For the past twenty-five years, there has been a rapid increase in the number of women who are politically mobilized, a trend that has coincided with the so-called Third Wave of democratization. These “notes for discussion” address two basic questions: what is the impact of women’s mobilization on the process of democratization? And, how has the process of democratization affected women’s movements and agendas? The analysis is divided into women and transitions to democracy, women in post-authoritarian or “consolidating” democracies, and issues for the future.
My argument will be first, that there is considerable consistency among different regions and countries when we look at the role women played in the transitions to democracy, with the exception of women in post-communist regimes. However, women’s roles in the politics of democratic “consolidation” reveal a much more complex panorama, as political parties reassert their power and women’s movements are replaced by NGOs and a variety of grassroots organizations geared to very specific issues. The room for expanding women’s representation and for sustaining a political focus on women’s issues has varied widely and is dependent on economic, historical and cultural factors as well as the effect of changing international norms.
Most of the work on women and contemporary politics goes just this far. There has been little effort to date to systematically link women’s participation to the debates on democratization. Finally, there is less attention than there should be to the usefulness of gender comparisons in comparative politics, where women’s experiences can tell us a great deal about how (or how successfully) different political systems are developing the institutions and the values to sustain democratization.
Women and transitions to democracy
Although the field may be ready for a reassessment after over twenty years of study, the general picture that has emerged is that in Latin America (and in many other countries in many regions, from Taiwan to South Africa), women participated actively as women in the campaigns for a return to democracy. In Latin America, women organized at several levels, from small and elite feminist groups to organizations of urban poor, peasants and lay Catholic groups. The goal of returning to democracy provided a basis for cooperation among these groups, giving the impression of a cross-class women’s movement and legitimating for the first time the widespread participation of women in politics. Intellectual leadership was critical in defining this mobilization as a “movement” and in identifying it with a series of political demands. But even during the height of the movement phase, important divisions among women emerged on priorities and strategies.
In the Southern Cone and in Central America, women’s visibility, particularly in human rights groups, helped win recognition of the need to foster women’s political representation and to address women’s issues under the new democratic governments that emerged. In my view, women’s visibility provided a useful but rarely acknowledged impetus to civilian rule by encouraging the hope that democratic governments would be popularly based and representative, which was particularly important in a region where democracy had fallen into disfavor with both the left and the right.. In addition, women’s movements provided proof of the existence of a vital civil society and reinforced the Toquevillean view that problems could be addressed by organized groups of citizens and not, as is the tradition in the region, only by the state. Along with other social movements, the women’s movement helped raise expectations that democracy could pursue progressive but not radical agendas, which was particularly important in the Latin American context where support for moderate leaders allowed the military to withdraw,
This phase of women’s mobilization—from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s—coincided with the unprecedented rise of an international network of women’s movements. This was created and nurtured by the UN Decade for Women (1975-85). The Decade provided opportunities for women to meet and provided role models of women’s leadership, innovative strategies for “penetrating the state,” a laundry list of women’s demands, and a sense of being part of a worldwide wave of women’s movements as well as democratic reform.
The major exception to this trend, marked by women’s politicization in the North as well as the South, was in Eastern and Central Europe where the agendas of democratization and women’s assertion of their rights did not coincide and reinforce one another. Women’s rights and women’s political participation were negatively associated with communist authoritarianism, not with new democratic prospects. Women felt that they had been politically exploited rather than marginalized and men, newly able to act independently in the political arena, argued that politics was a male game, and that the communist effort to incorporate women had been misguided and unnatural.
Women and democratic “consolidation”
Recognizing that electoral democracy does not itself mean democratization, and that simply holding elections and achieving an alternation of parties in power do not themselves provide sufficient evidence that a country is achieving democracy, I think it is nonetheless important that activist women experienced a high level of disenchantment with the way the newly installed democratic governments dealt with them and their issues. The solidarity and oppositional strategies of social movements were no longer as useful under democracy; parties reasserted themselves as the representative institutions responsible for “interest articulation and aggregation,” displacing social movements who had seen themselves as powerful and independent forces during the transitions; and the goal of getting the military to return to the barracks, which had provided a basis for unity among women’s groups, could no longer keep women together. Groups differed on priorities and strategies. To be successful, they needed to be organized in ways that could put pressure on parties and the executive to pass laws, and able to follow through to monitoring the effects of that legislation and ensure that the executive and the courts implemented the laws that were passed.
There were some important successes: women were able to organize to get some of their issues into rewritten constitutions and to change some of the most discriminatory legislation. But success was far from uniform: divorce was passed in Argentina but not in Chile, for example, despite the fact that the women’s movement was much more powerful in Chile than in Argentina. Abortion legislation in Eastern and Central Europe became highly restrictive (after decades of abortion on demand). In Latin America, abortion was debated, but quietly, and the gap between restrictive laws and more open practices remained. As Mala Htun shows in her recently completed thesis on abortion, divorce and family law in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the ability of the women’s movement to achieve its policy goals, even when those were relatively agreed upon among activist women, depended on factors very specific to each country, and I think this is true for many issues in which women have a stake.
