Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Women Patriarchs

It's been a while since I pontificated, hasn't it? Well then.

Reading this post over at Ultra Violet made me think (somewhat tangentially) about a kind of reverse-sexism we're often guilty of - the assumption that a woman, any woman, will naturally be sympathetic to / concerned about women's rights issues.

The logic behind this bias is not hard to see. All women are, to a lesser or greater extent, victims of patriarchy, so it seems reasonable to assume that a woman will have greater empathy for the plight of her fellow-victims and will be prepared to make common cause with them.

Except, of course, it doesn't work that way. If the history of oppression teaches us anything, it teaches us that victimization at the hands of a common oppressor does not automatically lead to unity. Instead, class consciousness takes time and effort to achieve, and collective action requires a level of coordination that is truly astonishing when you consider how much the participants have to gain. This is true even when the oppression is explicit and clearly perceived, let alone when it comes disguised in a superstructure of tradition and community 'values' so that those oppressed may not even recognize themselves as such. In fact, because the oppressed have access to little power / resources as a class, they end up seeing each other as competition, and fight amongst each other for what little privilege is allowed them, instead of trying to work collectively for more. And those who do manage to secure status / privilege for themselves now have a vested interest in maintaining the social order and often end up working to support the oppressor rather than to help the oppressed.

It's not hard to see this at work where gender is concerned. Pick any patriarchal institution and you'll find scores of women serving as its agents. Attempts to deny women the right to abortion, for instance, have widespread female support, even though such legislation means taking away women's right over their own body and granting it to the state. Women are perpetrators in dowry deaths and genital mutilation and, as we have seen, are often active advocates of the idea that women can avoid being attacked / harassed if they dress properly, stay at home and generally 'behave responsibly'.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that women are not, as a group, more likely to be concerned about women's rights than men (or, in other words, the probability that a given individual will be sympathetic towards gender issues is higher if that individual is a woman). That, sadly, is still true. But one must guard against the fallacy of division that ascribes this property to every woman. That's why the notion of the 'first woman president' is a largely meaningless one [1]. We have little or no reason to expect that a woman who is president will be, simply by the fact of being a woman, more responsive to gender issues than a man would be in her place [2].

In her post, Indhu says that "we should subject all political offices and the state to a feminist scrutiny". I agree. And I think a key starting point there is moving beyond the tokenism that sees electing women to political office as being somehow a victory for women's rights. Electing feminists to political office may certainly help, electing women per se is unlikely to. The flip side to subjecting male politicians to the same scrutiny or expectations (as Indhu suggests) is recognizing that our expectations from female politicians should be no higher than those from their male counterparts. In both cases, we should demand much, but (realistically) expect little.

[1] This is not to say, to take a different context, that if Hillary were to become President she's unlikely to pay attention to gender issues. Given Hillary's background, as well as her probable need to keep women voters happy if she wants to be reelected, I'd expect her to be responsive to women's concerns. But I'm not convinced, for example, that she'll be more responsive to them than, say, Obama.

[2] The assumption that women will be naturally more sympathetic to other women also leads, of course, to a backlash against those who do not conform to this expectation, with people feeling disappointed and betrayed when women behave in patriarchal ways. My point is that the expectation that leads to this sense of betrayal is erroneous, and we'd be all better off if we recognized that once and for all, instead of being repeatedly surprised when it didn't come true.

Update: Reading through this again, I realize that I missed a 'not' in the last but one paragraph. This is why one should not write posts late in the night after an evening at the local pub. It's still a terribly constructed sentence but hopefully you know what I mean.


Unmana said...

Very well-argued post, as usual.

??! said...

I see you're still sticking that "responsibly" point in. Tsk, falsie, let them be.

Falstaff said...

unmana: Thanks

??!: Wasn't really trying to link back to that post, just meant the whole 'she must have been asking for it' attitude more generally.

Anonymous said...

Subject our State to a feminist scrutiny?? funny, considering I read this a day ago-


Anonymous said...

