ESSAYS|Women in Politics

Publicat deIoana Ioana

In the following paper I will present the main opinions concerning the woman’s status in Politics, as well as my own thoughts.

Perhaps an excursion into the past will answer that frequently posed question:how, and why did women’s oppression begin?

In order to answer this question I shall begin with the ancient Greece .Homer’s depiction of women , in an age he associated with the Heroic past ,would be of lasting significance since his poems were still read and recited in Plato’s day as an authentic narrative of Greek history,as well as a source of moral advice.While the chief females of the Iliad and Odyssey appear as strong characters and escape the sort of denigration women would receive in subsequent literature, their subordinate role in the household remains unquestioned.The unity of the household depends upon the loyalty of its members and so the key virtue of the women is fidelity.It is Helen’s infidelity that starts the Trojan War,while Agamemnon’s faithless wife Clytemnestra brings political chaos when she takes a new lover. In contrast, there is the chaste and honourable Penelope, who maintains Odysseus’ kingdom for him during his ten years of wandering. While it is true that fidelity is also demanded of men, it does not in their case have a sexual implication: the husbands are hardly monogamous.

Homer’s leading women are powerful agents who use intelligence and cunning to further their ends; they are never passive figures in this virile world.

Nevertheless, the main characters of the Homeric epics are a different tale of women: they are viewed merely as pieces of movable property, to be allocated as prizes of war. We find women depicted in unflattering terms and ones with which they already seem to be stereotyped: the beautiful slave unwitting cause of rage and jealousy among men; nagging wife ( Hera, Clytemnestra) versus her pure and patient antithesis (Penelope). From the beginning women seem to have been associated with certain natural phenomena, and this is unsurprising. Their power to create new life was wondered before any male contribution was recognized. This power seemed to ally them with the earth and with a nature whose fecundity they shared. The early fertility cults would naturally have been presided over by female goddesses. By linking woman to darkness via the earth, the Greeks associated her with insanity and also with death. The latter was in turn identified with contamination and women were seen as having an affinity with polluting forces which they mediated on men’s behalf in religious rituals. From a political perspective it is suggested that the historical overthrow of matriarchal religion was sufficiently recent for the new patriarchal order to yet be on the defensive against women’s power.

Going further, towards the status of women in the just state, we find Plato’s and Aristotle’s principles. Comments about women are scattered throughout Plato’s writings and suggest that he generally found them weak, emotional, complaining and lacking in virtue. To conclude this section on Plato, I think it would be difficult to maintain that he had any feminist sympathies. It is obvious from this corpus of his work that he did not have a high opinion of women’s nature and capacities and this is scarcely surprising, given the culture and social practices in whose context he wrote.

Aristotle leaves women a role and an identity rather than aspiring to dissolve womanhood into a male norm and gender into a sexually neutral category of “servicers” of the state. If he defines women solely in terms of the household, he does leave them a space in society: their status is an inferior one and their reason is imperfect, but they are not neutralized as inimical to reason itself. Aristotle made women’s inferiority and domestic role an integral part of his philosophy. Ancient ideas about women were subsequently incorporated into medieval notions and thereby endured long after the Greek city-state and the culture which had given birth to them, had disappeared.

In the Middle Ages unmarried or widowed women did possess rights and duties equivalent to men’s: they could make wills, contracts, sue and be sued. Once married their land passed to the husband for the duration of the marriage, but on the termination of marriage, much of the property would revert to them.

The majority of women were not of course noble and have played a role that was less differentiated from that of men. While women’s labour was a necessary and integral part of the household economy, however, a rudimentary division of labour did undoubtedly exist. Women might perform any task that a man did, apart from heavy ploughing, but they were usually employed in particular types of work: tending the vegetable garden , orchard and poultry. With the development of towns from the twelfth century on, women began to enter trades.

To conclude, the formal picture that emerges of the noble woman under feudalism suggests that the military and inheritance principles structuring the society prescribed for her a role but one that was very much subordinated to male needs. Within that role, however, she seems to have played an important social and economic part; some noble women even became patrons of culture. Yet all women were recognized as subordinate to husbands, who were quite entitled to beat and generally govern them. For this age Augustine’s position is significant sustaining the Pauline allusion to spiritual equality, and locating woman within the bounds of reason. Woman is upgraded in being seen as man’s equal in reason, but the symbolism in which Augustine envelops her must make reason’s appearance there seem precarious, while her association with appetite implies her culpability for that loss of rational control which demonstrates the sinfulness of the race.

