WOMEN ON THE DEFENSIVE: LIVING THROUGH CONSERVATIVE TIMES
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; 318 pp.
Reviewed by Lois Harder
Department of Political Science
University of Alberta
Sylvia Bashevkin's Women on the Defensive analyses the impact of Conservative governments on women's demands for equal rights, family law reform, reproductive choice, protection against violence and employment rights in Britain, the United States and Canada. Bashevkin's book is systematic. She provides a recounting of women's movement successes previous to the election of Conservative governments, an analysis of feminist encounters with the Thatcher/Major, Reagan/Bush and Mulroney administrations and a discussion of the dynamics of women's interaction with their successors. On the basis of interviews with over 100 activists, the biographies, autobiographies and public statements of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney and the analysis of public documents and judicial decisions, Bashevkin reveals that while women's groups in each country faired worse under Conservative regimes than they had under their predecessors, the specificities of Conservatism in each country were key to determining the character and degree of resistance to feminist gains. The book would be particularly useful for second or third year political science classes concerning women and politics, comparative politics, and social movements. Chapters might also be usefully extracted for women's studies courses addressing feminism and social change and as an example of liberal feminist analysis.
Women on the Defensive's primary theoretical engagement is not with feminist work but with the literature of comparative federalism and systems of government. In this context, Bashevkin challenges David Truman's assertion that unitary governments, such as that of Britain, are more responsive to social movement demands than federal governments (the U.S. and Canada) due to the centralization of decision-makers. Truman is a peculiar choice. He was writing in the early 1950s when the welfare state was only beginning to take shape and well before the social movements that would eventually insist on the egalitarian promise of liberal democratic welfare states were asserting their demands. Certainly the Canadian literature on feminist organizing has long acknowledged the usefulness to activists of playing two levels of government against each other. Secondly, and, as she asserts, more importantly, Bashevkin challenges the assertion that congressional forms of government, with their weak party discipline and distinct separation of powers among the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government, are more responsive to diffuse interest group demands than Parliamentary systems, due to the multiple points at which group representatives may assert their claims. Women on the Defensive, she argues, reveals that the presence or absence of constitutionally guaranteed rights was a better indicator of the ability of women to defend equality gains from conservative attack than a particular institutional configuration.
The cases of Britain, the United States and Canada are considered in each chapter of Women on the Defensive. In the first chapter, Bashevkin traces the emergence of the women's movement beginning with suffrage struggles, through the second wave and their subsequent encounters with conservatism in the 1980s. …