Gender, Power, and Struggle: Part II

The first part of this blog considered the socialisation of gender roles and how this creates underlying norms that ensure the continuation of patriarchy. This led to a discussion of rape culture, arguing that binary gender roles underpin this culture; therefore rape culture cannot be abolished without the end of patriarchy. Part two will consider the role of the state in constructing these gender roles, leading on to a discussion of what this means for protest and political groups.

Gender and the State

Politics is dominated by men. Indeed when David Cameron was accused of being sexist, he responded at the next PMQs by ensuring there were a number of female MPs sat behind him, presumably in an attempt to show that women were represented in his government. However, women hold only 16% of government seats, and only 22% of parliamentary seats as a whole. Despite equality legislation, despite the ability of individual women to work within the parliamentary system, as a whole the structure remains dominated by men – a state of affairs that is entirely predictable given the socialised gender norms discussed in part 1.

When Cynthia Enloe theorises women in politics she points to the evidence of socially created gender norms, however she does so in a manner that continues to accept the division of masculinity and femininity between the sexes – i.e. women need to be involved in politics in order to bring feminine views to this otherwise masculine sphere. This analysis would suggest that political structures continue to be male dominated because men have traditionally held power and wish to keep women subservient, and thus it follows that gender inequality can be solved by more female representation within political institutions. She writes

‘the conduct of international politics has depended on men’s control of women’ (Enloe p.4)

While on the surface this seems a plausible explanation for a patriarchal structure, i.e. that men create structures to further their own interests, it also implies that men have constructed gender roles for women, and thus fails to appreciate that the gender role of men is also a product of social construction. In other words her argument suggests that men have agency because of… the agency of men! By recognising that the creation of gender norms is far more complex than attributable to the agency of men, we must also question why masculine traits are regarded as political attributes.

The binary nature of gender stereotyping is paralleled in Machiavelli’s The Prince. In this he writes of dichotomous qualities that bring either success or failure to a Prince, these most notably (for our purpose here) include effeminate and weak versus fierce and bold. But stereotypical gender qualities can be read into others, including: generosity/greed; cruelty/mercy; and lasciviousness/chastity. For Machiavelli’s Prince, success is determined by the qualities he possesses, and it is notable that the statesman who embodies the qualities we more regularly attribute to men is the statesman who enjoys success. [Edit: Research has shown preference among voters to masculine voices; indeed Margaret Thatcher had elocution lessons to lower her voice and make it more ‘authoritative’ and thus less feminine] Could it therefore be claimed that the functioning of the state system requires the gendered division of human attributes? When theorists of international politics suggest that the ‘masculine’ state is a reflection of human society, are they correct in their labelling of the cause and effect, or could in fact our gendered societies reflect the requirements of a state system?

When Enloe writes of self-determination in post-colonial countries, she talks of the difficulty in ensuring nationalism works for women as well as men. The complexity, she claims, stems from nationalistic men who view women as the property of the community, those who will give birth to future generations of nationalists and ensure the continuation of shared values and traditions. However this role of the nationalist woman also leaves her vulnerable; if she is assimilated into another culture, the future of the nationalist cause will be lost. For Enloe ‘awareness, questioning, and organising by women’ (p.13) is needed to ensure that the patriarchal norms of the former colonial ruler are not perpetuated by a nationalism built upon the repression of women (and/or for indigenous patriarchal norms to be challenged through the struggle for self determination). Her criticism of nationalism is again one of representation; it is problematic only because women do not hold decision-making roles – i.e. nationalism reflects society. If instead we theorise that nationalist movements reflect their ambition of state power, we can then suggest that in order for a nation to succeed as a state it must adapt its society to function within the state structure. The subjugation of women is, therefore, not the free choice of powerful men, but one that is dictated by a structural necessity to divide the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and subordinate the latter to the former.

