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Parliamentary Representation of Women: From Discourses of Justice to Strategies of Accountability


Marian Sawer
International Political Science Review 2000 21: 361
DOI: 10.1177/0192512100214003
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International Political Science Review (2000), Vol. 21, No. 4, 361380

Parliamentary Representation of Women: From


Discourses of Justice to Strategies of
Accountability
MARIAN SAWER

ABSTRACT. The 1990s have witnessed a wide range of initiatives at national


and international levels to increase the parliamentary representation of
women. It is argued here that the underrepresentation of women is an
inherently ambiguous slogan that has wrapped up in it quite different
families of arguments, including the right to represent, the need for
representativeness, and the representation of interests. This ambiguity is
politically powerful but may cause problems for the practice of
representation. The article concludes that making a difference
discourse may lead to an over-emphasis on embodiment and a neglect of
issues of accountability.
Key words: Accountability Institution-building Representation
Women

Introduction
Women have, in the 1990s in particular, successfully politicized their absence from
parliaments and challenged the legitimacy of male-dominated decision-making. It
is perhaps paradoxical that this has occurred at the same time as widespread
questioning within academic feminism of the usefulness of the category woman.
Despite this questioning of collective identity, the issue of the representation of
women has now been taken up at every level of the political system, whether
subnational, national, regional, or international. At the international level action
plans are drawn up by bodies such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) as well
as by the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women.
In demanding the presence of women in parliament, activists have drawn on
the rich ambiguity of political language. For example, there has been much talk of
underrepresentation of women, which has blurred the distinctions between
0192-5121 (2000/10) 21:4, 361380; 014840 2000 International Political Science Association
SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)

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representation of interests, the representativeness of the legislature, and the equal


right to act as a representative. The slogan of underrepresentation is inherently
ambiguous, suggesting that the presence of women will also serve the goal of
representation of women as a collectivity.
Justice arguments about womens equal right to participate in public decisionmaking slide quickly into arguments about the relevance of embodiment to the
way representation is conducted (the civilizing effect) or to what interests, values,
and experiences are represented. For example, the Beijing Platform for Action
(1995: para. 181) states that Womens equal participation in decision-making is
not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but can also be seen as a
necessary condition for womens interests to be taken into account.
Equal opportunity arguments also quickly turn into symbolic arguments. These
are of two different kindsone stressing the effects of the presence of women in
parliament on the status of women outside, and the other stressing the
significance of representativeness for the legitimacy of political institutions.
The first symbolic argument, that the presence of women in parliament
increases respect for women in society, is also associated with a motivational or
role model argumentthat the visible presence of women in public life raises the
aspirations of other women, the girls can do anything effect. Some have
suggested this is one of the most important functions that women legislators can
perform (Burrell, 1994: 173).
The second and very different symbolic argument that is also wrapped up in the
slogan of underrepresentation is that of institutional legitimacythe idea that the
legitimacy of political institutions will be undermined if significant sections of the
community appear to be locked out of them. This in turn assumes the political
mobilization of group identity, in this case gender identity. Such mobilization
currently falls short of, for example, refusal to obey laws passed by maledominated legislatures. There is no campaign of civil disobedience or refusal to
pay taxes comparable to the campaigns associated with the militants of the
British suffrage movement before World War I. The slogan of underrepresentation
does not quite have the power of votes for women.
The different kinds of arguments wrapped up in the slogan of
underrepresentation are summarized in Table 1.
TABLE 1. Meanings of Political Representation.
Representation of

Representativeness
symbolic arguments

. . . interests
ideas / values
perspectives
collectively mediated experiences
corporeal experiences
. . . effects on status of group
effects on aspirations
legitimacy of institution

Equal right to represent


justice arguments
. . . to participate in public decision-making
not to be discriminated against by structures of public life
utility arguments
. . . increase pool of talent
partisan advantage

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As Anne Phillips (1995) has pointed out, the equal opportunity argument for
increasing womens parliamentary representation is the easiest one to make. So
easy that it is often assumed rather than made, discussion promptly moving on to
the forms of direct and indirect and systemic discrimination which have prevented
women playing an equal role in public life. Indirect discrimination may include
factors such as the electoral system or the structures of political work and political
careers, particularly the failure to accommodate family responsibilities or the
privileging of gladiatorial styles of politics. Identification of such barriers is
relatively straightforward, despite last-ditch attempts to revive arguments that
women have other or higher priorities in life than engaging in public decisionmaking.
While the equal opportunity argument is relatively straightforward, like most
justice arguments it needs to be supplemented by utility arguments to convert
power holders to the cause. Such utility arguments may be in terms of doubling
the pool of talent from which legislators are recruited or increasing the electoral
appeal of partiesproviding a new look for parties in the context of voter
disenchantment.
It is also common for equal opportunity arguments to be buttressed, as in the
Beijing Platform for Action, by the suggestion that the election of women will
make a difference to the quality of parliamentary representation, introducing
new perspectives and increasing the level of empathy with issues of daily life. The
issue of authenticity is raised, namely whether those allocated the role of woman
in society can ever be truly represented by those who have not shared these
experiences.
It is easier to raise doubts about the ability of men to represent women than to
put the positive case concerning whether womens interests will be better
represented by women. Even if agreement could be reached on the nature of
womens interests or standpoints, a more representative legislature does not
guarantee more effective representation of such interests. Standing for is not the
same as acting for (Pitkin, 1972). Indeed the presence of women may be used, as
we have seen in Australia, as an alibi for policies with a disproportionate impact on
women, such as cuts to child care funding.
At this point it is common for the goal of increasing the number of women in
parliament to be redefined as the goal of increasing the number of feminist
women in parliament, who will promote justice for women other than themselves.
Indeed it can be argued that this was always the aim, however wrapped up in equal
opportunity discourse. For example, former Australian finance minister, Senator
Peter Walsh, complained that the trouble with affirmative action was that you do
not end up with women. . .you end up with feminists (Sawer and Simms, 1993:
185). So it is not just the representation of womens experience that is important,
but the feminist perspectives that derive from the collective mediation of that
experience. Even given a feminist agenda, there is the question of to what extent
women can affect dominant political values while their numbers remain at token
levels.
This article explores the discursive and organizational strategies used in the
campaign to increase womens parliamentary representation, using the Australian
experience as a prism through which to view this international phenomenon.
Indeed the interrelationship between action at the international and national
levels, mediated by multilateral organizations and womens international nongovernment organizations, is one of the themes of the article. The subject matter

