Blogs & Commentary

In Defence of Lovenduskianism


Rosie Campbell, Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay

In a recent post on the PSA Women and Politics Group’s blog, Jonathan Dean reflects on the June 2015 European Conference on Politics and Gender, as well as the state of gender and politics scholarship more broadly. Dean argues that the conference has made visible a number of struggles within the gender politics community and suggests that the core tension lies between those ‘Lovenduskian’ scholars interested in ‘feminising politics’ versus those who are interested in ‘politicising gender’. The first strand, he argues, considers the gender dynamics of political institutions to be the core area of study for the sub-discipline, whilst the second views the subject of gender itself to be a political project.

We welcome this call for dialogue between the diverse strands of gender and politics scholarship. However (in the spirit of this dialogue), Dean’s musings on the ECPG conference also provoke unease. Here we are reminded of Joni Lovenduski’s ECPG keynote speech, in which she cautioned those present against the misrepresentation of previous generations of feminist scholarship – arguing for a ‘slow science’ approach in which earlier feminist work is valued where it is relevant and new research builds on (and extends) what has gone before without claiming to overturn it. In short, we should avoid the temptation of ‘neologizing’ and underplaying continuity and convergences in the ‘stories we tell’ about developments in feminist analysis[1].

Yet, in setting out the supposed tensions between these two strands of gender politics – ‘feminising politics’ and ‘politicising gender’ – Dean constructs an oppositional relationship between those of us who retain the objects of mainstream political science as our focus of study (and who have, in his view, had our day), and those who are interested in a ‘wider range of theoretical and empirical concerns’, including migration, the post human, and the lived experience of LGBTQ communities. But is this necessarily so? Are not these lived experiences a key part of the analysis of how gender relations are demarcated and processed through political institutions? And is it really fair to characterize institutionally-focused feminist political science as a ‘limited’ political project? In insisting that gender is central to political processes and institutions, feminist political science has posed (and continues to pose) a fundamental challenge to conventional understandings of the political, linking public and private and formal and informal spheres[2]. Studying formal (and informal) political institutions is therefore crucial if we are to understand the practices, ideas, goals and outcomes of politics; the relations of gender power within and across institutions (and their intersection with other axes of inequality); and the general and gendered mechanisms of institutional continuity and change – as evidenced, for example, in the rapidly growing and diverse field of feminist institutionalism[3].

Dean goes on to argue that the central aims of these two projects also differ – the first strand aims to gender political science, while the second aims to politicise gender. Really? Feminist empirical political scientists have continually challenged the concept of gender and the category ‘woman’, conceiving of it as a social construct that reproduces gender hierarchies (which feminist activism seeks to disrupt). Indeed, Joni Lovenduski herself challenges a binary conception of gender and problematizes the categories of man/woman in her writing[4] – and has been making nuanced arguments about feminising politics and politicising gender for a very long time, evidenced, for example, in her agenda-setting review of the state of the discipline published in 1998. At its very core, then, feminist political science has always understood that gender relations are inherently political, and also that differences among women and men are at least as important as differences between women and men – thinking of, for example, Lovenduski’s early research (with Pippa Norris) on gender, race and class in the British Parliament; Mary Hawkesworth’s analysis of processes of racing-gendering in the US Congress; Nirmal Puwar’s conceptualization of women and BME MPs as ‘space invaders’; work by Laurel Weldon, Melanie Hughes, Mala Htun, Karen Celis, Liza Mugge, Silvia Erzeel, and many others on intersectionality, women’s representation and gender quotas . . . and the list goes on.

Nonetheless, society continues to demarcate individuals as man/woman- even in a context of transforming gender roles and identities – the overwhelming majority of individuals in society identify themselves as either men or women, and policy and practice continues to treat individuals it believes have or might become pregnant differently from those it considers ‘free’ from this ‘encumbrance’. It is, therefore, sadly still too early to drop the old binary of ‘sex’ in political research. For example, in a simple act of counting Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs demonstrated that 45% of British MPs who identified as women and 28% of MPs who identified as men had no children[5]. To consider the intersection between ‘sex’ and parenthood in this way is obviously a simplification that ignores variation in family structure, but the stark differences show clearly that power structures still serve as a barrier to the presence of people who identify as women and are parents in the British Parliament.

