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PETER WICKHAM: The logic of women in politics

Peter Wickham, [email protected]

PETER WICKHAM: The logic of  women in politics

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THE JUSTIFICATION for gender balance in politics and indeed leadership is often discussed as a precursor to the more substantive discussion on the need for such a balance. Simply put, we might believe that since there are generally more women than men in most societies (like Barbados), our political representation should also reflect this balance. 

This seems to be an entirely reasonable proposition, but it is tempting to ask proponents “why?” The suggestion that gender balance needs to be justified beyond a simple statement of such a need forces a consideration of the special and different quality that women bring to politics and moreover the extent to which such qualities are important.

In the past, proponents of gender balance have advanced suggestions such as a greater inclination of women towards peace, which has been a consistent justification advanced by NOW in the US.

The more popular justification, however, is that women are more familiar with and as a result more inclined to advance women’s rights issues. It is ironic that both of these justifications can be easily challenged with reference to historic realities. 

In the first instance, the case of Golda Meir comes to mind, since she was one of the first women in the world to hold the office of Head of State in a developed country (1969).  

The term “Iron Lady” was coined for her and her role in the Yom Kippur War is well-known and demonstrated that she was no “dove”.

Years later, Baroness Thatcher claimed that title (Iron Lady) and launched one of the few modern wars involving the United Kingdom in the Falkland Islands (1982).  

With regard to the other justification, the case of Barbados stands out since it is generally accepted that Sir Henry Forde was one of the most successful Ministers of Women’s Affairs.

He was Attorney General and as such responsible for the landmark 1981 Family Law Act which brought substantial rights to women and was also influential in the passage of the 1983 Medical Termination of Pregnancies Bill which was easily the most progressive Caribbean position on this issue. 

Certainly, there have been significant advances in respect of women’s rights since then, but few would disagree that  Sir Henry made significant advances in the cause notwithstanding the fact that he was a man.

The second argument seems most compelling since it mitigates the assumption that women are more likely and better able to address women’s issues. Clearly, this is a misconception that is widely held and often also applied to other “minority” issues such as immigrant issues in diverse communities and issues relating to the LGBTQ community. 

The misconception speaks to a reality of our politics which often means that a person who does not carry the “baggage” of a unique sector or interest is often able to carry that sector’s issues with an unmatched enthusiasm and claim significant victories along the way. It therefore appears as though the ally is considerably more effective than the persons who belong to an oppressed sector, which suggests a useful strategy that ought to be employed by persons who seek “rights”.

The political logic behind this approach is simple and located in our apparent dislike for self-serving behaviour on the part of our leaders. If we suspect that a leader at any level is pursuing a cause from which they will benefit, we immediately assume those actions to be inappropriate, no matter how noble.  It is interesting that this is a well-accepted logic in the business sector where insider trading is illegal and moreover it is generally seen as unethical for a leader to influence a venture from which s/he will benefit.

The extent to which this logic should be applicable to social and legislative sectors is questionable; however, it seems clear that such thinking does resonate to some extent which recommends the logic of a strategy that fully exploits the utility of allies.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email: [email protected]