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goes beyond strategies to remove barriers to womens presence in parliament, to


look at institutional and other strategies to increase the collective influence of
women on parliament and to increase the accountability of government for the
gender impact of policies and programs.
It should be noted here that Australia has a Westminster system of responsible
government, deriving from the United Kingdom but complicated by federalism
and strong upper houses at both national and subnational levels (the States).
Australia has always been prone to electoral experimentation and employs a
number of different electoral systems, characteristically using a form of proportional representation (PR) for upper houses and a single-member electorate
system with preferential voting (the alternative vote) for lower houses. Because of
the different electoral systems there are both Westminster majoritarian elements
and consensus elements, as will be noted further below. An historic two-party
system, made up of the Australian Labor Party on the one hand and a conservative
coalition on the other, has been diluted by the appearance of minor parties
holding the balance of power.
The article begins with the issue of the relevance of the goal of parliamentary
representation given the forces of globalization on the one hand and the long
standing feminist distrust of man-made political institutions on the other. It moves
on to deal with the interplay of sameness and difference discourses in the
strategies to increase womens presence in parliaments. It then explores the
leverage on the issue provided by multilateral organizations and donor agencies
and the range of practical strategies involved, including electoral reform and
parliamentary and party strategies. The article then examines strategies to
increase womens collective influence, using Australian examples from different
waves of the womens movement. Dilemmas of representation are also considered,
including competing identities and loyalties and the pressures arising from the
professionalization of political life. The article concludes by looking at the issue of
accountability for gender outcomes and mechanisms for achieving it.

Relevance of Parliamentary Representation to Women


The strategies to increase womens presence in parliaments adopted all over the
globe as part of the implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action embody the
assumption that parliaments remain an important sphere of decision-making. This
is despite the effects of globalization and the leaking away of power from national
institutions under the pressure of global market forces and closed-door
multilateral trade and financial negotiation. Indeed some would argue that the
increased presence of women in national parliaments signals the decreased power
and relevance of the latter.
The question of the relevance of parliamentary representation to women is also
linked to the historic ambivalence of womens movements concerning representative democracy and the party system on which it rests. This ambivalence
manifested itself in the many non-party organizations created in the aftermath of
suffrage to encourage womens active citizenship without being drawn into the
compromised world of man-made party politics.
In the last thirty years this ambivalence has again revealed itself in the turn to
participatory rather than representative models of democracy within womens
organizations themselves. On this view, organizational hierarchies and specialized
representational roles reinforce the subordination which womens groups are

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seeking to redress. Influencing representative politics without mirroring its forms


becomes a complex task, often mediated in Australia, as in Canada, by
bureaucratic bodies responsible for funding advocacy groups and ensuring
womens perspectives are represented in policy-making.
The ability of extraparliamentary bodies to represent womens interests has also
come under scrutiny. Discursive shifts have been occurring in English-speaking
democracies which reframe womens organizations as special interest groups
unrepresentative of ordinary women. The process whereby collective identity is
generated and collective interests identified is seen as itself setting womens
organizations at a remove from those women whose experiences have not been
mediated in this way. Politicians and bureaucrats who distrust the collective
representation of women try to reach around it through non-deliberative market
research.

Sameness and Difference Arguments


As we have seen above, the justice argument about womens absence from
parliaments is relatively easy to make. Women should have equal opportunity to
play a role in public decision-making or to pursue political careers. The right of
women to participate in public life on an equal basis with men is set out in a
number of United Nations instruments, notably Article 25 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 7 of the Convention on
the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This
argument does not rely on women making a difference to public life. It simply
assumes, like all equal opportunity arguments, that talent is not confined to one
gender and that the absence of women from parliamentary positions is a
consequence of direct or indirect discrimination.
The justice argument for women having equal opportunity to participate in
public life is a good argument for mobilizing support amongst women and
sympathetic men. As noted above, to convert power-holders utility arguments are
required as well. These may be in terms of doubling the pool of talent from which
legislators are recruited or, closer to home, in terms of increasing the electoral
appeal of political parties. Electoral competition may be brought into play where
one party has significantly increased its female parliamentary representation (the
contagion effect).
Difference arguments may be of various typesthey may assume that women
have different and conflicting interests to men, or that women have different and
enriching perspectives, both deriving from the different social roles of men and
women. Difference arguments may encompass the view that women, particularly if
they achieve critical mass, will bring a different way of doing politics as well as
different policy perspectives. It is suggested that womens family roles translate
into an approach to politics based more on consensus-seeking and consultation
and less on power-broking and head-kicking. This approach is linked to the
feminist conception of power as capacitydeveloping the power in self and others
to make changes, rather than exercising power over others. This lends itself to a
role of being an active mentor for other women (not just being distant role
models). Embodiment is seen as relevant to the way representative roles are
performed and to a preference for transformative rather than transactional
(machine politics) models of political influence.
Survey research exploring the attitudes of both legislators and voters towards