No, the notion of "first women president" is not meaningless. Tokenism helps too. Just showing that a woman CAN become the president helps. It should inspire a lot more women to run for public office.

So even if the woman you elect as President is not a feminist, many of the women who are inspired by her (and are elected to other public offices) will be. They will do things that better the situation of women.

Anonymous said...

I meant "first woman president", of course

Anonymous said...

Actually, just seeing that a female president or leader does not have sig. different policy than a man in the same position, helps build on the perception of equality. Even if the policy is about women's rights.

Feminist that I am, I'm not sure I or other feminists ever would want a female president who's overtly concerned about women's rights. Kind of makes the an already difficult job even more uphill for a woman/minority leader: why should we hold them to different standards than we hold our male/majority leaders?
Women's rights are human rights, and all that..

And yes, agree with lekhni about how the 'role model' stuff really really works...even accounting that women in power are rationalized usually as 'godess'es so that they're non-threatening (Queen Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi, even Jayalalitha by her followers).

Anonymous said...

Chevalier: That is interesting - rationalizing powerful women as goddesses so they are non-threatening. I had never thought of it that way.

But it makes sense - in essence, they are saying "these women are superhuman and that's why they achieved what they did. The rest of you, don't try this at home.."

Falstaff said...

anusha: Sorry, couldn't access the link.

lekhni: I suppose. Personally, I tend to find the fact that most women who get to positions of power are not feminists depressing rather than inspiring - it reinforces my belief that you have to subscribe to the patriarchy to rise within it. But that's probably just me being my usual cynical self. At any rate, my point here is simply that it's silly to expect that women in power will act any differently from men in power. If the fact of their being there independent of what they do is something people find inspiring, good for them.

chevalier: See above. I'm less convinced that the role model stuff "really really works", or that it should. As for "I'm not sure I or other feminists ever would want a female president who's overtly concerned about women's rights" - read the post I linked to. That certainly seems to want it. If you don't, good for you.

I agree entirely about holding women in power to the same standards as men - and the post says so - but I'm not sure how that translates into not wanting a female president concerned with women's rights. I certainly want a president who's concerned with women's rights - irrespective of whether said president is male or female.

Anonymous said...

sorry to belabor the post, but I'm taking heart from the EE fighters over on the next one.

so yes, 'goddess' rationalization happnes, and blunts some of the raw, aspirational power that a women leader communicates to other women. But like any other rationalization, it only blunts the power, is never able to remove it entirely.
So Indira Gandhi didnt improve the lot of every woman in India, but the fact that she existed, has helped a lot of women in village panchayats today explain their own authority to themselves and their families. Also, to women/men who're not so easily convinced by religious myths or fairy tales (like women in my family), she's still a potent role model (though not in policies or politics, thank god, just as a woman PM).

interesting and slightly unrelated though, is how Obama's strength is in 'feminine values' (he keeps saying WE, not I, is all about working together and hope and dreams, anti-war), and that seems to be connecting with men....I would've thought detailed, sound but boring policy minutae would connect more with men and inspirational stuff move women. Guess people are voting against 'natural values' and for their 'type'; or maybe that 'natural values' are a big bag of b.s.

Falstaff said...

chevalier: Fair enough. As I said above, it's probably just that I and the people I know tend to be cynical about the whole women in power thing. At any rate, the point of the post was not to argue that women in power do not serve as valuable symbols, but to argue that there's no reason to expect them to act in ways that are in women's interests, so they have little value as policy makers, whatever their value as role models.

On Obama and natural values, I tend to agree with 'natural values' being a lot of b.s. Though I suppose you could argue that he's getting away with it partly because people are sick of the kind of cowboy values Bush & co. embody, and partly because his opponent is a woman, so no matter how 'feminine' he gets, the chauvinists in the room are still going to vote for him. Which, of course, raises the issue of how, if he gets the nomination, he'll fare against McCain.

Anonymous said...

Falstaff: Isn't your assumption that "there's no reason to expect them to act in ways that are in women's interests" contradictory to what Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004) have shown?

