Assimilated Leaders

Article excerpt

Abstract:

A popular political assumption is that modern, democratically structured states represent political progress over the feudal monarchies that they historically replaced. With the advent of electoral democracies, one expects to find the dismantlement of private-sphere hierarchies of dominance, such as master-servant and husband-wife relationships, in order to reflect modern precepts of individualism and equal human rights. Feminist critics challenge the assumption that the process of modernization has resulted in greater political inclusion for women. Some feminist critics go so far as to identify liberal precepts as the major obstacles to women's political incorporation.

Text:

Democratization, Political Inclusion, and Female Leadership

A popular political assumption is that modern, democratically structured states represent political progress over the feudal monarchies that they historically replaced. With the advent of electoral democracies, one expects to find the dismantlement of private-sphere hierarchies of dominance, such as master-servant and husband-wife relationships, in order to reflect modern precepts of individualism and equal human rights. In the public sphere, modern political systems have indeed replaced inherited rulership with a citizenry empowered to choose office-holders by voting, embodying the right to be governed by consent. Feminist critics, however, challenge the assumption that the process of modernization has resulted in greater political inclusion for women. They note, for example, that women's rights have fared poorly in the development of the modern US state. In the private sector, the legal dominance of husbands over wives in the form of coverture was retained well into the 19th century. In the public sector, the United States did not guarantee women suffrage until 1920.

Some feminist critics go so far as to identify liberal precepts as the major obstacles to women's political incorporation. They do not assert that only liberal states evidence gender discrimination-except for the rare historical incidence, gender discrimination is a feature of all political systems. Rather, feminists argue that gender as a category of political discrimination gains greater, not less, political salience in the liberal state compared to feudalism and ascriptive precepts from which liberalism broke away. When liberalism "wins," women do not necessarily "win" in terms of their greater political incorporation into the state on an equal basis with men. On the contrary, liberalism can exacerbate, rather than mitigate, political exclusion based on sex and gender. This raises a basic question: Does the modern liberal state bring progress to women?

Liberal Obstacles

Feminist political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain faults liberalism for disconnecting the public sphere of political rule from the private sphere of family relations. This disengagement of private from public replaces the notion of the family as the linchpin of society with utilitarian principles that fail to recognize the family as the site of identity formation and socialization. Fundamentally, the liberal idea of the individual disadvantages women, since the abstract, universal individual is by default defined in terms of norms that apply more to men than to women.

Feminist concerns over liberalism address not only the theoretical underpinnings of ideology, but also the historical and institutional record associated with the implementation of liberal principles. Whether or not democratization has had a positive effect upon women's political incorporation has to be considered. Historian Joan Kelly broached this question in her groundbreaking work, Did Women Have a Renaissance?, in which she argued that the Renaissance represented for women a loss of political and social statute.

Processes of democratization, then, can in fact impede the political integration of women. …