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women politicians reinforces this view of the relevance of gender. In Norway, for
example, women politicians have been found to have a mandate of difference in
the eyes of their parliamentary colleagues (Skjeie, 1998). In Australia common
findings are that women are seen as more altruistic and oriented towards
community service, while men are seen as more oriented towards power and
career. There is also a general perception, picked up in focus-group research, that
women in politics are much more likely than men to understand the stresses of
combining work and family roles (NSW WCC, 1995; OSW, 1992). My own interviews
with parliamentarians suggest that women in politics have a different
understanding of representation, placing more stress on consultative processes
and less on the judgement of the legislator (Sawer, 1998). In addition, it is a
common finding in studies of parliamentary representation that women are more
oriented to constituency roles than their male colleagues, although this is also
influenced by the marginality of their seats.
The politicization of womens absence has been helped along by the current
disrespect for parliamentary institutions and by the idea that women will do it
differently. The televising of parliament has exacerbated community rejection of
the aggression and confrontation formula of the old order (Cameron, 1990). A
clear majority of voters in Australia believes that an increased presence of women
would improve parliamentary behaviour (Saulwick, 1994). However, women
parliamentarians have found it is harder to change the gladiatorial style of politics
than to introduce new policy agendas (Broughton and Zetlin, 1996).
Gendered differences in the way politicians do politics are compounded by
gendered representations of politics. Representations of politics in the mass media
focus heavily on what former Australian Democrats leader Janine Haines termed
the ritual stag fights staged in parliamentary question times. Other, more
consensus-seeking forms of politics, such as are found in parliamentary committee
work, do not offer the confrontational images on which the electronic media
thrive. So representations of politics are often limited to an exaggerated form of
masculinity, with which many men are also uncomfortable (Sreberny-Mohammadi
and Ross, 1996).
Occasionally there will be a focus on a woman who adopts or adapts to the
confrontational style expected in Australian politics but these transgressive images
do not amount to a more gender-inclusive representation of politics. Neither does
the sexualisation of female politicians such as Cheryl Kernot, former leader of the
Australian Democrats and more recently a Labor Party front-bencher. At the time
of her change in party allegiance she was widely depicted by cartoonists as pursued
by amorous suitors and bed-hopping. When her recruitment by Labor led to the
revival of that partys electoral fortunes, a story about a love affair she had been
involved in 21 years previously was given front-page treatment in the national press
(The Australian, 15 December 1997). In other words, embodiment is always seen as
relevant for the female politician while the male politician has found it easier to
be accepted as a disembodied political agent. This is despite, or because of, the
normative masculinity of political styles.

International Pressure to Increase Womens Political Representation


All over the world in the 1990s there has been an increased attention to the issue
of women in public decision-making. The issue has been taken up by a range of UN
bodies and highlighted in the Beijing Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth

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World Conference on Women and the national plans of action based upon it. It
has also been taken up by bodies such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Why has there
been such a surge of interest in this particular aspect of the status of women?
One catalyst may have been the rapid drop in the parliamentary representation
of women at the global level, following the overthrow of communism in the
former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (see IPU, 1997a). Another possibility is
that the issue of the political representation of women is seen as neutral in
relation to questions of economic distribution, whereas other feminist demands
such as childcare and equal pay are seen as requiring public expenditure or
intervention in the market incompatible with current globalizing economic
agendas. As noted above, many also believe these same globalizing agendas have
made national parliaments less relevant.
Regardless of the reason for this increased attention by international bodies, it
has produced a useful reinforcement of domestic campaigns around the issue. As
of December 1998 there were 163 countries that had ratified the UN Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and
had corresponding periodic reporting obligations, including in relation to Article
7 on womens equal rights in politics and public life. Up until now CEDAW has
lacked an optional protocol under which individuals could bring forward
complaints to the treaty body (after having exhausted domestic remedies). This
avenue has been available under the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights, and New Zealand feminist Marilyn Waring has explored the possibility of
lodging complaints under Article 25 of this Convention.
Further national reporting obligations have flowed from the Platform for
Action adopted by the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. The
Platform described womens equal participation in political life as playing a
pivotal role in the general process of the advancement of women and prescribed
a range of positive measures to achieve it. Another important international player
in relation to parliamentary representation of women is the IPU, which provides
the basic monitoring information on trends worldwide (eg, IPU, 1997a). In 1994
IPU adopted a Plan of Action to correct present imbalances in the participation of
men and women in political life.
Another source of international pressure to develop programs in this area is
provided by multilateral and bilateral donor agencies (particularly those of
northern European and Scandinavian countries). It is notable that overseas development assistance is a portfolio area that is often typecast as female and many
women have had ministerial or parliamentary committee responsibility for this
area. Unfortunately because countries such as Australia are not in receipt of international development assistance they miss out on accompanying donor pressure.
Womens international organizations are yet another source of support for
initiatives to bring more women into parliaments. The International Institute for
Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) is currently surveying organizations
that promote womens political participation. Their sample includes those
operating at the international or regional level, such as the Center for Asia-Pacific
Women in Politics, the Organization of Women Parliamentarians from Muslim
Countries, Parliamentarians for Global Action and the South Asian Network for
Political Empowerment of Women (Karam, 1998: 223).
In Australia the increase in activity around parliamentary representation of
women was signalled in 1992 by the formation of the non-government Women

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into Politics Coalition. The following year the Ministerial Conference on the
Status of Women, representing Australian and New Zealand ministers,
commissioned research, while parliamentary enquiries into the subject were set up
in the federal and South Australian parliaments. Womens Advisory Councils
around the country and the Office of the Status of Women in Canberra produced
how-to manuals while centenaries of womens suffrage in South Australia and
Western Australia provided additional momentum.