Chevalier: Its the whole "warmth and competence" stereotype isn't it? (see Cuddy, Fiske, Glick 2004) which indicates that with women, there's a trade-off between warmth and competence, but men can add warmth without reducing perceived competence.


Falstaff said...

n! No fair using published research, especially research published in Econometrica. Okay, so maybe I'm wrong. It's still worth noting that all the study is saying is that women in power are, on average, more likely to promote women's interests. Which I don't necessarily disagree with. It still isn't reason to assume that any woman in power will automatically promote women's interests. Maybe countries with female heads of states are more likely to have a better record on gender rights. That's still no reason to assume that Pratibha Patil will act in ways that are anything but patriarchal.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Falsie, I admit it - you've confused me. Of course one can't say for certain that, given the statistical fact that the average woman leader is more likely to promote women's interests, the particular woman leader to do so WILL be Pratibha Patil. Could be a bad draw of the random Presidential urn. But if, on an average, women leaders better represent women's interests shouldn't we actually be surprised when this fact is not, in our experience, "repeatedly true"? Either there's something wrong with our empirical finding which needs to be contested (an alternative theory perhaps) or we're being dealt a particularly bad and statistically remote combination.

Then again, I only run experiments!!

And your point on women and gender rights? Exactly what Duflo and Topalova (2004) argue. See their paper in the Poverty Action Lab project.


Falstaff said...

n!: Yes, it would be surprising if PP turned out to be unsupportive of gender rights given the average tendency, if PP was a ball drawn from an urn. The point is she's not. Statistical inference would be useful if we knew nothing else about PP. Then we could use the fact that she's a woman to make some predictions about her likely behavior on gender rights. But given that we do know other things about her, it's not clear how useful the fact of her being a woman is any more. The point is simply that it isn't sensible to let a person's gender blind us to the rest of their track record. is there anything in PP's history that suggests she's a feminist ? Not that I know of (though admittedly I know very little about her). Should we then be surprised when she doesn't behave like one?

Anonymous said...

Falstaff: Ok, I'm behaving like the proverbial terrier here, but a little clarification is in order:

You state in your post:

"We have little or no reason to expect that a woman who is president will be, simply by the fact of being a woman, more responsive to gender issues than a man would be in her place."

and further, "[2].My point is that the expectation that leads to this sense of betrayal is erroneous, and we'd be all better off if we recognized that once and for all, instead of being repeatedly surprised when it didn't come true."

In both cases you are arguing the average or the general fact, not specific traits about PP. Hence my comments about the research and what that implies i.e.

We have reason (and some empirical evidence), in fact, to expect that a woman leader by sheer virtue of her gender might be more responsive to specific female needs.

Similarly, while we should not be suprised at getting a particular female leader who is non-responsive to female needs, we should, in fact, given the evidence be surprised when it occurs "repeatedly".

Is all. Congrats on your Caferati thingie.


Falstaff said...

n!: When was the last time a woman rose to political office where you did not have significant amounts of information, beyond the fact of her being a woman, about her? Where you could not look at her track record on feminist issues and base your expectations about her future performance on gender rights on that rather than on her simply being a woman?

I'm saying that in predicting whether a person who rises to a position of power will prove sensitive to gender issues we should look at their track record rather than at their gender. It is true that that track record may be positively correlated with gender, with women being more likely to have a sound track record on gender issues than men, but it's track record, not gender that's the better predictor, and to the extent that we allow gender to blind us to track record (as I'm alleging is happening in the case of PP) we're fooling ourselves.

It's a bit like poverty and theft. It may well be true that poor people are more likely to steal (I don't know that that is true, but for the sake of the illustration, let's say it is). Even if that relationship holds statistically, however, it would hardly reasonable to be surprised when someone who was poor turned out to be honest. And if had access to information on the person's police record (or lack thereof) it would be far more sensible to base our assessment on whether the person was likely to steal on that than on the fact that the person was poor, even though poor people would (assuming the statistical relationship held) be more likely to have criminal records.