This highly readable book offers a useful overview of key issues regarding the role of women in politics today, especially in Britain. The text examines, among other things, the struggles of feminists in the 19th and 20th centuries to bring women into the parliamentary political process; the obstacles to “feminising politics” (defined as the insertion and integration of women, both in terms of numbers and ideas, into a process that is important but widely considered to be unappealing); equality strategies; and the topic of whether women in politics make a difference.
As Joni Lovenduski observes, although women in Britain were granted equal parliamentary voting rights in 1928, the political parties did not select women for winnable seats in substantial numbers until the mid-1990s. In the 2001 general election, 118 women were returned to the House of Commons, forming 18 per cent of the total of 659 MPs. Ninety-five of these women were Labour, 13 Conservative and six Liberal Democrat, the rest being divided between the smaller political parties.
Yet despite these gains for women, the obstacles to feminising politics are still enormous. British political institutions are characterised by a culture of traditional masculinity, which supports institutional sexism throughout the political system, from recruitment to taking one’s place in Parliament. Although all three main parties acknowledge that the underrepresentation of women at Westminster is a problem, their efforts to remedy the situation vary. The most successful policy has been that adopted by the Labour Party, which supports positive discrimination through all-female lists for candidates.
Once in the Commons, however, women of all political persuasions find an environment that has institutionalised the norms of the men who founded it. An adversarial style of debate favours rhetoric and demagoguery, ruthlessness and aggression - all qualities that are much more culturally acceptable in men than in women.
This book, aimed at students and scholars of comparative politics and gender studies, as well as the general reader, is an excellent starting point for those who wish to explore the theme of women and politics in Britain today. Not least among its merits is an informative discussion about how the quota system adopted by the new Scottish Parliament resulted in a membership that was 37 per cent female.
June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history, Portsmouth University.
Feminizing Politics. First Edition
Author - Joni Lovenduski
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 197
Price - £14.00 and £50.00
ISBN - 0 7456 2462 6 and 2463 4