Electoral Reform
The Beijing Platform for Action included, among specific actions to be taken by
governments, the need to review the differential impact of electoral systems on
the political representation of women in elected bodies and consider, where
appropriate, the adjustment or reform of those systems (para. 190D). In reporting
on implementation of the platform in 1997 the Australian government avoided
the issue of the demonstrable disadvantage to women posed by single-member
electorates, still the usual electoral system for Australias lower houses.
Electoral reform to ensure the more adequate parliamentary representation of
women and the political styles with which they are more comfortable has long
been an interest of the Australian womens movement. In 1898 Catherine Helen
Spence was campaigning for proportional representation (PR) and appealing to
the new votersthe women of South Australia and of New Zealand, to change
neck-and-neck competition for all or nothing, into peaceful co-operation
(Spence, 1898: 8). The peak advocacy body between the wars, the Australian
Federation of Women Voters, patiently pursued the goal of PR.
Much evidence has been accumulated in Australia, as elsewhere, showing the
advantages of PR in achieving the representation of women and minorities as well
as more consensual styles of politics (Rule and Zimmerman, 1994). In New
Zealand the replacement of an electoral system based purely on single-member
constituencies by the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system in 1996 saw a
significant increase in the representation of women, Maori, and Pacific Islanders
(Sawer, 1997).
With PR the parties have an incentive to present a balanced ticket that appeals
to different sections of the electorate. There is also pressure to provide places for
different intra-party elements, including womens sections. PR systems also make it
much easier to introduce quotas than where there is only one place to be filled.
Once one party has introduced a quota there is a contagion effect on other
parties arising from electoral competition (Matland, 1998).
While district magnitude is an important variable affecting the representation
of women, the Australian womens movement has favoured the HareClark system
of PR rather than a party list variant.1 This reflects the longstanding distrust within
the organized womens movement of political parties and hence forms of PR that
increased the power of parties rather than voters.
While Australia makes greater use of proportional representation than most
other Westminster-style countries (using it in six of its fifteen houses of parliament
and in much of its local government) and has been using it for more than 100
years, there is considerable distrust of it by major parties. This distrust is based on
the effects of proportional representation in removing the bias against minor
parties from the electoral system. Ensuring a closer fit between votes and seats
reduces the possibility of clear majorities in parliament and increases the need for

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major parties to negotiate with minor parties, themselves often led by women (for
example, four of the six federal leaders of the Australian Democrats over the last
twenty years have been women).
In Tasmania, the number of seats per lower house electorate was reduced in
1998 from seven to five as a result of major party desire to get rid of a minor party
led by a woman (the Tasmanian Greens) that had been holding the balance of
power. This meant a reduction in the representation of women, both as a result of
reducing district magnitude and of reducing representation of a feminized party.
It also signalled a return to a majoritarian style of politics rather than the
consensual bargaining style which has suited women party leaders.

Parliamentary Strategies
As Carole Pateman (1989) has pointed out, women have been differentially
incorporated as citizens, meaning that their primary obligations as citizens have
historically been construed as being in the private rather than the public realm. In
other words, women have been expected to put their families before fame, or their
domestic duties before service to the broader community. Political parties have
rescued women from the kind of serious interruption to domestic duties that
might be caused by preselection for safe seats. It is only in the last twenty years that
there has been real discussion, let alone action, on how public life might be
changed to accommodate family responsibilities. Prior to this, womens family
responsibilities were construed as insuperable barriers to equal participation in
public life.
Instead women achieved a token presence and, as we have seen, serious
constraints are imposed on token representatives of difference. This means that so
long as women parliamentarians come under great pressure to behave as
honorary men and so long as their male colleagues roll their eyes or groan when
issues of special concern to women are raised, the representation of women is very
difficult. It has been suggested that the shift from being a small to being a large
minority (critical mass) is required before women can bring about a change in
political culture (Kanter, 1977; Dahlerup, 1988; Thomas, 1994).
The Australian evidence appears to support the proposition that it is when
women move from being a small to a large minority in parliament that womens
issues become interesting rather than dismissed as marginal and marginalizing for
those who raise them. Content analysis of Senate debate in Australia indicates this
sea change. Senators are elected by PR and have included a much higher
proportion of women than the House of Representatives with its single-member
electorates. An issue such as violence against women has been raised three times
as often in the Senate as in the House of Representatives in the period 198193.
The Senate is also characterized by the kind of multiparty negotiation
characteristic, as noted above, of chambers elected by PR. Women usually perceive
themselves as doing less well in the adversarial chamber politics characteristic of
majoritarian Westminster systems, contending, for example, with a hostile wall of
sound from the benches on the other side. Even if they do thrive on confrontation
they will be subjected to the sexual double standard and convicted of genderinappropriate behaviour.
One proposition is that the physical organization of Westminster-style houses of
parliament itself encourages masculine styles of politics, with the rival teams lined
up facing each other. Chambers where parliamentarians are seated by region, as in

