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Women in Contemporary Politics. First edition
December 2, 2005

This informative book, written for an undergraduate audience, aims to fill a gap in the literature, namely the relative absence of discussion about women in standard politics textbooks. Lucidly expressed throughout, the volume includes both theoretical and empirical approaches, exploring women's participation in politics from the 1970s to the present whether as party members, candidates, elected representatives, government ministers or leaders. Its wide-ranging content discusses women not only in political parties in the UK but also in democracies such as Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and India.

The book is divided into thematic sections - feminist political theory, voting and elections, women and political parties, parliaments and government, women in sub-national governments and women in international governmental organisations. As Wendy Stokes points out, feminist analyses of democracies helped women to understand why they felt "left out" of a politics that claimed to be government of the people, by the people, for the people. The small number of women in politics, she suggests, makes little difference to the setting of the political agenda and an aggressive, masculine style of communicating unless there is a critical mass, defined as anywhere between 10 per cent and 35 per cent.

Wales, for example, before the 2003 election, had one of the highest proportions of women in the world in its devolved assembly, 41.7 per cent.

As a result of an equality duty laid down in the Government of Wales Act, family-friendly hours were introduced, as was the adoption of gender-neutral official titles. Further, the Assembly's equality committee adopted a wide-ranging brief, including working on the responsibilities of the Government as an employer, the gender pay gap, equality in public appointments, reforms in the National Health Service and Welsh local government.

In the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly before the 2003 election, on the other hand, where the proportion of female members rose to 13 per cent, the larger number of women resulted in little change on gender equality in policy initiatives. It was the balance between religious groups, namely Catholics and non-Catholics, that was given importance.

Overall, as Stokes emphasises, the small number of women entering politics throughout the democratic world have not had "an easy or comfortable time", primarily because long-standing assumptions about women's place have spilled over into the way elected women are treated by fellow politicians and the media. It is mainly for this reason that a number of women's parties, grounded in local experience, have been founded recently, including the Australian Women's Party.

This invaluable textbook admirably fulfils its aim of bringing women into the analysis of contemporary politics. It is a must for students on politics courses and also includes a useful chapter on women and the United Nations. Future editions might expand the scope to include non-democratic Islamic societies where women struggle to make their political voices heard. After all, the relationship between Islam, democracy and women is one of the most pressing of our time.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

Women in Contemporary Politics. First edition

Author - Wendy Stokes
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 266
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2498 7 and 2499 5

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