Abigail Adams’ letters to her husband are the stuff of legend—none more so than the letter that famously exhorted her husband to “remember the ladies.” For thousands of years, the role of women in politics was, for the most part, an unseen one; as wives, daughters and occasionally mistresses, they greatly influenced the way the world turned. With a few notable exceptions, women did not take up elected or appointed positions. In the last century, however, women have started to occupy political positions, bringing to bear an important question. Do women make a difference? Does the presence of a woman in the room—particularly in an official position—affect the way that politics happens? If so, why?
Some feminists would say no. If all gender differences between men and women result from male discrimination against women, then women are just men with fewer privileges. Once given those privileges, they would not change the discussion, except perhaps to bring women more into the public view. Boston University International Relations professor Ivan Arreguin-Toft explained this point of view this way in an interview. “If there is no difference, than there is no need to have more women in power, because men and women are the same,” he said.
Other feminists believe that women experience the world in a fundamentally different way then men do. This viewpoint—sometimes called difference feminism—cites both biological and cultural reasons for disparity. Some difference feminists believe that women are adept at conflict-resolution and so are less likely than men to go to war. In this case, more women in the political system could result in a more peaceful world.
In fact, more women are participating in the political process than ever before, and in positions of serious power. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany—called the fourth most powerful person in the world by Forbes this year—is either leading Europe into a new state of financial security and harmony or leading it off a cliff, depending on who’s talking. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, won a Nobel Peace Prize this year. A former Nobel winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is running for Parliament in the same country that kept her in detention for two decades for her outspoken work towards democracy. Here on the home front, Hillary Clinton was instrumental in securing a no-fly zone for Libya and is changing the way the State Department does business by integrating social media into her employees’ job descriptions.
However, on a global scale, women are still a minority in governments. According to the The World’s Women, a United Nations report released in 2010, women held only 17% of positions in lower or single houses of parliaments. Though it is encouraging that the number has increased by 7% since 1995, it is a far cry from the 50% concentration that would represent proportional representation. But does this matter? Clearly there are women in positions of real power; is that not the most important thing?
If women do think differently than men, and are more disposed to be peaceful than men (two huge hypothetical statements), then women in high positions should create a more peaceful dynamic. Unfortunately, this idea is complicated by the fact that often to achieve success women adopt masculine ideals.
“Think of [women in power] like salmon going from dam to dam. Women who succeed make it to each level in their chain by more successfully imitating and outcompeting males who act the same way. So the argument is… by the time that Margaret Thatcher became the head of state, [she] was sociologically indistinguishable from males,” Professor Arreguin-Toft explained. In this case, the number of women matters enormously, because it is only when the number of women reaches a critical mass that women can begin to redefine what it means to be a leader and a woman.
These questions have occupied feminist and international relations scholars for a very, very long time. Answers are incredibly complex and varied. Regardless, women no longer have an epistolary relationship to the political process. They have come into their own in a big way. Whether or not their gender influences the way they make a difference, women are in politics to stay. It is no longer a matter of men remembering women; now women are in the room, making their own decisions, making sure they won’t be forgotten.