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Sweden, or by lot, as in Iceland, may mitigate the pressure towards aggressive


confrontation. The new Scottish parliament will have a horseshoe-shaped
debating chamber, designed to be less adversarial than Westminster (The Times,
16 January 1999).
Women parliamentarians tend to feel more at home in more intimate forums
such as provided by parliamentary committees. This is another area, however,
where explicit strategies are needed for women to achieve equal voice. For
example, Australias response to the Inter-Parliamentary Union questionnaire on
implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action and the IPU Plan of Action
revealed that although there was a significant increase in the number of women in
federal parliament after the 1996 election, the number of women acting as chairs
or deputy chairs of parliamentary committees actually fell by half.
Not only the structuring of physical space but also the conditions of political
work are also frequently described as constituting indirect discrimination against
women. That is, parliamentary arrangements assume that parliamentary
representatives are not at the same time primary carers for family members.
Indeed political careers have been regarded in the past as typically a two-person
career, where the incorporated wife not only takes over full responsibility for the
care of the family but also stands in for the representative, particularly in
constituency roles. The role of the incorporated wife was given recognition
through the practice in the British Conservative Party of interviewing the wife as
well as the candidate for preselection.
Today, recommendations for childcare centres, family-friendly sitting hours and
increased travel for family members have become standard in proposals to reduce
obstacles to womens access to parliamentary careers. While the Scandinavian and
German parliaments have creches, this is uncommon in the English-speaking
democracies, including Australia. In Australia late-night sittings were limited in
the federal parliament in 1994, but became less family-friendly again after a
change of government in 1996. While it can be argued that late-night sittings in
the federal parliament shorten the parliamentary week and enable parliamentarians to return to their families inter-state as soon as possible, it does not
have the same benefit for the families of Canberra-based parliamentary and
political staff. In Tasmania the premier recently limited parliamentary sitting times
to 6:00PM, stating that later sitting hours were discriminating against women with
young families (Canberra Times, 16 March 1999: 5).
Parliamentary standing committees found in European parliaments may also
help raise awareness of gender issuesfor example, committees on womens
rights in the Irish, Spanish, and European parliaments and on equal opportunities
for men and women in the Belgian and Luxembourg parliaments. Such
committees have varying mandates, including in the case of the Belgian Senate
looking inwards at the working of the parliament and issues such as family-friendly
sitting hours and the gender balance of expert witnesses (CCEO, 1997).
Considerations of how to make parliaments more women-friendly must also
extend to how to facilitate access by women in the community to the
parliamentary process. In Australia federal parliamentary committees hold
hearings around the country, enabling women to participate without incurring the
costs of travel. When a Senate Committee inquired in 1995 into outworking in the
garment industry, where most employees are women from non-English speaking
backgrounds, advertisements were broadcast on ethnic radio stations and
submissions were taken through the telephone interpreter service.

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Party Strategies
The major parties are the main barrier to womens parliamentary representation
in the older democracies, ahead even of the electoral system or the nature of
parliamentary institutions (Lovenduski and Norris, 1993). It is they who are
responsible for what has been termed the gender gerrymander, the fact that
women are far less likely than men to be preselected for the safe seats controlled
by such parties.
In recognition of the central role of parties in the underrepresentation of
women proposals have been made, for example by Womens Electoral Lobby, that
the federal government follow the lead of the Dutch government and fund equal
opportunity officers for political parties, to develop and monitor appropriate
action. This has not happened and neither has the Australian government
followed the lead of the Swedish government in funding womens organizations
within the political parties. Nor has the IPU suggestion been taken up that public
funding of political parties, which exists in four jurisdictions in Australia, be tied
to their proportion of women candidates (IPU, 1997b: 5).
In Australia the party response to increased pressure for womens
representation has followed a similar pattern as in other countries. Parties of the
left have adopted quotas, while those of the right have preferred more
individualist strategies such as training and mentoring programs. One anomaly in
view of conservative hostility to quotas has been the affirmative action built into
the structures of the conservative Liberal Party of Australia. This has an historical
explanation. Between the wars the Victoria-based Australian Womens National
League (AWNL) had the largest membership of any conservative political
organization. When Robert Menzies formed the modern Liberal Party in 1944,
the AWNL leaders struck a hard bargain in return for merging their resources
into the new organizationhalf of all executive positions in the Victorian Liberal
Party up to the position of State President were to be (and still are) reserved for
women.
The ALP adopted a target in 1994 whereby women would constitute 35 percent
of all its parliamentary parties by 2002, with the sanction of overturning
preselections where this had not been achieved. State branches of the party have
taken different approaches to affirmative action. In New South Wales, for
example, women candidates for preselection get a 20 percent loading on their
vote. Predictably Labor Party quotas were criticized from the right as patronising
to women or putting gender before merit. By contrast, a delegate to the ALP
National Conference that adopted quotas described male-dominated concepts of
merit as: a bit like testing people for preselection according to how far they can
kick a football or how well they sing bass baritone (Broad, 1996: 82). Prime
Minister Paul Keating supported quotas by drawing on the utility argument of the
need to harness the talents of all people in the community.
Adoption of quotas did not put an end to resistance to women within the party
or to associated fears that only tame women loyal to male-controlled factions
would ever benefit. Concerns over the influence of such machine politics have led
in two different directions: on the one hand to exit and on the other to renewed
efforts to achieve voice. The most conspicuous example of exit was the departure
in 1995 of a number of prominent Labor women from the Queensland Branch of
the Labor Party to create the Australian Womens Party. At the launch of the party
its founder said: In the past 100 years weve been working inside the mainstream