If evidence for innate gender differences cannot be found, then gender inequality cannot be explained by essentialist arguments. If Michael Kimmel is correct when he suggests that ‘gender difference is the product of gender inequality, and not the other way around’ (p.4), then the only answer to inequality, the only way to break from patriarchy, is to radically change our societal structures. Without such change we have only the hope of reform, promising much but in reality changing little. If there is no innate difference in gender, Enloe’s proposed solutions will not change the repressive gender roles of patriarchy; the structure of the system itself relies upon the repression of half of human attributes, i.e. the “feminine” attributes. Using the oft cited example of Margaret Thatcher, this theory would therefore not claim that she acted ‘like a man’, but that she acted like a politician. The individuals who work within and uphold these power structures, whether male or female, must suppress the qualities that are not beneficial to the continuation of the structure, thus also maintaining the socialised differences that create inequality.

Feminist scholars of political theory assert that ‘the personal is political’, i.e. private interpersonal relationships are power relationships. In regard to rape culture, this means that

‘Rape… is about power more than it is about sex, and not only the rapist but the state is culpable.’ (Enloe p.195).

While this indicates recognition that socialised gender norms create rape culture, it does not go far enough. In its failure to account for why politics is masculinised, indeed why the state structure requires this masculinisation, it cannot satisfactorily theorise a society without rape culture. If the state can claim a monopoly upon legitimate power, and the state is inherently masculine, the subordination of the feminine is inherent to state societies. Enloe’s conclusions continue to fall into the same trap of the essentialists, i.e. seeing men and women as fundamentally different. As a result the liberal empowerment of women is actually only surface level change – legislating over the cracks but ignoring the depth of the problem. The subordination of women, and the rape culture that accompanies such gender hierarchy can only be truly challenged on the structural level; this challenge must therefore be against state structures, and therefore also capitalism, as the capitalist system cannot survive without the state. As noted by Angela Y. Davis:

“As the violent face of sexism, the threat of rape will continue to exist as long as the overall oppression of women remains an essential crutch for capitalism.” (p.201)


The necessity to challenge state and capitalism in order to challenge patriarchy means gender norms should be consciously recognised and confronted by those protesting against these structures.

Women are often represented within a protest as being passive and peaceful; any violence generally attributed to young men. This misrepresentation is more easily made due to the gender associations previously discussed. The gendered descriptions of protest as reported by the news is also reflected in how protests are later remembered, thus allowing them to be appropriated for political ends. This is evident in the treatment of the suffragette movement, cited by politicians as evidence of the success of peaceful protest, ignoring how the fight was won by campaign tactics that included window breaking, attacking MPs, arson, and suicide. Militancy was openly called for:

“There is something that Governments care for far more than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy. Be militant each in your own way. I incite this meeting to rebellion.” (Emmeline Pankhurst)

The suffragettes then were far from peaceful. Yet it is easy for Ed Miliband (and many others) to claim that it was, and this is in part due to the expectations of the listeners: women are “more likely” to act peacefully. This is evident in Miliband’s other example, that of the Civil Rights movement in the US. While Martin Luther King’s peaceful methods are extolled, the campaign of Malcolm X, which rejected non-violence, is an obvious omission. While the suffragettes were also split into non-violent (the NUWSS) and violent groups (the WSPU, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst), the ability of modern politicians to claim them all as peaceful – despite the most famous advocating violence – can in part be attributed to our socialised expectations of how women act. Indeed in the UK ‘suffragette’ was used primarily to describe the militant WSPU, ‘suffragist’ being used for the peaceful NUWSS. When politicians today call for peaceful marches and negotiations, using the suffragettes as an example, they are playing on our socialised gender roles in an attempt to stop us from acting. This is quite contrary to the suffragettes, who called for “Deeds Not Words”.

The misrepresentation of women’s actions is therefore problematic for protest movements, fictionalising events in order to conform to gender binaries. Where actions themselves are not altered, women are often rendered invisible, men assumed to make up the majority of protestors. This is particularly of note in public sector strike action; while 60% of public sector workers are women, the stereotypical picket line, and therefore the stereotypical worker, is predominantly male. When politicians and newspapers argue against industrial action they are assisted by this stereotype, for example in calling on women as mothers to speak out against teachers strikes – a call that ignores the role of women as workers, indeed mothers as workers, and gives greater importance to a day’s education than to parents ability to provide food and shelter for their children. The targeting of women as mothers is also evident in election campaigns, with women often shown with children, or explicitly asked to vote for the benefit of their children’s futures. No such plea is made to men as fathers; it appears that men should act based on rational, political and/or economic grounds, and women for emotional reasons.