Motherhood/fatherhood/parenthood are categories that feminist political scientists, identified by Dean as ‘strand one’, would like to see blurred and the boundaries dissolved, but today, despite real progress, the old categories remain largely intact; ‘women’ still undertake the majority of unpaid caring work. To ignore this because we don’t like it or because it seems dated is to miss discriminatory practices that continue to affect ‘women’s’ lives. The study of symbolic representation is an important addition to the study of descriptive and substantive representation but it need not replace them. Counting the number of individuals identifying as women, LGBQT, BME, disabled, and so on, within our institutions remains an important element of researching gender and politics. It is also a political activity – counting bodies has been an effective way of politicizing the under-representation of women (and other marginalized groups) and of holding political actors to account – and many political parties and institutions still don’t count for themselves[6]. And while Dean questions the ‘limited emphasis’ on formal representative institutions in feminist political science, parliaments remain an important site of representation, as demonstrated by the extensive body of work on the importance of women and feminist legislators as ‘critical actors’ or ‘gender equity entrepreneurs’ in effecting change. Empirical research of this kind is crucial to identify barriers to be negotiated and dismantled.

The ‘Lovenduskian tradition’ sounds rather grand but sadly the institutional weight and recognition that Dean attributes to it does not feel entrenched but instead hard fought for and continually contested – often in the face of significant resistance and ongoing marginalization. Such a characterisation also obscures the multiplicity of approaches and perspectives within what has always been an eclectic, open-minded and broad ‘church’. For feminist political scientists, then, it seems to be a case of ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ – attempting to engage with (and be intelligible to) mainstream political science whilst being part of a wider inter-disciplinary gender studies community, but, in the end, being dismissed by all sides. Yet, while Dean may feel that losing this distinctiveness in our analytic project is a price worth paying, putting women and gender on the mainstream political science agenda is as important as ever – particular in a time when discrimination against those who identify as women remains ubiquitous and, in an age of austerity, increasing. The research agenda that Dean argues for is a complement and a natural partner of Lovenduskianism, but it needn’t swallow her whole.

[1] See Clare Hemmings (2005) ‘Telling feminist stories’, Feminist Theory, 6 (2), 115-139; Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay (2009) ‘Already Doin’ it for Ourselves? Skeptical Notes on Feminism and Institutionalism’, Politics & Gender, 5 (2), 271-280.

[2] For comprehensive reviews, see Joni LovenduskI (1998) ‘Gendering Research in Political Science’, Annual Review of Political Science, 1, 333-56; Fiona Mackay (2004) ‘Gendering Representation in the UK: The State of the Discipline’, The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 6 (1), 99-120; Vicky Randall (2010) ‘Feminism’ in D. Marsh and G. Stoker (eds) Theory and Methods in Political Science. 3rd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

[3] See for example Meryl Kenny (2007) ‘Gender, Institutions and Power: A Critical Review’, Politics, 27 (2); Fiona Mackay, Meryl Kenny and Louise Chappell (2010) ‘New Institutionalism Through a Gender Lens: Towards a Feminist Institutionalism?’, International Political Science Review, 31 (5), 573-588; Mona Lena Krook and Fiona Mackay (eds) (2011) Gender, Politics and Institutions: Towards a Feminist Institutionalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

[4] Joni LovenduskI (1998) ‘Gendering Research in Political Science’, Annual Review of Political Science, 1, 333-56; Joni LovenduskI (2005) Feminizing Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[5] Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs (2014) “Parents in Parliament: ‘Where’s Mum?’.” Political Quarterly 85(4):487-92.

[6] See also Linda Trimble and Jane Arscott (2003) Still Counting: Women and Politics Across Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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