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political parties together with men. Where has it got us? Not very close to equality
(Courier-Mail, 12 August 1995).
The new party was dedicated to constitutional change to achieve equal
representation of women in all parliaments. One of its candidates became an
elected delegate to the Constitutional Convention held in 1998 to consider a
change to a republic (Australia is still a constitutional monarchy). She said: We
tend to arrange our representative democracy around location, that is, all the
electorates are about where you live, your geography, but not much about your
gender and went on to explain the profound effect that gender was likely to have
on life, probably more profound than location (Kelly, 1997). At the Constitutional
Convention she suggested that the only other characteristic that more profoundly
affected life chances was in being indigenous or not. For this reason the Womens
Party supported reserved seats for indigenous Australians as well as converting
existing single-member electorates into electorates of twice the size, each
returning both a male and a female representative (Hansard, 9 February 1998:
366).
Other Labor women opted to continue the struggle from within the party, but
using a new organizational strategy. Led by former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner
and former Western Australian Premier Carmen Lawrence, they set about creating
a body independent of party control to provide financial and moral support to
endorse party candidates who met certain criteria. This was modelled on EMILYs
List2 set up in the United States in 1985 to raise campaign funds for pro-choice
Democrat women candidates. The Australian EMILYs List began in 1997 endorsing
Labor women candidates who were able to demonstrate commitment to equity
and pro-choice goals. Candidates were asked what policies they would advocate to
help people balance work and family responsibilities and in what ways they would
support other women. Before receiving funding and campaign support,
candidates also had to sign a separate questionnaire/declaration relating to
abortion.
The Australian version of EMILYs List is an interesting initiative designed to
assist the entry of feminist women into parliament and to hold them accountable
for upholding equity commitments. It has been viewed as quite threatening to the
party hierarchy, which has attempted to neutralize it by establishing a rival Labor
Womens Network under party control.

Separate Institution-building
EMILYs List is an example of the separate institution-building in which political
women have been engaged since the 1890s. Separate institutions provide a
framework for woman-centred debate and for the crystallization of claims on the
broader political system. They provide the possibility of practising a different kind
of politics from that institutionalized by men. They also play a central role in both
supporting and holding accountable the women who enter the male domains of
parliament and local government.
In the post-suffrage era, Laura Bogue Luffman set out the rationale of separate
associations in terms of the need to give the political world the full benefit of
womens distinctive contribution through associations acting with, rather than
under, men: Associations free to make their own laws, think their own thoughts
and work out their own political salvation (Luffman, 1909). Such associations
helped women take up their full responsibilities as citizens, unlike existing

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political institutions where men invariably took charge and defined the terms of
debate.
The next great wave of separate institution-building was in the 1970s, at which
time women relied less on maternalist discourse (the special contribution that
women as mothers could make to politics) and more on a critique of the role of
patriarchy in disempowering women. Women attempted to create prefigurative
types of institutions that would pose an alternative to masculine hierarchies of
function, expertise and power. Of the new organizations, Womens Electoral
Lobby (WEL) was the most directly oriented to exerting external pressure on
parliamentary politics. Like its first-wave predecessors, WEL rated parties and
candidates on their knowledge of, and commitment to, issues of particular
concern to women. It was particularly successful in the 1972 election in placing
new issues on the policy agenda and obtaining rapid implementation after the
election of a reform government.
Although WEL is still active more than 25 years later, the collectivism and
distributed leadership characteristic of the new feminist organizations tended to
limit their scale and influence on public policy at the national level. In the 1980s
ad hoc coalitions were the most characteristic forms taken by attempts to
influence the broader policy framework, and these were usually defensive in
character. In the 1990s intensive efforts were made to create ongoing umbrella
structures that would give women a more effective voice in public policy while
retaining principles of distributed leadership. As Jill Vickers has said of a
comparable development in the Canadian womens movement, it was motivated
by a desire to participate fully in public life, while still challenging its very shape
and underlying logic (Vickers, 1989: 27).
Process continues to be seen as important as outcomes and, indeed, an essential
element of empowering women. Interestingly, newly emerging sub-groups, such
as women from non-English-speaking backgrounds, Islamic women, or women
with disabilities, focused their representational claims on womens movement
organizations rather than on parliament. When decrying their lack of voice it was
the womens movement that was often blamed and it was to the bureaucratic end
of the womens movement, such as the Office of the Status of Women, that such
newly emerging constituencies turned for recognition and financial support.3
Such newly emerging groups became networked with longer established
womens groups in the 1990s through the institution-building noted above. The
creation of formal networking organizations at the initiative of WEL and other key
players facilitated strategic information-sharing and the coordination of input into
government inquiries and consultative forums. The new information technologies
greatly assisted such developments and organizations as apparently disparate as
the Coalition of Activist Lesbians, Womensport Australia, and Australian Women
in Agriculture could be found signing off on each others submissions or policy
interventions. Feminist organizational philosophy, however, inhibited progression
beyond the networking model to the creation of a more traditional form of peak
body authorized to make statements on behalf of member organizations (see
Sawer and Groves, 1994).
The bureaucratic representation of women, through agencies responsible for
ensuring womens perspectives are represented in the policy process, has been
another important form of institution-building in Australia. Australia has also
characteristically seen such representation as requiring analysis of all policy
proposals in terms of gender impact, rather than assuming that policy may be

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gender neutral or that economic policy is less important in determining womens


lives than welfare policy (cf. Carroll, 1994).
It has been argued that such femocrats are acting for rather than standing for
women. They are unrepresentative in terms of their class location, being
employed in the primary rather than the secondary labour market and hence
independent of a male earner. Yeatman (1990) believes that this unrepresentative class location is balanced by the femocrat mandate of monitoring
policy and programs for gender impact, which means a mandated concern for the
effect of policy decisions on women rendered economically vulnerable by their
social roles. Certainly femocrats have played an important role in fostering the
development of organizations representing women who would not otherwise have
voice in the policy process and in legitimizing their participation in policy advice
and policy evaluation (Sawer and Jupp, 1996).

