The claim that women can only be represented politically by other women is one that assumes that women and men act differently in terms of politics. It is a claim which starts with the differing socialization of men and women and ends with the assertion that as a consequence only women can politically represent other women. By focusing on the relationship between descriptive and substantive relationship this statement suggests that an increase of female descriptive representation would consequently lead to an increase in the substantive representation of women. Whilst measuring the descriptive representation of women is straightforward, its relationship with substantive representation is not proven.
The aim of this essay will be to analyze the extent to which the having women as representatives is the only way to achieve women’s substantive representation. Firstly this essay will focus on the extent to which there can be such a thing as ‘women’s issues’ in politics. . It will then go on to assess the extent to which women act differently to men in politics, and the extent to which this difference is beneficial in ensuring women in the electorate are properly represented politically. This essay will finish by highlighting the broader structural factors within which women’s descriptive representation takes place, and suggest that in order for women to be properly represented politically, more focus needs to put on structure rather than whether representatives are male or female.
One of the main issues arising from the statement that ‘women can only be politically represented by other women’ is the consequent idea that women as a societal group have political goals which are both unique and homogenised. This essentialist claim is one of the main drawbacks of advocating the descriptive representation of women in order to ensure women’s substantive representation due to the fact that it tends to overlook the multiplicity of differences that exist between women including age, race, and sexuality. In order to counter this problem, feminist scholars such as Mansbridge (1999) and Young (2002) have argued that there can be such a concept as ‘women’s interests’ by focusing on shared perspectives and experiences. This is an idea that states that the way in which women represent other women is not in terms of a laundry list of women’s objectives, but rather in terms of similarities shared amongst women on the grounds of gendered. In this sense women can only be politically represented by other women because only other women share their experiences.
On the other hand, the argument has been raised by Weldon that such shared experiences do not necessarily legitimize one woman to act on the behalf of other women. Weldon (2002, p.1156) phrases this by stating that “a white, straight, middle class mother… cannot speak for African American women, or poor women, or lesbian women, on the basis of her own experience any more than men can speak for women merely on the basis of theirs”. This is a point reinforced by Mackay (2008, p.127) who argues that “individual experiences are cross-cut with other social divisions and identities, particularly race/ethnicity, class and sexuality”. Whilst it could be argued that gender is the defining factor in social experiences, it is not a factor which is unconnected to the other identities of an individual. As Spelman (1998) states, it is not possible to detach ‘the woman part’ of an individuals characteristics from the rest of their identity. In such a sense then it must be concluded that we cannot assume that women will be able to successfully represent women in terms of shared experiences, but rather that their representation must be done in another way.
Instead of focusing on policies that can be seen to be representative of women, it is more appropriate to frame representation in terms of the ability to construct a women’s agenda in the political arena. Whilst it has been shown we cannot draw up a laundry list of ‘what women want’ in the political arena, it is possible to highlight issues that women see as salient regardless of their age, ethnicity or sexuality. This is represented by a recent cross-country comparison (in Childs et al, 2012, p.11) whereby issues such as equal pay and violence against women were generally assumed to be issues that were of high relevance to women. However, that is not to say that on such issues women are homogenized, as Weldon (2002, p.157) argues, on the issue of wages for childcare, middle class women and working class women often have conflicting interests. The importance in such a case then is not that women agree on childcare, but that it is ‘women who have the responsibility for childcare, and it is women for whom the issue has the most serious consequences’. Therefore what needs to be represented in the political arena is not a set list of policy proposals but rather the ability to construct a debate around women’s issues themself.
As has been shown then, when judging the statement that ‘women can only be represented politically by other women’ it is not relevant to focus on specific policies as there is no set objective list of women’s demands that can be cross referenced with modern democratic performance. Instead it is important to look at other ways in which a female political representative is debated to be more equipped to politically represent other women as opposed to a male counterpart. One of the more important feminist arguments is the trust argument that women in the electorate are more likely to become politically active if their representative is female. This is an argument which revolves around the idea that past betrayals of female citizens by male representatives have made women less inclined to involve themselves in politics (Dovi, 2007, p.308).
As a consequence, it is only through the election of a female representative that women in the will become politically active and thus be effectively represented. This is a point made by Atkeson (2003, p.1043) who states that “When women…become visible players in the political system they empower women citizens. Women candidates lead women to feel more connected to and a part of the political system in a way that they do not when they look around and see only men”. Whilst this inspiration may be of significance to women individually, crucially it doesn’t appear to translate into actual actions, as Elizabeth Haynes has shown in her study, women in districts represented by a woman are not more likely to contact their representative than women in districts represented by a man (Haynes 1997). To conclude then, having a female representative may make women feel more empowered, but crucially it does not seem to lead to increased political involvement. Therefore to claim in this sense that women can only be represented politically by other women would be misplaced due to the fact that there is no difference between having a male or female representative in terms of increasing political activity amongst women.