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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

How Have Gender Perspectives Transformed Political Science?

Johanna Kantola and Emanuela Lombardo explore the four main contributions of gender and politics studies to political science.

Gender and politics has become a vibrant subdiscipline of political science over the past twenty years. Political science associations organise conferences and panels on gender and politics, books, journals, specialized book series and journal special issues are published, and courses are taught at universities. The recent European Conference of Politics and Gender (ECPG) celebrated its 10th anniversary with 800 participants in Amsterdam in July 2019. These developments are particularly evident in Europe - but also in North America - where the numbers of gender scholars in the field of political science have expanded; these scholars have obtained PhDs in increasing numbers, become professors, heads of departments and deans of faculties and been able to work within the field and within universities to pave the way for strengthening gender and politics research.

Gender perspectives have transformed political science. But what are the main contributions of gender and politics studies to the discipline?

First, as Brooke Ackerly and Jacqui True rightly state, ‘gender analysis opens up a whole landscape of new research questions as well as giving us tools to rethink old research questions’ of power, institutions, agency, and democracy. For instance, economic crises have gendered impacts. But feminist research powerfully illustrates that understanding the particularly fragile position of black and ethnic minority women – their permanent state of crisis – might require us to rethink the whole concept of the “crisis”.

Second, feminist political analyses offer a wide range of approaches. They range from a women approach (investigating the representation of women in political institutions), to a gender approach (exploring gender-biased structures and practices within institutions), a deconstructing gender approach (analyzing the construction of gender in political discourses and its effects on people), an intersectional approach (studying the interaction of gender with other inequalities), and a postdeconstruction of gender approach (such as new materialist studies on the impact of matter on the politics of gender and the cultural politics of emotions).

Each approach captures aspects of political reality which other perspectives may have overlooked, and jointly they shed light on dimensions of power and inequalities that gender blind political studies tend to neglect.

Third, gender analyses have expanded the boundaries of ‘the political’ to include gender relations and issues formerly considered private. As the famous feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ shows, power relations are not abstract but rather embodied in gender subjects. Two main consequences of conceptualising ‘the political’ are worth highlighting: the first is that power relations and values are considered gendered, because they reproduce gender norms and biases against women; the second is that gender analyses consider issues formerly defined as personal – or that are still de facto marginalised in politics in spite of their inclusion in existing legislation – such as sexual violence or childcare, as highly political.

Fourth, gender and politics research is especially apt to connect theory and praxis, something that politics as a discipline needs, especially in times of crisis. The real world challenges have provided our book with a number of practical examples and we show how equality theory is engaged with real world problems questioning gender power hierarchies and suggesting ways to put equality into everyday practice. Gender and politics tends to be conducted through feminist theory and lenses. This normative component, on the one hand, has made it vulnerable to critiques of being ideological in the eyes of mainstream political science. On the other hand, the normative side of the feminist analysis of politics adds to its strength to explain, understand, and change relations of domination that take place in existing societies.

In sum, gender and political analysis have much to offer to political science. The main contribution of gender approaches to political science lies in their diversity, because each of them is able to capture aspects of political reality that other perspectives overlook. Through their adequate academic recognition within the discipline of political science, scholars may enjoy the benefits of a more complete range of analytical approaches for understanding, explaining, and transforming the political.
Featured image credit: Photo by Anika Huizinga. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.