Representative Dilemmas
Characteristically the first women in parliament, as beneficiaries of the womens
suffrage movement, were expected to be representatives of women at large, in the
sense both of standing for and acting for women. These expectations were
additional to their responsibilities to their electorates and parties. Subsequently
this representational role was not so universally accepted, either by women
politicians themselves trying to escape the constraints of gender identity or by
their male party colleagues. As representatives of women, the careers of women
politicians were very circumscribed; gender stereotyping of parliamentary roles
meant consignment to health and welfare areas. The desire to break out of these
roles and gain access to the more prestigious masculine portfolios or committee
assignments led to the disavowal of gender (Im a politician not a woman).
One Australian study has found that the arrival of the new wave of the womens
movement and the increased number of women entering Australian parliaments
in the late 1970s, led to a renewed willingness on the part of women MPs to identify
themselves as representing women (Whip, 1991: 6). Growth of the womens movement created a political base for women who spoke out on movement demands
and introduced feminist discourse into parliamentary debate.
Moreover, the influence of the womens movement extended into existing
political parties, most notably into the Labor Party in its coalition-building phase
of reaching out to a changing electorate (Jupp and Sawer, 1994). The influence of
the womens movement became even more evident in the policies and practices of
newly emerging postmaterialist parties such as the Australian Democrats and the
Greens (Sawer, 1997). As in other Westminster systems, party affiliation is a more
reliable predictor of stance on womens issues than gender, although gender is
also significant within that partisan framework (McAllister and Studlar, 1992;
Considine and Deutchman, 1994; Norris, 1996; Erickson, 1997).
At the same time a countervailing trend was beginning to appear, that of the
professionalization of politics. The consequences of professionalization included
the reduced likelihood of community activism as a pathway to parliament for
women and an increased likelihood of a background in law and paid party work.
Politics as a professional career often meant party and factional discipline took
precedence over other affiliations. International research has shown that it is
women who have a background in womens organizations who are more aware of
gender and gender-related issues (Tremblay, 1998).

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Institution-building such as EMILYs List helps to provide a forum within


professionalized party politics where gender perspectives can be identified and
promoted. Womens caucuses within parliamentary parties serve a similar
function. For example, the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party Status of Women
Committee was created in 1981 and meets weekly when parliament is sitting. It
reinforces femocrat monitoring of gender impact of policy and has been singled
out for its significance in bringing together women who would otherwise be
divided from each other by factional loyalties (Broughton and Zetlin, 1996). A
similar party committee does not exist to bring coalition women MPs together for
collective action although they do meet for dinners.
Even the early women MPs experienced the contested nature of claims to
represent women as a constituency. Edith Cowan, Australias first woman MP,
epitomizes such contestation. Cowan was given credit for parliamentary
achievements such as her private members bill enabling women to enter the law
and other professions and her lobbying for playgrounds, childrens clinics and
motherhood endowment. Her class perspectives, however, set her apart from
working-class women on issues such as access of servants to the arbitration system.
She also lost the support of longstanding feminist organizations through her
support for compulsory notification of venereal disease.
Ethnicity and race are factors which, like class and ideological difference,
complicate the representation of women. Edith Cowan was active in trying to
improve post-arrival services for immigrants coming to Western Australia in the
1920s, but while she recognized the traumatic character of the settlement
experience, she shared much of the culture of these British immigrants. Today
immigrant women from much more diverse backgrounds are staking claims for
representation on the basis of experience and perspectives that cannot be shared
by women raised, like Edith Cowan, in the dominant culture. Parliamentarians
such as Helen Sham-Ho in the NSW Legislative Council or Pansy Wong in the New
Zealand House of Representatives articulate multiple political identities, including
gender, ethnicity, and party. In the case of Sham-Ho, ethnic identity took priority
over party loyalty and she left the Liberal Party over its failure to take a sufficiently
strong stand against racism.
Indigenous women who were part of the new assertion of indigenous rights and
identity in the 1960s and 1970s were often chary of public identification with
feminism, prioritizing racial over gender identity and fearing the consequences of
exposing issues such as domestic violence within their communities. Today
indigenous women are more assertive in articulating gender issues and in
ensuring their own perspectives are represented in forums such as the agendasetting Womens Constitutional Convention held in 1998. One of the aims of
EMILYs List is to encourage indigenous women and women from diverse ethnic
backgrounds to nominate for preselection.
Many, although not all, women parliamentarians do express the view that they
have a special role to play in safeguarding the interests of women, a view not
necessarily shared by their male colleagues (Tremblay and Pelletier, 1995). Male
politicians are sometimes resentful of the implication that their own gender might
get in the way of their ability to represent female constituents. This has become a
particularly sensitive issue in recent times with the publicizing of sexual
harassment complaints or domestic violence restraining orders taken out against
male politiciansan unwelcome reminder of masculine embodiment.
For these and other reasons womens organizations still tend to look to women

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MPs to support their causes, expecting that they will have greater empathy with
their concerns. Those representing women within the bureaucracy also look to
women MPs for help, when policy or legislative proposals are going forward that
have a disproportionate impact on women.
On the other hand, women parliamentarians articulate the problems involved
in being called upon to represent all women, to be the womens voice. This goes
beyond the additional representational burden involved and encompasses the
difficulty of representing the diversity of women. One response by politicians, as
by femocrats, is the sharing of resources to assist womens groups to represent
themselves. Women parliamentarians in Australia, familiar with the shoestring
nature of community politics, are particularly likely to be found sharing their fax
and photocopier with community groups as well as providing lobbying advice.
Channels through which groups representing women make inputs to
parliament can also be strengthened in a number of ways as we have seen above,
such as the establishment of standing committees with responsibility for womens
rights or gender equality. All parliamentary committees can have impact on
women added to their terms of reference, as in Sweden, and be encouraged to
travel to take evidence from women.

