Personal Dynamics as Political Participation

Article excerpt

The responses of 1,404 women and 386 men to a probability sample survey of political attitudes and participation in Northern Ireland are reported. A broad definition of political activity is employed that includes personal assertiveness in personal relationships. The results reveal women by and large to be less involved politically and more passive than men. For women, the arena for political discussion is centered among family relationships; while for men most political discussions take place with friends or workmates. The responses of women and men, however, resemble each other more than they diverge in that the majorities of both sexes see themselves as apathetic and ineffectual in terms of personal assertiveness in political discussions. Multivariate regression analyses disclose the relatively minor significance of gender in comparison to other factors in determining ones personal political efficacy The variety of types of activity, and age, are clearly of more significance than gender in determining the level of political discussion, persuasiveness or influence within marriage. The results provide a cautionary tale about the perils of adopting an "over-gendered" conception of political behavior.

Modes of political participation span a wide spectrum of activities. They include those that occur within political parties and which may, in a narrow sense, be said to focus upon the formulation of public policy But they also extend to activities that may be regarded as pervasive, even mundane, forms of behavior that are equally apparent at home and at work as in the more formal, institutional realms of politics. This article will focus upon the latter, more informal range of the spectrum by exploring political discussion, persuasion, and influence in everyday contexts, what Kenny (1993) terms the "microenvironment of political participation."

This focus, which is consistent with Norris' (1991) conceptualization of "the radical theory of political participation," understands politics as an expansive activity occurring in a wide range of "relatively unstructured and fragmented arenas within which women operate." This perspective developed as a riposte to the "traditional" (and androcentric) view of participation and its articulation of "standard assumptions about female apathy and passivity," viz., that women were less involved and less interested in conventional forms of political activity (see Randall 1987).

A third perspective sketched by Norris is "the revisionist." While the proponents of this viewpoint concede that women may have been less active than men in the immediate postwar period, they contend first, that the extent of any past participation gap probably was overstated; and secondly, that over time the gap closed as women's life styles and life chances improved. From this viewpoint, changes in women's opportunities have provided them with access to the financial, educational, and organizational resources that now enable them to participate on the same basis and to the same extent as men. Revisionists thus "emphasize the similarities rather than the differences in the mass political behavior of women and men." (Norris 1994: 25-26) (See also Sapiro 1984; Siltanen and Stansworth 1984; Jones and Jonasdottir 1988).

Below, findings are presented that mark a step toward answering questions prompted by Norris' outline of the three perspectives concerning gender and political participation. Conventional measures of political activities common to standard studies of participation by themselves disclose some support for the traditional perspective; i.e., that women are less participative than men. However, as with a major British study (Parry et al. 1992), we also find inter alia that the extent of any participation gap between women and men is narrow and that most people are inactive. (Miller, Wilford, and Donoghue 1996) In that respect, there is also some negative support for the revisionist perspective. …