During the sixteenth century, both Church and State encouraged the growth of paternal power. Although Hobbes says little overtly about women, he does seem to retain sufficient patriarchal assumptions in this respect to introduce, perhaps in spite of himself, a fatal inconsistency into his work. Once women submit in the family, due to the natural unfitness they frequently evince, then by implication they renounce the opportunity to register political consent. Their acquiescence to the state can then be mediated, even imposed, by their husbands.

In the seventeenth century women were considered to be weaker than men in any substantial sense. There was still historical evidence of women’s economic self-sufficiency, which might have sustained a genuinely egalitarian individualism in an age when ideals of the idle housewife had yet to emerge and when the boundaries between public and private life, whether material or ideological, had yet to crystallize. There was also the experience of the English Civil War. This had seen the efflorescence of all sorts of radical religious sects whose beliefs and practices included female equality, libertarian sexual habits and an attack on marriage. Women had also been active in radical political movements. Although patriarchy was secured with the Restoration in 1660, feminist ideas were not completely suppressed, and by the end of the century Mary Astell was calling for an institute of higher learning for women.

In the early liberal theories of Hobbes and Locke had sustained an implicit inconsistency between their egalitarian logic and the natural infirmities they imputed to women, with Rousseau the distinction is made clear and explicit: civic equality is juxtaposed with a natural and hierarchical order in the family, predicated on an irremediable sexual difference which denies to women any directly public role. Although women do have reason, Rousseau writes, it is of a practical nature. Woman lacks the accuracy or attention for success in the sciences; she cannot appreciate genius. For abstract and speculative truths, principles and axioms, generalizations as such, are beyond her grasp.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s vision of sexual equality remained a liberal one. It stressed the cultural and psychological foundations of women’s oppression and sought to overcome these via an equality of education and rights predicated on a single model of supra-sexual humanity.

John Stuart Mill has gained a reputation as the most significant liberal thinker to apply the doctrine’s premises explicitly to women. Despite his undoubtedly sincere commitments to women’s emancipation, Mill’s vision of what that would entail is quite restricted. Within these liberal constrains, Mill nevertheless introduces a further limitation. His image of the emancipated woman is of rational, talented being who suppresses her passion in pursuit of cultural interests and the development of her faculties. Yet this vision remains a peculiarly bourgeois and elitist one. It also promotes women’s conformity to prevailing norms of masculinity.

The Marxist approach first suggests that women’s oppression has material foundations even though it does not locate these very precisely and underestimates the cultural dimension. Second, the notion of the family as a “series in historical development” and women as a subject to a changing status which once gave them superiority, is important in dispelling naturalist claims of sexual difference and hierarchy, even if Marx and Engels do not themselves carry through their argument adequately. They show that women’s position and attributes are socially constructed.

To continue these pre-modern ideas we shall talk now about the feminist movement towards these previous thoughts have evolved. Feminism attacked at first such theories which excluded women from citizenship and forced upon them the feminine identities it judged inimical to a civic status. Feminism took over from modern political thought the way it formulates its goals around visions of emancipation and liberation. In other words, feminist political thought has necessarily involved sociological and ideological dimensions. Equality feminism, the feminism practiced by liberals and socialists, is then politically essential for those women who would pursue greater opportunities to self-determination within the context of the liberal-democratic, capitalist-patriarchal state. The kind of interests and equality different women might pursue there, the problems of political representation, the unequal access to political and economic resources between men and women and between women themselves, are all issues here, but they should not preclude the pursuit of equality where women are clearly disadvantaged vis-a-vis the privileges and values of contemporary Western societies.

In my opinion it is useless to talk about the relation of the equality between men and women as we can not establish a direct link between genders and political power. What we have for certain is a complementary relation that may be characterized only in broad terms. I strongly think that women have their place in political life and that this place depends only upon their personal ability and capacity of using legitimate power.

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