Active Citizenship: A Role for Women Municipal Councillors? (I) (Articles)

Article excerpt

Citizenship is a central concept in western political thinking and one that has attracted considerable attention in academic and political debates of recent years. (II) Nevertheless, citizenship is an ambiguous term, encompassing a range of political, social and civic rights and duties. The discourse of citizenship is employed both by those who wish to justify the exclusion of certain groups from the polity and those who regard it as a useful tool for reformist politics. Feminist scholars have argued that citizenship is also a deeply gendered term and that the gender-neutral citizen is, in fact, defined by the life experiences of white, heterosexual middle-class men. (III)

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In this article I am concerned with women's political citizenship and how the discourse of the rights and obligations of citizenship could inspire women to take a more active role as citizens. The need to restore vitality and trust to Australian political life is of concern to Australian social commentators and political theorists alike. The domination of political power at all three levels of government in Australia by white, middle-class males is evidence of a widespread deficit in democracy: current democratic practices are not meeting the challenge offered by modern, pluralistic societies. (IV) One solution offered has been to address the shortcoming of democracy, as it is currently practiced, by envisaging a more participatory democracy. (V) I review these arguments for their applicability to local government practice, a site of political action that is often overlooked in political debate. Women councillors in Western Australia serve here as a point of reference in a discussion on the relevance of citizenship to women and the possible value of local government as a site for the democratisation of politics. I will argue that local government has the potential to play a role in promoting active citizenship and that women councillors, with their acknowledged background in community politics, are well placed to mediate such a process. (VI)

REDEFINING CITIZENSHIP: A `WOMAN-FRIENDLY' THEORY?

The discourse of citizenship is a contested territory that yields many possible avenues for feminists to explore in relation to women's citizenship. As Marie Leech points out, the complexity of citizenship `is almost overwhelming', due to the dynamic nature of the concept. (VII) Citizenship has a long history, which draws on the dual traditions of the civil republicanism of classical Greece and the more recent tradition of liberal rights. (VIII) The liberal tradition provides a focus on the rights of the individual, whilst the republican tradition emphasises the obligations of citizens. Feminist scholars have argued convincingly that women were not included in either of these traditional understandings of who could be a citizen. (IX) The history of women's gradual inclusion as citizens has been marked by a series of exclusions based on race, class and religion, with women sometimes complicit in the exclusion of other women from citizenship rights. (X) Many feminists dispute that women qualify as equal citizens even now in all aspects of citizenship. (XI) The structuring of social life in modern societies limits, to varying degrees, women's ability to exercise fully their political, social and civic rights as citizens.

Citizenship, as a legacy of these dual traditions of republicanism and liberalism, has been described by Ruth Lister as both a status and a practice. (XII) She suggests that we should adopt a useful synthesis of these two seemingly contradictorary concepts. Citizenship as status concerns the rights of the individual, while citizenship as practice considers the interests of the wider community. Lister, quoting T. H. Marshall's classic treatise, Citizenship and Social Class, states that `if citizenship is to be invoked in the defence of rights, the corresponding duties of citizenship cannot be ignored'. …