Blogs & Commentary

Feminising Politics, Politicising Gender

Some musings following the 2015 European Conference on Politics and Gender from Jonathan Dean.

JoniThe Fourth European Conference on Politics and Gender saw no fewer than 450 scholars from across Europe and beyond descend on Uppsala in central Sweden, rendering it an excellent opportunity to take stock of the current state of gender and politics scholarship. At one level, the news is unreservedly positive. Feminist perspectives are being brought to bear on a bewilderingly wide variety of political phenomena, and the affective climate of the conference was often defiant and optimistic. But on digging deeper, one could detect numerous signs of unease. In the lunch breaks and in the bars of Uppsala all too frequently talk was of precarious employment and institutional marginalisation. No one could be left in any doubt that to pursue “gender-aware” political analysis is to engage in often bitter political struggle against a political science mainstream that remains largely impervious to feminist critique.

However, the conference also made visible a range of struggles within the gender and politics community, with signs of considerable disagreement over what, precisely, it means to conduct scholarship on “gender and politics”. In the opening plenaries, and in many of the panels, “gender and politics” was largely taken to refer to the gender dynamics of formal political institutions. This consists in large part of the analysis of the political representation of women, for which plenary speaker Joni Lovenduski’s pioneering work remains a key reference point. A second, rather different strand proceeds from the assumption that the scholarly analysis of gendered practices is, in some sense, always already a political project. Whilst the first strand tends to retain the same objects of analysis as mainstream political science, the second strand, being less demarcated, encompasses a wider range of theoretical and empirical concerns including, but not limited to, topics such as migration, affect, the posthuman and the lived experience of LGBTQ communities. Essentially, whilst the first is a project aimed at gendering political science and feminising political institutions, the second involves politicising gender. A striking feature of the conference was the at times very large gulf between these two approaches, which often seemed to talk past each other.

For example, whilst the language of intersectionality is now ubiquitous in the “feminising politics” tradition, there is clear uncertainty about what it means for feminist political science to take intersectionality seriously. This became particularly clear during the controversially titled roundtable ‘Europe is Burning, and we are Talking About Intersectionality’. Sylvia Walby’s framing of intersectionality “in the broadest sense” as the intersection of gender and finance capital did little other than show that mention of intersectionality is, as Akwugo Emejulu pointed out from the floor, no guarantee that racial domination will be taken seriously. Furthermore, as Johanna Kantola and Emanuela Lombardo highlighted in one of the conference’s final panels, the insights of poststructuralism (let alone “post-deconstruction”), so central to interdisciplinary gender studies, remain largely absent from feminist political science.

So perhaps an important task is to reflect on how we might build bridges between “feminising politics” and “politicising gender”. The good news is that there is clearly an emergent body of work which does precisely that. One could, for instance, point to a recent resurgence of interest in symbolic representation (as in the work of Petra Meier and Emanuela Lombardo) and representative claim making (Karen Celis, Eline Severs and others) as attempts to broaden understandings of representation beyond a rather limited emphasis on formal representative institutions. Elsewhere, some recent work on intersectionality and feminist activism – Akwugo Emejulu and Liz Evans to name but two – also offers glimpses of the style of scholarship that speaks across both traditions. Other examples include Shirin Rai and others’ work on political performance, whilst Mieke Verloo is consistent in offering a view of what it might mean for feminist political science to take intersectionality seriously. Finally, a prominent theme of the conference was the “new institutionalist” turn in feminist political analysis, which seems to have captured the imagination of many. Whilst I am something of an outsider to this debate, I was encouraged by the humility and openness which characterised several articulations of the new institutionalism within the conference space. My hope is that this generosity will pave the way for precisely the kind of interdisciplinary dialogue gender and politics scholarship requires.

To be clear, none of this is to reject or pour scorn on the “Lovenduskian” tradition of feminising political science, which was central to putting women and gender on the political science agenda. And neither is to detract from the fantastic and often under-appreciated work of the conference organisers. But my sense is that the full radicalism and significance of the challenge that “gender and politics” scholarship poses to mainstream political science is unlikely to be realised if the dialogue between “feminising politics” and “politicising gender” remains limited, particularly in a context where the former carries greater institutional weight and recognition. The danger of such a dialogue is, of course, that “gender and politics” loses its distinctiveness as an analytical project. But I think this is a price worth paying for greater inclusivity and diversity, both in terms of individuals present, and in terms of the richness and vitality of the discipline.

Jonathan Dean is Lecturer in Politics in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds.

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