Further, one could hardly talk about a “movement” any more, as the coalitions broke down rapidly after the transition. In my recent interviews in Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, all of my informants lamented the demise of a (relatively) organized, cohesive and solidary movement, although many observed that the need for a movement was less because social norms had changed and become more open to women’s rights and gender debates. The issue of “autonomy” bitterly divided feminists, as reports from the biannual feminist Encuentros over the decade of the 90s show. Increasingly, feminist, human rights, and neighborhood organizations of women became dependent on external funding from foundations and multi-lateral and bilateral aid programs (which now viewed democracy as a priority objective and the funding of NGOs as a way to achieve that goal). Informal groups and neighborhood organizations increasingly became (or were replaced by) “NGOs”, and NGOs were more professionalized and, many argued, too focused on narrow issues. Urban neighborhood groups (in Peru and Mexico, for example) became overtly dependent on the state which used women’s organizations to distribute food and provide minimal employment opportunities, thoroughly coopting the groups in the process. Even the feminist think tanks increasingly relied on government consultancies to pay the bills.
Government agencies or ministries set up to focus on women’s issues, or liaison institutions like Brazil’s National Council on Women’s Rights, inevitably became politicized. In Brazil and Argentina, these served at the pleasure of the President, who cut off funding or forced independent leaders to resign; in Chile, the Servicio Nacional de la Mujer (SERNAM) was restricted in its initiatives by splits between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in the governing coalition, which feared losing ground to the right. The right in Chile was emboldened by a backlash against feminism by the support of many conservative women. As women’s agendas moved from goals such as day care or consumer prices to women’s reproductive rights, women’s groups that had been encouraged by the Church now found themselves in conflict with it. Lacking a strong local tradition of philanthropy or a tradition of broad-based organizations supported by membership dues (which must have middle class support), women’s grass roots organizations lost members and those who remained suffered from burnout.
The women’s “movement” that remains consists of fewer, better organized, but one could argue less representative NGOs. From my recent research, these seem to be relatively well-funded in the area of women’s reproductive rights and there is still support for groups working on violence against women. But participants and scholars alike seem to agree that there has been a decline in advocacy as opposed to service-delivery organizations, and a loss in momentum.
These are largely observations
from Latin America, although I have anecdotal evidence from other regions of
similar difficulties for women’s movements under democracy. One recurring problem has been the tensions
between women’s groups and political parties, which are especially bitter on
the left. In Peru, for example, leaders of several women’s groups remarked to
me that they thought women did well when parties were weakest—a view that
undoubtedly corresponds to their experiences under a President who has
cultivated support from women, but which is certainly in conflict with the political
science view (laid out by Philippe Schmitter in his chapter in Women in Democracy) that a strong party
system is best able to build support for, pass and implement legislation that
requires changing traditional habits and behaviors. In Eastern and Central Europe, women have lost substantial
numerical representation and have had to face substantial resistance from male
party leaders. I would predict that
women’s educational advantages, decades of exposure to gender-egalitarian
ideologies, and their experiences in work and politics will soon be reflected
in increases in women’s mobilization in the more advanced countries of Central
and Eastern Europe (and Russia) to demand that the highly gender-discriminatory
practices that have accompanied restructuring in those countries be
redressed. (The global connections
between modernization and women’s political awareness and participation has
been shown in studies by Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart; in general, it might be
predicted that women in more traditional societies will be more likely to
support authoritarian rule. However,
this generalization does not hold in the other direction (e.g. Chile), and
international norms, exposure to modern media, and increasing levels of
education for women may undermine the arguments behind that assumption .)
Peering into the future
As a result of several factors, including the frustration of women’s groups, the recognition of the importance of the women’s vote, and the unwillingness of parties to risk backlash by taking controversial positions on women’s issues, the political dilemma represented by women’s mobilization is increasingly being met by the adoption of electoral quotas. Parties in several countries and now ten governments in the region have adopted “positive action” rules that require a third of a party’s nominees be women. In Argentina, where the Ley de Cupos was passed (with strong support from a Peronist--but far from feminist—president, Carlos Menem) in 1992, the law is both strict and well enforced, and (to my surprise) was strongly defended by men and women I interviewed. Despite concerns that men would run their wives for office or that political bosses would exploit women candidates, the view seems to be that this experiment is working and that it is justified both on the grounds of equality and on the view that women should be elected because they bring a different perspective to bear. What is happening in Argentina is part of a nearly global trend (the United States excluded. The most recent New Yorker has a fascinating essay by Jane Kramer on the politics of the quota in France, and in the same issue there is a discussion of the impact of new electoral system on the mayoral vote in London and its potential implications for the United States).
