Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Has democracy failed women?

Aug 1, 2018 | News

Written by Clare Woodford

A democratic regime is not democracy, yet too often we assume that it is. We then use the existence of inequality in a particular regime to measure the success, not of that regime, but of democracy itself. When any regime produces inequalities, we ask whether democracy itself has failed – failed women, migrants, minorities, the poor? But to ask such a question is, despite our good intentions, to propagate a lie: the lie that any democratic regime ever can enact equality, the lie that reassures us that we are not to blame – democracy is.

Democratic regimes may inscribe democracy in their name, but this alone cannot guarantee that they will ever protect or enshrine equality. It means they tell others that they are democratic. Perhaps it forecloses questioning about what democracy is, and instead ensures a focus on just modifying institutions here and there to include each emerging wave of excluded identities.

Democracy, as it emerged in Ancient Athens was not a blueprint

But equality turns into inequality when it is institutionalised. When it is rendered into hierarchy, into oligarchy. Before we fret over whether this statement is defeatist or lazy, note what it ensures. It ensures that whatever regime we live under, however democratic it sees itself, or is recognised by others to be, there is always work to be done and complacency is never an option.

But what is this work if it is not simply institutional reform? Democracy, as it emerged in Ancient Athens was not a blueprint. Democratic forms of life and government existed in Baghdad and indeed no doubt in even more undocumented locations before the Ancient Greeks coined the phrase democracia – the rule of everyone.

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Erechtheum, temple of Athena on the Acropolis of Athens

Of note however, is the way Athenian democracy emerged. It was ushered into being by the famous reforms of the legislator Solon. Interestingly he did not stop short at institutional political reform. Solon’s reforms were economic too – they transformed relations between subjects. He cancelled debt and abolished enslavement between citizens for non-payment of debts.

In this limited sphere of adult Athenian male citizens equality could now prevail as a starting point. This was the condition under which the albeit limited Athenian democratic regime emerged. Equality here was the point of departure, not a goal to be achieved. Democracy starts from equality. What great things could be achieved from such a starting point? We will never know unless we try it. The choice is ours.

It is only in moments when women and others stop identifying women as the oppressed subject, as lesser – as occupying the role that women are meant to occupy – that democracy can exist

Has democracy failed women? In a moment of democracy women are no longer women, as we understand the term. The distinction men/women, the values we assign to these identities, are dissolved. The terms lose their meaning. It is only in moments when women and others stop identifying women as the oppressed subject, as lesser – as occupying the role that women are meant to occupy – that democracy can exist. Women qua women (the subjected other) have no place in democracy because democracy acknowledges no hierarchy, no distinctions.

If democracy is worth anything at all, women as women have no place in it, nor too men as men. Democracy dissolves the identities we have been assigned, perhaps momentarily, not claiming that the world can be different, but proving, that it already is. It throws down a challenge to us to make the moment last. If democracy is fleeting, whose fault is that?

Equality requires subjectivation, not subjection. Subjectivation is the rejection of subordinate positions we are assigned and assign to others. Quotas too easily enact a debt relation. They seek to emancipate others but without more comprehensive changes will simply indebt them to the existing order, creating more subjected subjects.

Quotas can veil domination and foreclose possibilities for emancipation

Quotas can veil domination and foreclose possibilities for emancipation. They deny the capacity of all and instead act in place of others, rather than supporting others to act for themselves (I am not arguing that those with little or no resources should be left to emancipate themselves, but that it is incumbent upon all of us to act in solidarity in ways that support others to emancipate themselves and not to reproduce relations of domination).

As long as women qua women are (re)presented they will never be equal. Quota systems maintain the lie, maintain dependency, hierarchy, even as they complicate its gender relations. Women are better than that. The more we enact equality, rejecting allotted roles of whatever identity we have been given, the debts that are used to tie us down, appropriating, dis-identifying, acting equally, the less we need to accept quota systems as the best deal that women can expect.

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Democracy can never fail women. It can never fail any identity. Democracy is that which dissolves the power of the identities used to discriminate between us, that differentiate and hierarchise. Democracy emancipates us from places, identities and resource allocations we have been assigned. Democracy is the possibility to build better worlds which will no doubt comprise new identities, but that can overcome the inequalities of today.

Democracy can never fail anyone for it is not the subject, democracy is the object

Democracy will never offer us total liberation. It offers endless worlds. Worlds in which old inequalities may be dissolved, but others will likely emerge. The struggle continues. Democracy can never fail anyone for it is not the subject, democracy is the object. Where then is the subject?

Democracy cannot act equally. We can. But do we?

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