevent women from being in those public political spaces are also important and constitute a major part of this book.
The factors that prevent women both from being in politics and from playing a significant part in politics are, as Dahlerup points out, numerous. Yet they do not appear to vary across the globe. The absolute exclusion of women from public politics is today very rare, but the ways in which women are unable to be politically active in the same way as men are often similar. Among those reasons are: prejudice, the working patterns and conventions of politics, and access to inclusion in political selection. On this last point, Dahlerup considers the question of quotas for women, supports it and hopes for the emergence of a “critical mass” of women that will effect, if not more female-friendly policies, then at least policies that are more gender aware.
However, these optimistic expectations are threatened by changes in the sites of political power discussed in the book’s final chapter – in essence the increasingly global location of political power. Here we find the nub of what for many people (women and men) is the most urgent question of contemporary politics, how to ensure influence on decision-making structures beyond the local. The dream that we might be able to do this is, of course, part of current forms of populism. Here 19th- and 20th-century arguments about what democracy is and who should take part in it seem increasingly redundant. Dahlerup and Polity are to be congratulated on bringing out such a succinct and accessible account of these issues. The questions raised remain central to how far we can support the legitimacy of the politics that govern us.
Mary Evans is emeritus Leverhulme professor in the department of gender studies at the London School of Economics.
Has Democracy Failed Women?
By Drude Dahlerup
144pp, £35.00 and £9.99
ISBN 9781509516360 and 6377
Published 6 October 2017