Women and the Politics of Empowerment

By Ann Bookman; Sandra Morgen | Go to book overview

Unless we begin to change our conceptual framework to incorporate a broader conception of politics, and of who can and does participate in it, much of the radical potential of actions that are already taking place will be lost -- even to those who participate in them. Ideologies do not control behavior, but they do set the categories within which we understand it.

In this respect, attending to "communities" in democratic theorizing offers an important new perspective. Along with Marxists, feminist theorists have criticized democratic theory both for its individualism and for its assumption of a public-private split. Marxists have insisted that this individualism must be transcended but have articulated an alternative paradigm requiring that people deny connections to any community other than one based on class. Drawing on the work of Carol Gilligan, many feminist theorists have focused their attention on the "women's values" of relationship, connection, and nurturance, suggesting that these, rather than the "male values" of competition and achievement, ought to be the basis of our political-social communities and theorizing. But that feminist strategy -- which tends to define these values as rooted in biologically based sex difference, or, at best, in women's capacity to "mother," rather than in the complex social realities of many working-class women's lives -- runs the risk of biologistic reductionism, of reinstituting traditional male-female dichotomies in a new guise. 31

A focus on communities and networks offers us another language, one not necessarily burdened with gender-based connotations. 32 It can provide a way to speak of transformed interpersonal and social relations that does not link them, specifically, to women's domestic roles but allows us to explore the ways in which, in given societies, women have undertaken a disproportionate share of the work of sustaining communities.

There is no reason to assume, after all, that a need for relationship and connection is felt only by women. The extent to which traditional democratic theorists strove to define bases for the creation of a political community is significant evidence to the contrary. The relative neglect with which human connectedness has been treated in that same theoretical tradition is, I would suggest, a reflection more of the way in which men, and male-defined perceptions of experience, have dominated the construction of theory than of any full assessment of the ways in which real human communities operate. Once we integrate women's experiences into those constructions, new possibilities emerge. To do so should allow us to tap more fully into the sources of (women's) political consciousness and to begin to build a democratic polity that is respectful not just of our interests but of the fullness of our relationships and of our integrity as people.


NOTES
1.
In fact, most theorists seem to assume that the ideal-typical citizen is male. On this point, see T. Brennan and C. Pateman, "'Mere Auxiliaries to the Commonwealth': Women and the Origins of Liberalism", Political Studies 27, No. 2 ( 1979): 183-200.

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