Conclusion
It is parliamentarians who have been given the mandate to engage in legislative
deliberation and executive scrutiny and are therefore in a position to hold
governments to their international commitments to improve rather than diminish
the status of women. Who will hold parliamentarians, whether male or female,
accountable for their contribution to advancing the status of women? It is the lack
of accountability mechanisms which has been one of the major criticisms of
identity politics and of the mirror theory of representation (Squires, 1996: 84).
Discourses of difference assume too readily that those with certain characteristics
and related life experiences will act in ways inflected by those experiences. On the
other hand, where accountability mechanisms do exist, as with reserved seats
elected by those who identify as indigenous peoples, this is seen as having the
narrowing effects of corporatism rather than the broadening effects of seeking to
represent diverse interests and views.
I have already noted the significance of separate institution-building for
strategies of accountability. One important aim of EMILYs List, for example, is to
support the feminists it has assisted into parliament and to hold them
accountable. It is clearly not sufficient to assist feminists into parliament (let alone
women per se). There have to be strategies to support feminists operating within
political institutions where the institutional culture is antithetical to feminism. The
non-party womens political organizations created in the immediate post-suffrage
period were very aware of this and could be relied on for messages of support
whenever a woman parliamentarian spoke out against prevailing patriarchal
attitudes. Such support involves monitoring the women who have entered
parliament and accountability is the other side of this coin.
I have also noted in passing forms of accountability that apply both to men and
women, such as the watching brief of womens caucuses within parliamentary
parties and strategies to encourage participation of women in parliamentary
hearings. The media are always an important component of accountability. The
annual Ernie awards developed by a feminist politician and held in the New

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South Wales (NSW) Parliament are designed to attract widespread media interest.
There are various categories of award, but the occasion spotlights things said
or done by politicians, whether male or female, that have most set back the cause
of women. They are judged on the basis of the volume of booing from the
audience.
More serious forms of accountability include the consistent monitoring of
politicians and issuing of form guides by equality-seeking advocacy organizations.
Such form guides have been produced since the last century by organizations such
as the Womans Christian Temperance Union. During this century the Australian
Federation of Women Voters continued the tradition of rating candidates on their
record in relation to womens rights and this role was taken over by WEL in the
1970s. In a recent state election in NSW the female leader of the opposition was a
self-declared feminist with pro-choice and other commitments. Her industrial
relations policy, however, involved further deregulation of the labour market,
which would have been particularly detrimental to women, and her party engaged
in a preference deal with an anti-abortion party. For this reason WEL did not
advocate voting for a woman for premier.
The issue of accountability for representing women is an important one for
the discursive strategies discussed in this article. Clearly all politicians must be
held accountable for their contribution to improving gender equity, just as
governments are held accountable through gender audit and international
reporting mechanisms. As Phillips (1995) observes, there is the danger that if too
much emphasis is placed on the relationship between embodiment and
representation this will reduce the pressure on all politicians to take responsibility
for representing women. That is, a focus on embodiment or discursive strategies
centred on gender identity may be at the expense of considered strategies for
gender accountability.
They also, as I have noted, run counter to the current concerns of academic
feminism with the fragmented and contingent nature of identity. Indeed political
activists sometimes describe themselves as getting little help from womens
studies departments. Despite such academic questioning of the naturalizing of
difference we cannot expect campaigns for the greater presence of women in
politics to give up on making a difference discourse. There is too much
advantage in suggesting to an electorate deeply cynical and apathetic about
traditional politics that women will do politics differently. These discursive appeals
have great resonance because voters believe that women are more altruistic than
men and more concerned with human consequences of policy.
As we have seen, the ambiguous demand for the increased representation of
women has been effective in mobilizing support and achieving a range of institutional reforms. The impact of this discursive strategy has been strengthened
through its inscription in international instruments such as the Beijing Platform for
Action. Getting from numbers to accountability will be the next step. It is a step that
will be much harder in so far as the pressures on parliamentarians to forget social
equity in the interests of global competitiveness have never been greater.

Notes
1. Hare-Clark is a quota-preferential form of PR in which the voter is able to choose
between party candidates or vote across party lists. For example, a voter can choose to
vote only for women candidates, across party lines.

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is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast (it makes dough rise) a slogan
more appropriate to US-style campaigning than in other countries where EMILYs Lists
have been established.
3. For example: Women with disabilities in Australia have traditionally been rendered
invisible by the womens movement and they have also been rendered peripheral by the
disability movement. It was for this reason that women with disabilities in this country
believed that they needed their own political movement (WWDA, 1998: 1).
EMILY

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Biographical Note
MARIAN SAWER is currently head of the Political Science Program, Research School
of Social Sciences, Australian National University. Her books include
A Womans Place: Women and Politics in Australia (with Marian Simms, 2nd edition
1993), Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia (1990), and
Representation: Theory and Practice in Australian Politics (coedited with Gianni

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Zappal, forthcoming). ADDRESS: Research School of Social Sciences, Australian


National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.
[e-mail: msawer@coombs.anu.edu.au]
Acknowledgements. With thanks to two anonymous readers and to Manon Tremblay and Lisa
Hill for very useful comments.

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