Gender and the state

A white knight
A white knight

Polite Ire looks at the links between gender and the state, arguing that masculinity is constructed in the image of the state.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on March 13, 2012

Politics is dominated by men. Indeed when David Cameron was accused of being sexist, he responded at the next PMQs by ensuring there were a number of female MPs sat behind him, presumably in an attempt to show that women were represented in his government. However, women hold only 16% of government seats, and only 22% of parliamentary seats as a whole. Despite equality legislation, despite the ability of individual women to work within the parliamentary system, as a whole the structure remains dominated by men – a state of affairs that is entirely predictable given the socialised gender norms discussed in part 1.

When Cynthia Enloe theorises women in politics she points to the evidence of socially created gender norms, however she does so in a manner that continues to accept the division of masculinity and femininity between the sexes – i.e. women need to be involved in politics in order to bring feminine views to this otherwise masculine sphere. This analysis would suggest that political structures continue to be male dominated because men have traditionally held power and wish to keep women subservient, and thus it follows that gender inequality can be solved by more female representation within political institutions. She writes:

the conduct of international politics has depended on men’s control of women (Enloe p.4)

While on the surface this seems a plausible explanation for a patriarchal structure, i.e. that men create structures to further their own interests, it also implies that men have constructed gender roles for women, and thus fails to appreciate that the gender role of men is also a product of social construction. In other words her argument suggests that men have agency because of… the agency of men! By recognising that the creation of gender norms is far more complex than attributable to the agency of men, we must also question why masculine traits are regarded as political attributes.

The binary nature of gender stereotyping is paralleled in Machiavelli’s The Prince. In this he writes of dichotomous qualities that bring either success or failure to a Prince, these most notably (for our purpose here) include effeminate and weak versus fierce and bold. But stereotypical gender qualities can be read into others, including: generosity/greed; cruelty/mercy; and lasciviousness/chastity. For Machiavelli’s Prince, success is determined by the qualities he possesses, and it is notable that the statesman who embodies the qualities we more regularly attribute to men is the statesman who enjoys success. Could it therefore be claimed that the functioning of the state system requires the gendered division of human attributes? When theorists of international politics suggest that the ‘masculine’ state is a reflection of human society, are they correct in their labelling of the cause and effect, or could in fact our gendered societies reflect the requirements of a state system?

When Enloe writes of self-determination in post-colonial countries, she talks of the difficulty in ensuring nationalism works for women as well as men. The complexity, she claims, stems from nationalistic men who view women as the property of the community, those who will give birth to future generations of nationalists and ensure the continuation of shared values and traditions. However this role of the nationalist woman also leaves her vulnerable; if she is assimilated into another culture, the future of the nationalist cause will be lost. For Enloe ‘awareness, questioning, and organising by women’ (p.13) is needed to ensure that the patriarchal norms of the former colonial ruler are not perpetuated by a nationalism built upon the repression of women (and/or for indigenous patriarchal norms to be challenged through the struggle for self determination). Her criticism of nationalism is again one of representation; it is problematic only because women do not hold decision-making roles – i.e. nationalism reflects society. If instead we theorise that nationalist movements reflect their ambition of state power, we can then suggest that in order for a nation to succeed as a state it must adapt its society to function within the state structure. The subjugation of women is, therefore, not the free choice of powerful men, but one that is dictated by a structural necessity to divide the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and subordinate the latter to the former.

If evidence for innate gender differences cannot be found, then gender inequality cannot be explained by essentialist arguments. If Michael Kimmel is correct when he suggests that ‘gender difference is the product of gender inequality, and not the other way around’ (p.4), then the only answer to inequality, the only way to break from patriarchy, is to radically change our societal structures. Without such change we have only the hope of reform, promising much but in reality changing little. If there is no innate difference in gender, Enloe’s proposed solutions will not change the repressive gender roles of patriarchy; the structure of the system itself relies upon the repression of half of human attributes, i.e. the “feminine” attributes. Using the oft cited example of Margaret Thatcher, this theory would therefore not claim that she acted ‘like a man’, but that she acted like a politician. The individuals who work within and uphold these power structures, whether male or female, must suppress the qualities that are not beneficial to the continuation of the structure, thus also maintaining the socialised differences that create inequality.

Feminist scholars of political theory assert that ‘the personal is political’, i.e. private interpersonal relationships are power relationships. In regard to rape culture, this means that:

‘Rape… is about power more than it is about sex, and not only the rapist but the state is culpable.’ (Enloe p.195).

While this indicates recognition that socialised gender norms create rape culture, it does not go far enough. In its failure to account for why politics is masculinised, indeed why the state structure requires this masculinisation, it cannot satisfactorily theorise a society without rape culture. If the state can claim a monopoly upon legitimate power, and the state is inherently masculine, the subordination of the feminine is inherent to state societies. Enloe’s conclusions continue to fall into the same trap of the essentialists, i.e. seeing men and women as fundamentally different. As a result the liberal empowerment of women is actually only surface level change – legislating over the cracks but ignoring the depth of the problem. The subordination of women, and the rape culture that accompanies such gender hierarchy can only be truly challenged on the structural level; this challenge must therefore be against state structures, and therefore also capitalism, as the capitalist system cannot survive without the state. As noted by Angela Y. Davis:

“As the violent face of sexism, the threat of rape will continue to exist as long as the overall oppression of women remains an essential crutch for capitalism.” (p.201)

Michael Kimmel The Gendered Society
Cynthia Enloe Bananas, Beaches and Bases
Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince
Cordelia Fine Delusions of Gender
V. Spike Peterson (ed) Gendered States
Angela Y. Davis Women, Race and Class