It remains to be seen if having more women in national legislatures will change the content of legislation, though there is some evidence that where women are a “critical mass,” legislative priorities reflect women’s interests in social policy, especially issues of particular concern to women, including parental leave, day care and the like. The opportunities to do research on the policy effects of quotas is just beginning, although few countries have legislation as strict as Argentina’s (which may reduce the “critical mass” we can expect to see as a result of this trend).
The focus on movements, NGOs and civil society that has characterized studies of the Third Wave suggests another area for research that thus far has barely been tapped. If we posit that the survival and strengthening of democracies in Latin America, Asia and Africa will depend on the degree to which democracies can address the so-called second generation reforms (including the rule of law and police and judicial reform, increasing inequality, the dismal quality of education, and endemic violence), then the question “Is women’s participation strengthening democracy?” suggests a focus not only on women’s formal representation but on the role of women’s groups—or the impact women’s participation in civil society more broadly. There is evidence that women’s political involvements can be critical—for example, women’s groups have been important to the promotion of a peace process in Colombia and women’s human rights groups are credited with keeping up the pressure for judicial reform and for monitoring the effects of reform legislation in Guatemala.
There are two aspects of women’s organizations in Latin America are not so encouraging, however. The process of “NGO-ization,” though essential because not all groups can survive on voluntary effort alone, may be narrowing the vision of women’s groups, locking them in to particular issues or service roles, and not giving them the flexibility to broaden their goals. This suggests two important research questions: what is the depth, the “thickness” of civil society in democratizing countries (that is, what is the organizational resource base and is it expanding or contracting?) And, how involved are women and women’s organizations? We might conclude that, if “grass roots” organizing depends on women, who are not always the leaders but who are a source of volunteer work and commitment, then it may be important to find ways to further encourage women’s participation.
A second issue is the fact that few organizations traditionally part of the “women’s movement” appear to be looking at these second generation issues, or doing the kind of analysis or advocacy that would connect them to these problems, even when an obvious case could be made. It might not seem useful to argue that “spontaneous” organizations can be nurtured or that groups that arise because members are strongly aware of a particular issue can be encouraged to think about other issues less central to their cause. But recognition and symbolic politics have always been factors in promoting voluntary organizations and in shaping NGO agendas. At this point, I think that too much work on “women’s movements in Latin America” is stuck in the past and not enough of it is focused on the challenges of the future.
Next to last, but far from least, is the issue of women’s political attitudes. If political party leaders are waking up to the importance of women’s votes, surely scholars cannot be far behind. Thus far, from the global research I have seen, no gender gap has emerged in levels of support for democracy in Latin America or elsewhere. For example, Brazil is relatively low on this measure (despite a strong civil society and an able, democratically committed president), and Costa Rica and Chile are high, as one might expect in two of the strongest democracies in the region, but gender is not a factor. However, there is growing evidence of gender gaps that are emerging on issues, and strong evidence of gender gaps in support for particular candidates. In my view, direct threats to democracy might evoke women’s support for the principle of democratic rule, but women cannot be taken for granted as its supporters. Women do not carry a “gene” for democracy. In Peru, popular women’s groups have been very successfully coopted by a president with authoritarian tendencies, and in many countries women have supported “law and order” platforms, even at the cost of civil rights.
Finally, despite what seems to be a deep commitment to ignorance on the part of mainstream scholars, it seems obvious that women’s political participation should be a required dimension of all case study and comparative research on democratization. Gender is increasingly being looked at as an important variable in global attitude surveys and in voting studies—not, as I might want, because it is intrinsically interesting, but because polling shows that women’s votes often make a crucial difference. For a recent example, more women than men support Fujimori against his “cholo” rival Alejandro Toledo, and more women also supported the right in Chile. This is not because women are conservative—in the United States, the Nordic countries and even in Latin America, women have sometimes voted for the left in greater numbers than men. It is not enough to generalize about women; we need to understand more about the political dynamics of gender at every level to understand how political options will evolve. The experiences of women’s groups provide an important window on state/society relations, how interest groups influence the state, and how the state tries control group access and manipulate group support. (For example, I think looking at women’s groups in Asia will illustrate important differences in the way non-economic interest groups interact with the state in Asia and Latin America). Finally, I think that looking at women’s participation will show that issues of inequality and redistribution—which were virtually banished from public debate by the assumptions of political and economic “liberalization”—are beginning to re-emerge, framed in new ways.
Women’s political attitudes and participation may not be globally predictable, at least not from what we have seen to date. But they will certainly be of central importance to the future of democracies and therefore to the future of the international system and the long-term prospects for peace.
 This speculative essay was prepared for a session of the Democracy Seminar, Stanford University, May 25, 2000. I want to thank the organizers, Terry Karl and Larry Diamond, for inviting me to present this work in progress.