Getting there, being there, making a difference? : gendered discourses of access and action in local politics
This thesis aims to further our understanding of the relationship between gender relations, political structures and political action. There are two broad questions posed by the study of women in political elites. The first asks why there are so few women in politics; and the second asks whether the (increased) presence of women makes a difference in terms of, for instance, political agenda or policy outcome. The thesis examines the ways in which gender is relevant to women's experience as political actors in terms of their access, presence and agency in local decision-making assemblies. Data were collected via in-depth semi-structured interviews with 53 female councillors across political party, in four Scottish local authorities. In addition, a case study was undertaken into a policy initiative common to the four authorities. Section I uses the councillors' narratives to examine the way in which gender relations shape and impede access to political elites; and explores the justifications they offered to promote the increased presence of women. The objective was to place these discourses within the context of contemporary theories and political debates about equality and representation; and recent suggestions with regard to feminist political theories of care. It was found that women had a clear understanding of the gendered barriers to equal participation in politics and perceived them as rooted in the sexual division of labour. Their discussions of gendered realities exposed the limitations of dominant constructions of equal opportunities and 'fairness' which have, to date, failed to deliver significant improvements in levels of women's political representation, particularly at Westminster. Women also forwarded complex reasons and justifications for the increased access of women into decision¬ making bodies, including the assertion that women make a difference qua women. The case study of Zero Tolerance , an anti-violence public awareness campaign, is explored in Section II. The campaign, which uses a feminist analysis, has attracted considerable interest throughout the UK, Europe and the world. In Scotland, it has increased public and political debate about violence against women and children, and has raised the issue higher up the political agenda. The Zero Tolerance campaign is an ideal site to explore the theoretical expectation of certain feminist models that the feminisation of political elites (in terms of the increased numerical presence) will lead to the greater promotion of positive policies for women; an expectation which resonates with the perceptions of many women interviewed. It also allows examination of the hypothesis that there are structural factors which may inhibit or enable the development, expression and active pursuit of gendered politics. Although women councillors do not generally identify themselves as feminist, many are 'proequality' and do act as agents or supporters of change, indicating a greater sense of cross-party acceptance of gender issues as legitimate within local government than has generally been argued. All but a few women can be placed along a continuum of gender consciousness and commitment. This continuum ranges from 'weak' political identification to the energetic promotion of women's interests. A complex picture emerges where successful agenda setting and implementation of equalities initiatives is linked to a combination of enabling factors. In particular, the creation and maintenance of equalities structures, women's and equal opportunities committees, are significant in providing both the organisational space and the political space in which to initiate change. All participating authorities had equalities structures in place, staffed by specialist officers. Zero Tolerance was a strong campaign initiated by feminist specialist officers and dedicated feminist councillors which found broad support from women councillors, feminist and non-feminist, across party. Although support was not unqualified nor uncritical, it was unprecedented in the experience of local government gender politics; and was crucial to the success of the campaign. This indicates both the personal and political salience of the issue for the women councillors themselves, and also a recognition of its significance to women in the community. The thesis concludes that gender intervenes in a complex, sometimes contradictory way in women's access, presence and action in political elites. At a minimal level, almost all women acknowledge the political relevance of gender. They invoke the rhetoric of difference when discussing barriers to access and when justifying the inclusion of women in political elites; and at empirical level there is evidence to back their contention that they make a difference. The findings suggest that most women politicians have at least a 'weak' gender consciousness which, in combination with certain enabling structural factors, can result in the promotion of gender policies. In the case study this took the form of an emerging 'women's polities', a broad-based coalition which crossed traditional boundaries, and where women as women were successful at intervening in the local state and making a difference.