The problems of patriarchy, rape culture, and socialised gender norms have all been evident within the Occupy Movement, the issue made stark after the rape at Occupy Glasgow on 26 October 2011. The initial statement made by the Occupy camp was widely criticised for distancing the protestors from the victim, both by citing the woman’s homelessness and their attempts to provide food and shelter, and by downplaying the seriousness of the attack by labelling it a ‘sexual assault’ as opposed to a gang rape. This statement was later retracted. However, the Occupy camp continued to have problems, their facebook page suspending comments after users continued to marginalise and blame the victim, in comments such as:

‘Anyone who criticised the Occupy Glasgow Movement for last nights [sic] events should try and work with the homeless in the city centre’

In order to address the concerns arising from the rape and the subsequent response, a women’s working group was proposed and set up. However, the lack of recognition of women’s vulnerability and marginalisation created divisions on this issue. A number of protestors, while advocating gender equality, refused to accept the idea of a women’s group, labelling it divisive. Arguments such as ‘too many divisions, we’re all the one species’ and ‘Don’t do it alone – men and women together – no more walls – break the barriers down!’ were numerous, and demonstrate a failure to consciously challenge patriarchal norms. However, there were also more antagonistic comments, accusing those who called for a pro-active approach for women of being

‘… millitant [sic] feminists… like joke characters… hysterical… [and] determined to bring down this protest’

Comments such as this show how stereotypical gender norms are prevalent within the Occupy movement (and within protest movements more generally), and provides an example of how an explicit statement of intent to challenge oppression does not necessarily lead to a conscious challenge against patriarchy. In ‘structureless’ groups, such as the Occupy camps, socialised gender norms ensure that, by cult of personality, men will hold more of the unofficial ‘leadership’ roles. As a result of this, women’s groups are required in order to allow women a safe environment in which to speak of issues that make them vulnerable under patriarchy. The point of such a women’s group is to help create the conditions in which such groups are no longer necessary.

The gender norms prevalent in society at large thus also affect the makeup of political movements and groups. In order to challenge these gender norms groups must do so as part of the struggle, or else any gains made will be done with patriarchal norms and structures still in place. Inequality must be consciously recognised, and consciously challenged; any political group must seek to act in accordance to the principles they wish to see enacted in society at large. However, doing so may require compromises along the way: the creation of true gender equality may require a period in which women’s groups are active; allowing women the confidence to speak without being marginalised until such a time as the norms have been challenged sufficiently for such groups to no longer be required.


In part one we saw how binary gender norms and roles are created by socialisation, having an effect upon how we experience our everyday lives, the chances we have in gaining particular jobs, and the way in which we might expect others to react should we challenge these expected behaviours. These socialised gender norms are a foundation of patriarchy, a structure that also allows the enduring existence of rape culture. This section also questioned the theory that rape is a result of biology, arguing that rape culture is born out of the socialised division of masculine and feminine qualities. It was argued that in order to end rape culture we must challenge the binary gender norms our society produces and supports.

In part two it has been argued that politics is a masculine sphere because the state structure requires the repression of ‘feminine’ attributes; the state system is thus culpable for the socialised gender norms discussed in part one. This is also a reason why women remain underrepresented – and yet their representation will not help challenge patriarchy, as politics itself remains masculine, and feminine qualities in a politician (of either sex) will remain a weakness. Therefore for patriarchy to be challenged, for rape culture to be abolished, requires a radical changing of our societal structures, going as far as that of the international state system. This creates a challenge for protest and political groups who seek to challenge current political systems. It has been argued that patriarchy must be challenged within the everyday functioning of a protest group, consciously recognising the issues of gender and seeking to overcome such power imbalances and attempting to replace divided gender norms into more complete human norms.


Michael Kimmel  The Gendered Society
Cynthia Enloe Bananas, Beaches and Bases
Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince
Cordelia Fine Delusions of Gender
V. Spike Peterson (ed) Gendered States
Angela Y. Davis Women, Race and Class 


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